Abelard, Peter

(Pierre Abelard)
   Perhaps the most famous man in Europe in his own lifetime, Peter Abelard was a renowned teacher, philosopher, theologian,writer and lover, as famous for his celebrated affair with HELOISE as for his provoking applications of reason to issues of faith.
   Abelard was born in the village of Pallet, south of Nantes in Brittany. Eldest son of a noble house, he gave up his inheritance for a life of the intellect. He studied logic in Compiègne before moving to Paris in 1100 to study dialectic under William of Campaux, under whom the cathedral school at Notre Dame had become as famous a center of learning as St. ANSELM’s Bec. But Abelard had a penchant for challenging authority, and apparently aroused the resentment of his classmates as well as his teacher as he regularly challenged William. After defeating William in a public debate in 1101, Abelard started his own school at Melun, later moving to Corboeil, southeast of Paris. But by 1105 Abelard had exhausted himself, and returned to Brittany for his health.
   But he was back in Paris in 1108, looking for a chair at the cathedral school and studying rhetoric in the meantime with his old master William. He began to teach theology and dialectic at the school of Mont Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, and in 1113 went to Laon to study theology under the wellknown Anselm of Laon. Impatient with Anselm’s methods—which essentially were exegetical (based on scriptural interpretation) rather than logical— and true to his penchant for challenging older, established authorities, Abelard gave a scandalous public lecture on Ezekiel, raising a number of logical questions.
   In 1114 Abelard returned to Paris again, this time to finally take a chair at the cathedral school of Notre Dame. If we are to believe his own words from his autobiography, students flocked to his lectures from all over Europe. Certainly his reputation made him quite wealthy. But it was here, at the height of his reputation, that Abelard was to suffer disaster.
   Abelard was living in the home of Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral.He also was given charge of the education of Fulbert’s niece, the beautiful Heloise, who was 22 years Abelard’s junior. The two became lovers, and when Heloise became pregnant, Abelard married her in secret and sent her to live in Brittany, where she gave birth to their son, whom they named Astrolabe. The affair became publicly known, however, and when Abelard sent Heloise to join the convent of Saint-Argenteuil, Fulbert saw this as Abelard’s failure to take responsibility for his actions. One evening in 1118, he hired men to take Abelard in his sleep and castrate him.
   After the disgrace of the Heloise affair and his emasculation, Abelard became a Benedictine monk. He entered the monastery of Saint-Denis, but before long had caused resentment among the monks by what they considered his irreverent attitude toward the legend of their patron saint. He was back in Paris teaching again in 1121, but at that time the Council of Soissons brought charges against him for a treatise he had written on the Trinity.He was sentenced to burn his book, and to be imprisoned in the Abbey of St.Medard. Rather than complete a forced residence there, he fled to an out-of-the-way area near Troyes called Nogentsûr- Seine and set up another school.
   In 1125 Abelard’s monastic condemnation was lifted, and he was elected abbot of the Abbey of St. Gildas in his native Brittany. Those were difficult years for Abelard, however, since (as might be expected) he aroused a great deal of resentment among the monks there. Allegedly they even tried to poison him. So by 1136, he was back in Paris and teaching again.
   But by this time, the opinions expressed in his philosophical treatises, particularly the rationalist approach that seemed to negate the mystery of the Christian faith, had aroused the interest and enmity of the most powerful ecclesiast in Europe, St. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Bernard denounced Abelard to Pope Innocent II, and Abelard was called to the Council of Sens in 1141.Here Abelard thought he would be given the chance to publicly dispute with Bernard—a debate Abelard would have relished as he had his previous challenges to authority. But he was never given the opportunity to speak in his own defense.He was condemned on several counts of heresy, one of the most serious being his ethical theory, which held that it was the intention of sinning, rather than the act itself, for which we are to be held culpable.
   Far from quietly accepting his condemnation, Abelard appealed to the pope (though it was a fruitless appeal since Bernard had already convinced the pope of Abelard’s errors). En route to Rome, Abelard was given protection by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. Peter apparently convinced Abelard to drop his appeal and make peace with Bernard if he could, and to remain at Cluny. Peter was able to obtain authorization from the pope to allow Abelard to spend his remaining days under the protection of Cluny. Abelard died in a Cluniac monastery in 1142.
   Abelard influenced the whole subsequent course of medieval scholastic theology—he may have lost the battle with St. Bernard in 1141 but ultimately it was his methods that won out over the next few centuries. Some of his more influential students were Arnold of Brescia, PETER LOMBARD, and JOHN OF SALISBURY. His most influential philosophical work was Sic et Non (Yes and no), a text that lists opinions of the most important fathers of the church on both sides of a variety of theological questions. He first wrote the text in 1123 and revised it in 1136. The point of the treatise is that there are respected opinions both for and against most theological points, and that a strict rational approach must be applied to reconcile the various opinions.
   Another important text is Abelard’s Dialogus inter philosophum, Judaeum, et Christianum (A Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian), possibly written at Cluny during the last year of his life, though more recently it has been asserted that it was written during Abelard’s years at St. Gildas. In the text, which unlike most such imaginary disputations in the Middle Ages allows the Jew to make a great number of logical points, Abelard presents his final words on the relationship of reason and faith.
   But Abelard’s most important contributions to literature are his letters to Heloise,written after she had become a nun and he a monk; and his autobiography, entitled Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes), which tells the story of his life until 1129. Though both of these make interesting reading, particularly since Abelard is the only important medieval philosopher who has left personal letters or an autobiography, one should take care to realize that both are texts Abelard intended for wide circulation, and so present the public face he wanted to be perceived.
   ■ Abelard, Peter. A Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian. Translated by Pierre J. Payer. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1979.
   ■ ———.The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Translated by Betty Radice. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1974.
   ■ ———.The Story ofMy Misfortunes: The Autobiography of Peter Abelard. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. New York:Macmillan, 1972.
   ■ Clanchy, M. T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
   ■ Robertson, D.W., Jr. Abelard and Heloise. New York: Dial Press, 1972.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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