Peter of Blois on human nature & misery from pleasures

Rembrandt as laughing philospher Democritus

Literature from long ago can critique currently dominant ways of thinking. A lover of wisdom laughed, and another mourned:

habitually laughed
at each and every meeting,
seeing people everywhere
swarming in error,
today he would not restrain his smile,
and Diogenes in his wine barrel
wouldn’t cease to mourn.

{Ridere solitus
ad occursus singulos,
late videns populos
erroribus fervere,
modo risum non frenaret,
dolioque non cessaret
Diogenes lugere.} [1]

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus pioneered an atomistic, materialist understanding of the world. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes insisted that living in accord with reason means living in accord with human nature. Peter of Blois invoked these ancient Greek philosophers in a twelfth-century Latin poem describing conflicting desires and falsely subjective understanding of happiness:

One nonetheless believes himself happy
who enjoys
a passion
by which he is led.
Happy indeed one is called
with regard to the soul.
The lives of humans
are revolved by conflicting pursuits.
Equal nonetheless is their end;
the same conclusion awaits them.
Each one wanders in her own way;
she is happy in her error,
as long as she has what she desires.

{Felix tamen creditur
qui fruitur
quo ducitur
Felix enim dicitur
animi respectu.
Volvuntur studiis
contrariis hominum circuitus.
Par est tamen exitus;
par finis hos expectat.
Errat suo quisquie more;
suo felix est errore,
dum tenet quod affectat.}

The poem’s insistently repeated refrain declares:

Various ways
in error
one is sent wandering.

per devia

How should Peter of Blois and those he advised live their lives?[2] In pondering that question, Peter of Blois brought ancient Greek figures to his twelfth-century circumstances.

Understanding of human nature contrasts with contrived, made-up stories. Both were aspects of ancient Greek culture. Peter of Blois’s enlightened use of ancient Greek stories involved actively re-interpreting them:

Mystical fictions,
which Greece
playfully contrived in made-up stories,
now that the clouds have been dispersed,
are going out into the world
and coming into the light
as ingenious explanations.

{Mistica mendacia,
que Grecia
finxit ludens fabulis,
dissolutis nebulis,
in eventus exeunt,
et in lucem prodeunt
commenta fabulosa.} [3]

Peter of Blois re-interpreted Greek myth in terms of the lives of twelfth-century courtiers. Tantalus is the one longing for wealth amid riches. Daedalus builds a labyrinth of ambitions in which he is trapped. A courtier’s confused wishes place him, like Ixion, on the revolving wheel of fortune. Great lords drink in flattery like King Midas with an ass’s ears. Another courtier, changeable like Proteus, betrays faith with multifarious promises. Under the compulsion of Venus, some courtiers pursue young women, others old women, some married women, others virgins, and still others boys.[4]

Peter of Blois had a dialogic sensibility. In his poetic dialogue between a courtier and a pious admonisher, the courtier declares:

Only fools make themselves unhappy
of their own free will

{Stulti sunt qui miseri
volunt sponte fieri} [5]

Peter of Blois’s poem that begins with Democritus laughing and Diogenes mourning ends with complex observations on individuality and human nature:

Thus, as long as life is lived far and wide,
as long as there is seeking for
what is sweeter for each,
a changeable method brings pleasures by various
nonetheless, as long as his own delights
each enjoys,
follows equally.

{Sic, dum vage vivitur,
dum queritur
quid cuique sit dulcius
(modis) affert variis
tamen, dum deliciis
quisque suis fruitur
par sequitur
voluptas.} [6]

Subjective pleasure-seeking secures equally for each pleasure corrupted by misery, the misery of wandering various ways in error. Another of Peter of Blois’s poems associates human being with nature in atomistic understanding:

Our physical self
follows the elements,
and in the season’s warmth
it is touched to the depths.

{Homo noster carneus
elementa sequitur
et calore temporis
ad profundum tangitur.} [7]

As for free will, perhaps that’s a fiction:

the allurement of beauty
creates the causes of love.

{blandimentum decoris
causas creat amoris.} [8]

Human nature nonetheless makes persons — collections of material elements — believe that they can choose. If you believe you can choose, choose to lead your life with understanding of human nature.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Ridere solitus st. 1, from manuscript Oxford Bodley Additional A.44, f. 45r-45v, printed in Wilmart (1958) pp. 37-9.  This poem as a whole survives only in that manuscript. Moser (2004) pp. 223-4 provides the Latin text from Wilmart and adds an English translation. I’ve adapted Moser’s translation. To make the Latin text more easily readable, I’ve converted u to v where appropriate. The subsequent two quotes are from id. st. 2, and refrain. The refrain occurs after each half-strophe. That’s a “very unusual feature” in a rhymed rhythmic sequence of classical form. Dronke (1976) p. 224, note to 21.

This poem is given the title Misère constante des différents plaisirs (Constant misery from various pleasures) in Wilmart (1958) p. 37, no. 9. On its attribution to Peter of Blois, Dronke (1976) p. 228, no. 41. As Moser (2004) p. 422, n. 67 observes, stanza 4a of Ridere solitus occurs in a chronicle. The stanza there is explicitly ascribed to Peter of Blois. See Dronke (1976) pp. 231-2, no. 52.

[2] Peter of Blois corresponded with twelfth-century intellectual, religious, and political leaders. On his letters, Cotts (2009). His letter collection subsequently was relatively popular and has survived in 250 manuscripts. It’s available, along with other works of Peter of Blois (Petri Blesensis) in Patrologia Latina 207. On textual issues with respect to the letter collection, Cotts (2009), Appendix.

Ambivalence and sic et non {yes and no} characterize Peter of Blois’s letters and poetry. In Epistle 14, he states that “the courtier’s life is the death of the soul.” From Latin trans. Dronke (1976) p. 194. In Epistle 150, he declares with respect to the choice to be a courtier:

Let each person follow and keep to the decision of his own will.

Trans. id. p. 196.

[3] Ridere solitus st. 3, from Latin trans. Moser (2004) p. 225, adapted above. In Epistle 76, Peter of Blois chides a correspondent (who may have been a projection of himself) about ancient Greek culture:

What are they to you, these vanities and false insanities? … What’s Jove to you, what’s Hercules to you?

Trans. Dronke (1976) p. 197. Subsequent stanzas of Ridere solitus inculturate ancient Greek figures in the twelfth-century European court, as described above.

[4] In ancient Greek myth, Apollo transformed King Midas’s ears into an ass’s ears for not judging his music to be superior. On the origins of that myth, Vassileva (2008). The association of King Midas’s ears with flattery seems to have been a medieval interpretation.

The twelfth-century courtier Walter Map in his De Nugis Curialium compared the court to Hell with twelfth-century inculturations of Tantalus, Sisyphus, Ixion, Tityus, the Daughter of Belus, Cerberus, and probably Charon. De Nugis Curialium Dist. 1, chs. 2-9, Latin text and English translation in James, Brooke & Mynors (1983) pp. 8-11. Map began with an ironic understanding of self:

I may say that in the court I exist and of the court I speak, and what the court is, God knows, I know not.

De Nugis Curialium Dist. 1, ch. 1, id. pp. 2-3. Similarly, Dist. 5, ch. 7, pp. 499-509.

MS Oxford Bodleian Library MS Add. A44, no. 14, Omnis uere confiten uere Christum colit, inculturates Tantalas, Sisyphus, and Ixion as punishment for contemporary misers. For very brief discussion, Rigg (1984) pp. 1-2.

[5] Quod amicus suggerit 6.1-2, MS Oxford Bodley Additional A.44, f. 61r-61v, Latin text and English translation Dronke (1976) p. 207.

[6] Ridere solitus st. 6b, Latin text and English translation in Moser (2004) p. 426, n. 76. I’ve adapted the translation. Two syllables in line 4 of the Latin stanza apparently are missing. The word modus is Labowsky’s conjecture. Wilmart (1958) p. 39, note.

[7] Blandus aure spiritus st. 4.1-4, MS Cambridge Corpus Christi 228, f. 129, Latin text and English translation in Dronke (1976) p. 204. Estuans intrinsicus (Burning inside / The Archpoet’s Confession), st 1.3-4, has a similar sense of material self:

from elemental ashes formed, mere matter,
as the wind lashes, like a leaf I flutter.

{factus de materia    levis elementi
folio sum similis,    de quo ludunt venti.}

Carmina Burana 191, trans. A.S. Kline (alternative Latin text).

[8] Blandus aure spiritus st. 2.9-10, id.

[image] The Young Rembrandt as Democritus the Laughing Philosopher, detail with color & contrast normalization. Painting, oil on copper. Rembrandt, c. 1628. Held in J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cotts, John D. 2009. The clerical dilemma: Peter of Blois and literate culture in the twelfth century. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1976. “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II.” Mediaeval Studies. 38: 185-235.

James, M. R. ed. and trans., Christopher N. L. Brooke, and Roger A. B. Mynors, rev. 1983. De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford University Press.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rigg, A. G. 1984. “Eraclius Archpoeta: Bekynton Anthology Nos. 14, 15, 20, 77.” Medium Aevum 53(1): 1-9.

Vassileva, Maya. 2008. “King Midas’ Ass’s Ears Revisited.” Ancient West & East {Leuven: Peeters} 7: 237-48.

Wilmart, André. 1958. “Le florilège mixte de Thomas Bekynton.” Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies {The Warburg Institute, London} 4: 35-90. First part of article in 1941, Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 1: 41-84.

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