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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 99. Peter Abaelard.


Literature: Works of Abaelard: ed. first by Duchesne, Paris, 1616. Cousin: Ouvrages inédites d’Abélard, Paris, 1836, containing the Dialectica and Sic et Non; also the Opera omnia, 2 vols. Paris, 1849–1859. Reprod. in Migne, vol. 178.—R. Stölzle: De unitate et trinitate divina, first ed., Freib. im Br., 1891.—Ed. of his Letters by R. Rawlinson, Lond., 1718. Engl. trans. of Letters of Abaelard and Heloise, in Temple Classics.

Biographical: Abaelard’s Autobiography: Hist. calamitatum, in Migne, 178. 113–180.—Berengar: Apologeticus contra Bernardum, etc., in Migne, 178. 1856–1870.—Bernard’s letters as quoted below.—Otto of Freising: De Gestis Frid., 47 sqq.—John of Salisbury: Metalog. and Hist. Pontificalis.—Modern Lives by A. F. Gervaise, Paris, 1728; Cousin, in the Ouvrages, 1836; Wilkins, Göttingen, 1855; Ch. de Rémusat, Paris, 1845, 2 vols., new ed., 1855; O. I. de Rochely (Abél. et le rationalisme moderne), Paris 1867; Bonnier (Abél. et S. Bernard), Paris, 1862; Vacandard (P. Abél. et sa lutte avec S. Bernard), Paris, 1881; *S. M. Deutsch (P. Abael, ein kritischer Theologe des 12ten Jahrh., the best exposition of Abaelard’s system, Leip., 1883; A. Hausrath, Leip., 1893; Joseph McCabe, London, 1901.—E. Kaiser: P. Abél. Critique, Freib., 1901.—The story of Abaelard and Heloise has been specially told by Mad. Guizot, 2 vols., Paris 1839; Jacobi, Berl., 1850; Wright, New York, 1853; Kahnis, Leip., 1865, etc.—Compayré, Abél. and the Orig. and Early His. of Universities.—R. L. Poole: P. Abailard in Illustrations of Med. Thought, Lond., 1884, pp. 136–167.—Stöckl: Phil. des Mittelalters, I. 218–272.—Denifle: D. Sentenzen d. Abael. und die Bearbeitungen seiner Theologie vor Mitte des 12ten Jahrh. in Archiv für Lit. und Kirchengesch., etc., 1885, pp. 402–470, 584–624; Hefele, Councils, V. 451–488.—The Histories of Philos. of Ueberweg-Heinze and Ritter — The Lives of St. Bernard by Neander, I. 207–297; II. 1–44; Morison, 254–322; Vacandard, II. 120–181.—The Histories of Doctrine of Schwane, Harnack, Loofs, Fisher, Seeberg, Sheldon.


During the first half of the twelfth century, Peter Abaelard, 1079–1142, was one of the most conspicuous characters of Europe. His fame was derived from the brilliance of his intellect. He differed widely from Anselm. The latter was a constructive theologian; Abaelard, a critic. Anselm was deliberate, Abaelard, impulsive and rash. Anselm preferred seclusion; Abaelard sought publicity. Among teachers exercising the spell of magnetism over their hearers, Abaelard stands in the front rank and probably has not been excelled in France. In some of his theological speculations he was in advance of his age. His personal misfortunes give to his biography a flavor of romance which belongs to no other Schoolman. A man of daring thought and restless disposition, he was unstable in his mental beliefs and morally unreliable. Our main authority for his career is the Story of Misfortunes, Historia calamitatum, written by his own hand, (Migne, 178. 113–180,) in the form of a letter.

The eldest son of a knight, Abaelard was born at the village of Palais or le Pallet, a few miles from Nantes. His original name was Pierre de Palais. Both his parents entered convents. Abaelard had for his first teacher Roscellinus. He listened to William of Champeaux, then at the head of the cathedral school at Paris, and soon began with confidence to refute William’s positions.13531353    From this point and the enmity of William, he dates his misfortunes. Hinc calamitatum mearum quae nunc perseverant coeperunt exordia et quo amplius fama extendebatur nostra, aliena in me succensa est invidia, Migne, p. 116.l. After a period of sickness, spent under his father’s roof, he returned to Paris. He again listened to William on rhetoric, but openly announced himself as an antagonist of his views, and taught on Mt. Genevieve, then covered with vineyards. Abaelard represents himself as having drawn almost the last scholar away from the cathedral school to Genevieve. We next find him under Anselm of Laon, who, with his brother Radulf, had made the school of Laon famous. Again Abaelard set himself up against his teacher, describing him as having a wonderful flow of words, but no thoughts. When he lit a fire, he filled the whole house with smoke.13541354    Verborum usum habebat mirabilem, sed sensu contemptibilem et ratione vacuum, Migne, p. 123.ekiel.

Now the opportunity of his life came and he was called to preside over the cathedral school at Paris. William of Champeaux had retired to St. Victor and then had been made bishop. The years that immediately followed were the most brilliant in Abaelard’s career. All the world seemed about to do him homage. Scholars from all parts thronged to hear him. He lectured on philosophy and theology. He was well read in classical and widely read in sacred literature. His dialectic powers were ripe and, where arguments failed, the teacher’s imagination and rhetoric came to the rescue. His books were read not only in the schools and convents, but in castles and guildhouses. William of Thierry said13551355    Ep., 326; St. Bernard’s Works, Migne, 182. 531. towns, the people crowded the streets and strained their necks to catch a glimpse of him. His remarkable influence over men and women must be explained not by his intellectual depth so much as by a certain daring and literary art and brilliance. He was attractive of person, and Bernard may have had this in mind when he says, Abaelard was outwardly a John though he had the heart of a Herod.13561356    Remusat gives an attractive picture of his appearance, I. 43 sq. these qualities he added a gay cheerfulness which expressed itself in compositions of song and in singing, which made him acceptable to women, as in later years Heloise reminded him.13571357    Ep., II.; Migne, 178, 188.

In the midst of this popularity came the fell tragedy of his life, his connection with Heloise, whom Remusat has called "the first of women."13581358    See his description, I. 47 sqq. her seducer forfeits by his treatment of her the esteem of all who prefer manly strength and fidelity to gifts of mind, however brilliant.

Heloise was probably the daughter of a canon and had her home in Paris with her uncle, Fulbert, also a canon. When Abaelard came to know her, she was seventeen, attractive in person and richly endowed in mind. Abaelard prevailed upon Fulbert to admit him to his house as Heloise’s teacher. Heloise had before been at the convent of Argenteuil. The meetings between pupil and tutor became meetings of lovers. Over open books, as Abaelard wrote, more words of love were passed than of discussion and more kisses than instruction. The matter was whispered about in Paris. Fulbert was in rage. Abaelard removed Heloise to his sister’s in Brittany, where she bore a son, called Astralabius.13591359    A letter is preserved written by Abaelard to his son. It indicates affection. The father urges him to study the Scriptures. An Astralabius is mentioned as belonging to the chapter of Nantes in 1150. Hausrath, p. 173, conjectures he was Abaelard’s son. he himself distinctly says.13601360   Ut amplius mitagarem, obtuli me ei satisfacere eam scilicet quam corruperam mihi matrimonio copulando, dummodo id secreto fieret, ne famae detrimentum incurrerem. Migne, p. 130.

The Story of Misfortunes leaves no doubt that what he was willing to do proceeded from fear and that he was not actuated by any sense of honor toward Heloise or proper view of woman or of marriage. What accord, he wrote, "has study with nurses, writing materials with cradles, books and desks with spinning wheels, reeds and ink with spindles! Who, intent upon sacred and philosophical reflections could endure the squalling of children, the lullabies of nurses and the noisy crowd of men and women! Who would stand the disagreeable and constant dirt of little children!"

Abaelard declared a secret marriage was performed in obedience to the demands of Heloise’s relatives. At best it was a mock ceremony, for Heloise persisted in denying she was Abaelard’s wife. With mistaken but splendid devotion, she declined to marry him, believing that marriage would interrupt his career. In one of her letters to him she wrote: "If to you, the name of wife seems more proper, to me always was more dear the little word friend, or if you do not deem that name proper, then the name of concubine or harlot, concubina vel scortum. I invoke God as my witness that, if Augustus had wished to give me the rule over the whole world by asking me in marriage, I would rather be your mistress, meretrix, than his empress, imperatrix. Thy passion drew thee to me rather than thy friendship, and the heat of desire rather than love."13611361    Concupiscentia te mihi potius quam amicitia sociavit, libidinis ardor potius quam amor. Ep., II.; Migne, p. 186.

Abaelard removed Heloise to Argenteuil and she assumed the veil. He visited her in secret and now Fulbert took revenge. Entering into collusion with Abaelard’s servant, he fell upon him at night and mutilated him. Thus humiliated, Abaelard entered the convent of St. Denis, 1118,—not from any impulse of piety but from expediency.13621362    Deutsch, p. 35. So war Abaelard Mönch geworden, nicht von innerem Verlangen getrieben, etc. His relations with Heloise made freedom in his position as a public teacher in the open for the time impossible.me indifferent to Heloise.

New trials fell upon his chequered career—charges of heresy. He was arraigned for Sabellian views on the Trinity at Soissons, 1121, before the papal legate. Roscellinus, his old teacher, opened the accusations. Abaelard complains that two enemies were responsible for the actual trial and its issue, Alberic and Lotulf, teachers at Rheims. He was obliged to commit his book to the flames13631363    Introductio in theologiam. Abaelard is our chief authority for the trial. Hist. Calam., Migne, pp. 141-150. See Otto of Freising.

Again he got himself into difficulty by opposing the current belief, based upon Bede’s statement, that Dionysius or St. Denis, the patron of France, was the Dionysius converted by Paul at Athens. The monks of St. Denis would not tolerate him. He fled, retracted his utterance, and with the permission of Suger, the new abbot of St. Denis, settled in a waste tract in Champagne and built an oratory which he called after the third person of the Trinity, the Paraclete. Students again gathered around him, and the original structure of reeds and straw was replaced by a substantial building of stone. But old rivals, as he says, again began to pursue him just as the heretics pursued Athanasius of old, and "certain ecclesiastics"—presumably Norbert, the founder of the Premonstrants, and Bernard of Clairvaux—were stirred up against him. Abaelard, perhaps with not too much self-disparagement, says of himself that, in comparison to them, he seemed to be as an ant before a lion. It was under these circumstances that he received the notice of his election as abbot of the monastery of St. Gildas on the sea, in his native Brittany. He went, declaring that "the envy of the Francians drove him to the West, as the envy of the Romans drove Jerome to the East."

The monks of St. Gildas are portrayed by Abaelard as a band of unmitigated ruffians. They had their wives and children settled upon the convent’s domains. They treated their new abbot with contempt and violence, twice, at least, attempting his life. On one occasion it was by drugging the chalice. He complained of the barrenness of the surroundings. Bernard described him as an abbot without discipline. In sheer despair, Abaelard fled and in "striving to escape one sword I threw myself upon another," he said. At this point the autobiography breaks off and we know little of its author till 1136.13641364    Abaelard closes his autobiography by declaring that like another Cain he was dragged about the earth, a fugitive and vagabond, but also by quoting passages upon the providence of God as that all things work together for good to them that love Him.

In the meantime the nuns of Argentueil were driven out of their quarters. In 1127, Abaelard placed Heloise in charge of the Paraclete, and under her management it became prosperous. He had observed a cold silence for a protracted period, but now and again visited the Paraclete and delivered sermons to the nuns. Heloise received the Story of Misfortunes, and, in receiving it, wrote, addressing him as "her lord or rather father, her husband or rather brother, from his handmaid or rather daughter, his consort or rather sister." Her first two letters have scarcely, if ever, been equalled in the annals of correspondence in complete abandonment of heart and glowing expressions of devotion. She appealed to him to send her communications. Had she not offered her very being on the altar for his sake! Had she not obeyed him in everything, and in nothing would she offend him!

Abaelard replied to Heloise as the superior of the nuns of the Paraclete. She was to him nothing more. He preached to her sermons on prayer, asked for the intercession of the nuns on his behalf, and directed that his body be laid away in the Paraclete. He rejoiced that Heloise’s connection with himself prevented her from entering into marriage and giving birth to children. She had thereby been forced into a higher life and to be the mother of many spiritual daughters. Heloise plied him with questions about hard passages in the Scriptures and about practical matters of daily living and monastic dress, —a device to secure the continuance of the correspondence. Abaelard replied by giving rules for the nuns which were long and severe. He enjoined upon them, above all else, the study of the Scriptures, and called upon them to imitate Jerome who took up Hebrew late in life. He sent them sermons, seven of which had been delivered in the Paraclete. He proposed that there should be a convent for monks close by the Paraclete. The monks and nuns were to help each other. An abbot was to stand at the head of both institutions. The nuns were to do the monks’ washing and cooking, milk the cows, feed the chickens and geese.

In 1137 and again in 1139, we find Abaelard suddenly installed at St. Genevieve and enjoying, for a while, meteoric popularity. John of Salisbury was one of his pupils. How the change was brought about does not fully appear. But Abaelard was not destined to have peace. The final period of his restless career now opens. Bernard was at that time the most imposing religious personality of Europe, Abaelard was its keenest philosophical thinker. The one was the representative of churchmanship and church authority, the other of freedom of inquiry. A clash between these two personalities was at hand. It cannot be regarded as an historical misfortune that these two men met on the open field of controversy and on the floor of ecclesiastical synods. History is most true to herself when she represents men just as they were. She is a poor teacher, when she does not take opportunity to reveal their infirmities as well as their virtues.

Abaelard was as much to blame for bringing on the conflict by his self-assertive manner as Bernard was to blame by unnecessarily trespassing upon Abaelard’s territory. William, abbot of St. Thierry, addressed a letter to Bernard and Geoffrey, bishop of Chalons, announcing that Abaelard was again teaching and writing doctrinal novelties. These were not matters of mean import, but concerned the doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God’s grace. They were even receiving favor in the curia at Rome. William adduced no less than thirteen errors.13651365    Ep. Bernardi, 326; Migne, 132. 531 sqq. William sent to Bernard Abaelard’s Theologia and other works to make good his charges. He feared Abaelard would become "a dragon" whom no one could destroy. Kutter, in his Wilhelm von St. Thierry, pp. 34, 36, 43, 48, insists, as against Deutsch, that William was the exciting originator of the trial of Abaelard, which was soon to follow, and that Bernard preferred silence and peace to conflict, and was amused to action by William’s appeal.

The first open sign of antagonism was a letter written by Abaelard, brimming over with self-conceit. On a visit to Heloise at the Paraclete, Bernard had taken exception to the use of the phrase "supersubstantial bread" in the Lord’s Prayer, instead of "daily bread" as given by Luke. Abaelard heard of the objection from Heloise, and, as if eager to break a lance with Bernard, wrote to him, showing he was in error. He became sarcastic, pointing out that, at Clairvaux, novelties were being practised which were otherwise unknown to the Church. New hymns were sung and certain intercessory prayers left out as if the Cistercian monks did not stand in need of intercession also.13661366    Ep. Abael., X.; Migne, 178. 335.

So far as we know, Bernard did not answer this letter. After some delay, he acted upon the request of William of Thierry. He visited Abaelard in Paris and sought to secure from him a promise that he would retract his errors.13671367    Bernard’s biographer, Gaufrid, states that Abaelard promised amendment. No reference was made to such a promise in the charges at Sens, an omission difficult to understand if the promise was really made. See Remusat, I. 172, and Poole, p. 163.

The difference was brought to open conflict at the synod of Sens, 1141, where Abaelard asked that his case might be presented, and that he might meet Bernard in argument. Arnold of Brescia seems to have been among those present.13681368    Ep. Bernardi, 189; Migne, 182. 355. Bernard describes the meeting and sets forth the danger from Abaelard’s influence, Epp. 187-194, 330-338. For an account of this trial, see my art., "St. Bernard the Churchman" in Princeton Rev., 1903, pp. 180 sqq. and was from the first looked upon with suspicion. Bernard had come to the synod to lay the whole weight of his influence against Abaelard. He had summoned the bishops as friends of Christ, whose bride called to them out of the thicket of heresies. He wrote to the cardinals and to Innocent II., characterizing Abaelard as a ravenous lion, and a dragon. With Arnold as his armor-bearer at his side, Abaelard stood like another Goliath calling out against the ranks of Israel, while Bernard felt himself a youth in dialectical skill.

At a preliminary meeting with the bishops, Bernard went over the case and it seems to have been decided, at least in an informal way, that Abaelard should be condemned.13691369    This preliminary meeting rests upon the testimony of Berengar and upon a passage in John of Salisbury, Hist. Pontif., chap. VIII. 9. John, in describing the trial of Gilbert of Poictiers, says Bernard wanted to have Gilbert’s case prejudged in a preliminary sitting and by the same method he had resorted to in the case of Abaelard, —arte sim ili magistrum Petrum agressus erat. Berengar’s defence of Abaelard descends to passionate invective. Migne, 178. 1858 sqq. Berengar represents the bishops and Bernard as being heated with wine at this preliminary conference, when they decided against Abaelard. The details of his account and his charges against Bernard are altogether out of accord with his character as it is otherwise known to us. Deutsch (Neander’s St. Bernard, II. 1 sqq.) cannot free Bernard from unfairness in the part he took at this conference, as Vacandard does. the great surprise of all, Abaelard declined to argue his case and appealed it to the pope. Passing by Gilbert of Poictiers, Abaelard is said to have whispered Horace’s line,


"Look well to your affairs now that your neighbor’s house is burning."

Nam tua res agitur, paries eum proximus ardet.

To Rome the case must go. Abaelard no doubt felt that he had nothing to hope for from the prelates.13701370    The statement is not inconsistent with the representation of Otto of Freising, a disinterested reporter, who gives as reason for refusing to make an argument that he feared a popular tumult.ight expect some favor and he had friends in the curia. The synod called upon the supreme pontiff to brand Abaelard’s heresies with perpetual condemnation—perpetua damnatione — and to punish their defenders. The charges, fourteen in number, concerned the Trinity, the nature of faith, the power and work of Christ, and the nature of sin.13711371    Migne, 182. 1049-1051. Also Hefele, V. 463 sqq.nst the accused man. Abaelard and Arnold of Brescia were in collusion. Abaelard had joined himself with Arius in ascribing degrees within the Trinity, with Pelagius in putting free will before grace, and with Nestorius in separating the person of Christ. In name and exterior a monk, he was at heart a heretic. He had emerged from Brittany as a tortuous snake from its hole and, as in the case of the hydra, seven heads appeared where before there had been but one.13721372    Ep., 331; Migne, 182. 537. There are nine of these letters to the cardinals, 188, 192, 193, 331-335, 338. The longest letter was the one addressed to the pope, 190; Migne, 182. 1051-1071. The great vehemence of these letters have exposed Bernard in some quarters to unmitigated condemnation. From the standpoint of Christian moderation and charity they are difficult to understand and cannot be justified. Hausrath, p. 248, etc., represents him as der werltkluge Abt von Clairvaux, resorting to all the arts of diplomacy to secure a verdict against Abaelard. M’Cabe, in a very readable chapter, pp. 322-354, takes the same view. Without excusing him, it must be remembered in passing judgment that heresy was regarded with horror in that age. Bernard, no doubt, also shrank from Abaelard as a man who sought applause rather than the advancement of the Church. Morison, p. 302, speaks "of a horror of great darkness falling upon Bernard," when he recognized the dangers of a new era. Neander, St. Bernard, II. 3, says that no one can question that Bernard’s zeal proceeded from a pure Christian purpose, but that he used the weapons of hatred under the mask of holy love. only thing Abaelard did not know was the word nescio, "I do not know."

The judgment was swift in coming and crushing when it came. Ten days were sufficient. The fourteen articles were burned by the pope’s own hand in front of St. Peter’s in the presence of the cardinals. Abaelard himself was declared to be a heretic and the penalty of perpetual silence and confinement was imposed upon him. The unfortunate man had set out for Rome and was hardly well started on his journey, when the sentence reached him. He stopped at Cluny, where he met the most useful friend of his life, Peter the Venerable. At Peter’s intercession, Innocent allowed the homeless scholar to remain in Cluny whence the pope himself had gone forth.

Following Peter’s counsel, Abaelard again met Bernard face to face. In a defence of his orthodoxy, addressed to Heloise, he affirmed his acceptance of all the articles of the Church from the article on the Trinity to the resurrection of the dead. As it was with Jerome, so no one could write much without being misunderstood.

But his turbulent career was at an end. He was sent by Peter to St. Marcellus near Chalons for his health, and there he died April 21, 1142, sixty-three years old. His last days in Cluny are described by Peter in a letter written to Heloise, full of true Christian sympathy. He called Abaelard a true philosopher of Christ. One so humble in manner he had not seen. He was abstinent in meat and drink. He read continually and prayed fervently. Faithfully he had committed his body and soul to his Lord Redeemer for time and eternity. "So Master Peter finished his days and he who was known in almost the whole world for his great erudition and ability as a teacher died peacefully in Him who said ’Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart,’ and he is, as we must believe, gone to Him."

Abaelard’s body was carried to the Paraclete and there given rest. Twenty-two years later, Heloise was laid at his side. The inscription placed over the tomb ran, "The Socrates of the Gauls, the great Plato of the Occidentals, our Aristotle, who was greater or equal to him among the logicians! Abaelard was the prince of the world’s scholars, varied in talent, subtle and keen, conquering all things by his mental force. And then he became a conqueror indeed, when, entering Cluny, be passed over to the true philosophy of Christ."13731373    Migne, 178. 103.d and the first abbess Heloise, once joined by studies, mind, love, forbidden marriage,—infaustis nuptiis, —and penitence and now, as we hope, in eternal felicity."

At the destruction of the Paraclete during the French Revolution, 1792, the marble sarcophagus was removed to Paris and in 1816 it was transferred to the cemetery of Père la Chaise. There it remains, the chief object of interest in that solemn place of the dead, attracting Frenchmen and visitors from distant lands who commemorate, with tears of sympathy and a prayer over the mistakes of mortals, the unfortunate lovers.



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