Medieval France. An Encyclopedia

(Darren Dugan) #1

Venerable offered Abélard a refuge at Cluny. According to Peter, Bernard and Abélard
were reconciled before Abélard died in April 1142 at Saint-Marcel, a Cluniac priory near
While teaching in the schools of Paris, Abélard became involved in a passionate love
affair with Héloïse, possibly the niece and certainly the ward of Fulbert, canon of the
cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Fulbert engaged Abélard to tutor the brilliant Héloïse,
but the two were soon making love, not studying philosophy. Héloïse became pregnant;
Fulbert, unsatisfied by the secret marriage of Abélard and Héloïse, had Abélard castrated.
Abélard and Héloïse entered the monastic life in 1119, she at the convent of Argenteuil,
near Paris, he at the monastery of Saint-Denis, also near Paris. At Saint-Denis, Abélard
began teaching again, at the request of students. He earned the monks’ enmity by
suggesting that the St. Denis to whom their abbey was dedicated was not the same as the
mystical author Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an identification generally accepted in
the 12th century.
Abélard’s Historia calamitatum chronicles the love affair and its aftermath,
particularly Abélard’s career. A subsequent series of letters exchanged between Abélard
and Héloïse reveals her deep attachment to him, his grow ing concern for her and her
sister nuns, and his efforts to provide them with sermons, hymns, and a monastic rule.
The authenticity of the correspondence has been challenged in recent years, but the
consensus is that the letters represent a genuine exchange between Abélard and Héloïse.
Abélard finally left Saint-Denis and built a hermitage dedicated to the Paraclete at a
remote spot near Troyes, where he taught students who sought him out. He later gave the
land and buildings to Héloïse and her sister nuns for a convent after they were ejected
from Argenteuil by Suger of Saint-Denis. In 1126, Abélard became abbot of Saint-Gildas
de Rhuys in Brittany; after an abortive attempt to reform this lax monastic establishment,
he fled, probably to Paris and the schools.
An accomplished master of dialectic (logic), Abélard pushed vigorously for
questioning in the field of theology, with the goal of arriving at truth through a rigorous
examination of conflicting opinions drawn from Scripture and authoritative writings
(Augustine, Gregory the Great and other popes, church councils). This approach received
classic expression in Sic et non. Here, Abélard posed 158 theological questions, gathered
statements from the tradition favoring each side of the question, but offered no solution
(sententia) of the differences in position.
In ethics, Abélard taught a doctrine of intentionality and disinterested love. In Scito te
ipsum, Abélard argues that the actual deed is morally indifferent; the key to ethical
behavior is the intention with which the deed is carried out.
Concerning the doctrine of Christ’s atonement, Abélard set forth in his commentary on
the Epistle to the Romans a distinctive teaching, often called a “subjective” theory.
Abélard argued that the effect of Christ’s death was not an “objective” change in the
relation of God and humanity (in light of human sin) as presented in Anselm of Bec’s
Cur Deus homo. Rather, Christ’s death reveals self-sacrifice and absolute self-giving
love, which evokes in the believer a response of total sacrifice and love and effects not a
cosmic transaction involving divine justice but a personal and individual transformation
of love and intention.
Among Abélard’s other writings are an unfinished Dialogus inter Philosophum,
Judaeum, et Christianum, the Confessio fidei universalis, letters, poems, forty-three

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