sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 7/8

Dominique Poirel (éd.): Pierre Abélard, génie multiforme

For many decades, medievalists have studied Peter Abelard from a wide range of perspectives. Lauded for contributions to the field of philosophy and theology at a pivotal point in the growth of the schools and religious life in the twelfth century, Abelard was notorious for his relationship with his student, Heloise (commemorated in his autobiography and in letters between the two), and the condemnation of some of his writings as 'heretical'. And yet, he experimented with various forms of monasticism, and wrote numerous religious poems and a monastic rule for the Paraclete. Many later historians and writers reinterpreted the story of Abelard and Heloise to discuss the nature of romantic love, and used the condemnation of some of Abelard's works as heretical to portray him as an anticlerical skeptic, a rationalist, or as a prescient lobbyist for bourgeois and communal liberties (8-9). However, to paint Abelard as a persecuted intellectual is to forget the privilege Abelard enjoyed as a member of the influential noble and intellectual elite who actively courted controversy to advance his reputation and who enjoyed access to royal and papal courts and multiple careers in higher learning and regular religious life (9). This conference volume therefore resituates Abelard within the urbanization, growth of schools, intellectual ferment, religious reform and innovation that characterized what some have called the 'long twelfth century' or 'Twelfth-Century Renaissance' (7-8).

In the historians' version of a technique employed by Abelard in Sic et non, seemingly contradictory facets of Abelard are presented to readers, who must come to their own (re)solution (5-7). The first section of the volume juxtaposes various elements of Abelard often seen as contradictory: his careers as a secular master in Paris (13-31) and as a monk and abbot (33-48), his relationship with Heloise (49-58) and his 'psychological profile' (59-80). Various aspects of Abelard's work most highly prized today, his contributions to philosophy, are also discussed (83-136). However, during his own lifetime, Abelard was perhaps more famous as a theologian (139-52), as a poet (153-78), and as the founder of a religious order (179-194). The volume acknowledges, but does not treat in depth, Abelard's work as a biblical exegete, as a writer in various prose genres, as a preacher, and as a correspondent, and the influence of Abelard and Heloise's image on later exempla, scholastic literature, and art. Two final contributions do, however, consider the literary influence of the resilient couple on medieval French and modern literature.

Despite the prevailing portrayal of Abelard an exceptional, controversial, and embattled intellectual, he was but one of many wandering scholars whose careers depended on the existence of a large network of schools (secular, cathedral, and monastic) in northern France and Paris, on social and religious networks, on the demand for knowledge workers to staff ecclesiastical and royal bureaucracies (which made studying a lucrative prospect), and on forms of religious life (re)shaped by the Gregorian reform movement (13-31). The application of reason to faith was not an entirely novel prospect, nor was the study of classical works; what made Abelard's approach appealing (or threatening) was his application of dialectical principles and techniques gleaned from classical authors to scriptural commentaries (rather than citing ancient authors as authorities, Abelard used their dialectical techniques to form his own conclusions). Savaged by Bernard of Clairvaux as a 'monk without a rule' and 'abbot without discipline', Abelard, like many of his generation, traveled through various forms of the monastic life and shared reformers' critiques and the desire to find (or create) a way of life which best embodied the apostolic life. That Abelard found a champion in the same Peter the Venerable who commissioned the Toledan translations perhaps points to Peter's advocacy of a scholar condemned by his Cistercian rival and critic (Bernard of Clairvaux) and the use of reason to discuss matters of faith (33-48).

Similarly, another chapter argues that the relationship of Abelard and Heloise should be recontextualized within what we now know about the fluid form of unions in the twelfth century [2] not only on the basis of the Historia calamitatum, but on surviving letters by Abelard and Heloise, and similar correspondence between male and female religious. In short, the couple joined a host of individuals renouncing marriage for various forms of religious life while retaining close spiritual and psychological ties (49-58). Abelard and Heloise's resituation within the spectrum of twelfth-century relationships remedies their typical appropriation as figures of tragically doomed romantic love; however, the following essay, which uses a psycho-critical and Freudian reading of Abelard's Historia, unfortunately falls into the trap of anachronistically applying the terms and preoccupations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to a twelfth-century composition perhaps better interpreted as a Psychomachia, a consolation, confession, or exemplum (59-80).

Other essays evaluate Abelard's contributions to philosophy, hailing him as an early promoter of the scientific method and of the notion that philosophy could stand independently of (albeit as a complement to) theology by using reason (rather than revelation) to interpret the world. And yet, Abelard's deployment of philosophical dialectical and logical techniques was not always allied to the use of ancient philosophical teachings, and his employment of both evolved over time; his Theologia used philosophical texts to make arguments about the nature of God, whereas his later Collations paralleled the conclusions of his Muslim contemporary, al-Gazali, who treated philosophy as an independent means of arriving at the truth through logic and proofs (83-103). This may be because Abelard was moving away from contested authorities to shared dialectical and logical forms of proof in order to demonstrate similarities between multiple religions' conceptions of God. However, philosophy and theology (particularly natural theology) were also more intertwined in their goals and methodology in the twelfth century than in later periods (142). Similarly, Abelard's theories of relations were formed within the context of preexisting debates and shifted dramatically over a period of fifteen years (105-119). While Abelard's assertion that the intention of an act mattered more than the act itself was condemned as heretical at the council of Sens, his teachings, as reported by Peter Lombard, influenced moral theologians in Paris and their debates and confessors' manuals. Their emphasis on the necessity of contrition, oral confession, and works of satisfaction individually prescribed and adjusted according to the interior intentions and circumstances of the penitent resulted ultimately in Lateran IV's mandate for annual confession (121-36). Despite the condemnation of some of his teachings, Abelard remain active as a theologian and a preacher; his controversial application of philosophical methods of rational argument and dialectic to theology was incorporated into Peter Lombard's Sentences, later the standard textbook for theology in Paris (139-41).

Two further essays treat Abelard's reputation as a poet and as author of the rule for the Paraclete. Pascale Bourgain argues that Abelard adapted the existing genres of lament, hymns, and didactic poetry to suit his message and personality: for example, the darkly pessimistic planctus were modeled on the Old Testament tradition of lamentations, leading Heloise to respond to Abelard's use of anti-women tropes (153-78). Alexis Grélois focuses on Abelard's Institutio quasi regula, written in response to Heloise's request for a rule more suitable for the nuns living at the Paraclete. Despite differences between the Institutio and the diet, governance, and Cistercian-influenced liturgical usages practiced at the Paraclete under Heloise's guidance, Grelois argues that the Institutio was coherent and that Abelard was reacting to the monastic debates and rules of his time (179-94).

Two final essays stress that the language of courtly love employed by Abelard and Heloise was in fact deeply compatible with the language of exegesis and rhetoric (197-213) and explore the appropriation of the image of Abelard and Heloise to make statements about the nature of (doomed) romantic love in works ranging from the Romance de la rose to Romantic and Victorian prose and artwork (215-222). To this list could be added Michael Shenefelt's Heloise (2019) and a recent cluster of twenty-first century novels. [2] By editing a curated selection of conference papers, supplemented by indices of Peter Abelard's works and surviving manuscripts, Dominique Poirel has provided a useful compendium of recent research on Peter Abelard and Heloise accessible to advanced undergraduate and graduate students and researchers alike.


[1] Ruth Mazo Karras: Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages, Pennsylvania 2012.

[2] 'Peter Abelard', Wikipedia, (3 June 2023).

Rezension über:

Dominique Poirel (éd.): Pierre Abélard, génie multiforme. Actes du colloque international, organisé par l'Institut d'Études Médiévales et tenu à l'Institut Catholique de Paris les 29-30 novembre 2018, Turnhout: Brepols 2022, 232 S., ISBN 978-2-503-59565-8, EUR 40,00

Rezension von:
Jessalynn Bird
Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN
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Jessalynn Bird: Rezension von: Dominique Poirel (éd.): Pierre Abélard, génie multiforme. Actes du colloque international, organisé par l'Institut d'Études Médiévales et tenu à l'Institut Catholique de Paris les 29-30 novembre 2018, Turnhout: Brepols 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2023], URL:

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