Sunday, 24 April 2016

30 Blogs of Night: Peter Abelard

Day 24

Today I'm going to talk about Peter Abelard, a monk of all things and a man who lived in the Early Middle Ages. Perhaps not the most obvious choice of person for me to get excited about, especially as I'm not a Christian. 

What interests me in the case of Abelard is that he was a rebel and was described as "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century" by The Chambers Biographical Dictionary and that his rebellion took a particular form. Educated at the great Notre Dame cathedral school in Paris, Abelard was bright, and would often provoke fights with his tutor, William of Champeaux. Eventually, Abelard would go on to set up a rival school, first at Melun, and later closer to Paris at Corbeil. He knew Anselm, the famous Archbishop of Canterbury, who today is probably most famous for using logic to prove the existence of God, and rose in 1115 to become the master of the Notre Dame school, though this did not last long.

So far, so successful. But we're not taking into account either Heloise, the nun he fell in love with, or the work for which he is most remembered. This would be his rationalistic take on the Trinity and a work, Sic et Non, where he compiled all the places where the Bible contradicts itself into one work. To this did not go down well, would be an understatement and it is typical of the man that he remained unrepentant over its content even though the church threatened him with excommunication over its contents. Abelard was first and foremost a philosopher and scholar, and he was more focused on logic and the life of the mind than almost anyone else at the time he was writing. He squabbled with other theologians including St Bernard of Clairview who brought charges of heresy against the scholar in 1141. With the charges upheld by the Pope, Abelard was only saved from being confined to a monastery, and all his work burned, by Peter the Venerable the Abbot of Cluny, who persuaded Abelard to remain there and did the necessary legwork to convince Pope Innocent to reverse the decision, and to soothe the rift between Abelard and St Bernard.

What then of Heloise? She had been living at Notre Dame during Abelard's leadership there, and the two had fallen in love and had a child together. They married secretly, but her uncle, Fulbert, had let the secret slip and the two had had to flee. While Abelard sent his love off to a convent and paid the price when her uncle's men broke into his rooms and castrated him, the two remained in touch through letters, though much of this seems to be Heloise asking why she should become a nun as Abelard wished, given she had no calling for that life. Eventually, the two of them would be buried together, and is some twist of fate have never been separated even through the French Revolution and are now assumed to lie together in Pere Lachaise.

What I admire about Abelard, isn't his affair with Heloise, or his essentially forcing her to become a nun. No, what I admire is his use of logic, and his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, as well as his obvious intelligence. At a time when Rome was particularly picky about heresy and was merrily clamping down on anything that even looked like a slight diversion from the accepted canon, it takes guts to do something like publish Sic et Non. In a later age Abelard would have been celebrated, he possibly would have been one of the great founders of Protestantism and he did reintroduce Aristotle's works to the Christian world, paving the way for the Renaissance a few centuries after he lived. And to be honest I feel sorry for him, being castrated that way, poor bastard.