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Medieval philosophy

Peripateticus Palatinus: The Story of Abelard, Part 3

Bill East

NOTE: This lengthy article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author. Comments engendered by these postings may be accessed through the archives of the discussion list starting in March, 1998.


Abelard's ethical views are of a piece with his view of the Atonement as worked out in his Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Sin was a matter of wrong intention, and the crucifixion was above all an example of right intention (i.e. on the part of Christ). Abelard did not have much truck with the idea of original sin; he did not see, as other Christian thinkers have done, that our capacity for making right choices has been damaged by original sin and therefore needs to be helped and perfected by grace. There was some truth in Bernard's accusation that with Pelagius, he preferred free will to grace.

A few days ago Pat Sloane raised a question about original sin. It may be helpful to attempt an answer here, with reference to Abelard's views. Now teaching on this issue varies considerably from church to church, and indeed between one Magister and another. I intend no disrespect to anyone else's opinions in this matter; have me excusyd if I speke amys. With this disclaimer then I proceed.

Watch the news today, or read a newspaper, and you will without doubt hear of murders, robberies, rapes, frauds and lies. Evidently we live in a very imperfect world; or rather, the people in it, including you and I, are very imperfect. If we seek to make excuses for some unpleasant action, we are apt to say, "You have to make allowances for human nature." Perhaps so; but this is an unflattering reflection upon human nature. Genesis 1 tells us that we were created in God's image and likeness. If so, that image would seem to be distorted, blemished, flawed; some would even say, destroyed altogether.

Theologians refer to this blemish in human nature, this flaw in God's image in human beings, as 'original sin'. Its existence is a matter of common observation and does not depend on the acceptance of any attempt to explain it, such as the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. We can still believe in original sin without accepting the historicity of Adam and Eve. However, nearly all the Christians of Abelard's period did accept the historicity of that story, so I shall regard it as historical for the purposes of this explanation.

The first point to be made about original sin is that it is not a sin at all. It is not culpable; we are not to blame for it; we are born with it, indeed conceived with it (and the difference between conception and birth is important when we come to discuss - as we shall - the Immaculate Conception of Mary). It is as if, shall we say, a man contracted a disease through some sinful act, for example, through an adulterous affair. The man recklessly passes this disease on to his wife, and subsequently to their children. The man has committed a sin, and stands in need of forgiveness. The wife and children have not committed any sin in this matter, and do not therefore require forgiveness. However, they are just as much infected as the man himself, just as much subject to the effects of the disease. Thus, we may think of Adam and Eve themselves being forgiven for their sin - they did after all commit it. But it does not make sense to think of a 'general' forgiveness of original sin.

Such is one way, at least, of looking at original sin. We are not personally to blame for its existence, but we still find that it damages our capacity for goodness, for obedience to the will of God. To give another analogy (which I hope will not cause offence), a disabled person is in no way to blame for his or her disability, but may still find it very difficult, or impossible, to climb a staircase. And such, Christians believe, is the activity in which we are engaged: many books - The Ladder of Perfection, The Ascent of Mount Carmel - describe the journey to God as a steep climb. We cannot make that climb by our own efforts, and are in need of God's "grace" if we are going to get anywhere.

People have written whole books on what is meant by "grace" so let me simply refer to the definition given in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: "Grace: In Christian theology, the supernatural assistance of God bestowed upon a rational being with a view to his sanctification." In simple terms, it means God giving us a helping hand up that staircase. The need for that grace is a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine, and perhaps no heresy is more subversive to Christian doctrine than that of Pelagius, who taught that we could perform good works, and achieve salvation, without the aid of grace.

This was one of the several heresies of which Bernard accused Abelard, and as I have said there was some truth in the accusation, although I would defend him by referring to pages 65-66 in the Penguin translation of his autobiography:

"But success always puffs up fools with pride, and worldly security weakens the spirit's resolution and easily destroys it through carnal temptations. I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh . . . Since therefore I was wholly enslaved to pride and lechery, God's grace provided a remedy for both these evils, though not one of my choosing: first for my lechery by depriving me of those organs with which I practised it, and then for the pride which had grown in me through my learning . . . when I was humiliated by the burning of the book of which I was so proud."

Anyone, it seems to me, who can find a signal instance of God's grace in his own castration and humiliation needs no lecture on grace from me, or from St Bernard.


I began my remarks yesterday by saying that "Abelard's ethical views are of a piece with his view of the Atonement as worked out in his Commentary on the Letter to the Romans." This may be the time to look at his view of the Atonement. In the Christian Church, various councils have defined with great precision doctrines relating to the Incarnation, to the Trinity, to the Eucharist. The Church has never rigorously defined its doctrine of the Atonement, particularly in relation to the Crucifixion of Christ. How does Christ's crucifixion save us? There have been various answers to this question, and three in particular have been influential. They may be summed-up in the three words, Ransom, Satisfaction, Example.

A few weeks ago we looked at the Ransom model with relation to the hymn of Venantius Fortunatus. I refer members to that posting for a full treatment of the subject.Briefly, this view regards the death of Christ as a ransom paid to the devil to release mankind from bondage. By and large the Western Church accepted that model for the first thousand years of its existence.

It was called into question by St Anselm in the Cur Deus Homo. In this, Anselm's pupil Boso says to Anselm (Book 1, chapter 7), "But that which we are wont to assert [and he summarises the Ransom theory] . . . all this, to my mind, is of no force whatever." Boso had studied under Ralph of Laon, brother of Anselm of Laon with whom Abelard was to cross swords; Ralph's book, also entitled Cur Deus Homo, had presented the Atonement very much in the traditional terms of a Ransom.

St Anselm responded to Boso's difficulty by formulating the Satisfaction model of the atonement. According to this, Christ's death is the payment of a debt to the Father, rather than of a ransom to the devil. Those who wish to look more deeply into the matter must read Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and his Meditation upon Human Redemption (which is included in the Penguin Classics 'Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm').

Abelard also rejected the Ransom theory, in terms very like those of Anselm (whom, I assume, he had read), but offered a different alternative, the Example model. His solution is as follows: "Now it seems to us that we have been justified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this way: through this unique act of grace manifested to us - in that his Son has taken upon himself our nature and persevered therein in teaching us by word and example even unto death - he has more fully bound us to himself by love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring for him." [Quaestio inserted into his commentary on Romans 3:19-26].

In brief, the Crucifixion is above all for Abelard an example of God's love, which evokes a response of love from our own hearts. As Mrs Alexander's hymn puts it, "O dearly, dearly, has he loved, and we must love him too." As far as it goes, this idea is perfectly orthodox, and indeed scriptural; cf. I Peter 2:21 "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." Most Christians however have felt that there was a bit more to it than that. The Atonement becomes not something objective, but something dependent upon our own subjective response to the crucifixion. And our own response is impaired by - you've guessed it - Original Sin.


There was nothing wrong in itself with Abelard's aperçu that a great part of the value of the crucifixion was its exemplary nature. Far from it; and like his stress on intention in moral theology, it made a permanent mark on Christian teaching. We see this a century later in St Thomas Aquinas' Conference no. 6 on the Creed. Aquinas writes:

"Was it necessary for the Son of God to suffer for us? It was very necessary, and on two counts: First as a remedy for our sins, and secondly as a model for us in our behaviour. In the passion of Christ we find a remedy for all the evils which come upon us on account of our sins.

"But the passion is not less useful for us as an example. Indeed the passion of Christ is sufficient in itself to instruct us completely in our whole life. For if anyone wants to live a perfect life, he has only to despise the things that Christ despised on the cross, and to desire what Christ desired. The cross provides an example of every virtue.

"If you are looking for an example of charity, 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' This was what Christ did on the cross. If he gave up his life for us, it ought not to be a burden for us to put up with every evil, whatever it be, for his sake.

"If you are looking for patience, you will find it in its highest form on the cross . . . If you are looking for an example of humility, look at the cross. There, God willed to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die. If you are looking for an example of obedience, follow him who was obedient to the Father, even unto death . . . If you are looking for a model of contempt for earthly things, follow him who is the 'King of kings, and Lord of lords', 'in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.' He was naked on the cross, derided and spat upon, struck and crowned with thorns . . ."

Much of this might have been written by Abelard himself. Aquinas however is careful to make clear at the outset that the exemplary model is not the whole story: " . . . on two counts: First as a remedy for our sins, and secondly as a model . . ." Abelard was perhaps a bit too ready to think that his idea was the only one. [But see the very interesting posting from Steve Cartwright, which I have just read] Nevertheless, if not the only idea, it was a valuable one, and had an incalculable influence in the burgeoning of affective piety in the later middle ages.


Let's think about Heloise for a moment. She did not at first take easily to life in a convent. She writes to Abelard, some fifteen years after taking the veil:

'In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we have shared have been too sweet - they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost. Everything we did and also the times and places are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you. Even in sleep I know no respite. Sometimes my thoughts are betrayed in a movement of my body, or they break out in an unguarded word. In my utter wretchedness, that cry from a suffering soul could well be mine: miserable creature that I am, Who will deliver me from this body of death?' (Infelix ego homo, quis me liberabit de corpore mortis huius? - Romans 7:24).

Before going on to consider Abelard's response, we may ask why Heloise saw St Paul's words as expressing her own situation. 'That cry from a suffering soul could well be mine' - why? From what was Paul suffering, and how did it relate to Heloise's sufferings? In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells how, to keep him from being too elated by the abundance of the revelations he had received, he was given a thorn in the flesh (skolops te sarki) a messenger of Satan, to harass him - literally, 'to give him a box on the ear' (kolaphize). Paul does not go into details as to what this thorn in the flesh was. Many of the Fathers (e.g. Tertullian, Jerome, Primasius, Gregory Nazianzen) regarded it as a painful physical affliction, perhaps, in view of kolaphize, a persistent headache or earache. However, in the Vulgate skolops is rendered as stimulus, and this has rather different connotations. Alfred Plummer made an interesting study of the resultant tradition of exegesis:

"When the original Greek ceased to be familiar in the West, S. Paul's words were known chiefly or entirely through the Latin. The ambiguous rendering in the Latin version of Irenaeus and in Cyprian, stimulus carnis, was diffused through the influence of the Vulgate; and it produced an interpretation which in time prevailed over all others, and which for centuries held the field. It was maintained that the Apostle's great trouble was frequent temptations to sins of the flesh . . . Primasius, who preserves the tradition of pains in the head, gives as a secondary interpretation, 'alii dicunt titillatione carnis stimulatum.' Gregory the Great (Mor. VIII. 29) says that Paul, after being caught up to paradise, 'contra carnis bellum laborat', which perhaps implies this interpretation. =

"Thomas Aquinas says of the stimulus ; 'quia ad literam dicitur, quod fuit vehementer afflictus dolore iliaco'. But afterwards he quotes the opinion, 'quod inerant ei motus concupiscentiae, quos tamen divina gratia refrenebat'. Hugo of St Cher suggests that Thekla was a source of danger to the Apostle . . . Lyra, Bellarmine and Estius all take this view of it; and Cornelius a Lapide says that it is 'communis fidelium sensus'."

The Glossa Ordinaria to 2 Corinthians 12:7 interprets 'stimulus pungens carnem' as 'angelus malignus missus a Satana, ut colaphizet, id est reprimat omnem motum superbiæ incutiendo tribulationes, vel tentando (ut quidem aiunt) per libidinem.'

There was then a strong exegetical tradition that St Paul's affliction was a persistent temptation to lust. Heloise recognised a fellow-sufferer, or rather saw in her own affliction something that had been dignified by troubling in equal measure the greatest of Christian saints. Hers was no common lust; she was possessed by a diviner lust, a Pauline lust, an Apostolic lust.

[I have taken part of the above from my article, "This Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life" in "Medieval Theology and the Natural Body" edd. Peter Biller and A.J. Minnis, York Medieval Press 1997; of which it might be said, as Gibbon said of the Consolation of philosophy, "A golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or of Tully."]


Abelard responded to Heloise's letter with some difficulty. Simply to have got the matter off her chest may have been some relief to Heloise, because in her next letter she is much calmer. She asks Abelard if he can at least give her something else to think about. She asks him specifically for two things: first, a history of the order of nuns. Abelard supplied this; it is not generally considered to be one of his more interesting works.

Heloise's second request deserves to be quoted at length: ' . . . that you will prescribe some Rule for us and write it down, a Rule which shall be suitable for our women, and also describe fully the manner and habit of our way of life, which we find was never done by the holy Fathers. Through lack and need of this it is the practice today for men and women alike to be received into monasteries to profess the same Rule, and the same yoke of monastic ordinance is laid on the weaker sex as on the stronger. At present the one Rule of St Benedict is professed in the Latin Church by women equally with men, although, as it was clearly written by men alone, it can only be fully obeyed by men . . .'

She points out that, as everybody knows, it is practically impossible for a woman to get drunk. She cites Macrobius and Aristotle as authorities for this statement. This is because women's bodies have more holes than men's. 'Through these holes the fumes of wine are quickly released.' That being so, was there any chance of a drop more wine in the daily allowance? A bit more meat in the diet would also be welcome; not the thing for monks, of course, but harmless and necessary to support the infirmity of the weaker sex.

She also fancied wearing linen next to the skin, like Augustinian Canons, not the rough cloth worn by monks. Abelard may have had that request in mind when he made provision for the burial of his nuns: 'The body of the dead woman must then be washed at once by the sisters, clad in some cheap but clean garment and stockings, and laid on a bier, the head covered by the veil . . . The burial of an abbess [and of course, Heloise was the abbess] shall have only one feature to distinguish it from that of others: her entire body shall be wrapped only in a hair-shirt and sewn up in this as in a sack.' Gotcha!


The Rule which Abelard supplied was the first designed specifically for women. A modern feminist (or indeed anyone with common sense) might well think that Heloise would have done better to write the rule herself than to ask her husband. Actually she does seem to have written her own rule for the use of the Paraclete and its dependent houses; it is printed with the works of Abelard in Patrologia Latina 178, columns 313-326. In this she directly contradicts a number of Abelard's provisions; for example the nuns are to eat pure wheat bread, whereas Abelard had specified that coarse grains should be mixed with the wheat.

Most significantly, in order to provide the priests and deacons necessary for the services, Abelard had envisaged a double monastery, ruled over by a male superior. In Heloise's rule, the abbess is in charge over the monks serving the convent. Heloise allows the nuns to go outside for necessary business; Abelard had kept them firmly within the cloister.

One might get the impression from Heloise's first letter that the two had not met since their entry into the religious life. In fact, there had been frequent contacts. In 1129 Suger, Abbot of St Denis, had evicted Heloise and her nuns from Argenteuil. Abelard had made available to them the house of the Paraclete, south east of Paris towards Troyes, where he himself had lived as a hermit. He had travelled there personally to see them installed, and resolved to spend as much time there as possible to manage their affairs, the more especially as the monks of St Gildas were making his life a misery.

He begged Heloise to have him buried at the Paraclete, 'where our daughters, or rather, our sisters in Christ may see our tomb more often and thereby be encouraged to pour out their prayers more fully to the Lord on my behalf. There is no place, I think, so safe and salutary for a soul grieving for its sins and desolated by its transgressions than that which is specially consecrated to the true Paraclete, the Comforter, and which is particularly designated by his name. Nor do I believe that there is any place more fitting for Christian burial among the faithful than one amongst women dedicated to Christ.'

His rule for Heloise and her nuns gains a certain dimension if one realises that it contains a certain element of teasing. Abelard goes on for several pages about the evils of drink, throwing back at her exactly the same texts Heloise had used about the number of holes in women's bodies, but to quite the opposite effect. The import of his diatribe seems to be that the nuns should on no account ever take wine; but when he comes to the point, he merely stipulates that they should take a little water with it. He likewise talks about the necessity for rough clothing: no silk or soft garments. He seems to be hinting at horsehair, but eventually settles for lambswool. He inveighs against gluttony, and seems to be denying them meat altogether, but eventually specifies a perfectly adequate diet.


Abelard wrote for the use of the Paraclete some 133 hymns (excellently edited by Szövérffy, 1975). They are the finest Latin poetry of the twelfth century. Besides being a philosopher and theologian, Abelard was the greatest poet of his age. He tells us that in the early days of his affair with Heloise he wrote love-songs for her, that many of them had become popular and were still being sung at the time he was writing, in the 1130s. These have not survived, so far as we know; although we have many anonymous Latin love-lyrics coming down from the period. Perhaps someone - Fr Chrysogonus perhaps - will one day identify some of them as from the hand of Abelard. But the hymns themselves are, in a sense, love-songs to Heloise. It is possible to see personal references in many of them.

The hymns are one of the glories of Latin literature, endlessly inventive, with many different metres previously unheard of. The only one in common use nowadays is the O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata, written for Saturday vespers and familiar in the translation of J.M. Neale, 'O what their joy and their glory must be, Those endless sabbaths the blessed ones see.' One should note one line: Quis rex, quae curia, quale palatium. In Neale's translation, 'What are the monarch, his court, and his throne?' But palatium does not mean a throne, it means a palace; and it is the Latin name for Le Pallet, where Abelard was born and spent his childhood; hence Peripateticus Palatinus. It was too the haven to which he had abducted Heloise and where she had borne their child. Heaven, says Abelard, will be a Palatium.

I have an article coming out in Mittellateinisches Jarbuch looking at Abelard's technique in some of the hymns. But don't wait for it: do yourself the favour of reading some of his hymns for yourself. They are a body of poetry comparable in stature (forgive me if I grow a little expansive - I write this after an evening's Gaudeamus Igitur in the tavern with Doctor Ceramicus) - comparable in stature, I would say, with Shakespeare's sonnets or Dante's Vita Nuova. One can only begin to imagine how Heloise felt to have them to sing at the Paraclete.


Abelard wrote also seven Planctus, laments, on various Biblical subjects. One is the lament of Dinah, daughter of Jacob. We read in the book of Genesis how one Shechem slept with the Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and defiled her. It does not say that Dinah was unwilling. Shechem fell in love with Dinah and asked to marry her. The sons of Jacob, Dinah's brothers, went along with the idea in order to catch Shechem off guard. They agreed, provided that Shechem and all his household agreed to be circumcised. While they were all smarting from the pain in their private parts, Simeon and Levi killed them all. The book of Genesis says nothing more about Dinah, but Abelard puts into her mouth a lament for her lost lover, treacherously put to death by her kinsmen. Any resemblance to anyone still living was no doubt far from coincidental.

Another planctus is for the daughter of Jephthah, judge of Israel. He vowed that if God would deliver the Ammonites into his hands, he would sacrifice whoever came out to meet him when he returned home. This turned out to be his only daughter. She willingly accepted her fate, since her father had made a vow. Abelard's planctus laments the loss of a young girl through a vow, an ill-advised vow, a stupid vow, but one which having been made could not be revoked. [I discuss this planctus at some length in my article, "This Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life" in "Medieval Theology and the Natural Body" edd. Peter Biller and A.J. Minnis, York Medieval Press 1997]

Another planctus is for Samson. As Samson slept, apparently secure, someone had slipped in and cut off . . . his hair. A slight parallel there, no doubt. Another is for Jonathan, the friend of David. O, he says, that we had died together and been buried in the same tomb! What, we might ask, was Jonathan to Abelard, that he should weep for him?

Heloise did bury Abelard, as he requested, in her convent at the Paraclete. They were buried side by side, though not actually in the same tomb. This did not prevent a legend from springing up - and it is recorded as early as the thirteenth century - that when Abelard's tomb was opened to receive Heloise, he opened his arms to embrace her body. The bodies were moved several times, and now repose together in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where people to this day place flowers on their grave.

And so ends this little presentation on Peripateticus Palatinus.

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