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.

* Ruth A. Tucker wrote about Abelard and Heloise in Christian History issue 30: Women in the Medieval Church. You can purchase the issue here:store.yahoo.com.

* For more on Bernard of Cluny and De contemptu mundi, see:prosentient.com.au.