Peter Abelard: Knight Errant of the Medieval Schools

J.J.N. McGurk describes the life and times of a controversial philosopher of the early twelfth century.

Peter Abelard stamped himself on the imagination of the twelfth century; to the Parisian scholars he was the ‘knight errant of dialectics’, the challenger of the most formidable theological figure of the day, St Bernard, and the author of Sic et Non. In his own eyes and in his own words he was the greatest philosopher of his age: what is more astounding than the arrogant claim is that some scholars regard it as well based.

As one would expect, the Italian humanistic renaissance of the fifteenth century looked back to the ‘new learning’ of the twelfth and saw in Peter Abelard a prototype of the tragically romantic hero battling against his fate. This interpretation gave his life’s story a focus for popular entertainment until our own times. In the course of the centuries Peter Abelard, like Roger Bacon, undeservedly acquired a mythical pre-eminence as a leader of free or rationalistic thought in an age of obscurantism and intolerance.

But history remembers Abelard not because of these views, but surely as the lover of Héloise; even the unlettered of his time knew him through his love lyrics to her. Theirs is one of the great love stories of the middle ages, comparable in its intensity with the love of Tristan and Isolde, or of Paolo and Francesca; and it has done as much to ensure the survival of his historical reputation as did his writings and intellectual contribution to his own period.

To attempt to delineate the historical Abelard from the haze of a fanciful medievalism and to re-habilitate his character from the accretion of undeserved reputations is not an easy task, despite the fact that he has left an autobiography of a kind in his Historia Calamitatum, letters to Héloise and a library of philosophical and theological works. The Historia purports to be an intimate biography in the genre of St Augustine’s Confessions; but it is silent on so much that the modern biographer might expect.

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