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.