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Peripateticus Palatinus: The Story of Abelard, Part 3
NOTE: This lengthy article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author. Comments engendered by these postings may be accessed through the archives of the discussion list starting in March, 1998.
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (17)
Abelard's ethical views are of a piece with his view of the Atonement as
worked out in his Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Sin was a matter
of wrong intention, and the crucifixion was above all an example of right
intention (i.e. on the part of Christ). Abelard did not have much truck
with the idea of original sin; he did not see, as other Christian thinkers
have done, that our capacity for making right choices has been damaged by
original sin and therefore needs to be helped and perfected by grace. There
was some truth in Bernard's accusation that with Pelagius, he preferred free
will to grace.
A few days ago Pat Sloane raised a question about original sin. It may be
helpful to attempt an answer here, with reference to Abelard's views. Now
teaching on this issue varies considerably from church to church, and indeed
between one Magister and another. I intend no disrespect to anyone else's
opinions in this matter; have me excusyd if I speke amys. With this
disclaimer then I proceed.
Watch the news today, or read a newspaper, and you will without doubt hear
of murders, robberies, rapes, frauds and lies. Evidently we live in a very
imperfect world; or rather, the people in it, including you and I, are very
imperfect. If we seek to make excuses for some unpleasant action, we are
apt to say, "You have to make allowances for human nature." Perhaps so; but
this is an unflattering reflection upon human nature. Genesis 1 tells us
that we were created in God's image and likeness. If so, that image would
seem to be distorted, blemished, flawed; some would even say, destroyed
Theologians refer to this blemish in human nature, this flaw in God's image
in human beings, as 'original sin'. Its existence is a matter of common
observation and does not depend on the acceptance of any attempt to explain
it, such as the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. We can still believe in
original sin without accepting the historicity of Adam and Eve. However,
nearly all the Christians of Abelard's period did accept the historicity of
that story, so I shall regard it as historical for the purposes of this
The first point to be made about original sin is that it is not a sin at
all. It is not culpable; we are not to blame for it; we are born with it,
indeed conceived with it (and the difference between conception and birth is
important when we come to discuss - as we shall - the Immaculate Conception
of Mary). It is as if, shall we say, a man contracted a disease through
some sinful act, for example, through an adulterous affair. The man
recklessly passes this disease on to his wife, and subsequently to their
children. The man has committed a sin, and stands in need of forgiveness.
The wife and children have not committed any sin in this matter, and do not
therefore require forgiveness. However, they are just as much infected as
the man himself, just as much subject to the effects of the disease. Thus,
we may think of Adam and Eve themselves being forgiven for their sin - they
did after all commit it. But it does not make sense to think of a 'general'
forgiveness of original sin.
Such is one way, at least, of looking at original sin. We are not
personally to blame for its existence, but we still find that it damages our
capacity for goodness, for obedience to the will of God. To give another
analogy (which I hope will not cause offence), a disabled person is in no
way to blame for his or her disability, but may still find it very
difficult, or impossible, to climb a staircase. And such, Christians
believe, is the activity in which we are engaged: many books - The Ladder
of Perfection, The Ascent of Mount Carmel - describe the journey to God as a
steep climb. We cannot make that climb by our own efforts, and are in need
of God's "grace" if we are going to get anywhere.
People have written whole books on what is meant by "grace" so let me simply
refer to the definition given in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian
Church: "Grace: In Christian theology, the supernatural assistance of God
bestowed upon a rational being with a view to his sanctification." In
simple terms, it means God giving us a helping hand up that staircase. The
need for that grace is a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine, and
perhaps no heresy is more subversive to Christian doctrine than that of
Pelagius, who taught that we could perform good works, and achieve
salvation, without the aid of grace.
This was one of the several heresies of which Bernard accused Abelard, and
as I have said there was some truth in the accusation, although I would
defend him by referring to pages 65-66 in the Penguin translation of his
"But success always puffs up fools with pride, and worldly security weakens
the spirit's resolution and easily destroys it through carnal temptations.
I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to
fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh . . . Since
therefore I was wholly enslaved to pride and lechery, God's grace provided a
remedy for both these evils, though not one of my choosing: first for my
lechery by depriving me of those organs with which I practised it, and then
for the pride which had grown in me through my learning . . . when I was
humiliated by the burning of the book of which I was so proud."
Anyone, it seems to me, who can find a signal instance of God's grace in his
own castration and humiliation needs no lecture on grace from me, or from St
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (18)
I began my remarks yesterday by saying that "Abelard's ethical views are of
a piece with his view of the Atonement as worked out in his Commentary on
the Letter to the Romans." This may be the time to look at his view of the
Atonement. In the Christian Church, various councils have defined with
great precision doctrines relating to the Incarnation, to the Trinity, to
the Eucharist. The Church has never rigorously defined its doctrine of the
Atonement, particularly in relation to the Crucifixion of Christ. How does
Christ's crucifixion save us? There have been various answers to this
question, and three in particular have been influential. They may be
summed-up in the three words, Ransom, Satisfaction, Example.
A few weeks ago we looked at the Ransom model with relation to the hymn of
Venantius Fortunatus. I refer members to that posting for a full treatment
of the subject.Briefly, this view regards the death of Christ as a ransom
paid to the devil to release mankind from bondage. By and large the
Western Church accepted that model for the first thousand years of its
It was called into question by St Anselm in the Cur Deus Homo. In this,
Anselm's pupil Boso says to Anselm (Book 1, chapter 7), "But that which we
are wont to assert [and he summarises the Ransom theory] . . . all this, to
my mind, is of no force whatever." Boso had studied under Ralph of Laon,
brother of Anselm of Laon with whom Abelard was to cross swords; Ralph's
book, also entitled Cur Deus Homo, had presented the Atonement very much in
the traditional terms of a Ransom.
St Anselm responded to Boso's difficulty by formulating the Satisfaction
model of the atonement. According to this, Christ's death is the payment of
a debt to the Father, rather than of a ransom to the devil. Those who wish
to look more deeply into the matter must read Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and his
Meditation upon Human Redemption (which is included in the Penguin Classics
'Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm').
Abelard also rejected the Ransom theory, in terms very like those of Anselm
(whom, I assume, he had read), but offered a different alternative, the
Example model. His solution is as follows: "Now it seems to us that we
have been justified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this
way: through this unique act of grace manifested to us - in that his Son
has taken upon himself our nature and persevered therein in teaching us by
word and example even unto death - he has more fully bound us to himself by
love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of
divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring for him."
[Quaestio inserted into his commentary on Romans 3:19-26].
In brief, the Crucifixion is above all for Abelard an example of God's love,
which evokes a response of love from our own hearts. As Mrs Alexander's
hymn puts it, "O dearly, dearly, has he loved, and we must love him too."
As far as it goes, this idea is perfectly orthodox, and indeed scriptural;
cf. I Peter 2:21 "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that
you should follow in his steps." Most Christians however have felt that
there was a bit more to it than that. The Atonement becomes not something
objective, but something dependent upon our own subjective response to the
crucifixion. And our own response is impaired by - you've guessed it -
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (19)
There was nothing wrong in itself with Abelard's aperçu that a great part of
the value of the crucifixion was its exemplary nature. Far from it; and
like his stress on intention in moral theology, it made a permanent mark on
Christian teaching. We see this a century later in St Thomas Aquinas'
Conference no. 6 on the Creed. Aquinas writes:
"Was it necessary for the Son of God to suffer for us? It was very
necessary, and on two counts: First as a remedy for our sins, and secondly
as a model for us in our behaviour. In the passion of Christ we find a
remedy for all the evils which come upon us on account of our sins.
"But the passion is not less useful for us as an example. Indeed the
passion of Christ is sufficient in itself to instruct us completely in our
whole life. For if anyone wants to live a perfect life, he has only to
despise the things that Christ despised on the cross, and to desire what
Christ desired. The cross provides an example of every virtue.
"If you are looking for an example of charity, 'Greater love has no man than
this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' This was what Christ
did on the cross. If he gave up his life for us, it ought not to be a
burden for us to put up with every evil, whatever it be, for his sake.
"If you are looking for patience, you will find it in its highest form on
. . . If you are looking for an example of humility, look at the cross.
There, God willed to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die. If you are
looking for an example of obedience, follow him who was obedient to the
Father, even unto death . . . If you are looking for a model of contempt for
earthly things, follow him who is the 'King of kings, and Lord of lords',
'in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.' He was naked
on the cross, derided and spat upon, struck and crowned with thorns . . ."
Much of this might have been written by Abelard himself. Aquinas however is
careful to make clear at the outset that the exemplary model is not the
whole story: " . . . on two counts: First as a remedy for our sins, and
secondly as a model . . ." Abelard was perhaps a bit too ready to think
that his idea was the only one.
[But see the very interesting posting from Steve Cartwright, which I have
just read] Nevertheless, if not the only idea, it was a valuable one, and
had an incalculable influence in the burgeoning of affective piety in the
later middle ages.
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (20)
Let's think about Heloise for a moment. She did not at first take easily to
life in a convent. She writes to Abelard, some fifteen years after taking
'In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we have shared have been too
sweet - they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my
thoughts. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing
with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep.
Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer,
lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that
my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be
groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have
lost. Everything we did and also the times and places are stamped on my
heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you.
Even in sleep I know no respite. Sometimes my thoughts are betrayed in a
movement of my body, or they break out in an unguarded word. In my utter
wretchedness, that cry from a suffering soul could well be mine: miserable
creature that I am, Who will deliver me from this body of death?' (Infelix
ego homo, quis me liberabit de corpore mortis huius? - Romans 7:24).
Before going on to consider Abelard's response, we may ask why Heloise saw
St Paul's words as expressing her own situation. 'That cry from a suffering
soul could well be mine' - why? From what was Paul suffering, and how did
it relate to Heloise's sufferings? In his second letter to the Corinthians,
Paul tells how, to keep him from being too elated by the abundance of the
revelations he had received, he was given a thorn in the flesh (skolops te
sarki) a messenger of Satan, to harass him - literally, 'to give him a box
on the ear' (kolaphize). Paul does not go into details as to what this
thorn in the flesh was. Many of the Fathers (e.g. Tertullian, Jerome,
Primasius, Gregory Nazianzen) regarded it as a painful physical affliction,
perhaps, in view of kolaphize, a persistent headache or earache. However,
in the Vulgate skolops is rendered as stimulus, and this has rather
different connotations. Alfred Plummer made an interesting study of the
resultant tradition of exegesis:
"When the original Greek ceased to be familiar in the West, S. Paul's words
were known chiefly or entirely through the Latin. The ambiguous rendering
in the Latin version of Irenaeus and in Cyprian, stimulus carnis, was
diffused through the influence of the Vulgate; and it produced an
interpretation which in time prevailed over all others, and which for
centuries held the field. It was maintained that the Apostle's great
trouble was frequent temptations to sins of the flesh . . . Primasius, who
preserves the tradition of pains in the head, gives as a secondary
interpretation, 'alii dicunt titillatione carnis stimulatum.' Gregory the
Great (Mor. VIII. 29) says that Paul, after being caught up to paradise,
'contra carnis bellum laborat', which perhaps implies this interpretation. =
"Thomas Aquinas says of the stimulus ; 'quia ad literam dicitur, quod fuit
vehementer afflictus dolore iliaco'. But afterwards he quotes the opinion,
'quod inerant ei motus concupiscentiae, quos tamen divina gratia
refrenebat'. Hugo of St Cher suggests that Thekla was a source of danger to
the Apostle . . . Lyra, Bellarmine and Estius all take this view of it; and
Cornelius a Lapide says that it is 'communis fidelium sensus'."
The Glossa Ordinaria to 2 Corinthians 12:7 interprets 'stimulus pungens
carnem' as 'angelus malignus missus a Satana, ut colaphizet, id est reprimat
omnem motum superbiæ incutiendo tribulationes, vel tentando (ut quidem
aiunt) per libidinem.'
There was then a strong exegetical tradition that St Paul's affliction was a
persistent temptation to lust. Heloise recognised a fellow-sufferer, or
rather saw in her own affliction something that had been dignified by
troubling in equal measure the greatest of Christian saints. Hers was no
common lust; she was possessed by a diviner lust, a Pauline lust, an
[I have taken part of the above from my article, "This
Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life" in "Medieval
Theology and the Natural Body" edd. Peter Biller and A.J. Minnis, York
Medieval Press 1997; of which it might be said, as Gibbon said of the
Consolation of philosophy, "A golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of
Plato or of Tully."]
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (21)
Abelard responded to Heloise's letter with some difficulty. Simply to have
got the matter off her chest may have been some relief to Heloise, because
in her next letter she is much calmer. She asks Abelard if he can at least
give her something else to think about. She asks him specifically for two
things: first, a history of the order of nuns. Abelard supplied this; it
is not generally considered to be one of his more interesting works.
Heloise's second request deserves to be quoted at length: ' . . . that you
will prescribe some Rule for us and write it down, a Rule which shall be
suitable for our women, and also describe fully the manner and habit of our
way of life, which we find was never done by the holy Fathers. Through lack
and need of this it is the practice today for men and women alike to be
received into monasteries to profess the same Rule, and the same yoke of
monastic ordinance is laid on the weaker sex as on the stronger. At present
the one Rule of St Benedict is professed in the Latin Church by women
equally with men, although, as it was clearly written by men alone, it can
only be fully obeyed by men . . .'
She points out that, as everybody knows, it is practically impossible for a
woman to get drunk. She cites Macrobius and Aristotle as authorities for
this statement. This is because women's bodies have more holes than men's.
'Through these holes the fumes of wine are quickly released.' That being
so, was there any chance of a drop more wine in the daily allowance? A bit
more meat in the diet would also be welcome; not the thing for monks, of
course, but harmless and necessary to support the infirmity of the weaker sex.
She also fancied wearing linen next to the skin, like Augustinian Canons,
not the rough cloth worn by monks. Abelard may have had that request in
mind when he made provision for the burial of his nuns: 'The body of the
dead woman must then be washed at once by the sisters, clad in some cheap
but clean garment and stockings, and laid on a bier, the head covered by
the veil . . . The burial of an abbess [and of course, Heloise was the
abbess] shall have only one feature to distinguish it from that of others:
her entire body shall be wrapped only in a hair-shirt and sewn up in this as
in a sack.' Gotcha!
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (22)
The Rule which Abelard supplied was the first designed specifically for
women. A modern feminist (or indeed anyone with common sense) might well
think that Heloise would have done better to write the rule herself than to
ask her husband. Actually she does seem to have written her own rule for
the use of the Paraclete and its dependent houses; it is printed with the
works of Abelard in Patrologia Latina 178, columns 313-326. In this she
directly contradicts a number of Abelard's provisions; for example the nuns
are to eat pure wheat bread, whereas Abelard had specified that coarse
grains should be mixed with the wheat.
Most significantly, in order to provide the priests and deacons necessary
for the services, Abelard had envisaged a double monastery, ruled over by a
male superior. In Heloise's rule, the abbess is in charge over the monks
serving the convent. Heloise allows the nuns to go outside for necessary
business; Abelard had kept them firmly within the cloister.
One might get the impression from Heloise's first letter that the two had
not met since their entry into the religious life. In fact, there had been
frequent contacts. In 1129 Suger, Abbot of St Denis, had evicted Heloise and
her nuns from Argenteuil. Abelard had made available to them the house of
the Paraclete, south east of Paris towards Troyes, where he himself had
lived as a hermit. He had travelled there personally to see them installed,
and resolved to spend as much time there as possible to manage their
affairs, the more especially as the monks of St Gildas were making his life
He begged Heloise to have him buried at the Paraclete, 'where our daughters,
or rather, our sisters in Christ may see our tomb more often and thereby be
encouraged to pour out their prayers more fully to the Lord on my behalf.
There is no place, I think, so safe and salutary for a soul grieving for its
sins and desolated by its transgressions than that which is specially
consecrated to the true Paraclete, the Comforter, and which is particularly
designated by his name. Nor do I believe that there is any place more
fitting for Christian burial among the faithful than one amongst women
dedicated to Christ.'
His rule for Heloise and her nuns gains a certain dimension if one realises
that it contains a certain element of teasing. Abelard goes on for several
pages about the evils of drink, throwing back at her exactly the same texts
Heloise had used about the number of holes in women's bodies, but to quite
the opposite effect. The import of his diatribe seems to be that the nuns
should on no account ever take wine; but when he comes to the point, he
merely stipulates that they should take a little water with it. He likewise
talks about the necessity for rough clothing: no silk or soft garments. He
seems to be hinting at horsehair, but eventually settles for lambswool. He
inveighs against gluttony, and seems to be denying them meat altogether, but
eventually specifies a perfectly adequate diet.
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (23)
Abelard wrote for the use of the Paraclete some 133 hymns (excellently
edited by Szövérffy, 1975). They are the finest Latin poetry of the
twelfth century. Besides being a philosopher and theologian, Abelard was the
greatest poet of his age. He tells us that in the early days of his affair
with Heloise he wrote love-songs for her, that many of them had become
popular and were still being sung at the time he was writing, in the 1130s.
These have not survived, so far as we know; although we have many anonymous
Latin love-lyrics coming down from the period. Perhaps someone - Fr
Chrysogonus perhaps - will one day identify some of them as from the hand of
Abelard. But the hymns themselves are, in a sense, love-songs to Heloise.
It is possible to see personal references in many of them.
The hymns are one of the glories of Latin literature, endlessly inventive,
with many different metres previously unheard of. The only one in common
use nowadays is the O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata, written for Saturday
vespers and familiar in the translation of J.M. Neale, 'O what their joy and
their glory must be, Those endless sabbaths the blessed ones see.' One
should note one line: Quis rex, quae curia, quale palatium. In Neale's
translation, 'What are the monarch, his court, and his throne?' But
palatium does not mean a throne, it means a palace; and it is the Latin
name for Le Pallet, where Abelard was born and spent his childhood; hence
Peripateticus Palatinus. It was too the haven to which he had abducted
Heloise and where she had borne their child. Heaven, says Abelard, will be
I have an article coming out in Mittellateinisches Jarbuch looking at
Abelard's technique in some of the hymns. But don't wait for it: do
yourself the favour of reading some of his hymns for yourself. They are a
body of poetry comparable in stature (forgive me if I grow a little
expansive - I write this after an evening's Gaudeamus Igitur in the tavern
with Doctor Ceramicus) - comparable in stature, I would say, with
Shakespeare's sonnets or Dante's Vita Nuova. One can only begin to imagine
how Heloise felt to have them to sing at the Paraclete.
PERIPATETICUS PALATINUS (24)
Abelard wrote also seven Planctus, laments, on various Biblical subjects.
One is the lament of Dinah, daughter of Jacob. We read in the book of
Genesis how one Shechem slept with the Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and defiled
her. It does not say that Dinah was unwilling. Shechem fell in love with
Dinah and asked to marry her. The sons of Jacob, Dinah's brothers, went
along with the idea in order to catch Shechem off guard. They agreed,
provided that Shechem and all his household agreed to be circumcised. While
they were all smarting from the pain in their private parts, Simeon and Levi
killed them all. The book of Genesis says nothing more about Dinah, but
Abelard puts into her mouth a lament for her lost lover, treacherously put
to death by her kinsmen. Any resemblance to anyone still living was no
doubt far from coincidental.
Another planctus is for the daughter of Jephthah, judge of Israel. He vowed
that if God would deliver the Ammonites into his hands, he would sacrifice
whoever came out to meet him when he returned home. This turned out to be
his only daughter. She willingly accepted her fate, since her father had
made a vow. Abelard's planctus laments the loss of a young girl through a
vow, an ill-advised vow, a stupid vow, but one which having been made could
not be revoked. [I discuss this planctus at some length in my article,
"This Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life" in "Medieval
Theology and the Natural Body" edd. Peter Biller and A.J. Minnis, York
Medieval Press 1997]
Another planctus is for Samson. As Samson slept, apparently secure, someone
had slipped in and cut off . . . his hair. A slight parallel there, no
doubt. Another is for Jonathan, the friend of David. O, he says, that we
had died together and been buried in the same tomb! What, we might ask, was
Jonathan to Abelard, that he should weep for him?
Heloise did bury Abelard, as he requested, in her convent at the Paraclete.
They were buried side by side, though not actually in the same tomb. This
did not prevent a legend from springing up - and it is recorded as early as
the thirteenth century - that when Abelard's tomb was opened to receive
Heloise, he opened his arms to embrace her body. The bodies were moved
several times, and now repose together in the Père Lachaise cemetery in
Paris, where people to this day place flowers on their grave.
And so ends this little presentation on Peripateticus Palatinus.
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