« Prev Introduction. Next »


The “Historia Calamitatum” of Peter Abélard is one of those human documents, out of the very heart of the Middle Ages, that illuminates by the glow of its ardour a shadowy period that has been made even more dusky and incomprehensible by unsympathetic commentators and the ill-digested matter of “source-books.” Like the “Confessions” of St. Augustine it is an authentic revelation of personality and, like the latter, it seems to show how unchangeable is man, how consistent unto himself whether he is of the sixth century or the twelfth—or indeed of the twentieth century. “Evolution” may change the flora and fauna of the world, or modify its physical forms, but man is always the same and the unrolling of the centuries affects him not at all. If we can assume the vivid personality, the enormous intellectual power and the clear, keen mentality of Abélard and his contemporaries and immediate successors, there is no reason why “The Story of My Misfortunes” should not have been written within the last decade.

They are large assumptions, for this is not a period in world history when the informing energy of life expresses itself through such qualities, whereas the twelfth century was of precisely this nature. The antecedent hundred years had seen the recovery from the barbarism that engulfed Western Europe after the fall of Rome, and the generation of those vital forces that for two centuries were to infuse society with a vigour almost unexampled in its potency and in the things it brought to pass. The parabolic curve that describes the trajectory of Mediaevalism was then emergent out of “chaos and old night” and Abélard and his opponent, St. Bernard, rode high on the mounting force in its swift and almost violent ascent.

Pierre du Pallet, yclept Abélard, was born in 1079 and died in 1142, and his life precisely covers the period of the birth, development and perfecting of that Gothic style of architecture which is one of the great exemplars of the period. Actually, the Norman development occupied the years from 1050 to 1125 while the initiating and determining of Gothic consumed only fifteen years, from Bury, begun in 1125, to Saint-Denis, the work of Abbot Suger, the friend and partisan of Abélard, in 1140. It was the time of the Crusades, of the founding and development of schools and universities, of the invention or recovery of great arts, of the growth of music, poetry and romance. It was the age of great kings and knights and leaders of all kinds, but above all it was the epoch of a new philosophy, refounded on the newly revealed corner stones of Plato and Aristotle, but with a new content, a new impulse and a new method inspired by Christianity.

All these things, philosophy, art, personality, character, were the product of the time, which, in its definiteness and consistency, stands apart from all other epochs in history. The social system was that of feudalism, a scheme of reciprocal duties, privileges and obligations as between man and man that has never been excelled by any other system that society has developed as its own method of operation. As Dr. De Wulf has said in his illuminating book “Philosophy and Civilization in the Middle Ages” (a volume that should be read by any one who wishes rightly to understand the spirit and quality of Mediaevalism), “the feudal sentiment par excellence . . . is the sentiment of the value and dignity of the individual man. The feudal man lived as a free man; he was master in his own house; he sought his end in himself; he was—and this is a scholastic expression,—propter seipsum existens: all feudal obligations were founded upon respect for personality and the given word.”

Of course this admirable scheme of society with its guild system of industry, its absence of usury in any form and its just sense of comparative values, was shot through and through with religion both in faith and practice. Catholicism was universally and implicitly accepted. Monasticism had redeemed Europe from barbarism and Cluny had freed the Church from the yoke of German imperialism. This unity and immanence of religion gave a consistency to society otherwise unobtainable, and poured its vitality into every form of human thought and action.

It was Catholicism and the spirit of feudalism that preserved men from the dangers inherent in the immense individualism of the time. With this powerful and penetrating coördinating force men were safe to go about as far as they liked in the line of individuality, whereas today, for example, the unifying force of a common and vital religion being absent and nothing having been offered to take its place, the result of a similar tendency is egotism and anarchy. These things happened in the end in the case of Mediaevalism when the power and the influence of religion once began to weaken, and the Renaissance and Reformation dissolved the fabric of a unified society. Thereafter it became necessary to bring some order out of the spiritual, intellectual and physical chaos through the application of arbitrary force, and so came absolutism in government, the tyranny of the new intellectualism, the Catholic Inquisition and the Puritan Theocracy.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, the balance is justly preserved, though it was but an unstable equilibrium, and therefore during the time of Abélard we find the widest diversity of speculation and freedom of thought which continue unhampered for more than a hundred years. The mystical school of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris follows one line (perhaps the most nearly right of all though it was submerged by the intellectual force and vivacity of the Scholastics) with Hugh of St. Victor as its greatest exponent. The Franciscans and Dominicans each possessed great schools of philosophy and dogmatic theology, and in addition there were a dozen individual line of speculation, each vitalized by some one personality, daring, original, enthusiastic. This prodigious mental and spiritual activity was largely fostered by the schools, colleges and universities that had suddenly appeared all over Europe. Never was such activity along educational lines. Almost every cathedral had its school, and many of the abbeys as well, as for example, in France alone, Cluny, Citeaux and Bec, St. Martin of Tours, Laon, Chartres, Rheims and Paris. To these schools students poured in from all over the world in numbers mounting to many thousands for such as Paris for example, and the mutual rivalries were intense and sometimes disorderly. Groups of students would choose their own masters and follow them from place to place, even subjecting them to discipline if in their opinion they did not live up to the intellectual mark they had set as their standard. As there was not only one religion and one social system, but one universal language as well, this gathering from all the four quarters of Europe was perfectly possible, and had much to do with the maintenance of that unity which marked society for three centuries.

At the time of Abélard the schools of Chartres and Paris were at the height of their fame and power. Fulbert, Bernard and Thierry, all of Chartres, had fixed its fame for a long period, and at Paris Hugh and Richard of St. Victor and William of Champeaux were names to conjure with, while Anselm of Laon, Adelard of Bath, Alan of Lille, John of Salisbury, Peter Lombard, were all from time to time students or teachers in one of the schools of the Cathedral, the Abbey of St. Victor or Ste. Geneviève.

Earlier in the Middle Ages the identity of theology and philosophy had been proclaimed, following the Neo-Platonic and Augustinian theory, and the latter (cf. Peter Damien and Duns Scotus Eriugena) was even reduced to a position that made it no more than the obedient handmaid of theology. In the eleventh century however, St. Anselm had drawn a clear distinction between faith and reason, and thereafter theology and philosophy were generally accepted as individual but allied sciences, both serving as lines of approach to truth but differing in their method. Truth was one and therefore there could be no conflict between the conclusions reached after different fashions. In the twelfth century Peter of Blois led a certain group called “rigourists” who still looked askance at philosophy, or rather at the intellectual methods by which it proceeded, and they were inclined to condemn it as “the devil’s art,” but they were on the losing side and John of Salisbury, Alan of Lille, Gilbert de la Porrée and Hugh of St. Victor prevailed in their contention that philosophers were “humanae videlicet sapientiae amatores,” while theologians were “divinae scripturae doctores.”

Cardinal Mercier, himself the greatest contemporary exponent of Scholastic philosophy, defines philosophy as “the science of the totality of things.” The twelfth century was a time when men were striving to see phenomena in this sense and established a great rational synthesis that should yet be in full conformity with the dogmatic theology of revealed religion. Abélard was one of the most enthusiastic and daring of these Mediaeval thinkers, and it is not surprising that he should have found himself at issue not only with the duller type of theologians but with his philosophical peers themselves. He was an intellectual force of the first magnitude and a master of dialectic; he was also an egotist through and through, and a man of strong passions. He would and did use his logical faculty and his mastery of dialectic to justify his own desires, whether these were for carnal satisfaction or the maintenance of an original intellectual concept. It was precisely this danger that aroused the fears of the “rigourists” and in the light of succeeding events in the domain of intellectualism it is impossible to deny that there was some justification for their gloomy apprehensions. In St. Thomas Aquinas this intellectualizing process marked its highest point and beyond there was no margin of safety. He himself did not overstep the verge of danger, but after him this limit was overpassed. The perfect balance between mind and spirit was achieved by Hugh of St. Victor, but afterwards the severance began and on the one side was the unwholesome hyper-spiritualization of the Rhenish mystics, on the other the false intellectualism of Descartes, Kant and the entire modern school of materialistic philosophy. It was the clear prevision of this inevitable issue that made of St. Bernard not only an implacable opponent of Abélard but of the whole system of Scholasticism as well. For a time he was victorious. Abélard was silenced and the mysticism of the Victorines triumphed, only to be superseded fifty years later when the two great orders, Dominican and Franciscan, produced their triumphant protagonists of intellectualism, Alelander Halesand Albertus Magnus, and finally the greatest pure intellect of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Bernard, St. Francis of Assisi, the Victorines, maintained that after all, as Henri Bergson was to say, seven hundred years later, “the mind of man by its very nature is incapable of apprehending reality,” and that therefore faith is better than reason. Lord Bacon came to the same conclusion when he wrote “Let men please themselves as they will in admiring and almost adoring the human kind, this is certain; that, as an uneven mirrour distorts the rays of objects according to its own figure and section, so the mind . . . cannot be trusted.” And Hugh of St. Victor himself, had written, even in the days of Abélard: “There was a certain wisdom that seemed such to them that knew not the true wisdom. The world found it and began to be puffed up, thinking itself great in this. Confiding in its wisdom it became presumptuous and boasted it would attain the highest wisdom. And it made itself a ladder of the face of creation. . . . Then those things which were seen were known and there were other things which were not known; and through those which were manifest they expected to reach those that were hidden. And they stumbled and fell into the falsehoods of their own imagining . . . So God made foolish the wisdom of this world, and He pointed out another wisdom, which seemed foolishness and was not. For it preached Christ crucified, in order that truth might be sought in humility. But the world despised it, wishing to contemplate the works of God, which He had made a source of wonder, and it did not wish to venerate what He had set for imitation, neither did it look to its own disease, seeking medicine in piety; but presuming on a false health, it gave itself over with vain curiosity to the study of alien things.”

These considerations troubled Abélard not at all. He was conscious of a mind of singular acuteness and a tongue of parts, both of which would do whatever he willed. Beneath all the tumultuous talk of Paris, when he first arrived there, lay the great and unsolved problem of Universals and this he promptly made his own, rushing in where others feared to tread. William of Champeaux had rested on a Platonic basis, Abélard assumed that of Aristotle, and the clash began. It is not a lucid subject, but the best abstract may be found in Chapter XIV of Henry Adams’ “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” while this and the two succeeding chapters give the most luminous and vivacious account of the principles at issue in this most vital of intellectual feuds.

“According to the latest authorities, the doctrine of universals which convulsed the schools of the twelfth century has never received an adequate answer. What is a species: what is a genus or a family or an order? More or less convenient terms of classification, about which the twelfth century cared very little, while it cared deeply about the essence of classes! Science has become too complex to affirm the existence of universal truths, but it strives for nothing else, and disputes the problem, within its own limits, almost as earnestly as in the twelfth century, when the whole field of human and superhuman activity was shut between these barriers of substance, universals, and particulars. Little has changed except the vocabulary and the method. The schools knew that their society hung for life on the demonstration that God, the ultimate universal, was a reality, out of which all other universal truths or realities sprang. Truth was a real thing, outside of human experience. The schools of Paris talked and thought of nothing else. John of Salisbury, who attended Abélard’s lectures about 1136, and became Bishop of Chartres in 1176, seems to have been more surprised than we need be at the intensity of the emotion. ‘One never gets away from this question,’ he said. ‘From whatever point a discussion starts, it is always led back and attached to that. It is the madness of Rufus about Naevia; “He thinks of nothing else; talks of nothing else, and if Naevia did not exist, Rufus would be dumb.’”

. . . “In these scholastic tournaments the two champions started from opposite points:—one from the ultimate substance, God,—the universal, the ideal, the type;—the other from the individual, Socrates, the concrete, the observed fact of experience, the object of sensual perception. The first champion—William in this instance— assumed that the universal was a real thing; and for that reason he was called a realist. His opponent—Abélard—held that the universal was only nominally real; and on that account he was called a nominalist. Truth, virtue, humanity, exist as units and realities, said William. Truth, replied Abélard, is only the sum of all possible facts that are true, as humanity is the sum of all actual human beings. The ideal bed is a form, made by God, said Plato. The ideal bed is a name, imagined by ourselves, said Aristotle. ‘I start from the universe,’ said William. ‘I start from the atom,’ said Abélard; and, once having started, they necessarily came into collision at some point between the two.”

In this “Story of My Misfortunes” Abélard gives his own account of the triumphant manner in which he confounded his master, William, but as Henry Adams says, “We should be more credulous than twelfth-century monks, if we believed, on Abélard’s word in 1135, that in 1110 he had driven out of the schools the most accomplished dialectician of the age by an objection so familiar that no other dialectician was ever silenced by it—whatever may have been the case with theologians--and so obvious that it could not have troubled a scholar of fifteen. William stated a selected doctrine as old as Plato; Abélard interposed an objection as old as Aristotle. Probably Plato and Aristotle had received the question and answer from philosophers ten thousand years older than themselves. Certainly the whole of philosophy has always been involved in this dispute.”

So began the battle of the schools with all its more than military strategy and tactics, and in the end it was a drawn battle, in spite of its marvels of intellectual heroism and dialectical sublety. Says Henry Adams again:—

“In every age man has been apt to dream uneasily, rolling from side to side, beating against imaginary bars, unless, tired out, he has sunk into indifference or scepticism. Religious minds prefer scepticism. The true saint is a profound sceptic; a total disbeliever in human reason, who has more than once joined hands on this ground with some who were at best sinners. Bernard was a total disbeliever in Scholasticism; so was Voltaire. Bernard brought the society of his time to share his scepticism, but could give the society no other intellectual amusement to relieve its restlessness. His crusade failed; his ascetic enthusiasm faded; God came no nearer. If there was in all France, between 1140 and 1200, a more typical Englishman of the future Church of England type than John of Salisbury, he has left no trace; and John wrote a description of his time which makes a picturesque contrast with the picture painted by Abélard, his old master, of the century at its beginning. John weighed Abélard and the schools against Bernard and the cloister, and coolly concluded that the way to truth led rather through Citeaux, which brought him to Chartres as Bishop in 1176, and to a mild scepticism in faith. ‘I prefer to doubt’ he said, ‘rather than rashly define what is hidden.’ The battle with the schools had then resulted only in creating three kinds of sceptics:— the disbelievers in human reason; the passive agnostics; and the sceptics proper, who would have been atheists had they dared. The first class was represented by the School of St. Victor; the second by John of Salisbury himself; the third, by a class of schoolmen whom he called Cornificii, as though they made a practice of inventing horns of dilemma on which to fix their opponents; as, for example, they asked whether a pig which was led to market was led by the man or the cord. One asks instantly: What cord?—Whether Grace, for instance, or Free Will?

“Bishop John used the science he had learned in the school only to reach the conclusion that, if philosophy were a science at all, its best practical use was to teach charity—love. Even the early, superficial debates of the schools, in 1100-50, had so exhausted the subject that the most intelligent men saw how little was to be gained by pursuing further those lines of thought. The twelfth century had already reached the point where the seventeenth century stood when Descartes renewed the attempt to give a solid, philosophical basis for deism by his celebrated ‘Cogito, ergo sum.’ Although that ultimate fact seemed new to Europe when Descartes revived it as the starting-point of his demonstration, it was as old and familiar as St. Augustine to the twelfth century, and as little conclusive as any other assumption of the Ego or the Non-Ego. The schools argued, according to their tastes, from unity to multiplicity, or from multiplicity to unity; but what they wanted was to connect the two. They tried realism and found that it led to pantheism. They tried nominalism and found that it ended in materialism. They attempted a compromise in conceptualism which begged the whole question. Then they lay down, exhausted. In the seventeenth century—the same violent struggle broke out again, and wrung from Pascal the famous outcry of despair in which the French language rose, perhaps for the last time, to the grand style of the twelfth century. To the twelfth century it belongs; to the century of faith and simplicity; not to the mathematical certainties of Descartes and Leibnitz and Newton, or to the mathematical abstractions of Spinoza. Descartes had proclaimed his famous conceptual proof of God: ‘I am conscious of myself, and must exist; I am conscious of God and He must exist.’ Pascal wearily replied that it was not God he doubted, but logic. He was tortured by the impossibility of rejecting man’s reason by reason; unconsciously sceptical, he forced himself to disbelieve in himself rather than admit a doubt of God. Man had tried to prove God, and had failed: ‘The metaphysical proofs of God are so remote (éloignees) from the reasoning of men, and so contradictory (impliquées, far fetched) that they made little impression; and even if they served to convince some people, it would only be during the instant that they see the demonstration; an hour afterwards they fear to have deceived themselves.’”

Abélard was always, as he has been called, a scholastic adventurer, a philosophical and theological freelance, and it was after the Calamity that he followed those courses that resulted finally in his silencing and his obscure death. It is almost impossible for us of modern times to understand the violence of partisanship aroused by his actions and published words that centre apparently around the placing of the hermitage he had made for himself under the patronage of the third Person of the Trinity, the Paraclete, the Spirit of love and compassion and consolation, and the consequent arguments by which he justified himself. To us it seems that he was only trying to exalt the power of the Holy Spirit, a pious action at the least but to the episcopal and monastic conservators of the faith he seems to have been guilty of trying to rationalize an unsolvable mystery, to find an intellectual solution forbidden to man. In some obscure way the question seems to be involved in that other of the function of the Blessed Virgin as the fount of mercy and compassion, and at this time when the cult of the Mother of God had reached its highest point of potency and poignancy anything of the sort seemed intolerable.

For a time the affairs of Abélard prospered: Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis was his defender, and he enjoyed the favor of the Pope and the King. He was made an abbot and his influence spread in every direction. In 1137 the King died and conditions at Rome changed so that St. Bernard became almost Pope and King in his own person. Within a year he proceeded against Abélard; his “Theology” was condemned at a council of Sens, this judgment was confirmed by the Pope, and the penalty of silence was imposed on the author— probably the most severe punishment he could be called upon to endure. As a matter of fact it was fatal to him. He started forthwith for Rome but stopped at the Abbey of Cluny in the company of its Abbot, Peter the Venerable, “the most amiable figure of the twelfth century,” and no very devoted admirer of St. Bernard, to whom, as a matter of fact, he had once written, “You perform all the difficult religious duties; you fast, you watch, you suffer; but you will not endure the easy ones--you do not love.” Here he found two years of peace after his troubled life, dying in the full communion of the Church on 21 April, 1142.

The problems of philosophy and theology that were so vital in the Middle Ages interest us no more, even when they are less obscure than those so rife in the twelfth century, but the problem of human love is always near and so it is not perhaps surprising that the abiding interest concerns itself with Abélard’s relationship with Héloïse. So far as he is concerned it is not a very savoury matter. He deliberately seduced a pupil, a beautiful girl entrusted to him by her uncle, a simpleminded old canon of the Cathedral of Paris, under whose roof he ensconced himself by false pretences and with the full intention of gaining the niece for himself. Abélard seems to have exercised an irresistible fascination for men and women alike, and his plot succeeded to admiration. Stricken by a belated remorse, he finally married Héloïse against her unselfish protests and partly to legitimatize his unborn child, and shortly after he was surprised and overpowered by emissaries of Canon Fulbert and subjected to irreparable mutilation. He tells the story with perfect frankness and with hardly more than formal expressions of compunction, and thereafter follows the narrative of their separation, he to a monastery, she to a convent, and of his care for her during her conventual life, or at least for that part of it that had passed before the “History” was written. Through the whole story it is Héloïse who shines brightly as a curiously beautiful personality, unselfish, self sacrificing, and almost virginal in her purity in spite of her fault. One has for her only sympathy and affection whereas it is difficult to feel either for Abélard in spite of his belated efforts at rectifying his own sin and his life-long devotion to his solitary wife in her hidden cloister.

The whole story was instantly known, Abélard’s assailants were punished in kind, and he himself shortly resumed his work of lecturing on philosophy and, a little later, on theology. Apparently his reputation did not suffer in the least, nor did hers; in fact her piety became almost a by-word and his name as a great teacher increased by leaps and bounds: neither his offence nor its punishment seemed to bring lasting discredit. This fact, which seems strange to us, does not imply a lack of moral sense in the community but rather the prevalence of standards alien to our own. It is only since the advent of Puritanism that sexual sins have been placed at the head of the whole category. During the Middle Ages, as always under Christianity, the most deadly sins were pride, covetousness, slander and anger. These implied inherent moral depravity, but “illicit” love was love outside the law of man, and did not of necessity and always involve moral guilt. Christ was Himself very gentle and compassionate with the sins of the flesh but relentless in the case of the greater sins of the spirit. Puritanism overturned the balance of things, and by concentrating its condemnation on sexual derelictions became blind to the greater sins of pride, avarice and anger. We have inherited the prejudice without acquiring the abstention, but the Middle Ages had a clearer sense of comparative values and they could forgive, or even ignore, the sin of Abélard and Héloïse when they could less easily excuse the sin of spiritual pride or deliberate cruelty. Moreover, these same Middle Ages believed very earnestly in the Divine forgiveness of sins for which there had been real repentance and honest effort at amendment. Abélard and Héloïse had been grievously punished, he himself had made every reparation that was possible, his penitence was charitably assumed, and therefore it was not for society to condemn what God would mercifully forgive.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were not an age of moral laxity; ideals and standards and conduct were immeasurably higher than they had been for five hundred years, higher than they were to be in the centuries that followed the crest of Mediaevalism. It was however a time of enormous vitality, of throbbing energy that was constantly bursting its bounds, and as well a time of personal liberty and freedom of action that would seem strange indeed to us in these days of endless legal restraint and inhibitions mitigated by revolt. There were few formal laws but there was Custom which was a sovereign law in itself, and above all there was the moral law of the Church, establishing its great fundamental principles but leaving details to the working out of life itself. Behind the sin of Abélard lay his intolerable spiritual pride, his selfishness and his egotism, qualities that society at large did not recognize because of their devotion to his engaging personality and their admiration for his dazzling intellectual gifts. Their idol had sinned, he had been savagely punished, he had repented; that was all there was about it and the question was at an end.

In reading the Historia Calamitatum there is one consideration that suggests itself that is subject for serious thought. Written as it was some years after the great tragedy of his life, it was a portrait that somehow seems out of focus. We know that during his early years in Paris Abélard was a bold and daring champion in the lists of dialectic; brilliant, persuasive, masculine to a degree; yet this self-portrait is of a man timid, suspicious, frightened of realities, shadows, possibilities. He is in abject terror of councils, hidden enemies, even of his life. The tone is querulous, even peevish at times, and always the egotism and the pride persist, while he seems driven by the whip of desire for intellectual adventure into places where he shrinks from defending himself, or is unable to do so. The antithesis is complete and one is driven to believe that the terrible mutilation to which he had been subjected had broken down his personality and left him in all things less than man. His narrative is full of accusations against all manner of people, but it is not necessary to take all these literally, for it is evident that his natural egotism, overlaid by the circumstances of his calamity, produced an almost pathological condition wherein suspicions became to him realities and terrors established facts.

It is doubtful if Abélard should be ranked very high in the list of Mediaeval philosophers. He was more a dialectician than a creative force, and until the development of the episode with Héloïse he seems to have cared primarily for the excitement of debate, with small regard for the value or the subjects under discussion. As an intellectualist he had much to do with the subsequent abandonment of Plato in favour of Aristotle that was a mark of pure scholasticism, while the brilliancy of his dialectical method became a model for future generations. After the Calamity he turned from philosophy to theology and ethics and here he reveals qualities of nobility not evident before. Particularly does he insist upon the fact that it is the subjective intention that determines the moral value of human actions even if it does not change their essential character.

The story of this philosophical soldier of fortune is a romance from beginning to end, a poignant human drama shot through with passion, adventure, pathos and tragedy. In a sense it is an epitome of the earlier Middle Ages and through it shines the bright light of an era of fervid living, of exciting adventure, of phenomenal intellectual force and of large and comprehensive liberty. As a single episode of passion it is not particularly distinguished except for the appealing personality of Héloïse; as a phase in the development of Christian philosophy it is of only secondary value. United in one, the two factors achieve a brilliant dramatic unity that has made the story of Abélard and Héloïse immortal.

« Prev Introduction. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection