Historia Calamitatum

by Peter Abelard

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First transcribed: c. 1132; (The Story of My Misfortune, 1922)

Type of work: Autobiography

Time of work: 1079-c.1132

Locale: Paris, Melun, Laon, and St. Gildas, France

Principal Personages:

Pierre Abelard, philosopher, theologian, churchman

Fulbert, Canon of Notre Dame

Heloise, Canon Fulbert's niece

William Of Champeaux, Abelard's teacher, a philosopher

Anselm Of Laon, a teacher

Bernard Of Clairvaux, Abbot of Clairvaux


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 to philosophy and to teaching. Instead of writing new lectures, he wrote love poetry which became famous among those who loved the delights of this world. Fulbert...

(This entire section contains 1309 words.)

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dismissed the rumors which came to him because he loved his niece and had faith in the continence of Abelard. The truth becoming finally apparent, even to Fulbert, the lovers were forced to part. Their separation brought them shame, but shame gave way to increased desire. When Heloise discovered that she was pregnant, Abelard arranged to have her taken to his sister's house. There Heloise gave birth to a son, Astrolabe.

Fulbert, nearly mad with grief, would have killed or injured Abelard had he not feared that Heloise might suffer from the vengeance of her lover's family. Then Abelard begged the canon's forgiveness and declared his intention to marry Heloise. Fulbert agreed to the offer and sealed their agreement with a kiss.

When Abelard told Heloise of his intention, she objected strenuously, arguing that it would be a loss to the Church and to philosophy if he were to disgrace himself by marrying a girl he had seduced. Furthermore, she argued, if he were to marry he would be going against the advice of the most eminent philosophers, who argued that no one could devote himself to philosophy while compelled to listen to the disturbances of family life. Finally she referred to the examples provided by those who undertook the monastic life in order to serve God.

Abelard refusing to be convinced, he and Heloise were married secretly in Paris, the ceremony witnessed by her uncle and a few friends. When Heloise criticized her uncle for telling the secret of her marriage, Fulbert punished her. Abelard, hearing of the punishment, sent Heloise to a convent at Argenteuil. This act so angered the canon that he and his kinsmen arranged to have Abelard castrated. Two of those who perpetrated this shameful deed were later apprehended and, as punishment, blinded and also castrated.

Abelard suffered not so much from the physical injury as from the grief of the clerics and scholars of Paris. Heloise took the vows of a religious life at the convent of Argenteuil, and Abelard became a monk at the abbey of St. Denis. There, deploring the scandalous life of the abbot and other monks, he lured their students from them by teaching secular philosophy as well as theology.

Abelard's rivals at the abbey, through the cooperation of Alberic and Lotulphe, apologists for Anselm, arranged to have him called before an ecclesiastical council at Soissons for writing a tract containing what they regarded as heretical views concerning the unity and trinity of God. Although no case against the book could be made, Abelard's enemies convinced the council that the book should be ordered burned. This decision was carried out and Abelard was sent to the abbey of St. Medard as punishment. After a short period of time, however, all who had been involved in punishing Abelard put the blame on others; Abelard was allowed to return to the abbey of St. Denis.

When the envy of the monks of St. Denis prompted more ecclesiastical quarrels, Abelard secured permission to build an oratory at Troyes. This he named the Paraclete, dedicating the church to the Holy Spirit.

Abelard was then called to be abbot of St. Gildas at Ruits, but his suffering continued because of the undisciplined and immoral behavior of the monks.

When the abbot of St. Denis expelled the nuns from the abbey of Argenteuil, where Heloise served, Abelard arranged to have her and some of her deposed companions take charge of the Paraclete. In this manner he secured Heloise's happiness. Rumors began to spread that Abelard was acting in her behalf because he was moved by lust, but he defended himself by arguing that the damage done to his person made any base act impossible. Furthermore, he regarded it as his duty to supervise the nuns, and he pointed out passages in scripture in support of his action.

Abelard was constantly threatened by the monks of his abbey, who attempted to poison him and to have him murdered by bandits. Only by exercising great care and by excommunicating the most wicked among the brothers was Abelard able to survive. He wrote the letter giving an account of his misfortunes in order to show how much suffering is possible for one who serves God and to argue that, despite suffering, all persons should trust in God's providence.