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 have failed and the house of God is dishonored."
Indeed, though Abelard was a cleric in minor orders when he seduced a teenager named Heloise, got her pregnant, secretly married her, then swept both mother and child out of his life, the only church authority who really punished Abelard was Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame—Heloise's uncle. But was it ever a punishment. As Abelard described it in his autobiographical Story of My Calamities:
"Wild with indignation, [Fulbert and his friends and relatives] plotted against me, and one night as I slept peacefully in an inner room in my lodging, they bribed one of my servants to admit them and there took cruel vengeance on me of such appalling barbarity as to shock the whole world; they cut off the parts of my body whereby I had committed the wrong of which they complained."
Once he had recovered from the midnight operation, Abelard entered the Abbey of St. Denis and attempted to continue his philosophical career. He figured that his path would be smoother with one of his vices out of the way, but his other flaws—including pride, irreverence, and combativeness—soon got him in even worse trouble. He was kicked out of the abbey for criticizing St. Denis's legend and twice charged with heresy. Yet he always found friends to give him shelter and a place to teach.
Abelard's legacy would be his application of rationality to faith. This approach, modeled in Sic et Non and other works, influenced his student Peter Lombard and reached fruition in thinkers such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. The sex scandal died even before Abelard did, but his challenge to church tradition and authority kept building for centuries.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Ruth A. Tucker wrote about Abelard and Heloise in Christian History issue 30: Women in the Medieval Church. You can purchase the issue here.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has a lengthy entry on Peter Abelard.
A thesis by John Balnaves has more information about Bernard of Cluny and De contemptu mundi.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
'Hier Stehe Ich!' | When Martin Luther stood up for his ideas at the Diet of Worms, did he really say, "Here I stand"? (April 12, 2002)
National Makeover | Washington's struggle to sell the American image overseas illustrates how sharply today's reality differs from seventeenth-century ideals. (Apr. 5, 2002)
Easter Eloquence | The holiday has inspired great words from some of history's greatest preachers. (March 28, 2002)
The Other Holy Day | In the rush toward Good Friday and Easter, don't forget Maundy Thursday. (March 22, 2002)
The Politics of Patrick | In the field of Irish history, every turn of phrase hints at the author's spin. (March 15, 2002)
Don't Touch That Dial | Could a bitter debate among religious broadcasters really cause a "full-scale split in evangelicalism"? (Mar. 8, 2002)
Translation Wars | Sharp as debate over the TNIV may be, the version's translators are getting off easy compared to John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. (March 1, 2002)
The Cremation Question | Firm belief in resurrection hasn't kept Christians from caring-and arguing-about what happens to the bodies of the dead. (Feb. 22, 2002)
Citius, Altius, Sanctus | The modern Olympics, though hardly Christian, hail from an era when athleticism was next to godliness. (Feb. 15, 2002)
Alternative Religions | Many non- and semi-Christian groups laid claim to the West, but none more successfully than the Mormons. (Feb. 8, 2002)
Zion Haste | Does the passion of a few nineteenth-century Chicagoans still influence American policy in the Middle East? (Feb. 2, 2002)