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Peter Abelard
Abelardo ed Eloisa.jpg
Abelard and Heloise
Born c. 1079
Le Pallet near Nantes, France
Died 21 April 1142(1142-04-21) (aged 62–63)
Abbey of Saint-Marcel near Chalon-sur-Saône, France
Notable work
Sic et Non
Era Medieval philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Scholasticism
Main interests
Metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language, theology
Notable ideas
Conceptualism, limbo, moral influence theory of atonement

Peter Abelard ( French: Pierre Abélard; Latin: Petrus Abaelardus or Abailardus; c. 1079 – 21 April 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, leading logician, theologian, poet, composer and musician.

In philosophy he is celebrated for his logical solution to the problem of universals via nominalism and conceptualism and his pioneering of intent in ethics. Often referred to as the "Descartes of the twelfth century", he is considered a forerunner of Rousseau, Kant, and Spinoza. He is sometimes credited as a chief forerunner of modern empiricism.

In history and popular culture, he is best known for his passionate and tragic love affair, and intense philosophical exchange, with his brilliant student and eventual wife, Héloïse d'Argenteuil.

In Catholic theology, he is best known for his development of the concept of limbo, and his introduction of the moral influence theory of atonement. He is considered (alongside Augustine of Hippo) to be the most significant forerunner of the modern self-reflective autobiographer. He paved the way and set the tone for later epistolary novels and celebrity tell-alls with his publicly distributed letter, The History of My Calamities, and public correspondence.

Early life

Page from Apologia contra Bernardum, Abelard's reply to Bernard of Clairvaux

Abelard, originally called "Pierre le Pallet", was born c. 1079 in Le Pallet, about 10 miles (16 km) east of Nantes, in the Duchy of Brittany, the eldest son of a minor noble French family. As a boy, he learned quickly. His father, a knight called Berenger, encouraged Abelard to study the liberal arts, wherein he excelled at the art of dialectic (a branch of philosophy). 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 a one as the Peripatetics." He first studied in the Loire area, where the nominalist Roscellinus of Compiègne, who had been accused of heresy by Anselm, was his teacher during this period.


Abelard Teaching - Mural Sorbonne
Abelard Teaching by François Flameng, mural at the Sorbonne

Around 1100, Abelard's travels brought him to Paris. Around this time he changed his surname to Abelard, sometimes written Abailard or Abaelardus. The etymological root of Abelard could be the Middle French abilite ('ability'), the Hebrew name Abel/Habal (breath/vanity/figure in Genesis), the English apple or the Latin ballare ('to dance'). The name is jokingly referenced as relating to lard, as in excessive ("fatty") learning, in a secondary anecdote referencing Adelard of Bath and Peter Abelard (and in which they are confused to be one person).

In the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris (before the construction of the current cathedral there), he studied under Paris archdeacon and Notre-Dame master William of Champeaux, later bishop of Chalons, a disciple of Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with Saint Anselm), a leading proponent of philosophical realism. Retrospectively, Abelard portrays William as having turned from approval to hostility when Abelard proved soon able to defeat his master in argument. This resulted in a long duel that eventually ended in the downfall of the theory of realism which was replaced by Abelard's theory of conceptualism / nominalism. While Abelard's thought was closer to William's thought than this account might suggest, William thought Abelard was too arrogant. It was during this time that Abelard would provoke quarrels with both William and Roscellinus.

Against opposition from the metropolitan teacher, Abelard set up his own school, first at Melun, a favoured royal residence, then, around 1102–04, for more direct competition, he moved to Corbeil, nearer Paris. His teaching was notably successful, but the stress taxed his constitution, leading to a nervous breakdown and a trip home to Brittany for several years of recovery.

On his return, after 1108, he found William lecturing at the hermitage of Saint-Victor, just outside the Île de la Cité, and there they once again became rivals, with Abelard challenging William over his theory of universals. Abelard was once more victorious, and Abelard was almost able to attain the position of master at Notre Dame. For a short time, however, William was able to prevent Abelard from lecturing in Paris. Abelard accordingly was forced to resume his school at Melun, which he was then able to move, from c. 1110–12, to Paris itself, on the heights of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, overlooking Notre-Dame.

From his success in dialectic, he next turned to theology and in 1113 moved to Laon to attend the lectures of Anselm on Biblical exegesis and Christian doctrine. Unimpressed by Anselm's teaching, Abelard began to offer his own lectures on the book of Ezekiel. Anselm forbade him to continue this teaching. Abelard returned to Paris where, in around 1115, he became master of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame and a canon of Sens (the cathedral of the archdiocese to which Paris belonged).



Abelard is considered one of the founders of the secular university and pre-Renaissance secular philosophical thought.

Abelard argued for conceptualism in the theory of universals. (A universal is a quality or property which every individual member of a class of things must possess if the same word is to apply to all the things in that class. Blueness, for example, is a universal property possessed by all blue objects.) According to Abelard scholar David Luscombe, "Abelard logically elaborated an independent philosophy of language...[in which] he stressed that language itself is not able to demonstrate the truth of things (res) that lie in the domain of physics."

Writing with the influence of his wife Heloise, he stressed that subjective intention determines the moral value of human action. With Heloise, he is the first significant philosopher of the Middle Ages to push for intentionalist ethics.

He helped establish the philosophical authority of Aristotle, which became firmly established in the half-century after his death. It was at this time that Aristotle's Organon first became available, and gradually all of Aristotle's other surviving works. Before this, the works of Plato formed the basis of support for philosophical realism.


Abelard is considered one of the greatest twelfth-century Catholic philosophers, arguing that God and the universe can and should be known via logic as well as via the emotions. He coined the term "theology" for the religious branch of philosophical tradition. He should not be read as a heretic, as his charges of heresy were dropped and rescinded by the Church after his death, but rather as a cutting-edge philosopher who pushed theology and philosophy to their limits. He is described as "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th century" and as the greatest logician of the Middle Ages. "His genius was evident in all he did"; as the first to use 'theology' in its modern sense, he championed "reason in matters of faith", and "seemed larger than life to his contemporaries: his quick wit, sharp tongue, perfect memory, and boundless arrogance made him unbeatable in debate" — "the force of his personality impressed itself vividly on all with whom he came into contact."

Regarding the unbaptized who die in infancy, Abelard — in Commentaria in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos — emphasized the goodness of God and interpreted Augustine's "mildest punishment" as the pain of loss at being denied the beatific vision (carentia visionis Dei), without hope of obtaining it, but with no additional punishments. His thought contributed to the forming of Limbo of Infants theory in the 12th–13th centuries.


Abelard was concerned with the concept of intent and inner life, developing an elementary theory of cognition in his Tractabus De Intellectibus, and later developing the concept that human beings "speak to God with their thoughts". He was one of the developers of the insanity defense, writing in Scito te ipsum, "Of this [sin], small children and of course insane people are untouched...lack[ing] reason....nothing is counted as sin for them". He spearheaded the idea that mental illness was a natural condition and "debunked the idea that the devil caused insanity", a point of view which Thomas F. Graham argues Abelard was unable to separate himself from objectively to argue more subtly "because of his own mental health."


Abelard stressed that subjective intention determines the moral value of human action and therefore that the legal consequence of an action is related to the person that commits it and not merely to the action. With this doctrine, Abelard created in the Middle Ages the idea of the individual subject central to modern law. This gave to School of Notre-Dame de Paris (later the University of Paris) a recognition for its expertise in the area of Law, even before the faculty of law existed and the school even recognized as an "universitas" and even if Abelard was a logician and a theologian.

Poetry and music

Abelard was also long known as an important poet and composer. He composed some celebrated love songs for Héloïse that are now lost, and which have not been identified in the anonymous repertoire. (One known romantic poem / possible lyric remains, "Dull is the Star".) 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". His education in music was based in his childhood learning of the traditional quadrivium studied at the time by almost all aspiring medieval scholars.

Abelard composed a hymnbook for the religious community that Héloïse joined. This hymnbook, written after 1130, differed from contemporary hymnals, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux, in that Abelard used completely new and homogeneous material. The songs were grouped by metre, which meant that it was possible to use comparatively few melodies. Only one melody from this hymnal survives, O quanta qualia.

Abelard also wrote six biblical planctus (laments):

  • Planctus Dinae filiae Iacob; inc.: Abrahae proles Israel nata (Planctus I)
  • Planctus Iacob super filios suos; inc.: Infelices filii, patri nati misero (Planctus II)
  • Planctus virginum Israel super filia Jepte Galadite; inc.: Ad festas choreas celibes (Planctus III)
  • Planctus Israel super Samson; inc.: Abissus vere multa (Planctus IV)
  • Planctus David super Abner, filio Neronis, quem Ioab occidit; inc.: Abner fidelissime (Planctus V)
  • Planctus David super Saul et Jonatha; inc.: Dolorum solatium (Planctus VI).

In surviving manuscripts, these pieces have been notated in diastematic neumes which resist reliable transcription. Only Planctus VI was fixed in square notation. Planctus as genre 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."


Héloïse d'Argenteuil lived within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the secular canon Fulbert. She was famous as the most well-educated and intelligent woman in Paris, renowned for her knowledge of classical letters, including not only Latin but also Greek and Hebrew.

At the time Heloise met Abelard, he was surrounded by crowds – supposedly 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 to think of himself as the only undefeated philosopher in the world. But a change in his fortunes was at hand. In his devotion to science, he claimed to have lived a very straight and narrow life, enlivened only by philosophical debate: now, at the height of his fame, he encountered romance.

Heloise reciprocated Abelard's feelings. However, Heloise's uncle, Fulbert didn't approve of their relationship and separated them, but they continued to meet in secret.

To appease Fulbert, Abelard proposed a marriage. Héloïse initially opposed marriage, but to appease her worries about Abelard's career prospects as a married philosopher, the couple were married in secret (At this time, clerical celibacy was becoming the standard at higher levels in the church orders). To avoid suspicion of involvement with Abelard, Heloise continued to stay at the house of her uncle. When Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, Héloïse vehemently denied it, arousing Fulbert's wrath. Abelard rescued her by sending her to the convent at Argenteuil, where she had been brought up, to protect her from her uncle. Héloïse dressed as a nun and shared the nun's life, though she was not consecrated.

Abelard retired permanently as a Notre Dame canon. He effectively hid himself as a monk at the monastery of St. Denis, near Paris.

Upon joining the monastery at St. Denis, Abelard insisted that Héloïse take vows as a nun (she had few other options at the time). Héloïse protested her separation from Abelard, sending numerous letters re-initiating their friendship and demanding answers to theological questions concerning her new vocation.

Astrolabe, son of Abelard and Héloïse

Shortly after the birth of their child, Astrolabe, Héloïse and Abelard were both cloistered. Their son was thus brought up by Abelard's sister (soror), Denise, at Abelard's childhood home in Le Pallet. His name derives from the astrolabe, a Persian astronomical instrument said to elegantly model the universe and which was popularized in France by Adelard of Bath. He is mentioned in Abelard's poem to his son, the Carmen Astralabium, and by Abelard's protector, Peter the Venerable of Cluny, who wrote to Héloise: "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".

'Petrus Astralabius' is recorded at the Cathedral of Nantes in 1150, and the same name appears again later at the Cistercian abbey at Hauterive in what is now Switzerland. Given the extreme eccentricity of the name, it is almost certain these references refer to the same person. Astrolabe is recorded as dying in the Paraclete necrology on 29 or 30 October, year unknown, appearing as "Petrus Astralabius magistri nostri Petri filius".

Cloistered life

Abbey of Saint-Denis

In his early forties, Abelard sought to bury himself as a monk of the Abbey of Saint-Denis. 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 owned by the monastery. His lectures, now framed in a devotional spirit, and with lectures on theology as well as his previous lectures on logic, were once again heard by crowds of students, and his old influence seemed to have returned. Using his studies of the Bible and, in his view, inconsistent writings of the leaders of the church as his basis, he wrote Sic et Non (Yes and No).

Heresy trial

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. Two pupils of Anselm of Laon, Alberich of Reims and Lotulf of Lombardy, instigated proceedings against Abelard, charging him with the heresy of Sabellius in a provincial synod held at Soissons in 1121. Through irregular procedures, they obtained an official condemnation of his teaching, and Abelard was made to burn the Theologia himself. He was then sentenced to perpetual confinement in a monastery other than his own, but it seems to have been agreed in advance that this sentence would be revoked almost immediately, because after a few days in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons, Abelard returned to St. Denis.

Events leading to change of monastery

Life in his own monastery proved no more congenial than before. For this Abelard 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 the believed founder of the monastery of St. Denis, Dionysius the Areopagite had been Bishop of Corinth, while the other monks relied upon the statement of the Abbot Hilduin that he had been Bishop of Athens. When this historical heresy led to the inevitable persecution, Abelard 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; although, in deference to Bede, he suggested that the Areopagite might also have been bishop of Corinth. Adam accused him of insulting both the monastery and the Kingdom of France (which had Denis as its patron saint); life in the monastery grew intolerable for Abelard, and he was finally allowed to leave.

Oratory of the Paraclete

Abelard initially lodged at St. Ayoul of Provins, where the prior was a friend. Then, after the death of Abbot Adam in March 1122, Abelard was able to gain permission from the new abbot, Suger, to live "in whatever solitary place he wished". In a deserted place near Nogent-sur-Seine in Champagne, he built a cabin of stubble and reeds, created a simple oratory dedicated to the Trinity, and became a hermit. When his retreat became known, students flocked from Paris, and covered the wilderness around him with their tents and huts. He began to teach again there. The oratory was rebuilt in wood and stone and rededicated as the Oratory of the Paraclete.

Events leading to change of monastery

Abelard remained at the Paraclete for about five years. His combination of the teaching of secular arts with his profession as a monk was heavily criticized by other men of religion, and Abelard contemplated flight outside Christendom altogether. Abelard therefore decided to leave and find another refuge, accepting sometime between 1126 and 1128 an invitation to preside over the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys on the far-off shore of Lower Brittany.

Abelard cour Napoleon Louvre
Statue of Abelard at Louvre Palace in Paris by Jules Cavelier

Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys

The region was inhospitable, the domain a prey to outlaws, the house itself savage and disorderly. There, too, his relations with the community deteriorated.


France illustrée I p473
Abelard receives Héloïse at the monastery of the Paraclete (1129)

Lack of success at St. Gildas made Abelard decide to take up public teaching again (although he remained for a few more years, officially, Abbot of St. Gildas). It is not entirely certain what he then did, but given that John of Salisbury heard Abelard lecture on dialectic in 1136, it is presumed that he returned to Paris and resumed teaching on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. His lectures were dominated by logic, at least until 1136, when he produced further drafts of his Theologia in which he analyzed the sources of belief in the Trinity and praised the pagan philosophers of classical antiquity for their virtues and for their discovery by the use of reason of many fundamental aspects of Christian revelation.

Late writings

In 1128, Abbot Suger claimed that the convent at Argenteuil, where Héloïse was prioress, belonged to his abbey of St Denis. In 1129 he gained possession and he made no provision for the nuns. When Abelard heard, he transferred Paraclete and its lands to Héloïse and her remaining nuns, making her abbess. He provided the new community with a rule and with a justification of the nun's way of life; in this he emphasized the virtue of literary study. He also provided books of hymns he had composed, and in the early 1130s he and Héloïse composed a collection of their own love letters and religious correspondence containing, amongst other notable pieces, Abelard's most famous letter containing his autobiography, Historia Calamitatum (The History of My Calamities). This moved Héloïse to write her first Letter; 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. Sometime before 1140, Abelard published his masterpiece, Ethica or Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself), where he analyzes the idea of sin and that actions are not what a man will be judged for but intentions. During this period, he also wrote Dialogus inter Philosophum, Judaeum et Christianum (Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian), and also Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos, a commentary on St. Paul's epistle to the Romans, where he expands on the meaning of Christ's life.

Conflicts with Bernard of Clairvaux

After 1136, it is not clear whether Abelard had stopped teaching, or whether he perhaps continued with all except his lectures on logic until as late as 1141. Whatever the exact timing, a process was instigated by William of St-Thierry, who discovered what he considered to be heresies in some of Abelard's teaching. In spring 1140 he wrote to the Bishop of Chartres and to Bernard of Clairvaux, denouncing them. Another, less distinguished, theologian, Thomas of Morigny, also produced at the same time a list of Abelard's supposed heresies, perhaps at Bernard's instigation. Bernard's complaint mainly was that Abelard had applied logic where it is not applicable, and that is illogical.

Amid pressure from Bernard, Abelard challenged Bernard either to withdraw his accusations, or to make them publicly at the important church council at Sens planned for 2 June 1141. In so doing, Abelard put himself into the position of the wronged party and forced Bernard to defend himself from the accusation of slander. Bernard avoided this trap, however: on the eve of the council, he called a private meeting of the assembled bishops and persuaded them to condemn, one by one, each of the heretical propositions he attributed to Abelard. When Abelard appeared at the council the next day, he was presented with a list of condemned propositions imputed to him.

Unable to answer to these propositions, Abelard left the assembly, appealed to the Pope, and set off for Rome, hoping that the Pope would be more supportive. However, this hope was unfounded. On 16 July 1141, Pope Innocent II issued a bull excommunicating Abelard and his followers and imposing perpetual silence on him, and in a second document, he ordered Abelard to be confined in a monastery and his books to be burned. Abelard was saved from this sentence, however, by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. Abelard had stopped there, on his way to Rome, before the papal condemnation had reached France. Peter persuaded Abelard, already old, to give up his journey and stay at the monastery. Peter managed to arrange a reconciliation with Bernard, to have the sentence of excommunication lifted, and to persuade Innocent that it was enough if Abelard remained under the aegis of Cluny.


Abelard spent his final months at the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saône, before he died on 21 April 1142. He is said to have uttered the last words "I don't know", before expiring. He died from a fever while suffering from a skin disorder, possibly mange or scurvy. Heloise and Peter of Cluny arranged with the Pope, after Abelard's death, to clear his name of heresy charges.

Abelardtomb closeup
Dedicatory panel in the Père Lachaise Cemetery

Abelard was first buried at St. Marcel, but 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.

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 Père Lachaise Cemetery 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.

This second burial remains disputed. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims Abelard and Héloïse are buried there 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 19th century and reburied in the famous crypt on their grounds. Others believe that while Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père-Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.

Influence on later theology

Novelist and Abelard scholar George Moore referred to Abelard as the "first protestant" prior to Martin Luther. While Abelard conflicted with the Church to the point of (later cleared) heresy charges, he never denied his Catholic faith.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Pedro Abelardo para niños

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