In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Peter Abelard

  • Introduction
  • Modern Biographies and Overviews
  • Historical Context
  • Manuscripts
  • Opera omnia
  • Web Resources
  • Collected Studies
  • Testimonies about Abelard and Further Poems Attributed to Him

Medieval Studies Peter Abelard
Constant J. Mews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0208


Peter Abelard (b. 1079–d. 1142) initially established his reputation in dialectic, as he describes in his Historia calamitatum (see citations under Letters: Editions and Letters: Translations). After initial training under Roscelin of Compiègne in Anjou, Abelard studied under William of Champeaux in Paris (c. 1100–1104) before opening schools at Melun and then Corbeil. Following a spell recovering from overwork (c. 1107–1111), Abelard returned to Paris, where he challenged William of Champeaux’s realist understanding of universals sometime after William had transferred to Saint-Victor as a canon regular in Easter 1111 (see Historical Context). Abelard taught at Sainte-Geneviève (1111–1113) under the control of his political patron, Stephen of Garlande. William then arranged for an unnamed teacher to take his place at Notre-Dame, replacing him with another substitute, probably Goswin, later a monk at Anchin. After William was made bishop of Châlons (June or July 1113), Abelard studied briefly under Anselm of Laon but came into conflict with his disciples before returning to Paris, where he befriended Heloise, niece of a cathedral canon. That relationship led to the birth of a son, Astralabe, a secret marriage, and then his being castrated at the behest of her uncle. Abelard became a monk at Saint-Denis while she became a nun at Argenteuil. After developing a nominalist theory of language in his Logica “Ingredientibus,” he applied this analysis to the Trinity, arguing that aspects were glimpsed in Plato’s idea of a world soul as much as by prophets. His Theologia “Summi boni” was subsequently condemned as heretical at Soissons in 1121. After escaping from Saint-Denis in 1122, he established a school in Champagne, dedicated to the Paraclete, where he revised his Theologia and expanded the Sic et non. In 1127 he became abbot of Saint-Gildas in Brittany, but in 1129 he invited Heloise to take over the Paraclete. Returning to Sainte-Geneviève in the early 1130s, he developed his theological interests in a commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and in lectures on the topics outlined in the Sic et non, refining his ethical ideas in his Scito teipsum or Ethics. After Arnold of Brescia, expelled from Rome by Pope Innocent II in April 1139, joined him in Paris, he was accused of promoting heresy by William of Saint-Thierry and Bernard of Clairvaux, leading to his seeking to defend himself at the Council of Sens (May 1141). Retiring to Cluny (where Peter the Venerable obtained lifting of a papal sentence of excommunication), he died on 23 April 1142.

Modern Biographies and Overviews

Since the growth of interest in Abelard in the 19th century, there have been many attempts to create synthetic accounts that bring together what is known about his life and writings, as well about his relationship to Heloise. Some of these, such as Gilson 1960, focus specifically on his epistolary exchange with Heloise (about which there has been much scholarly controversy; see Epistolae duorum amantium). Other studies, such as Marenbon 1997, concentrate on his philosophical achievements in logic and ethics (an area that had previously been relatively little studied). Marenbon 2013 revisits his earlier work on Abelard, considering his thought on whether God can do other than he does to ideas f later thinkers, and on metaphysical questions to modern treatments of the subject. Clanchy 1997, a biography, is historically informed, focusing on the different aspects of Abelard’s persona, rather than on detailed analysis of his logic and theology. Grane 1970, interested in Abelard’s views on the relationship between philosophy and theology, is rather dated. Jolivet 1982 provides an in-depth study of Abelard’s theory of language and its application to theology, explained in much-condensed form in Jolivet 1994, although without reflection on ethical issues or Abelard’s relationship to Heloise. Mews 2005 considers both Abelard and Heloise in their historical and intellectual context.

  • Clanchy, Michael T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

    An excellent historical introduction to Abelard, focusing on biographical issues of different aspects of his career, with particular attention to his conflicts within authority.

  • Gilson, Etienne. Heloise and Abelard. Translated by L. K. Shook. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.6623

    English translation of his classic, elegantly written study, Héloïse et Abélard (Paris: Vrin, 1948; 3d ed. published in 1978), which presents the story of their relationship as a spiritual drama about physical and divine love. It concludes with a detailed defense of the authenticity of the correspondence.

  • Grane, Leif. Peter Abelard: Philosophy and Christianity in the Middle Ages. Translated by Frederick Crowley and Christine Crowley. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.

    A useful although now rather dated introduction to Abelard’s pursuit of a philosophical vocation and desire to find common ground with theology, on the basis of older sources. It is a translation of Pierre Abélard: Filosofi og Kristendom i middelalderen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1964).

  • Jolivet, Jean. Arts du langage et théologie chez Abélard. 2d ed. Études de Philosophie Médiévale 57. Paris: Vrin, 1982.

    Masterly in-depth study of Abelard’s understanding of language and of its implication for theology. Originally published in 1969.

  • Jolivet, Jean. Abélard, ou, La philosophie dans le langage. Vestigia 14. Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires de Fribourg, 1994.

    A brief but classic account of Abelard’s life and core philosophical themes, with translations into French of significant extracts of his writing.

  • Marenbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511582714

    An in-depth guide to Abelard’s ideas not just about logic and language (a dominant focus of philosophical interest), but also of ethics, preceded by a historical survey of what is known about Abelard’s career and literary output.

  • Marenbon, John. Abelard in Four Dimensions: A Twelfth-Century Philosopher in His Context and Ours. Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.

    Reflections on Abelard from four angles: the development of his thinking about issues of logic and of the question whether God can do other than he does, Abelard and Anselm, the argument about God’s capacity to act from Lombard to Leibniz, and potential connections between Abelard’s theory of language and some modern views.

  • Mews, Constant J. Abelard and Heloise. Great Medieval Thinkers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195156889.001.0001

    Presents an overview of the development of Abelard’s thought from reflection on logic and language to theology, and then to ethics, with particular attention to the influence of Heloise.

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