College Quarterly
Spring 2007 - Volume 10 Number 2
Reviews The Story of a Great Medieval Book: Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences: Rethinking the Middle Ages
Philipp W. Rosemann
Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2007

Reviewed by Nirmal Dass

There have been many renaissances – the rebirth of culture, guided by a rereading of the Greco-Roman tradition. This grappling anew with ancient ideas is unique to the West, in that other cultures experience revivals rather than renaissances. The reason is to be found, of course, in the peculiar nature of western identity – contained as it is within the construct of Christianity which, in turn, is the gathering place of Greek, Roman and Jewish books. Professor Philipp Rosemann’s felicitous new work is rooted in one such renaissance, of the twelfth century, and it is focused upon one man, Peter Lombard, whose book, Libri quattuor sententiarum, that is, “The Four Books of Sentences,” or simply The Sentences, endured as the very example of disputation for a very, very long time. From it, many generations learned not only theology and philosophy, but the precise rhetoric of informed argumentation.

The Twelfth Century Renaissance is often located in the works of such men as Peter Abelard, Gerard of Cremona, John of Salisbury, and Alain of Lille. Prominent as these thinkers were in differentiating dogma from reason, one among them must be recognized for the giant that he was, namely, Peter Lombard. He has been lost to our modern world, largely because of neglect, even though his book (The Sentences) was once considered second only to the Bible. Only recently has he been “rediscovered,” as evidenced by the enthusiastic and massive “rehabilitation project” undertaken by Professor Marcia Colish. The problem with Professor Colish’s work is that she champions Peter Lombard as her “hero,” and thus she energetically defends him against all comers. This sort of combative scholarship certainly has its place, but it is far wiser to espouse a methodology that examines the nature of, and reason for, Peter Lombard’s popularity over the ages up to the Reformation. This is precisely what Professor Rosemann does as he sets out to examine the influential role played by The Sentences in the intellectual and cultural history of the West.

Indeed, The Sentences was a book continually read and commented on for four hundred years, with and against which the very best minds honed their ideas – men such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and Saint Bonaventure. In fact, The Sentences was required reading at universities from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. An enduring bestseller, to say the least! Although Peter Lombard wrote several books, he is really only known for The Sentences, which he finished late in life. In it he compiled and thematically arranged various glosses on questions of faith and reason. Truly, it was his book of books in that it continually pointed to sources outside itself – a rereading of the ancient texts of Christian tradition.

What we know about Peter Lombard is quickly summarized, since it is not much. He was born likely in 1100, in Lombardy, and he went on to study at the universities of Bologna and Paris, where he stayed on to teach theology, and of which city he later became the bishop; just a few years before his death in 1160 or 1162. We are not certain of his dates.

On the one hand, The Sentences is an eclectic book, with its various quotations from other sources; and on the other, it is the undertaking of a very crucial philosophical project – a concordance of ideas, certainly, but also the depiction of the western habit of mind, which follows the “via media,” the middle way; or more familiarly, objective neutrality – the consideration of opposed views in order to arrive at a balance, at harmony. This is Peter’s greatest lesson. The second is the need for an encyclopedic worldview, which allows for reason to function with context – and not outside it. Thus, Peter concerns himself with questions of cosmology, being, psychology, theology, the nature of reality, and the self. When he delves into these ideas, he seeks to justify the ways of man to God, rather than merely the ways of God to man; thereby establishing the necessity of human dignity, which must be more than unquestioning subservience to divine power. In a very positive sense, Peter was truly “homo unius libri,” (a man of one book.)

Over the ages, The Sentences became a reference book in which answers were quickly and easily found; often it was preferred over the Bible. Interestingly enough, one very late “university essay” on The Sentences comes from the pen of a young German Augustinian monk – his name, Martin Luther, whose ideas would finally dethrone Peter Lombard from his seat of unmitigated domination of the western intellectual tradition; Luther would locate final authority in the Bible.

When Professor Rosemann traces the life of The Sentences over four centuries, he also points to its centrality in the history of the West. Indeed, the question that comes to mind frequently, as one delights in Professor Rosemann’s erudition, is – what would the history of Europe be without The Sentences? A very poor one, to say the least – for would we know the importance of reason, the futility of dogma, the necessity of charity? Would we know that true faith is also true freedom? Would we have learned to separate opinion from fact? In the words of Bernard of Chartres, “nos esse quasi nanos gigantium humeris insidentes,” (we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.)

Professor Rosemann’s book is a welcome addition to the history of ideas in the West, and his style is refreshing in that it is never ponderous. He succeeds in achieving that delicate balance of appealing both to the novice and the scholar. He has written a book that is instructive, thought-provoking – and also just fun to read. It is heartening in this day-and-age to find adroit scholarship that yet retains respect for the Horatian dictate, aut prodesse aut delectare, (to teach and to please). To those wishing to discover the tremendous influence of Peter Lombard and his great book – an influence of which we are very much heirs – there can be no surer guide than Professor Rosemann’s “bonus liber, optimus magister” – his (good book, which is the best teacher).

Nirmal Dass, PhD, teaches in the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in King City, Ontario, and may be reached at


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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology