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.