Abelard went (c.1100) to Paris to study under William of Champeaux at the school of Notre Dame and soon attacked the ultrarealist position of his master with such success that William was forced to modify his teaching. Abelard became master at Notre Dame but, when deprived of his place, set himself up (1112) at a school on Mont-Ste-Geneviève, just outside the city walls. Abelard's fame as a dialectician attracted great numbers of students to Paris. This part of his career was cut short by his romance with Heloise, d. c.1164, the learned niece of Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame, who had hired Abelard as her tutor.
After Heloise bore a son, a secret marriage was held to appease her uncle. Fulbert's ill-treatment of Heloise led Abelard to remove her secretly to the convent at Argenteuil. Fulbert, who thought that Abelard planned to abandon her, had ruffians attack and emasculate him. Abelard sought refuge at Saint-Denis where he became a monk. In 1120 he left Saint-Denis to teach. At the instigation of his rivals, the Council of Soissons had his first theological work burned as heretical (1121). After a short imprisonment, he returned to Saint-Denis but fell out with the monks and built a hermitage near Troyes. To house the students who sought him out, he established a monastery, the Paraclete. When Abelard became abbot at Saint-Gildas-en-Rhuys, Brittany, he gave the Paraclete to Heloise, who became an abbess of a convent there.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux thought Abelard's influence dangerous and secured his condemnation by the Council of Sens (1140). Abelard appealed to the pope, who upheld the council. Abelard submitted and retired to Cluny. He was buried at the Paraclete, as was Heloise; their bodies were later moved to Père-Lachaise in Paris. The events of his life are chronicled in his autobiographical Historia calamitatum and revealed in the poignant letters of Heloise and Abelard (tr. by B. Radice, 1974), which for almost 800 years consisted of five of his letters and three of hers.
In 1980 a scholar examining a 15th-century letter-writing manual discovered that 113 unattributed fragments of love letters contained in a section of the book had actually been written by Abelard and Heloise during their affair. These letters have added to, but not changed, the understanding of the characters of each of the lovers and of their romance's rare and intense blend of the intellectual and the erotic.
A theological Platonist, Abelard emphasized Aristotle's dialectic method. His belief that the methods of logic could be applied to the truths of faith was in opposition to the mysticism of St. Bernard. He also opposed the extreme views of William of Champeaux and Roscelin on the problems of universals. His own solution, in which universals are considered as entities existent only in thought but with a basis in particulars, is called moderate realism and to some extent anticipates the conceptualism of St. Thomas Aquinas.
His most influential work was Sic et non, a collection of contradictory selections from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. In his introduction to Sic et non, Abelard set a method of resolving these apparent contradictions, thereby making the work significant for the development of the scholastic method. This work formed the basis for the widely read Sentences of Peter Lombard, who may have been Abelard's pupil. Abelard was perhaps most important as a teacher; among his pupils were some of the celebrated men of the 12th cent., including John of Salisbury and Arnold of Brescia. Of Abelard's poetry only Latin hymns survive.
See D. E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard (1969); D. W. Robertson, Jr., Abelard and Heloise (1972); R. Pernoud, Heloise and Abelard (tr. 1973); C. J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (2001); J. Burge, Heloise & Abelard (2004).
(born 1079, Le Pallet, near Nantes, Brittany—died April 21, 1142, Priory of Saint-Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saône, Burgundy) French theologian and philosopher. The son of a knight, he abandoned his inheritance to study philosophy. He became private tutor to Héloïse, niece of a canon in Paris, circa 1114. They fell in love; Héloïse became pregnant, and they married secretly. Her uncle had Abelard castrated, after which he became a monk and Héloïse became a nun. Abelard's Theologia was condemned as heretical in 1121. He accepted election as abbot of a monastery in Brittany in 1125, but his relations with the community deteriorated and he had to flee for his life. From circa 1135 Abelard taught at Mont-Sainte-Geneviève, where he wrote Ethica, in which he analyzed the notion of sin. In 1140 he was again condemned for heresy, and he withdrew to the monastery at Cluny. His influential Sic et non, a collection of apparently contradictory writings by church fathers on various topics, was intended to bring readers to the truth by wrestling with divergent opinions. He also wrote an autobiography, Historia calamitatum, and his best-known work is the series of letters he exchanged with Héloïse after they retired to monasteries.
Learn more about Abelard, Peter with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Peter Abelard (Lt: Petrus Abaelardus or Abailard; Fr: Pierre Abélard) (1079 – April 21, 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician. The story of his affair with and love for his student Héloïse has become legendary.
Abelard's travels finally brought him to Paris 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 "Abelard", 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-Geneviève, overlooking Notre-Dame. From his success in dialectic, he next turned to theology and attended the lectures of Anselm at Laon. 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.
Living within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the canon Fulbert, was Héloïse. She is said to have been beautiful, but was more 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 found herself 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, castrated him, effectively ending Abélard's career. Héloïse was forced to become a nun. Héloïse sent letters to Abélard, questioning why she must submit to a religous 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.
Abelard, fearing new persecution, 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 with 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. All this time Héloïse had lived respectably. Living on for some time apart (we do not know exactly where), after his flight from the Abbey of St Gildas, Abelard wrote, among other things, his famous Historia Calamitatum, and thus moved her 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, Abelard commended to her. He had returned to the site of his early triumphs lecturing on Mount St. Genevieve by 1136 (when he was heard by John of Salisbury), but it was only for a brief time: a last great 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 Abelard's was sheer revolt, and now the uncompromising Bernard was moving to crush the growing evil in the person of the boldest offender. After preliminary negotiations, in which Bernard was roused by Abelard's steadfastness to put forth all his strength, a council met at Sens (1141), before which Abelard, formally arraigned upon a number of heretical charges, was prepared to plead his cause. When, however, Bernard had opened the case, suddenly Abelard appealed to Rome. Bernard, who had power, notwithstanding, to get a condemnation passed at the council, did not rest a moment till a second condemnation was procured at Rome in the following year. Meanwhile, on his way there to urge his plea in person, Abelard collapsed at the abbey of Cluny, 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-Saone, he died. He is said to have uttered the last words "I don't know" before expiring. 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 (1163).
There seems, however, to be some dissent as to their actual resting place. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims he and Héloïse are buried on their site and that what exists in Père-Lachaise is merely a monument, or cenotaph. 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.
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.