Historia Calamitatum Critical Essays

Peter Abelard


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Abelard’s History of My Calamity is an account of the romantic and intellectual misfortunes of one of the significant philosophers of the Middle Ages. As a moderate realist Abelard upheld the Aristotelian idea that names of characteristics do not name independently real universals but merely call attention to certain resemblances in things. This opinion made him a philosophical opponent of his teacher, William of Champeaux. Abelard’s reliance on logic and dialectic together with his love of debate resulted in his antagonizing many churchmen, Bernard of Clairvaux in particular, and he was condemned for heresy. This misfortune took second place to the castration which he suffered as the result of having seduced Heloise, niece of the Canon of Notre Dame. Abelard’s story of his misfortunes is at the same time a personal statement from the Middle Ages and a timeless expression of human trials.

Pierre Abelard was born in the village of Pallet, about eight miles from Nantes. His father was a soldier who had studied letters, and through his influence Abelard acquired a passion for learning. In particular, he delighted in philosophy and in the logical exercise of disputation.

In Paris he studied under William of Champeaux, whom he irritated by besting him in a series of debates. Abelard set up a school of his own at Melun and, later, at Corbeil, near Paris, until he was forced by illness to return to his native province for several years. When he returned to Paris, he resumed study with William of Champeaux, but once again Abelard’s skill in overthrowing his master’s philosophy of universals gained the enmity of that cleric. Consequently, Abelard reestablished his school at Melun and attracted many of William’s students to his own school. Later, he moved closer to Paris, conducted his school on Mont Ste. Genevieve, and carried on a philosophical feud with William.

After the conversion of his parents to the monastic life, Abelard decided to study under Anselm of Laon, but he was disappointed to discover that Anselm’s fame was more a result of custom than of intellect. Anselm had a great flow of words, but the words were all meaningless. Taunted by Anselm’s admirers for his desultory attendance at the lectures, Abelard invited the students to hear his own exposition of the Scriptures. The presentation was so successful that, like William, Anselm began to persecute Abelard for surpassing him. When Anselm ordered Abelard to cease the work which was embarrassing him, Abelard returned to Paris.

In Paris he completed the glosses on Ezekiel which he had begun at Laon. As his philosophical fame grew and the numbers of his students increased, his pride and sensuality grew accordingly. Attracted by Heloise, the young niece of a canon named Fulbert, Abelard determined to possess her. Having persuaded her uncle to take him in as a lodger, he agreed to become Heloise’s tutor and guide.

Abelard’s objective was soon reached. Pretending to be engrossed in study, the lovers explored all the avenues of love, and Abelard gave less and less time...

(The entire section is 1267 words.)