- The Theology of Peter Damian: “Let Your Life Always Serve as a Witness” by Patricia Ranft
St. Peter Damian often has been characterized as a man who struggled to balance the demands of withdrawal from the world and engagement in it. A passionate advocate of the superiority of the contemplative life and especially the eremitical life, he viewed his own career as cardinal-bishop of Ostia in the service of the reform papacy as being at odds with his role as a hermit and monastic reformer. This new book by Patricia Ranft challenges this characterization by arguing, through close readings of Damian’s letters, that a theology of witness lay at the heart of Damian’s thought.
Following the introduction, where Ranft sets out her ideas that a theology of witness best explains Damian’s thought, chapter 1 provides the historical context. In chapter 2, Ranft looks to explore the nature of Damian’s early thinking on the witness of the solitary life and its connection with the salvation of society, and in chapter 3 she addresses his mature theological thought. In chapter 4, on standards of monastic reform, Ranft explores Damian’s thinking on simony, hierarchy, and the institutional Church through the prism of witness. In chapter 5, on renewal in religious life, Ranft considers Damian’s position on regular canons, hermits, and monks, focusing here in particular on his clash with the Florentine hermit Teuzo and the case of the Vallombrosans who stepped beyond the lines of monastic propriety by condemning the simonist bishop of Florence, Peter Mezzabarba. In the final chapter Ranft addresses Damian’s thinking on the relationship of secular and ecclesiastical power, the spirituality of the laity, and the value of secular knowledge. The book includes a series of appendices indexing key themes in Damian’s letters and sermons.
Given that the language of witness, especially testimonium and its derivatives, is rarely found in Damian’s extensive corpus of letters (something that Ranft does [End Page 591] acknowledge, pp. 9–10, 36ff.), one may well question the usefulness of this concept to explore Damian’s theological thinking. Ranft first developed her idea of witness in her master’s thesis on twelfth-century monastic renewal and has since applied these ideas to different periods and individuals across the western Christian tradition, here extending that with close readings of Damian’s letters. She makes a persuasive case, although sometimes her linkage of discrete aspects of Damian’s thought and his position on key issues such as simony and hierarchy under the umbrella of “witness” is perhaps tenuous, and we do often lose sight of “witness” in chapters 3, 4, and 5. Concept-led studies can be excellent, and some of Ranft’s readings are insightful, but to reduce the complexity of such an exceptional thinker as Damian to one overarching concept is not without its problems. There are other shortcomings for this reviewer. There is little direct engagement with recent historiography, and the historical contextualization in chapter 1 is dated. Moreover, given that Damian’s letters are readily available in an excellent modern translation, the almost line-by-line paraphrasing of many of the letters seems unnecessary, and one wonders about the intended audience for this book. In the end, Ranft offers some intriguing insights into a complex and, indeed, pivotal player in eleventh-century reform but perhaps in terms of a framework and language that were not necessarily part of the worldview of Damian (and his audience).