Abélard and Héloïse (12th century). Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

theologian, philosopher, poet; student, abbess
Pierre Abélard (1079–1142) is remembered as the
most important philosopher and logician of 12thcentury
France, and Héloïse as his most famous
student. Abélard was born to a noble Breton family
but gave up the life of a knight for the life of a
scholar, devoting himself to the study of philosophy,
rhetoric, and logic, or dialectic. Education in
Abélard’s day was administered by the Church, and
he most likely studied PLATO and ARISTOTLE
through the work of BOETHIUS. He was an enormously
popular teacher due to his technique of
disputatio, or argumentation, and he traveled
widely, attracting students from all over the world.
Around 1113, Abélard decided to study theology
under Anselm of Laon, then returned to the
school at Notre Dame to teach. For Abélard, logic
was the only way to reach understanding. Around
1105 he began writing his Glosses on Logic, which
were separated into Greater and Lesser volumes
and completed about 1130. In Paris he began
working on two of his most influential treatises, Sic
et Non (Yes and No) and Theologica Summi Boni
(On the Divine Unity), written between 1118 and
1120. Sic et Non, structured as a list of questions
with both yes and no answers, outlines Abélard’s
scholastic method and its tools of argumentation,
inquiry, and example.
The years following Abélard’s entry into St.
Denis were his most productive in terms of writing;
he published several commentaries, Treatise on
Understandings (1122–25), Introduction to Theology
(1125–30), and a disposition on Dialectic,
which he worked on continuously between 1130
and 1140. During this time, Abélard, always a controversial
figure, came under suspicion of heresy
for certain points in his Theologica. The public
condemnation and the burning of his books
proved to be the second most calamitous event of
Abélard’s life.
The three most important works of his later life
were his Theologica Christiana (Christian Theology,
1134–38); Dialogue between a Philosopher, a
Christian, and a Jew; and his Ethics, or Know Thyself,
both written between 1138 and 1142.While
the later Theologica shows Abélard’s intimacy with
Christian doctrine, the Dialogue, structured as a
discussion between three voices on the nature of
good and the necessity of virtue to happiness,
shows his familiarity with Judaism and Islam. In
Ethics, he daringly proposes that virtue or sin lie
in the intention behind an act and not in the act itself.
This ethic of intention, which he shared with
Héloïse, unsettled traditional theologians but has
kindled the imagination of many subsequent
Abélard’s contributions as a teacher and logician
are frequently overshadowed by his doomed
love affair with Héloïse, whom he began to tutor at
Paris sometime before 1119. She had been previously
educated at the convent of Argenteuil and
had developed a reputation for intelligence and
beauty, and the two quickly began a passionate affair.
At the insistence of her uncle, they married,
but when Héloïse returned to Argenteuil, her
uncle, believing she had been abandoned, had
Abélard beaten and castrated. The assault
prompted Héloïse to take vows as a nun, and in
1128 she became prioress of the Paraclete, the religious
institution that Abélard had founded.
The surviving correspondence between Abélard
and Héloïse begins in 1132, after she had read his
History of My Calamities. The first four letters of
the collection, called the “personal letters,” discuss
their love affair from all angles and reveal Héloïse
as a passionate and highly intelligent woman as
skilled in the art of rhetoric as her teacher.Within
these letters, both lovers cite the BIBLE as often as
they quote scholars like AUGUSTINE or Latin writers
like OVID, and they logically analyze their beliefs on
marriage, human and divine love, and spirituality.
The “letters of direction,” which complete the collection,
include deeply philosophical contemplation,
outlines for a reformed religious order, and
poems and prayers Abélard writes that the nuns
may say on his behalf.
Despite Abélard and Héloïse’s rhetorical sophistication
and philosophical skills, later writers JEAN
DE MEUN and Petrarch remembered them as
doomed lovers similar to Anthony and Cleopatra
of Julius CAESAR’s time or Shakespeare’s Romeo
and Juliet. Yet Héloïse’s service as prioress made
her widely beloved in her community, and Abélard
has been called the first modern thinker, whose
philosophy formed the basis of empiricism.
English Versions of Works by
Abélard and Héloïse
Abélard, Peter. Ethical Writings. Translated by Paul
Vincent Spade. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Company, 1995.
Abélard and Héloïse. The Letters of Abélard and
Héloïse. Translated by Betty Radice. New York:
Penguin, 1974.
Works about Abélard and Héloïse
Clanchy, M. T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
Marenbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard.
Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press,
Meade, Marion. Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of
Heloise and Abelard. New York: Soho Press, 1994.