From Notre Dame to Cluny, via a Beehive Hut

John Bossy

  • Abelard: A Medieval Life by M.T. Clanchy
    Blackwell, 416 pp, £45.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 631 20502 0

Everybody knows that Abelard was a philosopher, the lover of Heloise, and castrated in consequence: a romantic figure, like say Tchaikovsky, in an age of epics. Michael Clanchy’s life of him is too serious to count as romance, and too witty to be epic. He writes extremely well, and matches with a wide and happy learning, which runs from Socrates to Eliot and from Cole Porter to Eco, his intense engagement with the mind and heart of Western Christendom in the 12th century, a time which always seems particularly springlike. His engagement is no less with the authors who have already written about Abelard, 76 of whom are cited briskly in his preface; but he does not bang on about it. He is telling a story; his mode, to borrow a phrase from Peter Burke, is thick narrative.

First he sets up his characters: Abelard himself; his enemy Bernard of Clairvaux, saint and, on Clanchy’s showing, insufferable rhetorician; his lover, short-lived wife and long-lived correspondent Heloise, niece or daughter and ward of Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. Then we have the story, which, unlike weaker-minded and worse historians, Clanchy has no problem about distinguishing from the tales of fiction. It is a story in three acts, or three different stories if you like, joined together in the middle: a story not a plot, because it does not follow Aristotle’s rules, though it does have quite a turn-up in the middle.

Act I: Scientia/Knowledge. The emergence of an intellectual: not exactly Faust – though St Bernard would think so and Clanchy at one point speaks of Abelard as ‘gambling against his soul’ – but the original member of that peculiarly French or Parisian set of public persons we can recognise from Sartre or Foucault. We follow him from his birthplace in a one-horse village in the Breton borderlands south of the Loire, up the river to Loches and Tours, where he meets his first master, Roscelin, and then to the foreign territory of France properly speaking, where the schools of Paris are now drawing students from far and wide. He sets himself up against the reigning masters like William of Champeaux, a Platonist of whom Gordon Leff says that he resembled Lenin by confusing mental categories with real life. After a trip north to cause trouble in the school of Laon, Abelard comes back to Paris, perhaps under the auspices of King Louis’s chancellor Stephen de Garlande, to set up his own school in the cloister of Notre Dame. He becomes famous as the wizard of logic, launches the logical rage that was to govern or misgovern the next four centuries of the intellectual history of the West, asserts the doctrine that logical investigation can elucidate or even explain the doctrines of Christianity – he offers to explain the Trinity by a linguistic analogy which any ten-year-old could explode.

Two thoughts occur about this part of the story. We do not find Abelard inventing a doctrine called nominalism, as Sartre may have invented Existentialism or Barthes or somebody Structuralism. William of Ockham did this two centuries later, but not Abelard. He seems to have drawn the crowds by a witty and unpious mode and a talent for bon mots. We do find him making his way by a sort of king-killing penchant – perhaps deriving from the model of knightly combat, since he came from a knightly family – which required him to set himself up as an instant destroyer of the reputation of any master whose course he attended. He had accumulated plenty of hubris by 1117, or whenever exactly it was.

Act II: Experimentum/Experience. We know what is going to happen now, and Clanchy does not let us down by going along with the opinion that Abelard’s autobiographical Historia Calamitatum and the famous exchange of letters are fictional. Evidently, they are full of rhetoric; but the story they tell, however melodramatic, is true. As Aristotle said in a rare witticism, there is nothing to prevent something which is in accordance with the laws of possibility and probability from having actually happened. Abelard, now master of the cathedral school, lodges in the cloister of Notre Dame, and takes as a pupil his landlord’s ward, who is known for her learning in classical letters, which is greater than his. They fall for each other over a book, like Paolo and Francesca, and make love regularly until Canon Fulbert finds them at it. Abelard takes Heloise home to Brittany, where she has a child. As part of a negotiated settlement, and against her will, he brings her back to Paris and marries her secretly; they live apart, she in her guardian’s house, while he goes back to his teaching. As might have been predicted, the gossip in the cathedral close and elsewhere persuades Fulbert to make the marriage public. Heloise, it seems, expresses her exasperation with menfolk in general by fiercely denying it. She lets Abelard take her away, but this time it is only to the convent at Argenteuil where she was brought up. They have a last fling on the refectory table.

Fulbert reasonably concludes that by sending Heloise to a convent Abelard has now dissolved the marriage, and by suborning Abelard’s servant at his lodgings in the cloister, has him castrated in bed one night. This was a quasi-legal act in the pursuit of a sexually inspired feud, and does not seem to have hurt much. The Bishop of Paris, doing his job of settling disputes, has Heloise take the veil in her convent, sends Abelard to the monastery of St Denis and sequesters Fulbert from his canonry for five years.

Act III: Religio/Religion (meaning the monastic life). Abelard tries to persuade Heloise to accept her new role as a bride of Christ; she insists that she will do no such thing, cultivates her sexual fantasies at Mass and elsewhere, wins to her way of thinking the other nuns. In the 17m century they would be accused of diabolic possession; now they are simply dismissed for immorality. Meanwhile Abelard, no keen religious either, has found a patron to set him up in a house called the Paraclete (meaning the Holy Ghost, the Consoler), where he teaches and writes contentedly. He puts together his book of documents, Sic et Non, a large collection of contradictory opinions from the Fathers of the Church which sets on its way the scholastic method in divinity. There is a ridiculous interlude when he goes as abbot to a cliff-top monastery in Brittany, a scene too Wagnerian by half. He detested the sea and despised real Bretons; when the monks try to poison him, or so he claims, he goes off to live in a beehive hut. He leaps at the chance of Heloise’s dismissal to come back to France, hand the Paraclete over to her and her fellow nuns, and resume his teaching in Paris. His ventures into the new rationalistic discipline he calls theologia cause him to be tried for heresy at Soissons in 1121 and at Sens in 1140. The second trial is stage-managed by St Bernard and leads to a condemnation in Rome. Abelard is taken in by the civilised abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, who is an enemy of St Bernard, and dies soon afterwards at one of Cluny’s priories. Abbot Peter takes his body back to Heloise at the Paraclete; she lives for another twenty years.

Clanchy thickens his narrative at every point, leaving any number of avenues for the speculative reader to pursue. I pursue three. If we think of the story as one of sexual harassment, we shall have to cope with the fairly obvious fact that Heloise was much the stronger character of the two. Authorities argue about how old she was when Abelard became her tutor, and the prevailing view seems to be that she was nearer thirty than twenty. This is disappointing, as well as a bit unlikely. It would make her eightyish when she died, and leave rather a lot of time for her to be doing nothing in particular, except getting famously learned, before she met Abelard. The only thing we seem to know about what happened during her tutorials is that Abelard beat her, or pretended to beat her, so that cries from the room would not suggest that anything untoward was going on. Would this be likely to happen to a woman in her late twenties? Clanchy regards the opinion with some favour, perhaps because, like the cosy castration, it tones down the melodrama a bit. Heloise certainly did not want to marry, since she thought marriage a dreary come-down from the heights of their relationship: it seems that her most striking move in the story, her denial that the marriage had taken place, was some kind of tit-for-tat. Later, it is true, she tried to use the marriage contract as an obligation binding him to pay her his ‘debt’, but she must have had in mind something different from her conjugal rights in the usual sense. She does not appear to have had any sort of Christian view of sexuality: her classical authors were quite enough for her. Some of them were Stoics, but her attitude to Abelard’s castration was not at all stoical. She was altogether a powerful and surprising person. Clanchy thinks she turned him into a writer, and ‘set his agenda’ in theology, for example by putting into his head the idea that in ethics what matters is not the act but the intention. You begin to get the idea, no doubt mistaken, that when he got her into the convent he breathed a sigh of relief.

Then there is the general question about clerical marriage. When Abelard was growing up only about half a century had passed since the Pope had decided that all clerics were to live like monks. This was not a very good idea. In Rome itself it meant a massive body of clerical celibates and an almost equally massive establishment of prostitutes. In rural parishes it was widely ignored. In cathedral chapters it meant that scions of the nobility like Fulbert would no longer have the opportunity to bring up children with a devotion to civility and learning. It was perhaps a particularly bad idea when applied to lecturers in the universities which the schools of Abelard and his contemporaries were about to become. One can understand that the rule might apply to teachers of theology, though I doubt if it did scholastic theology any good. It was maleficent when applied to teachers in arts faculties; anyone who has read Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics or listened to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (as Clanchy suggests) will have some idea of the needless tensions it caused. And this before we get to the question of why Heloise and her like should have been excluded from the budding groves of academe. I have always thought that feminist historians like Marina Warner are misguided to assume that a doctrine and practice of celibacy was the same thing as a prejudice against women; but I must concede that, in this case, one did entail the other.

Unlike Heloise, Abelard went along with the monastic ideology. In doing so, he inaugurated a line of thought which seems to me generally mistaken. His story shows us how much, in real life, he was bound to the social instincts of feud and reconciliation. But his ‘theology’ was distinguished for having no regard for such instincts. Sin, he thought, was a matter of intention, all in the mind; not a social matter. Man’s redemption was not, as St Anselm had recently described it, an objective restoration of social relations between God and man which had been interrupted by Adam and Eve; it, too, was all in the mind. I take this to be a heresy which was promoted by the scholastic theologians who followed Abelard, and became a dogma with the humanists who took over from them in the Renaissance. The reformed Abelard may figure as the author, in the West, of the idea that Christianity is a spiritual, not a social, faith and religion. To that degree he was out-Bernarding St Bernard and out-Hildebranding the Gregorian Papacy. A real-life cohabitation with Heloise and his in-laws might have rescued him from this error.