On April 21, 1142, philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard died, leaving an estranged son, a despondent former mistress, and a stack of condemned writings. He had been responsible for the twelfth century church's most infamous sex scandal, but his ideas caused the real stir.
Abelard, author of the controversial book Sic et Non, had established himself as one of his era's foremost thinkers by age 21. In the book, he approached many church teachings skeptically, arguing that "by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth." Though traditionalists shuddered, he attracted students, wealth, and prestige. Still, he wanted more. In his late 30s, he decided to get himself a mistress—an activity the medieval church frowned upon but couldn't eradicate.
According to contemporary accounts, the church's ability to regulate behavior in Abelard's day was severely hampered by corruption. Around 1140, monk Bernard of Cluny wrote in his satirical/didactic poem De contemptu mundi:
"The man who, as a parish priest, stands in the front line of the battle is ill-prepared to combat sin. He completes his priestly duties as quickly as possible. Lust has debilitated him. The priest's housekeeper … cherishes her master. She supports him, listens to him, loves him and fears him. She is late going to bed, and she frequently sends the servant outside. He is called a priest, but he is not an ornament to his profession. Alas! He takes the sins of his people and incorporates them in himself."
Of the bishops who should have monitored the priests, Bernard wrote, "[They] have lost their strength and firmness of purpose. Their hands are guilty, their thoughts turn to evil, their words encourage sin of both word and deed. The bishops ...1
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