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By Isabelle de Foix, GOA, AOA, CJM, CPO


Intro: Peter Abelard is best known for his relationship with his only female student, Heloise. I think that it is unfortunate that this has led to a tendency to downplay or even ignore his role in European intellectual life. Because of his importance in the development of European education, I have included the story of his highly successful teaching career along with the story of his relationship of Heloise.



Petrus (Peter) Abelard was born in Brittany in 1079, the eldest son of a minor noble, the seigneur of Le Pallet. This seigneur, Berengar, had received enough schooling to appreciate its usefulness. He provided his children with the best education he could obtain for them. Peter was a brilliant student, and Berengar was very proud of his young genius. He fully approved of Peterís decision to give up his inheritance so he could leave the castle to attend schools in Paris and its environs. Peter would fight his battles with logic rather than the sword. He was forever getting into heated disputes with his teachers, alienating them, and moving to another school. After attending schools in various cities, including Chartres and Orleans, he went to Paris to study at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Champs.

Paris at this time (1100), though a royal capital, was a small town on an island in the Seine River. It had two bridges to the banks of the river, the Petit Pont, or Small Bridge, connecting the Ile-de-Cite to the left bank, and the Grand Pont, or Big Bridge, to the right bank. Abelard had come to the city because of its cathedral school. During this period, most, if not all, cathedrals in Western Europe maintained schools, mainly for the training of priests. The teaching method used by these schools was called "dialectic," and had been invented by Aristotle. Using this method, one first argued in favor of a concept, or a thesis. Then one argued against this very concept, and this argument was called the antithesis. Finally a resolution between the two arguments was reached; this was called the synthesis. There was a poem composed in the twelfth century that illustrated the structure of dialectic:

Si sol est, et lux est; at sol est: igitur lux.

Si non sol, non lux est, at lux est: igitur sol;

non est sol et non-lux; at sol est: igitur lux.

If there by sun, there is light, now, there is sun;

therefore there is light.

No sun, no light, now, there is light; therefore

there is sun.

Sun and non-light there cannot be; now, there is sun,

therefore there is light.

Besides dialectic, Abelard had also studied rhetoric, for which he had an extraordinary talent. He also studied grammar, which, in those days, was far more than what we know as grammar. It was the study of the Latin language, and of Latin literature. Since Latin was the language of scholarship and school instruction until the eighteenth century, it was crucial for scholars and teachers. It was also helpful to priests since the mass was recited in Latin. The other subjects taught in the schools, arithmetic, geography, music, and astronomy--were less to his liking. He particularly disliked arithmetic.

Upon arriving in Paris, Abelard began studies with a noted scholar and teacher, William de Champeaux. William was involved in a huge philosophical dispute over a dense, difficult Neo-Platonic concept called "universals". Abelard wasted no time getting involved in the dispute, which was a turning point in medieval thought. Respect for individual talents and capabilities was growing. The communal mentality of the earlier Middle Ages, expressed in the Neo-Platonism of Boethius and Augustine, was dissipating. The Church at this time looked upon itself as one seamless entity; it could not have bits and pieces. It looked upon the notions of individuality and personality as dangerous to its heart and soul, the one "Body of Christ". Abelard was keenly aware of his talents to an excessive degree. At a very early age, he decided to start his own school to rival that of his own teacher, William de Champeaux. Abelard was always an aggressive, combatative individual, and he went to war with William with the zeal of a crusader. Unfortunately, he stooped to the level of character assassination during this dispute, accusing William of playing dirty political tricks to get the bishopric of Chalons. In fact, William turned down the bishopric three times before the Church authorities were successful in getting him to take the post. William had retired from his teaching post at Notre Dame and moved to a small abbey, St. Victor, where he had planned to spend the rest of his life in prayer and study.

Abelard started his own school in St. Genevieve, on the left bank of the Seine, amidst a mass of vineyards. A few years later he was named to fill the post at Notre Dame, which had been vacated by William. He was extraordinarily successful as a teacher. He was the "idol of Paris"; he was vivacious and eloquent, and he attracted students from as far away as Sweden. His students included John of Salisbury, who became a noted scholar in his own right as well as Bishop of Chartres. Another one of his students was Guido of Castello, who later became Pope Celestine II. But his most famous student was his only female student, Heloise, who lived with her uncle near the cathedral church of Notre Dame.

Heloise was nearly as well known in Paris as Abelard was. She was renowned for her learning, which was exceptional in a woman in twelfth-century France. She was only sixteen when she met Abelard, but she had already mastered the traditional liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geography and astronomy, as well as theology. She attended some of his lectures at the cathedral. Before long, Peter Abelard finally fell in love with something besides dialectic. Her uncle, Fulbert, hired him to teach her, and he moved into his house. Heloise was thrilled; his learning and talent entranced her, and before long, she, too, was in love. They were the perfect couple; these two were made for each other.

The romance completely changed Abelardís life. Within a matter of months, he only wanted to write love poems; he did not want to compose lectures on dialectics. Needless to say, his students noticed the difference in their teacher. In the meantime, a most unlucky thing happened. Fulbert caught the lovers by night, and was enraged beyond reason. News of the scandal spread all over Paris. Fulbert kicked Abelard out of the house, and the grieving scholar moved to another house near the church. Shortly after this, Heloise discovered that she was pregnant. She sent the news to Abelard by letter, and they began to wonder where the birth should take place. Fulbert left Paris for awhile. While he was away, Abelard took Heloise, disguised as a nun, to his ancestral home in Brittany, where she gave birth to a boy. This further angered Fulbert; his blood boiled when he discovered that Heloise had escaped. At this point, Abelard made Fulbert an offer: he would marry Heloise on condition that the marriage be kept a secret.

Much to Abelardís surprise, Heloise refused the offer. She claimed that he was unfit for matrimony; how, she asked, could a scholar stand to be bothered by running a household that included not just a desk but also a cradle? What about the cries of the baby and other distracting noises of an ordinary household? To Heloise, this would take the quality she most admired in Abelard away. To her, he was not an ordinary man, he was a genius. She did not want him to become ordinary. In fact, she wondered if she herself might become a burden to him. Most of all, she knew there was no way their marriage could be kept secret. Her love for Abelard was intensely spiritual and unconditional. She was willing to give her life to him, but not at the cost of his reputation. Abelard and Fulbert both insisted that they marry, and so they were. After an all-night vigil in Notre-Dame, they were married at daybreak. To keep the marriage secret, Abelard went back to his solitary lodgings, and Heloise stayed with Fulbert.

Unfortunately, Fulbert broke his promise and divulged the marriage to the public. Heloise denied that she and Abelard were married, and she and her uncle clashed in a series of particularly ugly disputes. At this point Abelard took her again, this time to a convent at Argenteuil. She wore the clothing of a nun, but did not take vows. When Fulbert heard of this, he was so angry that he was resolved to exact the ultimate penance from Abelard. Heloise was his niece, not Abelardís! Why, he wanted to know did he keep kidnapping her? Such was his frame of mind when he and some kinsmen broke into Abelardís dwelling one night and castrated him. This meant the end of any hopes of ecclesiastical advancement, even though this deed turned public opinion against Fulbert. The Church condemned the deed as well. Heloise firmly believed that the disaster was her fault, and she took the vows of a nun. Abelard, desiring solitude, took vows in the abbey of St. Denis, the most prestigious religious institution in France. Here kings had been anointed, crowned, and buried. Abelard chose such a prestigious abbey in hopes of reviving his teaching career. He wrote two books for his future students. The first, "Sic et Non" ("Yes and No") was a book which employed dialectical reasoning to discuss 157 theses pertaining to various Church doctrines. Abelard never acknowledged authorship of this book, and it disappeared from history until a manuscript of it was discovered in a Paris library in 1836. But "Sic et Non" was tame compared to his next book, "On the Divine Unity and Trinity". This was condemned as heretical at a church council in Soissons in 1121. The council ordered all copies of the book to be burned, and Abelard himself was forced to do the actual burning. After this he was confined to prison. After he was released from prison he built himself a "hermitage" on the lands of the Count of Champagne, east of Paris. Some students came to him there. To pay for their instruction, the students worked the land. They grew crops, and they build a chapel out of stone and wood. They named their little establishment the Paraclete, a name derived from the Greek word for "comforter", a reference to the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, this settlement did not last; Abelard was called back to Brittany, where he had been elected abbot of a monastery. The abbey, St. Gildas, was full of ill-behaved and undisciplined monks, and Abelard soon began to hate his new job. There was nothing he could do; St. Gildas was too isolated to have been impacted by Church reformers, and Abelard was better at talking than he was at doing. He was not the kind of person who could reform a decadent monastery. After three years at this position, Abelard heard some horrific news. Heloise and her nuns had been expelled from Argenteuil, and scattered to the four winds. He left St. Gildas with the permission of the authorities in Paris. He gave Heloise and her nuns the Paraclete, and this became their abbey. Heloise became their abbess. After this he was obliged to return to St. Gildas and its untamed monks, where he remained for about eight years longer.

But this was not enough for Heloise. She was offended when he wrote a letter detailing his difficult life to someone else. She wrote him a passionate note that had a profound effect on him. She thanked him for the Paraclete, but she wanted more from him than property. She wondered if he had really loved her at their wedding--had it been mere sensuality that had motivated him to bind with her? If they could not see each other in the flesh, might they have a correspondence? This jolted Abelard out of his self-absorbed mindset. He had never been comfortable around other people. He had always thought in terms of "my personal future" or "my loss of prestige", never a loss of a loved one. But Heloiseís letter led him to feel a deeper bond with him than he had felt prior to receiving and reading the letter. Heloiseís love for him had caused her years of emotional suffering, and she described this in detail in the letter.

Abelard was shocked that Heloise had taken this long to write him a letter describing her inner torment. He explained that he had thought that she had the wisdom and leadership abilities to succeed on her own. He had a knack for bringing out the best in every one of his students, and this had been the cornerstone of his success as a teacher. He offered to be her spiritual advisor, and urged her to write him letters concerning any questions she might have about her life. A correspondence ensued during which Heloise admitted that she feared displeasing Abelard more than she feared displeasing God. But Abelard felt that the greatest favor he could do her would be to become her spiritual advisor; he told her that Christís love for her was more important than his. "My love was concupiscence", he wrote, "not love". Heloise finally accepted the fact that she had lost a husband and gained a spiritual advisor. At her request, he wrote a rule for Heloise and her community. This rule was based on the moderate and sensible Rule of St. Benedict, which allowed for adequate food, sleep, and other considerations for the health and strength of the nuns.

In due time the Paraclete began to get gifts of produce of the lands of the Champagne. In fact, one of its patrons was the Count of Champagne himself, who donated a barrel of wheat every year, as well as the produce of his fishing grounds and a large delivery of cereal grains from his lands. Some of the other donations came from women who entered the convent. Even the King endowed the Paraclete. Heloise was an excellent administrator, and the Paraclete prospered.

Abelard returned to teaching sometime between 1133 and 1136. Not surprisingly, he soon became involved in another theological dispute, this time with the conservative Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard deplored the presence of logic and other philosophical elements in Christianity; to him it was only necessary to love. Abelard had based his entire teaching career on the premise that certain aspects of Christianity can be understood with logic. Along with this philosophical disagreement, the two men soon learned to despise each other as people. Bernard was revolted by what he saw as Abelardís insufferable arrogance, and he wrote a work on Abelardís alleged heresies. He also wrote a series of letters to the pope warning him of the threat to orthodox Christianity by Abelardís teachings. At a meeting of eminent churchmen shortly after this in Sens, Abelardís writings were condemned. Abelard was present, and he was offered the chance to defend his beliefs. To everyoneís shock, he refused. He felt powerless against Bernard; he simply told the crowd that had gathered at Sens that he was appealing the matter to the Pope, and left the cathedral at once.

Heloise was alarmed at this latest condemnation. If Abelard was a heretic, what of the Rule he had given her for her nuns? Abelard relieved her anxiety by writing her a letter professing the orthodox creed. It was at this point that he wrote "O Quanta Qualia", a beautiful vespers hymn about Paradise. After this he left for Rome to lay his case before the Pope. He traveled until he reached the Benedictine abbey of Cluny. Here he was received by the kindly abbot, Peter the Venerable, who advised him to stay at the abbey for a few days and rest. Abelard was an old man of sixty-three in an age when the average life span was thirty years. Peter the Venerable was a noted diplomat, and he managed to reconcile Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Peter knew that the Pope would not rule against Bernard of Clairvaux, and told Abelard he anticipated the rejection of his appeal. Shortly after this Abelard got word that the Pope had indeed declared his works heretical and had rejected his appeal. His works were burned in St. Peterís square in Rome, right outside the basilica. He was ordered to be confined to a monastery for the remainder of his days. Abelard became a monk of Cluny, where he spent his days in prayer and uncharacteristic silence. He took ill in April of 1142, and he died on April 21 of that year, aged sixty-three. Peter the Venerable took Abelardís body to the Paraclete, where he had asked to be buried, and consoled Heloise. He assured her that she would see Abelard again in Paradise. She continued in her duties to the abbey until she died in 1164, also aged sixty-three. She became renowned for her learning and her piety, and was buried beside Abelard at the Paraclete.

Abelardís contribution to Western education was immense. The schools he had taught at on the left bank on the Seine, as well as the cathedral school of Notre Dame, developed into the University of Paris on the strength of the many students he had attracted to Paris. The teaching method he had played a part in development through his incredible skill in it, dialectic, became the sole teaching method at Paris for centuries. This method came to be called Scholasticism, and it produced the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus and his more famous student, Thomas Aquinas. The University of Paris was the greatest theology school of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, thanks in large part to the brilliant, querulous and eventually revered seigneurís son from Brittany.



Bowen, James, A History of Western Education, Volume II, St. Martinís Press, 1975

Peroud, Regine, Heloise and Abelard, Editions Albin Michel, 1970

Hallum, Elizabeth, Capetian France, 987-1328, Longman Group Limited, 1980

McConica, James, Renaissance Thinkers, Oxford University Press, 1991