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Peter Abelard (Lt: Petrus Abaelardus or Abailard; Fr: Pierre Abélard) (1079 – April 21, 1142) was a medieval Frenchmarker scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician. The story of his affair with and love for Héloïse has become legendary. The Chambers Biographical Dictionary describes him as "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century".



Abelard, originally called 'Pierre le Pallet' was born in the little village of Le Palletmarker, about 10 miles east of Nantesmarker, in Brittany, the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. As a boy, he learned quickly, being encouraged by his father, he studied the liberal arts and excelled at the art of dialectic (a branch of philosophy), which, at that time, consisted chiefly of the logic of Aristotle transmitted through Latin channels. Instead of entering a military career, as his father had done, Abelard became an academic. During his early academic pursuits, Abelard wandered throughout France, debating and learning, so as (in his own words) "he became such as one as the Peripatetics." The nominalist Roscellinus of Compiegnemarker was his teacher during this period.

Rise to fame

Abelard's travels finally brought him to Parismarker while still in his teens. There, in the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris, he was taught for a while by William of Champeaux, the disciple of Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with Saint Anselm) a leading proponent of Realism. It was during this time that he changed his surname to "Abélard", sometimes written "Abailard" or "Abaelardus". He was soon able to defeat the master in argument, resulting in a long duel that ended in the downfall of the philosophic theory of Realism, till then dominant in the early Middle Ages (to be replaced by Abelard's Conceptualism, or by Nominalism, the principal rival of Realism prior to Abelard). First, against opposition from the metropolitan teacher, while yet only twenty-two, Abelard set up a school of his own at Melun, then, for more direct competition, he moved to Corbeil, nearer Paris.

The success of his teaching was notable, though for a time he had to give it up, the strain proving too great for his constitution. On his return, after 1108, he found William lecturing at Saint-Victor, just outside the Ile-de-la-cite, and there they once again became rivals. Abelard was once more victorious, and now stood supreme. William was only temporarily able to prevent him from lecturing in Paris. From Melun, where he had resumed teaching, Abelard went on to the capital, and set up his school on the heights of Montagne Sainte-Genevièvemarker, overlooking Notre-Dame. From his success in dialectic, he next turned to theology and attended the lectures of Anselm at Laonmarker. His triumph was complete; the pupil was able to give lectures, without previous training or special study, which were acknowledged superior to those of the master. Abelard was now at the height of his fame. He stepped into the chair at Notre-Dame, being also nominated canon, about the year 1115.

Distinguished in figure and manners, Abelard was seen surrounded by crowds — it is said thousands of students — drawn from all countries by the fame of his teaching. Enriched by the offerings of his pupils, and entertained with universal admiration, he came, as he says, to think himself the only undefeated philosopher in the world. But a change in his fortunes was at hand. In his devotion to science, he had always lived a very regular life, enlivened only by philosophical debate: now, at the height of his fame, he encountered romance.

  1. Though it was located on the same spot in the Île de la Citémarker, the cathedral of Abelard's time was not the same as the cathedral we see today. Construction on the current Notre-Dame de Parismarker would not be begun until 1163.


Abélard and Héloïse depicted in a 14th century manuscript

Living within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the canon Fulbert, was Héloïse. She was remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew. Abélard sought a place in Fulbert's house, then seduced Héloïse. The affair interfered with his career, and Abélard himself boasted of his conquest. Once Fulbert found out, they were separated, but met in secret. Héloïse became pregnant and was sent by Abélard to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son she named Astrolabe after the scientific instrument.

To appease Fulbert, Abélard proposed a secret marriage in order not to mar his career prospects. Héloïse initially opposed it, but the couple married. When Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, and Héloïse denied it, she went to the convent of Argenteuil at Abélard's urging. Fulbert, believing that Abélard wanted to be rid of Héloïse, had him castrated, effectively ending Abélard's career. Héloïse was forced to become a nun. Héloïse sent letters to Abélard, questioning why she must submit to a religious life for which she had no calling.

According to historian Constant Mews in his The Lost Love Letters of Héloïse and Abélard, a set of 113 anonymous love letters found in a fifteenth century manuscript represent the correspondence exchanged by Héloïse and Abelard during the earlier phase of their affair.

Later life

It was in the Abbey of Saint-Denismarker that Abélard, now aged forty, sought to bury himself as a monk with his woes out of sight. Finding no respite in the cloister, and having gradually turned again to study, he gave in to urgent entreaties, and reopened his school at an unknown priory. His lectures, now framed in a devotional spirit, were once again heard by crowds of students, and his old influence seemed to have returned, but he still had many enemies against whom he could make less vigorous opposition.

No sooner had he published his theological lectures (the Theologia 'Summi Boni') than his adversaries picked up on his rationalistic interpretation of the Trinitarian dogma. Charging him with the heresy of Sabellius in a provincial synod held at Soissonsmarker in 1121, they obtained through irregular procedures an official condemnation of his teaching, and he was made to burn his book before being shut up in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons. It was the bitterest possible experience that could befall him.

Life in his own monastery proved no more congenial than before. For this Abélard himself was partly responsible. He took a sort of malicious pleasure in irritating the monks. As if for the sake of a joke, he cited Bede to prove that Dionysius the Areopagite had been Bishop of Corinth, while they relied upon the statement of the Abbot Hilduin that he had been Bishop of Athens. When this historical heresy led to the inevitable persecution, Abélard wrote a letter to the Abbot Adam in which he preferred to the authority of Bede that of Eusebius of Caesarea's Historia Ecclesiastica and St. Jerome, according to whom Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, was distinct from Dionysius the Areopagite, bishop of Athens and founder of the abbey, though, in deference to Bede, he suggested that the Areopagite might also have been bishop of Corinth.

Life in the monastery grew intolerable for Abélard, and he was finally allowed to leave. In a deserted place near Nogent-sur-Seinemarker, he built a cabin of stubble and reeds, and became a hermit. When his retreat became known, students flocked from Paris, and covered the wilderness around him with their tents and huts. When he began to teach again, he found consolation and in gratitude he consecrated the new Oratory of the Paraclete.

Fearing new persecution, Abélard left the Oratory to find another refuge, accepting an invitation to preside over the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys on the far-off shore of Lower Brittany. The region was inhospitable, the domain a prey to outlaws, the house itself savage and disorderly. Yet for nearly ten years he continued to struggle against fate before he left.

The misery of those years was lightened because he had been able, on the breaking up of Héloïse's convent at Argenteuil, to establish her as head of a new religious house at the deserted Paraclete, and in the capacity of spiritual director he often was called to revisit the spot thus made doubly dear to him.

During this time Héloïse had lived respectably and grown in stature within the religious community, where she would eventually become abbess.

Living on for some time apart (unknown exactly where), after his flight from the Abbey of St Gildas, Abélard wrote, among other things, his famous Historia Calamitatum. This moved Héloïse to write her first Letter, which remains an unsurpassed utterance of human passion and womanly devotion; the first being followed by the two other Letters, in which she finally accepted the part of resignation, which, now as a brother to a sister, Abélard commended to her.

Astrolabe, the son of Abelard and Héloïse, is mentioned by Peter the Venerable of Cluny, where Abelard spent his last years, when Peter the Venerable wrote to Heloise: "I will gladly do my best to obtain a prebend in one of the great churches for your Astrolabe, who is also ours for your sake". A 'Petrus Astralabius' is recorded at the Cathedral of Nantesmarker in 1150, and the same name appears at the Cistercian abbey at Hauterivemarker in what is now Switzerlandmarker, but it is uncertain whether this is the same man. However, Astrolabe is recorded as dying at Paraclete on October 29 or 30, year unknown, appearing in the necrology as "Petrus Astralabius magistri nostri Petri filius"."

By 1136, when he was heard by John of Salisbury, Abélard returned to the site of his early triumphs, lecturing on Mount St. Genevieve, but only for a brief time: a last trial awaited him. As far back as the Paraclete days, his chief enemy had been Bernard of Clairvaux, in whom was incarnated the principle of fervent and unhesitating faith, to which rational inquiry like Abélard's was sheer revolt, and now the uncompromising Bernard moved to crush the growing evil in the person of the boldest offender.

In 1141, after preliminary negotiations, in which Bernard was roused by Abélard's steadfastness to put forth all his strength, a council met at Sens, before which Abélard, formally arraigned upon a number of heretical charges, prepared to plead his cause. When, however, Bernard had opened the case, Abélard appealed to Rome. Bernard, who had power to get a condemnation passed at the council, did not rest until a second condemnation was procured at Rome in the following year.


Meanwhile, on his way to urge his plea in person in Rome, Abélard remained at the abbey of Clunymarker, and there he lingered only a few months before the approach of death. Removed by friends, for the relief of his sufferings, to the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saonemarker, Abélard died. He is said to have uttered the last words "I don't know," before expiring.

Composite image of the tomb of Abelard et Héloïse and various details

First buried at St. Marcel, his remains were soon carried off secretly to the Paraclete, and given over to the loving care of Héloïse, who in time came herself to rest beside them in 1163. Their tomb is found in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris.

Disputed resting place/lovers' pilgrimage

The bones of the pair were moved more than once afterwards, but they were preserved even through the vicissitudes of the French Revolution, and now are presumed to lie in the well-known tomb in the cemetery of Père Lachaisemarker in eastern Paris. The transfer of their remains there in 1817 is considered to have considerably contributed to the popularity of that cemetery, at the time still far outside the built-up area of Paris. By tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt, in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love.
Dedicatory panel.

There is dissent as to their actual resting place. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims Abélard and Héloïse are buried on their site and that what exists in Père-Lachaise is merely a monument, or cenotaphmarker. According to Père-Lachaise, the remains of both lovers were transferred from the Oratory in the early 1800s and reburied in the famous crypt on their grounds. There are still others who believe that while Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père-Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.


Philosophical work

The general importance of Abelard lies in his having fixed more decisively than anyone before him the scholastic manner of philosophizing, with the object of giving a formally rational expression to received ecclesiastical doctrine. However his own particular interpretations may have been condemned, they were conceived in essentially the same spirit as the general scheme of thought afterwards elaborated in the 13th century with approval from the heads of the Church.

He helped to establish the ascendancy of the philosophical authority of Aristotle which became firmly established in the half-century after his death. It was at this time that the completed Organon, and gradually all the other works of the Greek thinker, first came to be available in the schools. Before his time Plato's authority was the basis for the prevailing Realism. As regards his so-called Conceptualism and his attitude to the question of Universals, see Scholasticism.

Outside of his dialectic, it was in ethics that Abelard showed greatest activity of philosophical thought. He laid particular stress upon the subjective intention as determining, if not the moral character, at least the moral value, of human action. His thought in this direction, anticipating something of modern speculation, is the more remarkable because his scholastic successors accomplished least in the field of morals, hardly venturing to bring the principles and rules of conduct under pure philosophical discussion, even after the great ethical inquiries of Aristotle became fully known to them.

Pope Innocent III accepted Abelard's Doctrine of Limbo, which amended Augustine of Hippo's Doctrine of Original Sin. The Vatican accepted the view that unbaptized babies did not, as at first believed, go straight to Hell but to a special area of limbo, "limbus infantium". They would therefore feel no pain but no supernatural happiness either (only natural) because, it was held, they would not be able to see the deity that created them.


Abelard was an enormous influence on his contemporaries and the course of medieval thought, but he has been known in modern times mainly for his connection with Héloïse. It was not till the 19th century, when Cousin in 1836 issued the collection entitled Ouvrages inedits d'Abelard, that his philosophical performance could be judged at first hand. Only one of his strictly philosophical works, the ethical treatise Scito te ipsum, had been published earlier, in 1721.

Cousin's collection gave extracts from the theological work Sic et Non ("Yes and No") which is an assemblage of opposite opinions on doctrinal points culled from the Fathers as a basis for discussion, the main interest in which lies in the fact that there is no attempt to reconcile the different opinions. Cousin's collection also includes the Dialectica, commentaries on logical works of Aristotle, Porphyry and Boethius, and a fragment, De Generibus et Speciebus.

The last-named work, and also the psychological treatise De Intellectibus, published separately by Cousin (in Fragmens Philosophiques, vol. ii.), are now considered upon internal evidence not to be by Abelard himself, but only to have sprung out of his school. A genuine work, the Glossulae super Porphyrium, from which Charles de Rémusat has given extracts in his classical monograph Abélard (1845), was published in 1930.

Primary Works

  • Logica ingredientibus (Logic for Beginners) completed before 1121 (the most important logical work)
  • Petri Abaelardi Glossae in Porphyrium (The Glosses of Peter Abailard on Porphyry) ca. 1120
  • Dialectica, before 1125 (1115-1116 according to John Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, Cambridge University Press 1997)
  • Logica nostrorum petitioni sociorum (Logic in response to the request of our comrades) ca. 1124-1125
  • Tractatus de intellectibus (A treatise on understanding) before 1128
  • Sic et Non (A list of quotations from Christian authorities on philosophical and theological questions)
  • Theologia 'Summi Boni', Theologia christiana, and Theologia 'scholarium'. His main work on systematic theology written between 1120 and 1140, and appeared in a number of versions under a number of titles (shown in chronological order).
  • Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, 1136–1139
  • Ethics or Know Yourself (Ethica or Scito Te Ipsum), before 1140
  • Historia calamitatum (The story of my misfortunes), Autobiography in epistolary form. Available at Fordham Medieval Sourcebook [271120]
  • Abelard & Heloise: The Letters and other Writings, translated with introduction and notes, by William Levitan, 2007, ISBN 978-0-87220-875-9.


Abelard was also long known as an important poet and composer. Abelard composed some celebrated love songs for Héloïse that are now lost, and which have not been identified in the anonymous repertoire. Héloïse praised these songs in a letter: "The great charm and sweetness in language and music, and a soft attractiveness of the melody obliged even the unlettered".

Abelard later composed a hymn book for the religious community that Héloïse joined. This hymn book, written after 1130, differed from contemporary hymnals, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux, in that Abelard used completely new and homogeneous material. They were grouped by metre, which meant that comparatively few melodies could be used. Only one melody from this hymnal survives, O quanta qualia.

Abelard also left six biblical planctus (laments), which were very original and influenced the subsequent development of the lai, a song form that flourished in northern Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Melodies that have survived have been praised as "flexible, expressive melodies [that] show an elegance and technical adroitness that are very similar to the qualities that have been long admired in Abelard's poetry."

See also

William of St-Thierry

Cultural references


  • . Charles de Remusat's Abelard remains an authority; it must be distinguished from his drama Abelard (1877), which is an attempt to give a picture of medieval life.
  • Chevalier, Ulysse. "Abailard" in Repertoire des sources historiques du moyen age. Paris: Societe bibliographique, 1877-1903. A comprehensive bibliography.


  1. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 3
  2. Betty Radice (trans.), The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 287
  3. Enid McLeod, Héloise (London: Chatto & Windus, 2nd edn., 1971, pp. 253, 283-84

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