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Brief Lives

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

Martin Jenkins looks at the life, love and logic of a medieval free thinker.

Medieval philosopher Peter Abelard was born in Le Pallet, Brittany, but we should not imagine him a Celt. Le Pallet was in a French-speaking area near the border with Poitou in western France. In fact, Abelard’s father was an immigrant from Poitou who probably married the heiress of the local castle of Le Pallet. Peter had a sister and three brothers. He was the eldest son and was expected to inherit the fief. However, his father felt that he should have some education, and Peter then discovered that he had a taste for learning. So he made over his rights in the fief to his brothers and became a wandering scholar specialising in logic:

“I preferred the weapons of dialectic [rational debate] to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war. I began to travel about in several provinces disputing, like a true peripatetic philosopher, wherever I had heard that there was keen interest in the art of dialectic.”
(Abelard in his autobiography, Historia Calamitatum, or ‘Letter 1’)

In his teens he was taught by the logician Roscelin, but he does not mention this in his autobiography, probably because Roscelin had been condemned for heresy in 1092. In 1100 Abelard came to Paris and studied under William of Champeaux, head of the Cathedral School. They soon quarrelled: “On several occasions,” says Abelard, “I proved myself his superior in debate.” Self-confidence was one of Abelard’s qualities; modesty was not.

From 1102 to 1105 Abelard ran his own schools, first at Melun, then at Corbeil. In 1105 he suffered a breakdown through overwork and returned to his parents. He was in his twenties. But in 1108 he returned to Paris and challenged William of Champeaux to debate the subject of universals.

Peter Abelard
Peter Abelard by Gail Campbell, 2019

The question of universals was crucial in Medieval philosophy, almost an obsession. A universal is a category by which we classify different things together – such as ‘blue’, ‘man’, or ‘good’… The question the scholars asked is: on what basis are things classified together? What constitutes the ‘dogness’ which justifies putting Fido, Rover and Growler into the same category, ‘dog’?

The two schools of thought in this debate were the Nominalists and the Realists. The Nominalists, represented by Roscelin, held that universals were simply names given to similar things. This tended to reduce categories to no more than human constructs. (It was argued that this undermined the doctrine of the Trinity – this was Roscelin’s ‘heresy’.)

William of Champeaux, Abelard’s teacher in Paris, was the champion of the Realists. Realists argued that there was some real thing that the members of each universal had in common – typically, a Platonic eternal Form or Idea. William taught that the essence of the category, whether dogness or humanity, was wholly and essentially present in all members of the category. The differentiation between them was in minor ‘accidents’, which we might call the appearance of things. Abelard argued that this left practically no room for individuality. William conceded the point, and changed ‘essentially’ to ‘indifferently’: in other words, what constitutes dogness or humanity is not what is shared but an absence of difference. In Abelard’s thought, however, classifying things together is based on a vague perception in the human mind that members of the category share some features. This is a long way from the Platonic Realist concept of Ideas in the divine mind.

Abelard & Heloïse

In 1110 Abelard became master of his own school at the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Geneviève. When his parents retired into the monastic life in 1112, he again returned to his family. In 1113 he went to study theology under Anselm of Laon.

Anselm’s teaching methods were old-fashioned. He had the reputation of being the greatest teacher of theology in France, but he taught by lectio, that is, by delivering expositions of scripture to passive students. Abelard’s speciality was the up-to-date method of disputatio or dialectic, which made participants of the students. Inevitably, the young upstart and old master quarrelled: Anselm “could win an audience, but he was useless when put to the question.” Abelard returned to Paris as head of the Cathedral School.

Enter Heloïse. She was the niece (which may be a euphemism for illegitimate daughter) of Canon Fulbert. Abelard became Fulbert’s lodger and Heloïse’s tutor. As Fulbert presents it, what followed was a seduction by a man in his thirties of a teenager. However, there is every evidence that up to this time Abelard had lived a chaste life. Moreover, there is a query as to the age of Heloïse; she may have been in her mid-twenties. It seems likely that Abelard, having lived a celibate life and being suddenly thrust into the regular company of an attractive and intelligent young woman, fell head over heels in love – as did Heloïse.

They became lovers. Heloïse bore a son, who was named Astralabe after the navigational instrument the astrolabe. This made them possibly the first celebrity couple to saddle their offspring with an embarrassing name: it would be like a modern couple calling their son SatNav. Now Abelard did something out of character: he dithered. Being neither priest nor monk, he could have married; but William of Champeaux had established the principle that the schools should be quasi-monastic, and so a married Head of School would have been a novelty. Heloïse herself argued against marriage, but to satisfy Fulbert, Abelard married Heloïse in secret. He then sent Heloïse to the convent at Argenteuil, where he continued to visit and have sex with her. But Fulbert now suspected Abelard of wanting to repudiate the marriage, and sent the boys round. They castrated Abelard.

Abelard In More Trouble

Abelard was now in a curious position. As a eunuch, he was obviously no longer a suitable husband; he was also disqualified from the priesthood. His only option was to become a monk, and so he went to the Abbey of Saint Denis.

In 1121 Abelard’s book on the Trinity was condemned as heretical by the Council of Soissons, and he was forced to burn it with his own hand. He then annoyed his fellow monks at Saint Denis by denying that their founder was the Dionysius mentioned in the New Testament’s book of Acts of the Apostles.

Abelard fled to the protection of Count Thibaut of Champagne, to the east of Paris. The newly appointed Abbot Suger of Saint Denis gave the Count permission to establish a hermitage near Troyes for Abelard. No doubt he was glad to be rid of the problem posed by Abelard. Abelard himself wrote, “Here I could stay hidden but for one of my clerks and truly cry out to the Lord, ‘Lo, I escaped far away and found a refuge in the wilderness’”… but “no sooner was this known than the students began to gather there from all parts.” Abelard found himself teaching again, because it was demanded of him.

He made one last attempt to escape his destiny. In 1125 he agreed to become the abbot of Saint Gildas de Rhuys in Brittany. No doubt someone in authority thought the Breton-born Abelard would make a good abbot. Abelard, though, soon discovered that the local language was Breton, not French; that the monks were undisciplined; and that, although a charismatic teacher, he lacked the talents of an administrator.

Meanwhile, Abbot Suger was busy asserting the rights of Saint Denis over the convent of Argenteuil, and in 1129 he expelled the nuns, including Heloïse. Abelard came to the rescue, arranging to gift his hermitage to the nuns, with Heloïse as abbess.

The monks of Saint Gildas were now so hostile to their Abbot Abelard that at least according to Abelard they conspired to murder him. His ‘Letter 1’ ends with what seems like a paranoid account of his life in the monastery. He was in his early fifties.

In 1133 Abelard left Saint Gildas and returned to Paris to do the only thing for which he was really qualified: teach philosophy.

Abelard’s Philosophy

The next seven were Abelard’s glory years. As well as teaching, he wrote extensively. His book on the Trinity which had been previously condemned was revised into the Theologia Christiana. He also produced a major work on ethics, Scito te Ipsum (Know Thyself), and a teaching manual, Sic et Non (Yes and No).

Abelard introduced a new idea into Christian ethics, that intention as well as action should be considered when assessing a sin. He acknowledged that ideally both action and intention should be in accordance with the law of God; but, from Jesus’s words, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”, he argued that human beings may act in error but still be in good faith. Therefore, he said, they should be judged on the dual basis of act and intention.

He developed the idea of human error in his prologue to Sic et non. This was a collection of texts from the Church Fathers on 158 questions in philosophy and theology, and these authorities often contradicted each other. Abelard did not challenge the principle of authority (“let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing”), but recognised that a method was needed to judge between divergent opinions. We should, he suggested, consider all sorts of possibilities: our lack of familiarity with the language used; the possibility of forgery or textual corruption; the use of quotations from heretical sources falsely attributed to the authority; things put forward as opinion rather than as a theological assertion; whether the church fathers had sometimes changed their minds; or indeed may have been in error (especially if their view cannot easily be reconciled with Scripture). In the end, however, he argued that the only means we have to judge between apparently conflicting authorities is reason: “through doubting we come to questioning and through questions we perceive the truth.”

In the twenty-first century Sic et non, which not only supports the idea of relying on past authorities but extensively cites authorities on which to rely, may seem conservative. But in the early twelfth century it was radical, and to some minds heretical.

Abelard may have encountered Bernard, the Cistercian abbot of Clairvaux, as early as 1125, but the two really locked horns in 1140. Certainly the conflict between Bernard and Abelard was, as Betty Radice put it, “a cause célèbre of the twelfth century.”

Bernard is best known today as the author of a series of mystical sermons on the love of God. He was also an ardent heresy-hunter, a reactionary, and most importantly, a power-broker: Pope Innocent II owed his throne to him. Bernard organised a Council at Sens to look into Abelard’s allegedly heretical opinions. Abelard turned up there expecting a disputation of the kind he was used to winning. Instead he encountered not a meeting of scholars, but an assembly of bishops and lords. It was a show trial. Abelard refused to take part and left, intending to appeal directly to the Pope. Bernard had already organised a papal condemnation which bound Abelard to silence.

Abelard set out for Rome. On the way he stopped off at the Abbey of Cluny and was befriended by the abbot.

Abbot Peter was an unusual combination. As head of the Benedictine Order, he was a power-broker on a par with Bernard of Clairvaux; he was also a decent human being. He took advantage of the presence of Renault, abbot of Cîteaux, who was Bernard’s superior, to arrange a reconciliation between Bernard and Abelard. Abelard’s retractation represented the minimum which he could get away with conceding. Abelard’s defender, Berengar, was careful to include in one of his letters the alleged confession of faith which Abelard addressed to Heloïse. Logic, says Abelard, “has made me hated by the world… I do not wish to be a philosopher if it means conflicting with [Saint] Paul, nor to be an Aristotle if it cuts me off from Christ.” He believed that he could have philosophy, Paul, and Christ.

Having resolved the problem to his satisfaction, Abbot Peter wrote to the Pope suggesting that Abelard should remain at Cluny as a monk. The Pope agreed, no doubt glad to be rid of the problem. Abelard was by now in his sixties – old by the standards of the time. He died at the priory of Saint Marcel in 1142.

Abelard has been criticised for lacking originality. He did not invent the method of disputatio which replaced lectio. But, it can be argued, he developed it and wrote the texts which established it as the new standard. He was arguably a great synthesiser. He accepted the principle of authority on which lectio was based, but moved it forward by arguing that only reason and disputatio can enable us to choose between authorities. Paradoxically, Peter Abelard stands between the discovery of reason as a means of interpreting authority and the rediscovery of Aristotle, who became the overweening authority of the later Middle Ages.

© Martin Jenkins 2019

Martin Jenkins is a Quaker and a retired community worker. He lives in London and Normandy.

A Note on Sources & Dates

There are two problems in telling the story of Peter Abelard. The first is Heloïse: their love affair tends to take over from the story of Abelard the thinker. The second is the primary source. Like most autobiographies, Abelard’s contains distortions and needs to be checked against other sources.

All dates in the life of Peter Abelard are open to question. I have used ‘in year X’ rather than ’around X’ merely as a convenience.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloïse are easily available in Penguin Classics. Abelard’s philosophical writings are not readily available; but David Knowles’ The Evolution of Medieval Thought (1962) is an excellent introduction.

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