Abelard, Peter

, the son of Berenger, of noble descent, was born at Palais, near Nantes, in Bretagne, in 1079. Such was the state of learning at that time, that he had no other field for the exercise of his talents, which were exceedingly promising, than the scholastic philosophy, of which he afterwards became one of the most celebrated masters. After the usual grammatical preparation, he was placed under the tuition of Rosceline, an eminent metaphysician, and the founder of the sect of the Nominalists. By his instructions, before the age of sixteen, he acquired considerable knowledge, accompanied with a subtlety of thought and fluency of speech, which throughout life gave him great advantage in his scholastic contests. His avidity to learn, however, soon induced him to leave the preceptor of his early days, and to visit the schools of several neighbouring provinces. In his 20th year, he fixed hist residence in the university of Paris, at that time the first seat of learning in Europe. His master there was William de Champeaux, an eminent philosopher, and skilful in the dialectic art. At first he was submissive and humbly attentive to de Champeaux, who repaid his assiduity by the intimacy of friendship; but the scholar soon began to contradict the opinions of the master, and obtained some victories in contending with him, which so hurt the superior feelings of the one, and inflamed the vanity of the other, that a separation became unavoidable; and Abelard, confident in his powers, opened a public school of his own, at the age of 22, at Melun, a town about ten leagues from Paris, and occasionally the residence of the court.

While Abelard confesses the ambition which induced him to take this step, it must at the same time be allowed that he had not overrated the qualifications he could bring into this new office. Notwithstanding every kind of obstacle which the jealous de Champeaux contrived to throw in his way, his school was no sooner opened than it was attended by crowded and admiring auditories; and, as this farther advanced his fame, he determined to remove his school to Corbeil, near Paris, where he could maintain an open contest with his old rival. This was accordingly executed; the disputations were frequent and animated; Abelard proved victorious, and de Champeaux was compelled to retire with considerable loss of popular reputation. After an absence of two years spent in his native country for the | recovery of his health, which had been impaired by the intenseness of his studious preparations, and the vehemence and agitation incident to such disputes, Abelarjl found, on his return to Corbeil, that de Champeaux had taken the monastic habit among the regular canons in the convent of St. Victor, but that he still taught rhetoric and logic, and held public disputations in theology. On this he immediately renewed his contests, and with such success, that the scholars of his antagonist came over in crowds to him, and even the new professor, who had taken the former school of de Champeaux, voluntarily surrendered the chair to our young philosopher, and even requested to be enrolled among his disciples. De Champeaux, irritated at a mortification so public and so decisive, employed his interest to obtain the appointment of a new professor, and to drive Abelard back to Melun. Means like these, however, even in an age not remarkable for liberality, were not likely to serve de Champeaux’s cause; and the consequence was, that even his friends were ashamed of his conduct, and he was under the necessity of retiring from the convent into the country. Abelard then returned to Paris, took a new station at the abbey on Mount Genevieve, and soon attracted to his school the pupils of the new professor. De Champeaux, returning to his monastery, made another feeble attempt, which ended in another victory on the part of his rival, but being soon after made bishop of Chalons, a termination was put to their contests.

Abelard now determined to quit the study and profession of philosophy, which he appears to have pursued, at least i|> a great measure, out of opposition to the fame of his old master, and turned his thoughts to theology. Accordingly, leaving his school at St. Genevieve, he removed to Laon, to become a scholar of Anselm; but his expectations from this celebrated master seem to have been disappointed, as he speaks of his abilities very slightingly. This probably roused his early ambition to excel his teachers; for, on a challenge being given him by some of Anselm’s scholars, to explain the beginning of the prophecy of Ezekiel, he next morning performed this in such a manner as to excite the highest admiration. At the request of his audience, he continued for several successive days his lectures on that prophecy, until Anselm prohibited him, lest so young a lecturer might fall into mistakes, which would bring discredit upon his master. Abelard thought proper | to obey the prohibition, but could not so easily relinquish the new path to fame which he had so favourably opened, and went immediately to Paris, where he repeated these lectures on Ezekiel. His auditors were delighted, his school was crowded with scholars; and from this time he united in his lectures the sciences of theology and philosophy, with so much reputation, that multitudes repaired to him, not only from various parts of France, but from Spain, Italy, Germany, Flanders, and Great Britain.

An incident now occurred in his life, which has given him more popular renown than his abilities as a philosopher, a theologian, or a writer, could have conferred, but which has thrown a melancholy shade on his moral character. About this time, there was resident in Paris, Heloise, the niece of Fulbert, one of the canons of the cathedral church, a lady about eighteen years of age, of great personal beauty, and highly celebrated for her literary attainments. Abelard, who was now at the sober age of 40, conceived an illicit passion for this young lady, flattering himself that his personal attractions were yet irresistible. Fulbert, who thought himself honoured by the visits of so eminent a scholar and philosopher, while he had any reason to place them to his own account, welcomed him to his house, as a learned friend whose conversation might be instructive to his niece, and was therefore easily prevailed upon, by a handsome payment which Abelard offered for his board, to admit him into his family as an inmate. When this was -concluded upon, as he apprehended no danger from one of Abelard’s age and gravity, he requested him to devote some portion of his leisure to the instruction of Heloise, at the same time granting him full permission to treat her in all respects as his pupil. Abelard accepted the trust, and, we gather from his own evidence, with no other intention than to betray it. “I was no less surprized,” he says, “than if the canon had delivered up a tender lamb to a famished wolf,” &c. In this infamous design he succeeded but too well, and appears to have corrupted her mind, as, amidst the rage of her uncle, and the reflections which would naturally be made on such a transaction, every other sentiment in her breast was absorbed in a romantic and indecent passion for her seducer. Upon her pregnancy being discovered, it was thought necessary for her to quit her uncle’s house, and Abelard conveyed her to Bretagne, where she was delivered of a son, to whom they gave the | name of Astrolabus, or Astrolabius. Abelard now proposed to Fulbert to marry his niece, provided the marriage might be kept secret, and Fulbert consented; but Heloise, partly out of regard to the interest of Abelard, whose profession bound him to celibacy, and partly from a less honourable notion, that love like hers ought not to submit to ordinary restraints, at first gave a peremptory refusal. Abelard, however, at last prevailed, and they were privately married at Paris; but in this state they did not experience the happy effects of mutual reconciliation. The uncle wished to disclose the marriage, but Heloise denied it; and from tbis time he treated her with such unkindness as furnished Abelard with a sufficient plea for removing her from his house, and placing her in the abbey of Benedictine nuns, in which she had been originally educated. Fulbert, while he gave the provocation, pretended that Abelard had taken this step in order to rid himself of an incumbrance which obstructed his future prospects. Deep resentment took possession of his soul, and he meditated revenge; in the pursuit of which he employed some ruffians to enter Abelard’s chamber by night, and inflict upon his person a disgraceful and cruel mutilation, which was accordingly perpetrated. The ruffians, however, were apprehended, and punished according to the law of retaliation; and Fulbert was deprived of his benefice, and his goods confiscated.

Abelard, unable to support his mortifying reflections, and probably those of his enemies, resolved to retire to a convent; but first, with a selfishness which seems to have been characteristic in him, insisted upon Heloise’s promising to devote herself to religion. She accordingly submitted, and professed herself in the abbey of Argenteuil. Her romantic ardour of affection supported her through this sacrifice, and seems never to have forsaken her to the latest moment of her life. A few days after she had taken her vows, Abelard assumed a monastic habit in the abbey of St. Denys; but, upon the earnest solicitations of his admirers and scholars, he resumed his lectures at a small village in the country, and with his usual popularity. His rival professors, however, soon discovered an opportunity of bringing him under ecclesiastical censures. A treatise which he published about this time, entitled, “The Theology of Abelard,” was said to contain some heretical tenets respecting the Trinity. The work was accordingly | presented to the archbishop of Rheims as heretical; and, in a synod called at Soissons in the year 1121, it was condemned to be burnt by the author’s own hand: he was further enjoined to read, as his confession of faith, the Athanasian creed, and was ordered to be confined in the convent of St. Medard; but this arbitrary proceeding excited such general dissatisfaction, that, after a short imprisonment, he was permitted to return to St. Denys. But here, too, his enemies endeavoured to bring him into new disgrace. Having read in Bede’s Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles that Denys (Dionysius) the Areopagite was not Bishop of Athens, but of Corinth, he ventured this passage as a proof, that the patron of the convent, and of the French nation, was not, as commonly believed, the Areopagite, but another St. Dionysius, bishop of Athens. A violent ferment was immediately raised in the convent; and Abelard, being accused to the bishop and the king, as a calumniator of the order, and an enemy to his country, found it necessary to escape with a few friends to the convent of St. Ayoul, at Provins, in Champagne, the prior of which was his intimate friend. But even here persecution, followed him, until at length, with difficulty, he obtained permission to retire to some solitary retreat, on condition that he should never again become a member of a convent.

The spot which he chose was a vale in the forest of Champagne, near Nogent upon the Seine, where, accompanied by only one ecclesiastic, he erected a small oratory, which he dedicated to the Trinity, but afterwards enlarged, and consecrated it to the Third Person, the Comforter, or Paraclete. In this asylum he was soon discovered, and followed by a train of scholars. A rustic college arose in the forest, and the number of his pupils soon increased to six hundred. But his enemies St. Norbert and St. Bernard, who enjoyed great popularity in this neighbourhood, conspired to bring him into discredit, and he was meditating his escape, when, through the interest of the Duke of Bretagne, and with the consent of the abbot of St. Denys, he was elected superior of the monastery of St. Gildas, in the diocese of Vannes, where he remained several years.

About this time Suger, the abbot of St. Denys, on the plea of an ancient right, obtained a grant for annexing the convent of Argenteuil, of which Heloise was now prioress, to St. Denys, and the nuns, who were accused of irregular practices, were dispersed. Abelard, informed of the | distressed situation of Heloise, invited her, with her companions, eight in number, to take possession of the Paraclete. Happy in being thus remembered in the moment of distress by the man of her affections, she joyfully accepted the proposal; a new institution was established; Heloise was chosen abbess; and, in 1127, the donation was confirmed by the king. Abelard, now abbot of St. Gildas, paid frequent visits to the Paraclete, till he was obliged to discontinue them through fear of his enemies the monks, who not only endeavoured to injure him by gross, insinuations, but carried their hostility so far as to make repeated attempts upon his life.

It was during Abelard’s residence at St. Gildas, that the interesting correspondence passed between him and Heloise, which is still extant, and that he wrote the memoirs of his life which came down to the year 1134. The letters of Heloise, in this correspondence, abound with proofs of genius, learning, and taste, which might have graced a Better age. It is upon these letters that Mr. Pope formed his “Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard,” which, however, deviates in some particulars from the genuine character and story of Heloise, and is yet more seriously censurable on account of its immoral tendency. Here, too, Abelard probably wrote his “Theology,” or revised it, which again subjected him to prosecution. William, abbot of St. Thievry, the friend f Bernard, now abbot of Clairvaux, brought a formal charge against him for heresy in thirteen articles, copied from the “Theology.Bernard, after an unsuccessful private remonstrance, accused Abelard to pope Innocent II. of noxious errors and mischievous designs. Abelard, with the concurrence of the archbishop of Sens, challenged his accuser to appear in a public assembly, shortly to be held in that city, and make good his accusation. The abbot at first declined accepting the challenge; but afterwards made his appearance, and delivered to the assembly the heads of his accusation. Abelard, instead of replying, appealed to Rome, which did not prevent the council from examining the charges, and pronouncing his opinions heretical. It was, however, judged necessary to inform the bishop of Rome of the proceedings, and to request his confirmation of the sentence. In the mean time, Bernard, by letters written to the Roman prelates, strongly urged them to silence, without delay, this dangerous innovator. His importunity | succeeded; for the pope, without waiting for the arrival of Abelard, pronounced his opinions heretical, and sentenced him to perpetual silence and confinement. Immediately upon being informed of the decision, Abelard set out for Rome, in hopes of being permitted to plead his cause before his holiness. In his way he called at Cluni, a monastery on the confines of Burgundy, where he found a 2ealous friend in Peter Maurice, the abbot, and also in Reinardus, the abbot of Citeaux, who negociated a reconciliation between him and Bernard, while Peter, by his earnest remonstrances, procured his pardon at Rome, and he was permitted to end his days in the monastery of Cluni.

In this retreat he passed his time in study and devotion, with occasional intervals of instruction which the monks solicited; but his health began to decay, and he expired April 21, 1142, in the priory of St. Marcellus, near Chalons, to which he had been removed for the benefit of the change of air. His character is thus summed up by his late elegant and most impartial biographer.*

*History of the Lives of Abelard and Heloisa, by the Rev. Joseph Berrington,” 4to. 2d edit. 1788.
“He was born with uncommon abilities; and, in a better age, had they been directed to other purposes, their display might have given more solid glory to their possessor, and more real advantage to mankind. But he was to take the world as he found it, for he could not correct its vicious taste, nor, indeed, did he attempt it. On the contrary, the vicious taste of the age seemed to accord with the most prominent features of his mind. He loved controversy, was pleased with the sound of his own voice, and, in his most favourite researches, rather looked for quibbles and evasive sophistry, than for truth, and the conviction of reason. He was a disputatious logician, therefore; and in this consisted all his philosophy. His divinity was much of the same complexion.

“When we consider him as a writer, not much more can be added to his praise. He is obscure, laboured, and inelegant: nor do I discover any traces of that genius and vivid energy of soul, which he certainly possessed, and which rendered him so formidable in the schools of philosophy. Even when he describes his own misfortunes, and is the hero of his own tale, the story is languid, and it labours on through a tedious and digressive narration of | incidents. In his theological tracts he is more jejune, and in his letters he has not the elegance, nor the harmony, nor the soul of Heloise. Therefore, did we not know how much his abilities were extolled by his contemporaries, what encomiums they gave to his pen, and how much the proudest disputants of the age feared the fire of his tongue, we certainly should be inclined to say, perusing his works, that Abelard was not an uncommon man.

“Nor was he uncommon in his moral character. He had not to thank nature for any great degree of sensibility, that source of pain and of pleasure, of virtue and of vice. Thrown, from early youth, into habits which could not meliorate his dispositions, he became selfish, opiniative, and vain-glorious. What did not serve to gratify his own humour, called for little of his regard. He wished to appear above the common feelings of humanity, for his philosophy was not of a nature to make him the friend of man. Of religion he knew little more than the splendid theory; and its amiable precepts were too obvious and familiar to engage the attention, and modify the heart, of an abstruse and speculative reasoner. When he loved Heloise, it was not her person, nor her charms, nor her abilities, nor her virtues, which he loved: he sought only his own gratification; and in its pursuit no repulsion of innocence could thwart him, no voice of duty, of friendship, of unguarded confidence, could impede his headlong progress. He suffered: and from that moment rather he became a man. We may blame him, perhaps, that he should so easily forget Heloise: but I have said that he never really loved her. More than other men, he was not free to command his affections: and from motives of religion, perhaps even of compassion, he wished in her breast to check that ardent flame, which burned to no other purpose than to render her heart miserable, and her life forlorn.

“To erase these unfavourable impressions which the mind has conceived of Abelard, we must view him in distress, smarting from oppression and unprovoked malevolence. There was in his character something which irritated opposition, whether it was a love of singularity, an asperity of manners, or a consciousness of superior talents r which he did not disguise. However this might be, the behaviour of his enemies was always harsh, and sometimes cruel; and him we pity. He now became a religious, a benevolent, and a virtuous man; and thousands reaped | benefit from his instructions, as they were tutored by his example. The close of his unhappy life was to the eye of the Christian spectator its most brilliant period. In his death he was the great and good man, the philosopher and the Christian.”

In what manner Heloise received the tidings of Abelard’s death is uncertain. She requested, however, that his body might be sent for interment to the Paraclete, and this was said to have been in consequence of a wish formerly expressed to her by Abelard. Her request was complied with, and the remains of her lover deposited in the church with much solemnity. For one-and-twenty years after we hear no more of her, only that she was held in the highest estimation; that she was a pattern of every monastic and Christian virtue; and that, ever retaining the tenderest affection of a wife, she prayed unceasingly at her husband’s tomb. In 1163, she fell sick. History does not inform us what her disorder was, nor does it relate the circumstances of her death. She expired, however, on Sunday, May 17th, in the sixty-third year of her age, and her body was deposited, by her own orders, in the tomb by the side of Abelard. Their bones have lain, in the abbey of the Paraclete, in the diocese of Troyes, in France, ever since 1142 and 1163. They have been at several times, and in different centuries, moved to other parts of the church. The last transposition was made by order of the present abbess madame de Roucy, in the year 1779, with the following ceremonies. The relics of this fond pair were taken up out of the vault, and laid by a priest in a leaden coffin separated into two divisions, in order that they might not be mixed, which was exposed to view for a quarter of an hour, and then soldered up. After which the coffin was borne, attended by the ladies of the convent singing anthems, first into the choir, and then to the place of its destination under the altar; where, after prayers had been said over it, it was solemnly interred. The abbess has caused a monument of black marble to be erected on the spot, with the following inscription:


sub eodem marmore jacent

hujus monasterii

conditor, Petrus Abælardus,

et abbatissa prima Heloisa,

olim studiis, ingenio, amore, infaustis nuptiis,

et pœnitentia;


Nunc æterna, quod speramus, felicitate


Petrus obiit xx prima Apr. anno 1141.

Heloisa, xvii Maii, 1163.

Curis Carolæ de Roucy, Paracleti abbatissæ,


Of Abelard’s works, we have “Abaelardi et conjugis ejus, Opera 5 ex editione Andrese Quercetam,*


Or Du Chesne.

4to, Paris, 1616. This collection was published from the ms. of Francis d'Amboise. It contains Letters, which have been elegantly translated by Mr. Berrington in the work already referred to; “Sermons, and Doctrinal tracts.” There is a scarce edition of the Letters, “ex recensione Ric. Rawlinson,” 8vo. London, 1716, which is said to be the best, as it was corrected from the most authentic manuscripts. 1

Biographical Dictionary, voL I. —Bayle.Moreri. Bruckher Hist. Philo. —Saxii Onomasticon, But principally Berrington.