Review of Pierre Abélard’s Historia Calamitatum

Abélard and Héloïse in the manuscript Roman de la Rose (14th century)

What was it about?

When you hear the word “scholasticism” what do you think of? I know that when I hear the word I generally think of Thomas Aquinas and his colossal (but unfinished) system Summa Theologica. Scholasticism was a way of doing theology that emerged in late 11th century Europe and was often considered the only acceptable way of doing Catholic theology well into the 20th. But not all scholastics were Thomists or even Catholic. Anselm of Canterbury, Pierre Abélard, Albert the Great, Peter Lombard, and John Duns Scotus (to name only a few) were all scholastics. Some of their followers were even rivals of the Thomists. There were also Protestant scholastics. Some of the early Lutheran and Reformed theologians were scholastics – adopting or redefining scholastic categories to teach the faith.

Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), along with Anselm of Canterbury, was one of the first scholastics. He was a brilliant logician, and one of the founding members of what came to be the University of Paris. He had a huge following and was well respected, until some started accusing him of being non-Trinitarian. In response to a request to prove the Trinity logically, Abélard wrote a book called Sic et Non (Yes and No). Unfortunately, the book was condemned by his rivals, and as a result he was forced to burn his own book at the Council of Sens.

Abélard, however, is not know today for his brilliant but tumultuous theological career. He is known instead for his love affair with a student he tutored named Héloïse d’Argenteuil. Abélard was invited by Héloïse’s uncle to teach his niece philosophy, but Abélard used his position of authority to get Héloïse to sleep with him. She had a son with him, and though they both tried to hide the child, the uncle took revenge by having Abélard castrated in the middle of the night. Héloïse spent the rest of her life as a nun, writing letters to Abélard for spiritual advice.

Historia Calamitatum is Pierre Abélard’s autobiography of his theological career and his affair with Héloïse.

What did I think of it?

How can you judge a person who lived over 800 years ago? While I was reading Historia Calamitatum, I felt like Abélard’s affair with Héloïse would be categorized today as statutory rape. He is an arrogant man who uses his position of authority to manipulate a young woman. But Héloïse is not weak; she is just as brilliant as Abélard. In her letters to Abélard (not included in the Historia Calamitatum), she demonstrates a surprising amount of agency. While I was disgusted by this philosopher’s personal life choices, I pitied him too because his writings were often misrepresented by his opponents. Historia Calamitatum reminded me of the politics that (for better or for worse) have shaped Christian teachings throughout the centuries. As one of the first scholastics, Abélard was strongly condemned by the more influential monastics who often considered reason at odds with faith. Historia Calamitatum bears witness to the tension that existed between the monastics and the scholastics at the start of the second millennium. I am glad to have been introduced to such a complicated figure as Pierre Abélard.

The Cold by Wendell Berry

Update: I have not blogged in almost 2 months. I switched graduate programs from entomology to French and have been really busy reading for school. I know that I was supposed to participate in read-alongs that I had organized, but I bit off way more than I could chew. I hope to get to the books at some point before the end of the year, but it may not be for a while. I apologize for dropping the ball. Until I have more time do read for pleasure, I will post more poems or reviews of plays than book reviews. I may even discuss some philosophical treatises I’ve read. But I will be moving at a slower pace than I have in the past.

Enough about me. Now on to the poem:

The Cold

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

-to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.

Do thou, too, remain warm among ice

“It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Chapter 68)

Review of Gilead

Gileadcover.jpgWhat was it about?

Rev. John Ames is an elderly congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa writing to his 7-year-old son about his ancestry and his relationship with Jack Boughton, the troubled son of a close friend. Rev. Ames’ father and grandfather were also ministers and were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement in the region. Throughout the epistolary novel, Rev. Ames’ influences include the reformed theologian Karl Barth and the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He sees God’s hand everywhere but never thinks he’s somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. He recognizes his flaws and his doubts, disagrees with his father’s pro-war beliefs, and wishes he could have had a better relationship with Jack. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson shows how Rev. Ames’ story and life experiences shaped his faith and the sermons he preached on Sunday.

What did I think of it?

I am not the first person to compare Robinson’s prose to Willa Cather’s. The narrative of Gilead is as lyrical and character-driven as Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like Cather’s works, Gilead is not a conventional novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is a series of anecdotes about the lives of one or two individuals. Because I prefer character-driven, philosophical works to fast-paced thrillers I really enjoyed Gilead. Rev. Ames has a very holistic view of life; he clearly recognizes how everything is interconnected. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, so there are themes from the reformed tradition strewn throughout the work. I was surprised by how ecumenical Rev. Ames was; he attends a Quaker service and appreciates the Methodist presence in Gilead. It is amazing how many sermons Rev. Ames has written throughout his long career as a minister. He has boxes filled with sermons in the attic, but never has the courage to reread his old sermons. After a lifetime of pondering existence and salvation, Rev. Ames is still overwhelmed by the most basic mysteries of life. Gilead certainly deserved the Pulitzer it won in 2005.

Favorite Quotes

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in a twinkling of an eye.”

“It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools and darknesses, just as native as water.”

“I pity [Jack]. I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor, knowing as I do what an uneasy spirit he is. That is disgraceful.”

“At that point I began to suspect, as I have from time to time, that grace has a grand laughter in it.”

June and July in Review

Smileys For BlogThis is my first “month in review” post of the year. I really need to get back to doing these at the end of each month.

Books Read in June and July

Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain, the Knight of the Lion) by Chrétien de Troyes – :) :) :) :) :)

The Once and Future King by T.H. White – :) :) :) (I will be doing a review of this book soon)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo by J.R.R. Tolkien – :) :) :) :)

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes – :) :) :) :)

Locomotive by Brian Floca (Illustration samples are below. This is the most fantastic picture book I think I’ve ever read. If you are a train enthusiast or want to prove to your scoffing friend that children’s literature is art, check out/buy this book.)  – :) :) :) :) :)


Reading Plans For August

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I’m currently half way through it)

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (for a buddy-read with Masanobu @ All the Pretty Books; we’re beginning August 19)

Praise of Folly by Erasmus

I doubt I’ll get through all of these, but this is what I’m hoping to read in the next month or so.

Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

I am not going to review J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo for one simple reason: I cannot. I would give too much away if I were to summarize all three poems. It is better to go into the stories blind. While I enjoyed all three lays, I have neither the background in poetry nor a knowledge of the art of translation to give a thorough review of Tolkien’s work. I will simply leave you with a sample from each poem to whet your appetite. The book includes a reasonably lengthed introduction to the poems. Unfortunately, I have not read it yet. But when I do, I will write a follow-up post so that you are given a proper introduction to Sir Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

After the season of summer with its soft breezes,
when Zephyr goes sighing through seeds and herbs,
right glad is the grass that grows in the open,
when the damp dewdrops are dripping from the leaves,
to greet a gay glance of the glistening sun.
But then Harvest hurries in, and hardens it quickly,
warns it before winter to wax to ripeness.
He drives with his drought the dust, till it rises
from the face of the land and flies up aloft;
wild wind in the welkin makes war on the sun,
the leaves loosed from the linden alight on the ground,
and all grey is the grass that green was before:
all things ripen and rot that rose up at first,
and so the year runs away in yesterdays many, and here winter wends again, as by the way of the world

it ought,
until the Michaelmas moon
has winter’s boding brought;
Sir Gawain then full soon of his grievous journey thought. (II, 23)


Both bliss and grief you have been to me,
But woe far greater hath been my share.
You were caught away from all perils free,
But my pearl was gone, I knew not where;
My sorrow is softened now I it see.
When we parted, too, at one we were;
Now God forbid that we angry be!
We meet on our roads by chance so rare.
I am but mould and good manners miss.
Christ’s mercy, Mary and John: I dare
Only on these to found my bliss. (Part 32)

Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo was a king of old,
in England lordship high did hold;
valour he had and hardihood,
a courteous king whose gifts were good,
His father from King Pluto came,
his mother from Juno, king of fame,
who once of old as gods were named
for mighty deeds they did and claimed. 
Sir Orfeo, too, all things beyond
of harping’s sweet delight was fond, 
and sure were all good harpers there
of him to earn them honour fair;
himself he loved to touch the harp
and pluck the strings with fingers sharp. (v. 25-38)

Complete TBR and Suggestions for Buddy-Reads

So, the Top Ten Tuesday meme for today got me thinking about my current TBR. I bought a ton of books in the past year – more than ever in my life. As you may know, up until recently I almost exclusively used the local library. But while I was in graduate school, I obtained quite a few books from the local secondhand bookstore (a few are new). While I bought most of the books for under 7 dollars, I have made it a goal to read 20 of my unread books before buying any new ones, so that I can keep a manageable TBR. In this post, I will list all the unread fiction that I have purchased in the past year or so. I’m leaving out any unread anthologies because I don’t want to read them in one go. If you would like to buddy-read with me any of the books on the list, please indicate the book in the comments section. Here’s my list.

1) O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

2) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (I’ve read half of it)

3) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (a bargain buy; brand-new hardback with deckled edge paper for 5 dollars!)

4) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

5) Bleak House by Charles Dickens

6) The Way of Kings (Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive series) by Brandon Sanderson

7) The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (the only Harry Potter I own although I have read the 7-book series)

8) Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

9) Beowulf translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

10) The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

11) The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien

12) I, Claudius by Robert Graves

13) Arms and the Man by Bernard Shaw

14) The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

15) Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

16) Faust (parts I and II) by Goethe translated by Philip Wayne (1949 edition in perfect condition)

17) Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

18) The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

19) Hild by Nicola Griffith

20) Peter Pan & Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie (yes, I’m cheating)

21) Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

22) Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

23) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (translated by Nevill Coghill)

24) Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

25) In Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam

26) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

27) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

28) The Secret History by Donna Tartt

29) The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger (a Kindle impulse buy)

30) Sinful Folk by Ned Hayes

31) The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Are there any books on this list you’d like to buddy-read with me?