Peter Abelard (1079-1142/3)


ABELARD, b. at Palais, a village of Brittany, in 1079; d. in the priory of St. Marceilus, near Chalons, April 21, 1142. He was the eldest son of a knight, the lord of the village. His Christian name was Pierre de Palais (Petrus Palatinus); but when he renounced his right of primogeniture, and gave up his claims on his parental inheritance in order to devote his whole life to studies, he assumed the name of Abelard, either from the French abeille, a bee, or from the French bail, - Latin, bajulus, - a tutor. His first teacher in philosophy was Roscellinus, who kept a school in Lokmenach, near Vannes, in Brittany, and was a decided Nominalist, declaring all universalia to be merely mental conceptions. His second teacher was William of Champeaux, who presided over the cathedral school of Paris, and was a decided Realist, declaring the universalia to be the very essence of all existence, and individuality only the product of incidental circumstances. Between these two extremes, whose bitter opposition to each other forms the moving power in the whole history of scholastic philosophy, Abelard attempted to occupy a position of his own. His positive views, however, such as they are developed in his Dialectica, Glossae in Porphyrium, in Categorias, in Topica Boëthii, etc., are vague and even self-contradictory. In philosophy, as in theology, he is merely a critic; but his criticism is as bold as it is brilliant, and in many points it placed him far in advance of his age. He attacked William of Champeaux, and compelled him to alter his system, - a feat only to be compared with the gaining of a decisive battle. After this success, he opened a school of his own, - though he was still a very young man, - first at Melun, then at Corbeil, and finally at Paris. But William, though beaten, was still a powerful man. Abelard was compelled to leave Paris; and about 1113 he staid at Laon, where he studied theology under Anselm, a pupil of Anselm of Canterbury. Shortly after, however, he returned to Pans, William having retired; and now followed the most brilliant period of his life. He taught both theology and philosophy, and more than five thousand pupils gathered around his chair. Nearly all the great men of the age, both within and without the Church, heard Abelard. Celestine Il. and Arnold of Brescia were both among his pupils; and his books "went across the sea and the Alps." But this brilliant career was suddenly checked by his relation to Heloise.

Heloise was a young girl of eighteen years, an illegitimate daughter of a canon, and living in the house of her uncle, the Canon Fulbert of Paris. She was very studious, and her further instruction was confided to Abelard. A passionate love sprang up between them; and they eloped to the house of Abelard’s sister, where Heloise bore a son, Astralabius. In order to reconcile Fulbert, the two lovers were married; but, from a regard to the ecclesiastical career of Abelard, it was determined to keep the marriage secret. To this Fulbert would not consent; and when Abelard brought his wife to a Benedictine nunnery at Argenteuil, near Paris, Fulbert suspected an attempt to get rid of her by making her a nun, and sought revenge. One night he fell upon Abelard, and had him mutilated, thereby preventing him from ever holding any ecclesiastical office. Broken by shame and anguish, Abelard retired to the Monastery of St. Denys, and here he lived quietly for a couple of years (about 1118), teaching in a secluded place - the celia - built for the purpose. But his views of Dionysius Areopagita, the patron saint of the monastery and of France, brought him in conflict with the monks. He fled, but was compelled to return and recant; and though he afterwards was allowed to retreat into the wilderness of Nogent, in Champagne, where he built an oratory, - the so-called Paracletus, - he was still subject to the authority of the abbot of St. Denys. The original Paracletus was made of reeds and sedges; but so many pupils gathered around the celebrated teacher, that soon a building of stone could be erected. Abelard, however, felt miserable. One of his principal theological works, De Unitate et Trinilate Divina, was condemned by the Council of Soissons, 1121, and he lived in perpetual fear of persecution. He accepted the election as abbot of the Monastery of St. Gildasius at Ruys, in Brittany; but here he literally fell among a gang of ruffians. It was impossible for him to establish discipline. Twice the monks tried to poison him. Finally they attempted to strangle him, and he had to flee for his life. Meanwhile Heloise had moved to the Paracletus, the Monastery of Argenteuil having been closed in 1127: and here Abelard lived for some time; but his stay caused scandal, and he left. For several years - until the conflict with his great adversary, Bernard of Clairveaux, begins - the continuity of his life is lost to us. We only know that John of Salisbury heard him teach in the school on the hill of St. Geneveva, in Paris, in 1136, and that he wrote his autobiography, Historia C’alamitatum, during these years.

As a theologian, Abelard was a disciple of Anselm of Canterbury; but being by nature a critic, while Anselm was a mystic, his dialectics drove him on every point beyond the pale of the established faith. The doctrine of the Trinity, which forms the centre of his theology, he always treats in connection with the doctrine of the divine attributes; and, in spite of all the precautions he takes, the Trinity becomes under his hands a mere divine attribute. Very characteristic for his attitude with respect to the Church and the tradition on which it rests is his work Sic et Non. It consists of quotations from the fathers, arranged in harmony with the loci theologici, but contradicting each other at every point, without any solution being offered. At the Council of Sens, 1141, Bernard presented a formal accusation of heresy; and Abelard left the council without defending himself, and appealed directly to the pope. But Bernard wrote himself to the pope, denouncing Arnold of Brescia as one of the champions of Abelard; and Innocent III., now decided against the latter, forbade him to write or teach any more, and ordered his writings to be burnt. By the friendly mediation of Peter Venerabilis, abbot of Clugny, he was allowed to spend the rest of his days in that place. He continued his studies, "read always, prayed frequently, and kept silent." He died (sixty-three years old) on a visit to St. Marcellus, and was buried in the Paracletus. Heloise died May 16, 1164, and her body was laid in the same coffin, beside that of Abelard. They now lie together in the famous tomb at Père-Lachaise, Paris.

Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn., Vol. 1. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.12-13.

Primary Sources

Book or monograph Peter Abelard's CollationesPeter Abelard, Peter Abelard's "Collationes". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. Hbk. ISBN: 0198205791. pp.368. {}
Book or monograph Peter Abelard, A Dialogue of a Philosopher, P.J. Payer, translator. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1979. Pbk. ISBN: 0888442696. pp.186. {}
Book or monograph Abelard: EthicsPeter Abelard, Ethics, D.E. Lunscombe, translator. Oxford, 1971. Hbk. ISBN: 0198222173. pp.206. {}
Book or monograph Peter Abelard, Ethical Writings. Hackett Publishing Co, Inc., 1995. Pbk. ISBN: 0872203220. pp.171. {}
Book or monograph Peter Abelard, Letters IX-XIV, Edme R Smits, ed. Bouma's Boekhuis, 1983. Pbk. ISBN: 9060880854. pp.315. {}
Book or monograph Fairweather: A Scholastic MiscellanyE.R. Fairweather, A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Westminster John Knox Press, 1982. Pbk. ISBN: 0664244181. pp.457. {CBD} {}

Secondary Sources

Book or monograph M.T. Beonio-Brocchieri Fumagalli, The Logic of Abelard. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1969. Hbk. ISBN: 9027700680. pp.110. {}
Book or monograph The Cambridge Companion to AbelardJeffrey E. Brower & Kevin Guilfoy, The Cambridge Companion to Abelard. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pbk. ISBN: 0521775965. pp.382. {}
Book or monograph E.M. Buytaert, ed. Peter Abelard: Proceedings of the International Conference, Louvain, May 10-12, 1971. Mediavalia Lovaniensia, Series I, Studia, 2. Leuven University Press, 1974. ISBN: 9061860059. pp.181. {}
Book or monograph Clanchy: AbelardM.T. Clanchy, Abelard. Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Pbk. ISBN: 0631214445. pp.432. {CBD} {}
Book or monograph Compayri: Abelard and the Origin and Early History of UniversitiesGabriel Compayri, Abelard and the Origin and Early History of Universities. University Press of the Pacific, 2002. Pbk. ISBN: 1410200213. pp.332. {}
Article in Journal or Book W.G. East, "Educating Abelard," Downside Review 411 (2000): 79-84.
Book or monograph Gilson: Heloise and AbelardÉtienne H. Gilson, Heloise and Abelard, L.K. Shook, translator. Ann Arbor: 1960. Pbk. ISBN: 0472060384. pp.208. {}
Book or monograph Leif Grane, Peter Abelard. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970. ISBN: 0049040030. pp.192. {}
Article in Journal or Book Paul C. Kemeny, "Peter Abelard: An Examination of His Doctrine of Original Sin," Journal of Religious History 16.4 (1991): 374-386.
Article in Journal or Book Susan R. Kramer, " 'We Speak to God with Our Thoughts': Abelard and the Implications of Private Communication with God," Church History 69.1 (2000): 18-40.
Book or monograph Logan: A History of the Church in the Middle AgesF. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. London & New York: Routledge, 2002. Pbk. ISBN: 0415132894. pp.152-162. {}
Book or monograph David E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard. The Influence of Abelard's Thought in the Early Scholastic Period. Cambrdige Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, n.s., 14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Article in Journal or Book David E. Luscombe, "From Paris to the Paraclete: The Correspondence of Aberlard and Heloise," Proceedings of the British Academy, 74. 1988.
Book or monograph David E. Luscombe, Peter Abelard, 2nd edn. The Davenant Press, 2001. Pbk. ISBN: 1859441831. {}
Book or monograph Marenbon: The Philosophy of Peter AbelardJohn Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Hbk. ISBN: 0521553970. pp.393. {}
Article in Journal or Book Constant J. Mews,"The Sententie of Peter Abelard," Recherches De Theologie Ancienne Et Medievale 53 (1986): 130-184.
Book or monograph Constant J. Mews, Abelard and His Legacy. Variorum, 2001. Hbk. ISBN: 086078861X. pp.350. {}
Book or monograph A Victor Murray, Abelard and St. Bernard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967. Hbk. ISBN: 0719003172.
Article in Journal or Book V. Gayle Sarber, "Hymn Poets of Medieval Scholasticism and Mysticism: Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux," Encounter 48.1 (1987): 151-161.
Book or monograph Jeffrey Garrett Sikes, Peter Abailard, 2nd edn. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. pp.xvi + 282.
Book or monograph Martin M Tweedale, Abelard on Universals. North-Holland Pub. Co., 1976. ISBN: 072048040X.
Book or monograph Waddell: Peter AbelardHelen Waddell, Peter Abelard, new edn. Constable, 1987. Pbk. ISBN: 0094680000. {}
Book or monograph Richard E. Weingart, The Logic of Divine Love: A Critical Analysis of the Soteriology of Peter Abailard. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940. Xiv + 220.
Book or monograph Paul L Williams, Moral Philosophy of Peter Abelard. University Press of America, 1983. Pbk. ISBN: 0819111384.

Related Subjects
Peter Abelard | Aelfric | Alcuin |Anselm | Augustine of Canterbury | Thomas Becket | Bede | Benedict | Bernard of Clairvaux | Boniface | Thomas Bradwardine | Bruno | Catherine of Siena | Charlemagne | Charles Martel | Clare | Clovis | Columba | Dominic | Duns Scotus | Dunstan | Meister Eckhart | Desiderius Erasmus | Francis of Assisi | Gottschalk | Gregory I | Gregory of Rimini | Gregory of Tours | Hildegard of Bingen | Hugo of St Victor | Ignatius Loyola | Innocent III | Isidore | Joachim of Fiore | John Huss | John of Wesel | Jerome of Prague | Julian of Norwich | Marjory Kempe | Ramon Llull | Nicholas of Cusa | Nicholas of Lyre | Patrick | Pepin (Pippin III) | Peter Damian | Peter Lombard | Peter the Venerable | Photius | Richard Rolle | Scholastica | Thomas Aquinas | Wilfred | William of Ockham | William of St-Theirry | John Wycliffe