AskDefine | Define Abelard

Dictionary Definition

Abelard n : French philosopher and theologian; lover of Heloise (1079-1142) [syn: Peter Abelard, Pierre Abelard]

User Contributed Dictionary



Probably a variant of Eberhard "boar" + "hard", cognate to English Everett.

Proper noun

  1. Peter Abelard (1079-1142); French philosopher and theologian.
  2. A given name.


male given name

See also

Extensive Definition

Peter Abelard (Lt: Petrus Abaelardus or Abailard; Fr: Pierre Abélard) (1079April 21, 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician. The story of his affair with and love for his student Héloïse has become legendary.



Abelard, originally called 'Pierre le Pallet' was born in the little village of Palets, about 10 miles east of Nantes, in Brittany, the eldest son of a minor noble Breton family. As a boy, he learned quickly being encouraged by his father, studied the liberal arts and excelled at the art of dialectic (a branch of philosophy) that at that time consisted chiefly of the logic of Aristotle transmitted through Latin channels. 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 words) "he became such as one as the Peripatetics." The nominalist Roscellinus of Compiegne was his teacher during this period.

Rise to fame

Abelard's travels finally brought him to Paris while still in his teens. There, in the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris,ref autonumber he was taught for a while by William of Champeaux, the disciple of Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with Saint Anselm) a leading proponent of Realism. It was during this time that he changed his surname to "Abelard", sometimes written "Abailard" or "Abaelardus". He was soon able to defeat the master in argument, resulting in a long duel that ended in the downfall of the philosophic theory of Realism, till then dominant in the early Middle Ages (to be replaced by Abelard's Conceptualism, or by Nominalism, the principal rival of Realism prior to Abelard). First, against opposition from the metropolitan teacher, while yet only twenty-two, Abelard set up a school of his own at Melun, then, for more direct competition, he moved to Corbeil, nearer Paris.
The success of his teaching was notable, though for a time he had to give it up, the strain proving too great for his constitution. On his return, after 1108, he found William lecturing at Saint-Victor, just outside the Ile-de-la-cite, and there they once again became rivals. Abelard was once more victorious, and now stood supreme. William was only temporarily able to prevent him from lecturing in Paris. From Melun, where he had resumed teaching, Abelard went on to the capital, and set up his school on the heights of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, overlooking Notre-Dame. From his success in dialectic, he next turned to theology and attended the lectures of Anselm at Laon. His triumph was complete; the pupil was able to give lectures, without previous training or special study, which were acknowledged superior to those of the master. Abelard was now at the height of his fame. He stepped into the chair at Notre-Dame, being also nominated canon, about the year 1115.
Distinguished in figure and manners, Abelard was seen surrounded by crowds — it is said 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, as he says, to think himself the only undefeated philosopher in the world. But a change in his fortunes was at hand. In his devotion to science, he had always lived a very regular life, enlivened only by philosophical debate: now, at the height of his fame, he encountered romance.
  1. Though it was located on the same spot in the Île de la Cité, the cathedral of Abelard's time was not the same as the cathedral we see today. Construction on the current Notre-Dame de Paris would not be begun until 1163.

His love, Héloïse

Living within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the canon Fulbert, was a girl named Héloïse (d. 1164). She is said to have been beautiful, but still more remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew. Abelard sought and gained a place in Fulbert's house, where he then fell in love with her; and becoming tutor to the girl, he used his power for the purpose of seduction, and she returned his devotion. Their relations interfered with his public work and were not kept a secret by Abelard himself. Soon everyone knew except the trusting Fulbert. Once her uncle found out, the lovers were separated, only to meet in secret. Héloïse found herself pregnant, and was sent by Abelard to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son. She named her child Astrolabe after the scientific instrument recently imported from the Islamic world. To appease her furious uncle, Abelard proposed a secret marriage, in order not to mar his prospects of advancement in the church; but Héloïse opposed the idea. She appealed to him not to sacrifice for her the independence of his life, but reluctantly gave in to pressure. The secret of the marriage was not kept by Fulbert; and when Héloïse boldly denied it, life was made so difficult for her that she sought refuge in the convent of Argenteuil at Abelard's bidding. Immediately Fulbert, believing that Héloïse's husband, who had helped her run away, wanted to be rid of her, plotted revenge. He and some others broke into Abelard's chamber by night, and castrated him. The priesthood and ecclesiastical office were, thereby, canonically closed to him. Héloïse, still only in her twenties, agreed to become a nun at the bidding of Abelard, who would never be able to function as a husband again.
According to historian Constant Mews in his work The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, a set of 113 anonymous love letters found in a fifteenth century manuscript represent the correspondence exchanged by Héloïse and Abelard during the earlier phase of their affair.

Later life

It was in the Abbey of Saint-Denis that Abelard, now aged forty, sought to bury himself as a monk with his woes out of sight. 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. His lectures, now framed in a devotional spirit, were once again heard by crowds of students, and all his old influence seemed to have returned; but he still had many enemies, against whom he could make less vigorous opposition. 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. Charging him with the heresy of Sabellius in a provincial synod held at Soissons in 1121, they obtained through irregular procedures an official condemnation of his teaching, and he was made to burn his book before being shut up in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons. It was the bitterest possible experience that could befall him. The life in his own monastery proved no more congenial than formerly. 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 Dionysius the Areopagite had been Bishop of Corinth, while they 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 Ecelesiastica and St. Jerome, according to whom Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, was distinct from Dionysius the Areopagite, bishop of Athens and founder of the abbey, though, in deference to Bede, he suggested that the Areopagite might also have been bishop of Corinth. Life in the monastery was intolerable for Abelard, and he was finally allowed to leave. In a deserted place near Nogent-sur-Seine, he built himself a cabin of stubble and reeds, and turned hermit. When his retreat became known, students flocked from Paris, and covered the wilderness around him with their tents and huts. When he began to teach again he found consolation, and in gratitude he consecrated the new Oratory of the Paraclete.
Abelard, fearing new persecution, left the Oratory to find another refuge, accepting an invitation to preside over the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, on the far-off shore of Lower Brittany. The region was inhospitable, the domain a prey to outlaws, the house itself savage and disorderly. Yet for nearly ten years he continued to struggle with fate before he left. The misery of those years was lightened because he had been able, on the breaking up of Héloïse's convent at Argenteuil, to establish her as head of a new religious house at the deserted Paraclete, and in the capacity of spiritual director he often was called to revisit the spot thus made doubly dear to him. All this time Héloïse had lived respectably. Living on for some time apart (we do not know exactly where), after his flight from the Abbey of St Gildas, Abelard wrote, among other things, his famous Historia Calamitatum, and thus moved her to write her first Letter, which remains an unsurpassed utterance of human passion and womanly devotion; 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. He had returned to the site of his early triumphs lecturing on Mount St. Genevieve by 1136 (when he was heard by John of Salisbury), but it was only for a brief time: a last great trial awaited him. As far back as the Paraclete days, his chief enemy had been Bernard of Clairvaux, in whom was incarnated the principle of fervent and unhesitating faith, to which rational inquiry like Abelard's was sheer revolt, and now the uncompromising Bernard was moving to crush the growing evil in the person of the boldest offender. After preliminary negotiations, in which Bernard was roused by Abelard's steadfastness to put forth all his strength, a council met at Sens (1141), before which Abelard, formally arraigned upon a number of heretical charges, was prepared to plead his cause. When, however, Bernard had opened the case, suddenly Abelard appealed to Rome. Bernard, who had power, notwithstanding, to get a condemnation passed at the council, did not rest a moment till a second condemnation was procured at Rome in the following year. Meanwhile, on his way there to urge his plea in person, Abelard collapsed at the abbey of Cluny, and there he lingered only a few months before the approach of death. Removed by friends, for the relief of his sufferings, to the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone, he died. He is said to have uttered the last words "I don't know" before expiring. First buried at St. Marcel, 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 (1163).


Philosophical work

The general importance of Abelard lies in his having fixed more decisively than anyone before him the scholastic manner of philosophizing, with its object of giving a formally rational expression to the received ecclesiastical doctrine. However his own particular interpretations may have been condemned, they were conceived in essentially the same spirit as the general scheme of thought afterwards elaborated in the 13th century with approval from the heads of the Church. Through him was prepared in the Middle Age the ascendancy of the philosophical authority of Aristotle, which became firmly established in the half-century after his death, when first the completed Organon, and gradually all the other works of the Greek thinker, came to be known in the schools: before his time it was rather upon the authority of Plato that the prevailing Realism sought to lean. As regards his so-called Conceptualism and his attitude to the question of Universals, see Scholasticism. Outside of his dialectic, it was in ethics that Abelard showed greatest activity of philosophical thought; laying very particular stress upon the subjective intention as determining, if not the moral character, at least the moral value, of human action. His thought in this direction, wherein he anticipated something of modern speculation, is the more remarkable because his scholastic successors accomplished least in the field of morals, hardly venturing to bring the principles and rules of conduct under pure philosophical discussion, even after the great ethical inquiries of Aristotle became fully known to them. Pope Innocent III accepted Abelard's Doctrine of Limbo, which amended Augustine of Hippo's Doctrine of Original Sin. The Vatican decreed that unbaptized babies did not, as at first believed, go straight to Hell but to a special area of limbo, "limbus infantium". They would therefore feel no pain but no happiness either because, it was held, they would not be able to see the deity that created them.


Abelard was an enormous influence on his contemporaries and the course of medieval thought, but he has been known in modern times mainly for his connection with Héloïse. It was not till the 19th century, when Cousin in 1836 issued the collection entitled Ouvrages inedits d'Abelard, that his philosophical performance could be judged at first hand; of his strictly philosophical works only one, the ethical treatise Scito te ipsum, having been published earlier, namely, in 1721. Cousin's collection, besides giving extracts from the theological work Sic et Non ("Yes and No") (an assemblage of opposite opinions on doctrinal points, culled from the Fathers as a basis for discussion, the main interest in which lies in the fact that there is no attempt to reconcile the different opinions), includes the Dialectica, commentaries on logical works of Aristotle, Porphyry and Boethius, and a fragment, De Generibus et Speciebus. The last-named work, and also the psychological treatise De Intellectibus, published apart by Cousin (in Fragmens Philosophiques, vol. ii.), are now considered upon internal evidence not to be by Abelard himself, but only to have sprung out of his school. A genuine work, the Glossulae super Porphyrium, from which Charles de Rémusat, in his classical monograph Abélard (1845), has given extracts, was published in 1930.

Primary Works

  • The Glosses of Peter Abailard on Porphyry (Petri Abaelardi Glossae in Porphyrium)
  • Sic et Non
  • Dialectica, before 1125
  • Theologia 'Summi Boni', Theologia christiana, and Theologia 'scholarium. His main work on systematic theology written between 1120 and 1140, and appeared in a number of versions under a number of titles (shown in chronological order).
  • Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, 1136–1139
  • Ethics or Know Yourself (Ethica or Scito Te Ipsum), before 1140
  • Historia calamitatum (The story of my misfortunes), Autobiography in epistolary form. Available at Fordham Medieval Sourcebook
  • Abelard & Heloise: The Letters and other Writings, translated with introduction and notes, by William Levitan, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-87220-875-9.

Disputed resting place/lovers' pilgrimage

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 the cemetery of Père Lachaise 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.
There seems, however, to be some dissent as to their actual resting place. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims he and Héloïse are buried on their site 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 1800s and reburied in the famous crypt on their grounds. There are still others who believe that while Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père-Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.


Today Abelard is known largely as a philosopher who had a tragic love affair with Héloïse. However, Abelard was also long known as an important poet and composer. Abelard composed some celebrated love songs for Héloïse that are now lost, and which have not been identified in the anonymous repertoire. 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".
Abelard later composed a hymn book for the religious community that Héloïse joined. This hymn book, written after 1130, differed from contemporary hymnals, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux, in that Abelard used completely new and homogeneous material. They were grouped by metre, which meant that comparatively few melodies could be used. Only one melody from this hymnal survives, O quanta qualia.
Abelard also left six biblical planctus (laments), which were very original and 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."

Cultural references

How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot. / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray'r accepted and each wish resign'd.
  • Abelard is frequently referenced in Charles Williams's novel The Place of the Lion.
  • Howard Brenton's play In Extremis: The Story Of Abelard And Heloise was premiered at Shakespeare's Globe in 2006.
  • Poet Anne Carson's 2005 collection Decreation includes a screenplay, titled "H&A Screenplay," concerning the timeless relationship of Abelard and Héloise.
  • Enrico Garzilli wrote a musical play called "Rage of the Heart" about Abelard and his love for Héloïse.
  • In the Dodie Smith novel I Capture the Castle, Cassandra, the heroine, has a dog named Heloise and a cat named Abelard.
  • Henry Miller uses Abelard's 'Foreword to Historia Calamitatum' as a motto of his Tropic of Capricorn (1938).
  • J. D. Salinger refers to Peter Abelard in his novel De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period (1952).
  • The Spanish singer and songwriter Joaquín Sabina refers to the couple in the song "Pájaros de Portugal" from the album Alivio de Luto (Relief from Grieving): "se llamaban Abelardo y Heloisa" (They were named Abelardo y Heloisa).
  • The movie Stealing Heaven (1988), starring Derek de Lint and Kim Thomson, is a film version of Marion Meade's 1979 novel (also titled Stealing Heaven) about Abelard and Heloise.
  • Abelard is also mentioned in the song "Nora" by Richard Shindell.


  • Gilson, Etienne. Heloise and Abelard. City: UMP, 1960. ISBN 0472060384
  • Clanchy, M., Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997. ISBN 0631214445 - The current definitive biography of Abelard.
  • Marenbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521663997
  • Brower, Jeffrey, and Kevin Guilfoy. The Cambridge Companion to Abelard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521772478
  • Mews, J., Constant The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard : Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. ISBN 0312239416
  • Mews, Constant. Abelard and Heloise. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0195156897
  • Charles de Remusat's Abelard (2 vols., 1845) remains an authority; it must be distinguished from his drama Abelard (1877), which is an attempt to give a picture of medieval life.
  • Chevalier, C.U. "Abailard" in Repertoire des sources historiques du moyen age. Bibliographie,. Paris: Societe bibliographique, 1877-1903. A comprehensive bibliography


External links

Abelard in Bulgarian: Пиер Абелар
Abelard in Catalan: Pere Abelard
Abelard in Czech: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Danish: Peter Abelard
Abelard in German: Petrus Abaelardus
Abelard in Estonian: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Modern Greek (1453-): Πέτρος Αβελάρδος
Abelard in Spanish: Pedro Abelardo
Abelard in Esperanto: Abelardo
Abelard in French: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Galician: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Korean: 피에르 아벨라르
Abelard in Croatian: Petar Abelard
Abelard in Italian: Pietro Abelardo
Abelard in Hebrew: פייר אבלר
Abelard in Latin: Petrus Abaelardus
Abelard in Dutch: Petrus Abaelardus
Abelard in Japanese: ピエール・アベラール
Abelard in Norwegian Bokmål: Peter Abelard
Abelard in Norwegian Nynorsk: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Polish: Piotr Abelard
Abelard in Portuguese: Pedro Abelardo
Abelard in Romanian: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Russian: Пьер Абеляр
Abelard in Slovak: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Slovenian: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Serbian: Абелар
Abelard in Finnish: Pierre Abélard
Abelard in Swedish: Pierre Abaelard
Abelard in Turkish: Petrus Abelardus
Abelard in Ukrainian: Абеляр П'єр
Abelard in Chinese: 彼得·阿伯拉
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