A Bit About Abelard (c. 1132-1138)

I have recently been enjoying The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (c.1132 – 1138) by Peter Abelard and Heloise with a translation and introduction by Betty Radice and M. T. Clanchy.  And this has caused me to theologically investigate what is a very interesting Medieval man and his theology, a poor token offering of which is offered below (that’s my attempt at being humble):


Peter Abelard was a highly gifted intellectual.  He outshone his fellow French pupils and tutors alike during the High Middle Ages, being also a supreme master logician.  One of his pupils was a young woman named Heloise, who was, arguably, more gifted than he.  The short story is that they fell in love (or fell in lust?), had a secret affair that was then exposed, leading to a strange story of marriage, revenge (castration – ouch!), love and ministry.

I have been reading from the Penguin Classics series by updated by M. T. Clanchy from the work of Betty Radice’s own work of the 1970s, featuring the letters of Abelard and Heloise (including his really fascinating autobiographical account – worth the book alone – Historia Calamitatum) plus other bits, such as letters between Peter the Venerable and Heloise, two hymns by Abelard and extracts from the Lost Love Letters. Another of Clanchy’s books opens with: ‘Peter Abelard, now forgotten, was once the most famous man in the world.’  Well that may be what it is, but it is not what all it is.

The Lives of Abelard and Heloise

Peter Abelard was born c.1092 at Le Pallet, near Nantes, the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. His father wanted his son to have a career in the military as he did, but Abelard pursued life as an academic, and a gifted one at that. Abelard excelled at the art of dialectic, and during this early part of his life he “began to travel about in several provinces disputing, like a true peripatetic philosopher, wherever I had heard there was a keen interest in the art of dialectic.”  One gets the impression he rather enjoyed being the know-it-all, but I suppose to many (including himself), he did!

These travels eventually bought him to Paris where he formally adopted Abelard as his name, having previously been known as ‘Pierre Le Pallet’, and in Paris, was taught by William of Champeaux at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris, himself the disciple of the great Anselm of Laon, a leading figure in Realism. Astonishingly, Abelard was able to better his tutor in argument, and the resulting fallout did great damage to Realism, and was replaced by Abelard’s Conceptualism, a view that explains Abelard’s angst in his lament, “Logic has made me hated among men.”

[This following section is not covered by the book in question, but in the context of Abelard’s theology in general, and atonement in particular, it is worth the digression]: 

Abelard’s philosophical and theological emphasis may reflect the degree to which his theory of ‘atonement’ differed from Abelard, although I’m sure both aspired to the goal of atonement:  Communion with God. The two primary theories of atonement are, generally speaking, described as ‘subjective’ vs ‘objective.’  The objective view argues that atonement accomplishes something objectively with God: satisfaction theory, penal substitution, and so on.  The subjective view is more equated with the ‘moral influence theory’ which argues that Jesus’ death was an exemplary act of obedience and creates or induces love for God in those who understand what the cross has done.  Anselm promulgated the ‘Latin’, ‘objective’, ‘satisfaction’ or ‘substitution’ theory,  whilst Abelard promulgated a ‘subjective’ ‘moral influence’ or ‘exemplarist’ theory we find in his five books ‘Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos’;

Even though this might be straight forward enough, there are three main schools of thought within Abelardian thinking:

1.  That Abelard over-emphasised the moralistic or subjective aspect of Christ’s death, at the expense of its substitutionary nature, thus they concluded that his atonement theology was heresy (see comment below about the Homeric sea-god Proteus for insight here).

2.  This group agreed Abelard did over-emphasise the subjective, yet still considered him a genius and orthodox.

3.  The third group rejected 1 & 2 and asserted that Abelard did not dent the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death at all.

So Abelard suggested a view that takes him on a different trajectory to Anselm who held to typical feudal master-slave relationships that led him to a particular form of penal substitution that Abelard rejects, although there is a substitution taking place, it is less penal and more relational; thus Abelard was a critic of traditional ‘transactional theories’ because since they did not go deep enough, they were unable to get to the human heart of the problem.  He insisted that Christ’s death was not necessary to appease God and therefore make him willing to reconcile; nor had the devil any legal right to hold humanity in bondage (therefore dismissing the idea that a ransom was paid to satan); all this would reduce God’s goodness, love and even character down to something altogether different from biblical revalation of God. Rather, all God’s atoneing actions were motivated by his love!

Abelard was not afraid to aim for the centre of Christianity’s core, hence one of his most famous books being Cur Deus homo – ‘Why God became Man.’  He was certainly a man of deep thought as well as deep faith.  But the very fact of his being a man meant that he was also deeply flawed, and in need of the atoning work of the Saviour Jesus Christ.

Although as one reads his writings, Abelard had a certain over-confident, almost arrogant swagger about him, but there is no denying he was a genius, and thus at only 22 years old, set up his own school at Melun and then another nearer Paris at Corbeil.

Then, as if to create drama and certain mystery, Abelard disappeared from public life, just as he was at his most famous and powerful (possibly a breakdown)! On his return in 1108 he met with his former teacher, William, and the two became rivals, but Abelard soon conquered William. From here Abelard focused on theology, and attended the lectures of Anselm of Laon, in time becoming a fellow teacher, and then surpassing even Anselm. In c.1115 Abelard took the chair at Notre-Dame and was nominated canon.

It was at this time, being supposedly very popular as a teacher and surrounded by thousands of students, from various countries, and at the height of fame, Abelard first met Heloise.abelard_and_heloise

Abelard and Heloïse in a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (14th century) A scene taken from much later in their tragic relationship.

She was said to have been beautiful, and remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, from Latin and Greek to Hebrew, Heloise was under the care of her uncle, Fulbert, in the precinct of Notre-Dame, the very place where Abelard went to tutor her, and from where he used his powers to seduce her.  Abelard first justifies his own actions when he arrogantly writes,

“I was amazed by his simplicity – if he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf it would not have surprised me more.  In handing her over to me to punish as well as to teach, what else was he (Fulbert) doing but giving me complete freedom to realize my desires…” (p.10-11)

This sounds like a madman to 21st century ears I’m sure.  Using language of ‘lamb’ and ‘wolf’ and ‘punish’ in the context of ‘teaching’ sounds astonishing!  He goes on,


“Abaelardus and Heloïse surprised by Master Fulbert”, by Romanticist painter Jean Vignaud (1819)

“We were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. . . .as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching.  My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages….” (p.11)

There is more, but why should I write it all out here?  Go get the book yourself!

It was only a matter of time before Fulbert found out, and the lovers were separated. Continuing to meet in secret, obvious biological consequence (nice euphemism eh?) meant Heloise fell pregnant, thus she was sent by Abelard to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son, Astrolabe. To appease her furious and no doubt shamed uncle, Abelard proposed a secret marriage, in order that his prospects of advancing in the church (!) should not be hindered, but Heloise opposed these plans despite her genuine love for him. This independent, strong and very clever woman appealed to Abelard not to sacrifice his own life for her, but she soon acquiesced. Pressure mounted on the lovers to reveal their marriage, so at Abelard’s behest, Heloise took refuge in the convent of Argenteuil. Fulbert, thinking that Abelard was getting rid of her (which is reasonable as Heloise also though this), planned and executed a terrible revenge. With others, he broke into Abelard’s chamber by night and, as was not an uncommon act of 12th century justice – castrated him.

The previous paragraph is a very rough sketch.  The full account has many more details and nuances in as we would imagine (e.g. Abelard was able to capture two of his own attackers and return the castration compliment; lex talionis may be commonly known as the ‘eye for an eye’ principle, but ‘lex testicol-ouchus’ may better describe this Abelardian debacle. Assumptions, motives and misunderstandings pervade this story.  It is quite a complex history that we see partially uncovered in the letters following this event.


In any case, as a consequence of this relational breakdown, and because of Canonical law, the upper ecclesiastical offices were closed to him, as was the priesthood – in short, the revenge was more than cutting off his testicles, it cut off his career and any possible family heritage. Heloise agreed to become a nun, for Abelard would never be able to sexually function as a husband again. Abelard retreated into his work, studying deeply and reopened his school at a now unknown location. He wrote a book, the Theologia ‘Summi Boni’ but his adversaries were quick to pounce on his doctrine of the Trinity, calling it Tritheism, and so Abelard was made to burn his book, even though it turned out it wasn’t heretical.  He inspired admiration and hatred in equal measure, and his opponents often misunderstood him, which explains the wonderful description of his thought by a contemporary of his, Thomas of Morigny, who compared Abelard with the Homeric sea-god Proeus “who slips through our hands and takes another shape before our description of him is complete,” clearly suggesting that Abelard is a very difficult person to assess, even if his presentation style left him quite vulnerable to misinterpretation.  He remained an antagonistic figure in religious life, until finally he became a hermit and built himself a cabin of stubble and reeds near Nogent-sur-Seine – classic!

Students in time would again flock to him once his dwelling had been discovered, in order to hear him teach. In gratitude he consecrated the new Oratory of the Paraclete.

Abelard still feared persecution and so deserted the Paraclete and spent some time presiding over the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, on the far-off shore of Lower Brittany, a land far from the sophistication, law and order of Paris. The misery of these years was intensified by two important events: 1. his critique of the monks’ lifestyle led to them attempting to kill him by poisoning the altar wine; and 2.  the breaking up of Heloise’s convent at Argenteuil.  The monks were complete gits.  In favour to Heloise, he established her as head of the new religious house at the deserted Paraclete. Very soon afterward he wrote his Historia Calamitatum, and so began the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise.

His life still remained troubled, notably, a significant conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux saw Abelard formally arraigned upon a number of heretical charges. Abelard, as the investigation continued, collapsed at the abbey of Cluny. He was taken to the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone, where he died. He was buried at St. Marcel, but soon afterward his remains were secretly exhumed and given over to the care of Heloise at the Paraclete. Heloise in time came to rest beside him.

I do love what Abelard writes in his Confession of Faith: “The storm may rage but I am unshaken, though the winds may blow they leave me unmoved; for the rock of my foundations stands firm.”

Even though a lot of the storms that raged around him he brought upon himself, he knew the rock of his foundations on whom he stood.  That rock is Jesus Christ, and for all his faults, Abelard knew that it is precisely because of all his faults  that he trusted in, and needed Jesus, the God who became man, and atoned for all his sins.

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