Peter Abelard (1079-1142) is well-known not just because of the originality of his ideas about logic and theology, but because of the scandal associated with his love affair with Heloise. We know much about him through his revealing Historia calamitatum (History of My Calamities). In this work he offers consolation to an unidentified friend by explaining how he survived a series of difficult experiences that he confronted during his career.

Abelard’s education and early career

Peter Abelard was born in 1079 at Le Pallet, near the border between Brittany and Anjou. Abelard lived about one hundred years before the Scholastics whose works you will encounter in "Bartholomew's World." His work deeply influenced and helped to set the stage for the Scholastic period. The eleventh century was a time when urban life was beginning to expand after many centuries of relative stagnation.

Although Abelard was the eldest son, and thus would have inherited the family estate, he decided to devote himself to study. But he did not enter a monastery, the traditional educational center in the early Middle Ages. Instead, he sought out the best teachers, wherever they might be.

monastery: a community bound by a vow to observe a religious life

Abelard spent many years initially studying under Roscelin of Compiègne (ca. 1050-ca. 1125). Roscelin was a logician notorious for arguing that a universal term that signifies a species to which many individuals belong does not exist independently. A term such as "man" was no more than a spoken puff of air. Abelard absorbed from Roscelin the argument that a universal term when applied to two individuals of the same species (like "man" in the phrases "Peter is a man, Paul is a man") is no more than a word, and not some concrete essence.

Around 1100, Abelard traveled to Paris to study under William of Champeaux (d. 1122), the leading authority of the day in both dialectic and rhetoric. After studying some years with William, Abelard set up his own school initially at Melun and then Corbeil. He then spent a few years back in Brittany (perhaps 1107/8-1111) recovering from overwork.

dialectic: argument and counter-argument as a method of intellectual investigation
rhetoric: the science of speaking

Abelard returned to Paris to confront William of Champeaux on the issue of universals. William was lecturing on rhetoric at that time. Abelard challenged William’s assumption that the universal shared by identical individuals of the same species (like Peter and Paul) was a thing (res). After defeating William in debate, Abelard started to conduct a public school on the Mont Sainte-Geneviève, on the left-bank of Paris. This location would become the University in the following century.

In July/August 1113, William was appointed bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne. Abelard had intended to study theology under William, but traveled instead to study with Anselm of Laon to get official credit for having studied theology. He was less impressed by the teaching offered at Laon. Soon, he started to deliver his own lectures on Scripture. In particular he started a commentary on Ezekiel. At this point, Abelard was offered the coveted position at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame. The position had previously been held by William’s substitute, who had left the city to become a monk.

The tragic love of Abelard and Heloise

This was the situation of apparent worldly success that Abelard describes in the Historia calamitatum as leading to the biggest crisis of his early career: his love affair with Heloise. Heloise was the brilliantly educated young niece of Fulbert, a canon at the cathedral. She was about 21 and he was 34 when they met.

When Abelard looks back on this episode in the Historia calamitatum, he presents himself as motivated more by lust than by love. He wants to argue that he had to learn the hard way about the foolishness of such passion.

When we read the passage below, we must remember that Abelard is deliberately shaping his account as an example of how someone driven by lust and pride would suffer inevitable tragedy, as part of the workings of providence.

In the exchange of letters attributed to Abelard and Heloise (Mews 1999), the teacher is passionately in love with his student. He reports that he is distracted from his normal concerns, but uses the language of erotic desire (amor) to present his feelings. By contrast, his female disciple conveys a sense of spiritual idealism coupled with passionate intensity. She communicates the notion that her understanding of love combines this erotic desire with dilectio and amicitia. These love letters are remarkable for the evolution they present. The young woman reflects on her feelings as bringing not just joy, but also great anguish as she questions her lover's fidelity.

dilectio: the love enjoined by Scripture
amicitia: true friendship

After their relationship was discovered by Heloise's uncle, Abelard and Heloise were forced to separate. Heloise, however, had already become pregnant. She gave birth to a boy, called Astralabe. She only reluctantly accepted Abelard’s proposal that they marry. The secret marriage failed to placate her uncle, who had Abelard castrated in reprisal for the way he had treated Heloise.

Abelard became a monk at Saint-Denis, a wealthy abbey with close links to the French monarchy. Heloise took vows as a nun at Argenteuil, the abbey where she had been raised. Astralabe was sent to be looked after by Abelard's sister, back in Brittany.

Abelard's new career

Abelard was not happy at Saint-Denis. Criticism about his teaching activity from fellow monks drove him to establish a school at a site at some distance from the main abbey. But at this point in his career, Abelard's controversial theological views caught up with him. At the Council of Soissons in 1121, former disciples of Anselm of Laon accused Abelard of expounding heresy. They burned Abelard's treatise. The official charge that Abelard says was raised against him was that he attributed power to God the Father alone, but not to the Son or the Holy Spirit.

Abelard became so unhappy that he escaped to the territory of Champagne. He found a place to live not far from the city of Provins, on an estuary of the Seine. Here he built an oratory that he dedicated initially to the Holy Trinity, but then re-dedicated to the Paraclete, reflecting the particular emphasis of his theology.

Paraclete: the Holy Spirit of the Christian triune God

During this period, Abelard extended his treatise on the Trinity and wrote new works. One of these was Sic et Non, an evolving anthology of excerpts from the Fathers of the Church collected over a long period. He organized them around a range of subjects:

  • the Trinity
  • the person of Christ
  • the sacraments
  • charity, the foundation of all ethical behavior
sacraments: 7 rituals that mark the liturgical life of the church and convey the gift of grace to participants: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Last Rites (Anointing of the Sick), Ordination, Matrimony
Fathers of the Church: Christian theologians active in the Church's first five to eight centuries

Abelard introduced the anthology with a prologue. It laid out his conviction that the foundation of all critical inquiry and thus the first key to wisdom lay in the questioning of texts. He stated that readers should recognize that doctrinal statements about Christian principles of belief were often shaped by rhetorical technique and thus prone to human error. Rather than simply accepting authority, he insisted that one had to subject all written claims to the scrutiny of reason.

In 1129, after spending two years in relative exile at St. Gildas in Brittany, Abelard decided to transfer control of the Paraclete Oratory to Heloise. Presumably, he did this at her request. She and her nuns had been expelled from the abbey of Argenteuil. This situation was the context in which Abelard wrote the Historia calamitatum. In theory he wrote it for a fictional friend. But quite possibly he intended it for Heloise and her nuns as a way of outlining the origins of their oratory.

Heloise responded to his account with a powerfully worded letter. She asked him to take more account of her own situation as a woman who had been effectively abandoned for over twelve years by her husband. And she asked him to attend to the spiritual needs of the community. Heloise's letters demonstrate her powerful interest in ethical questions. They apply both to herself and to others in the religious life. In response, Abelard composed an account of religious women in the past and a Rule specifically intended for women. In his writings for the Paraclete, he was obliged to draw much more on Scripture than on the philosophical writings familiar to his male students.

Rule: a plan for religious life in community

Abelard's later writings: a dialogue between religion and philosophy

The beliefs that Christ is the embodiment of divine wisdom and that the Holy Spirit has revealed itself both in the creation of the world and through the history of the Jewish people are rooted in the New Testament itself. Early Christian writers, however, often contrasted the inadequacy of pagan philosophical insight compared to the truth of God’s revelation in Christ. In his treatise on the trinity, the Theologia "Summi boni," Abelard attached central importance to a statement in Romans 1:20. In it, the Apostle Paul says that the invisible things of God (Invisibilia Dei) have always been evident to philosophers through the created world (TSum 1.30).

For Augustine this Pauline comment showed that Socrates and Plato had come closer than any other philosopher to understanding aspects of divine truth, but divine revelation offered much greater understanding to Moses and the Jewish people. By contrast, Abelard emphasized that both philosophers and prophets were witnesses to aspects of the supreme good, each in their own way, fully manifest only in the person of Christ.

Abelard and Plato
Rather than attempt any simplistic identification of Platonic and Christian doctrine, Abelard drew attention to the way different words could identify different attributes of the same truth.

Thus he described the concept of the world soul as a beautiful "covering" (involucrum). He explained that it could not be interpreted literally, but was rather a poetic image to describe the effect of God’s goodness in the world. Abelard never questions the Platonic notion that there is a supreme order to the cosmos. He was sympathetic to the broader project of linking the Timaeus and Scripture. But he was critical of the assumption that Platonic forms had an independent reality of the subjects that they informed.

Timaeus: Plato's account of the origins of the universe
Platonic forms: ideas or essences

Philosophy and Judaism
In his Collationes, written perhaps in the early 1130s, Abelard presents two dialogues. One takes place between a philosopher and a Jew. The other takes place between a philosopher and a Christian.

In the first dialogue, Abelard debates the positive role of Jewish law in establishing a moral code with a degree of sympathy not often found in Christian literature. More often, Christian literature of the time period simply asserts the superiority of Christian over Jewish revelation. The philosopher articulates his regret that too often there is no progress in matters of faith, because people do not investigate faith rationally (Coll. 2001, 11). The Jew defends the regulatory function of the Law in restraining acts of wickedness. The philosopher responds that there were many who lived before Moses simply in accordance with natural law, without any rituals like circumcision. The Jew eloquently replies that:

"...the law extends the feeling of love both to people and to God, and you will realize that your law too, which you call ‘natural’, is included within ours, then for us just as for you those which concern perfect love would be enough for salvation." (Coll. 2001, 55)

Abelard does not formally resolve this part of the debate. He leaves the reader to conclude that even if the philosopher respects the purpose of the Law, he is not bound by its obligations.

Philosophy and Christianity
In the second dialogue, Abelard explores the theme that their common goal is identified as ethics by the philosopher, but as divinity by the Christian. The philosopher focuses on the journey. The Christian focuses on the goal (Coll. 2001, 83). The debate enables Abelard to raise ethical concerns, based on philosophical teaching (mediated in particular through Cicero). He considers how they may relate to Christian theological reflection.

The philosopher sees virtue (distinguished by Cicero as prudence, justice, courage, and temperance) as the only way to achieve happiness. The Christian identifies caritas (love) as the foundation of the virtues, which may not be equal in all people. The Christian agrees that justice, courage and temperance (in all of which prudence is present) are central to human perfection. He states that positive law, like the commandments in Scripture, encourage growth in virtue, though the acts they command are not good or bad in themselves. The dialogue ends with a debate about the highest good -- that by which a person is made better.

Abelard argues that the vision of God, the supreme good, should not be interpreted in physical terms. Rather, it should be interpreted as a spiritual awareness, in the same way as the suffering of hell should not be interpreted as a physical fire (Coll. 2001, 195). Abelard never gives the Christian the opportunity to explain how the supreme good should be acquired. Instead Abelard has the Christian reflect on how Christ's death, which might seem to be a supreme evil, could yet be something good. Everything that happens is done for a good reason -- which is exactly the same theme that underpins the Historia calamitatum.


Abelard, Collationes [Coll.], ed. Giovanni Orlandi and trans. John Marenbon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).

---- Commentaria in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos [Comm. Rom.] ed. Eligius-Marie Buytaert, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaeualis [CCCM] 11 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969).

---- Confessio fidei ‘Universis’, ed. Charles S. F. Burnett, "Peter Abelard, Confessio fidei ‘Universis’: A Critical Edition of Abelard’s Reply to Accusations of Heresy," Mediaeval Studies 48 (1986):111-38.

---- Ethica, Peter Abelard’s Ethics, ed. David E. Luscombe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

---- Historia calamitatum, ed. Jacques Monfrin (Paris: Vrin, 1978); trans. Betty Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1974).

---- Opera Omnia, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina 178 (Paris: Garnier, 1885).

---- Sic et Non [SN] ed. Blanche Boyer and Richard McKeon, ed., Peter Abailard, Sic et Non: A Critical Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976-77).

---- Soliloquium, ed. Charles S. F. Burnett, "Peter Abelard, ‘Soliloquium’. A Critical Edition," Studi Medievali 3a Ser. 25 (1984), 857-94.

–---- Theologia Christiana [TChr], ed. Eligius-Marie Buytaert, CCCM 12 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), 72-372.

---- Theologia "Scholarium" [TSch], ed. Eligius-Marie Buytaert and Constant J. Mews, CCCM 13 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1987), 313-549.

---- Theologia "Summi boni" [TSum], ed. Eligius-Marie Buytaert and Constant J. Mews, CCCM 13 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1987), 85-201.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Omnia Opera, 8 vols (Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1953-80).

Mews, Constant J., The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

---- "The Council of Sens (1141): Bernard, Abelard and the Fear of Social Upheaval," Speculum 77.2 (2002), 342-82.

---- "William of Champeaux, Abelard, and Hugh of Saint-Victor: Platonism, Theology, and Scripture in Early Twelfth-Century France" , in Bibel und Exegese in Sankt Viktor zu Paris. Formen und Funktionen eines Grundtextes in europäischem Rahmen, ed. Rainer Berndt (Corpus Victorinum. Instrumenta), Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2009.

Poirel, Dominique, Livre de la nature et débat trinitaire au XIIe siècle: le De tribus diebus de Hugues de Saint-Victor (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002).

Thierry of Chartres, Commentaries on Boethius by Thierry of Chartres and his School, ed. Nikolaus Häring (Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, 1971).

Further Reading

Brower, Jeffrey E. and Kevin Guilfoy (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Abelard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Clanchy, Michael T., Abelard. A Medieval Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

Jolivet, Jean, Arts du langage et théologie chez Abélard (Paris : Vrin, 1969).

Luscombe, David E., The School of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

Marenbon, John, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

---- The Legacy of Abelard (Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2001).

---- Reason and Belief in the Age of Roscelin and Abelard (Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2002).

---- Abelard and Heloise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Sweeney, Eileen, Logic, Theology, and Poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).