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Abelard and Heloise |
The costly pride of Peter Abelard

Abelard and Heloise is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 188, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The brilliant prof who dazzled the young meets catastrophe in a tragic love affair; then, amid failures, he resigns the struggle to find peace and, in posterity, fame

Abelard and Heloise - The costly pride of Peter Abelard

Abelard and Heloise - The costly pride of Peter Abelard
Abelard and Heloise, two iconic lovers seen together in this nineteenth-century painting by Edmund Blair Leighton. After spending an early life at odds with authority, Abelard surrenders and repents, meanwhile establishing Heloise as abbess of a convent. Their letters, now as between brother and sister, survive. In the century after his death his writings strongly influenced a new generation of Christian scholars.

Whether Peter Abelard was the most brilliant man of his times or a failed saint or an exhibitionist nuisance, all three views were held by his critics and admirers in the twelfth century, as they would be held by his critics and admirers in all the centuries that followed.

That his life was a tragedy, however–embracing, as it does, a tragic love affair, his repeated failure in monastic life, and the condemnation of his teaching by a church council–has been universally acknowledged. But he died at peace with God and his enemies, it is said, so perhaps his real story, if it ever be known, will not turn out to be a tragedy after all.

It begins at the little village of Palet, near Nantes in Brittany. The eldest son of a minor noble, Abelard early evidenced an extraordinary ability in dialectic (rational argument). He elected an academic career at age fifteen and entered the famed cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris, where he became so adept at the argumentative put-down that he humiliated the school’s leading philosophical authority and was asked to leave. Undiscouraged, he established his own competing school near Paris (first at Melun, then at Corbeil), where he attracted the adulation of the youngest and brightest scholars.

Within a few years he moved his school to the top of Mount Saint Genevieve, today considered more of a hill than a mountain but nevertheless symbolically looking down on the old Notre Dame. (Construction of the present cathedral did not begin for another fifty years.) By now he had switched to theology and was soon besting his own teachers in this field as well. Inevitably, he came down from the mountain in 1115 to head up the theology faculty at the cathedral school.

He was now enormously popular, his lectures attracting huge crowds, and by his own later admission he became vainer, more arrogant, and cordially detested by fellow academics. One fervent admirer, however, was a certain Heloise, niece of Canon Fulburt of the cathedral faculty. She was beautiful and rendered more attractive still, Abelard writes, by her wide knowledge of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and classical letters. Abelard became her tutor, then her lover.

When she became pregnant, he sent her to Brittany, where their son was born. Then, over Heloise’s objections (she did not want to destroy his clerical career) they were secretly married, and to escape the rage of her uncle, she took refuge in a convent.1 Canon Fulburt, believing Abelard intent on abandoning her, broke into his bedchamber one night with several companions and castrated him, thus barring him from the priesthood and episcopal office. Heloise, at Peter’s bidding, then became a nun. Their secret love letters, discovered in the fifteenth century, have since become classics.

From there, though he was still idolized by thousands, the path of the brilliant dialectician led irreversibly downward. With his position at the cathedral school already lost, he decided to become a monk at the royal Abbey of St-Denis, where he loftily informed his new colleagues that the St. Denis they revered was actually three different men conflated into one (see page 42). The monks in their fury seized on one of his scholarly papers and charged him with heresy; a provincial synod forced him to burn that paper and transferred him to an abbey at Soissons. But there, too, he took particular delight in teasing the other monks with erudite exposures of their primitive beliefs until, as he perhaps had hoped, they demanded he be sent somewhere else.

Adopting the life of a hermit, Abelard then built himself a cabin of reeds near Nogent-sur-Seine, naming the place the Oratory of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit), and students began flocking from Paris and beyond to hear him teach. However, his enemies, who were many, also discovered his whereabouts, and fearing for his safety, he asked to be sent to another monastery. He accepted the post of abbot in a wild and lawless coastal region of Brittany, where even the monks were undisciplined and uncontrollable.

In one of the rewarding triumphs of his life, however, he was then able to establish a Convent of the Paraclete on the site of his oratory and have Heloise installed as abbess. During those trying years, he also wrote his autobiography, The Story of My Calamities, attributing his downfall entirely to his pride. He describes his love life with Heloise in graphic language, but by now their relationship had become like that of a brother and sister.

But Abelard had not yet confronted his greatest challenge. This would be posed by Bernard of Clairvaux, who, though an admirer of Abelard, was persuaded to bring his writings before a church council at Sens and with telling eloquence accused him of teaching “error.” Surprisingly, Abelard did not contest the charge but instead appealed to Rome. The council, meanwhile, condemned his writings. En route to Rome to defend his case, Abelard collapsed at the abbey of Cluny, where his friend (and Bernard’s) the abbot Peter the Venerable persuaded him to quit fighting and make his peace with God and with Bernard.

This Abelard did. With death close approaching, he was moved for his comfort to the Priory of Chalon-sur-Saone and died there in 1142, at the age of sixty-three. Soon afterward his remains were removed to the Oratory of the Paraclete, where Heloise was buried beside him when she died twenty-one years later.

His influence, notes the Catholic Encyclopedia, was far greater in the thirteenth century than it was in his own, the twelfth, when the church’s rejection of some of his works and the fierce animosities inspired by the haughty sarcasm of his days of triumph still inhibited support for him. But as the years passed and the young people who thronged to read and hear him became the dominant generation, many came to emulate his approach to theology and philosophy, overlooking the fact that his vast array of scholarly work sometimes “savored” of Arianism, Pelagianism, and Nestorianism. Later admirers would hail him as the “first modern man” and as “founder” of the University of Paris–opinions that should be discounted, says the Encyclopedia.

“His intellectual independence and dialectical methods,” says the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “naturally aroused the opposition of authoritarian mystics like St. Bernard. But his influence, through his lectures, was enormous. His success came rather through the brilliance and freshness with which he handled particular problems than in the propagation of an elaborate system.” It concludes cryptically: “His distrust of authority, where it was genuinely traditional, must not be exaggerated.”

Perhaps Abelard himself best summed up his position. “I would not be a philosopher,” he wrote to Heloise, “if it implies disobedience to Paul. I would not be an Aristotle and separated from Christ. For there is none other name under heaven wherein I must be saved.”

1. Nothing definite is known of Abelard’s son, Astrolabe (named for an astronomical instrument), who, says historian Betty Radice, “played so small a part in his parents’ lives.” It seems he led a monastic life and eventually had a stipend at a cathedral secured for him by Peter the Venerable after Heloise urged the abbot to assist him.

This is the end of the Abelard and Heloise category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 188, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Abelard and Heloise from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at