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Peter Abelard, the son of a knight, was born in France in CE 1079, and died in 1142. He gave up his right and heritage as a warrior to pursue a career of scholarship and religion, which took him to Paris for much of his life and turned out to be nearly as hazardous as a life of war. He had a love of dialectics and religion, which pushed him to pursue both student and master positions all over France though mostly in Paris. Throughout his life he studied, taught, had a love affair, was castrated, became a monk, and was excommunicated from the church. However, he was a person of tenacity and although his work on the Trinity was burned, he continued writing. He was a man of conflicting traits. One of the major examples of this, and what he is most know for, was his affair with Heloise, a beautiful and disastrous event, which violently interrupted his pursuit of knowledge and practice of logic while simultaneously inspiring him to new heights. Another example of juxtaposition was his relationship to Bernard of Clairvaux. As rivals they were naturally opposed to one another, but surprisingly shared many religious opinions. Peter Abelard was an extremely important in furthering the perception of education as a separate field from religion. This is so for several reasons, his work was considered extremely controversial and as a result was recorded allowing it to be passed down. His work encouraged doubt and enquiry. His love of debate promoted argument concerning religious subjects. His striking personality caused innumerable people to follow and idolize him. Finally, he applied reason to religion.

Peter Abelard’s work was first and foremost controversial. He even had the audacity to dispute the Holy Trinity, which was a highly unorthodox thing to do in the early thirteenth century (Luscombe 1969, 4). The concept of theTrinity was considered a sacred fact and any further examination was an affront to the Trinity itself. He was also contentious because he had studied under Roscelin, a man notorious for separating the church and education to an extreme (Clanchy 1997, 84). He was actually less radical than his former master, but association, mildly liberal thinking, and a love of logic were enough to mark him as an atypical holy man. He was considered holy for much of his life because during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the custom was that someone who became a student was immediately considered to be a member of the clergy even if they hadn’t taken divine rights (Grane 1970, 45). As a student or teacher for his adult life, he fell immediately into the category of churchman. At the time there were two main theological factions in the church. The first faction was certain that anything religious that needed to be understood would be automatically easy to understand. Anything more complex was in the hands of God. This was Bernard of Clairvaux’s position and opinion. The second faction which, included Roscelin, was more extreme and argued that God’s knowledge had to be pursued. Peter Abelard fell somewhere in the middle with a slight to moderate tilt towards Roscelin’s side of affairs. More important than the bare fact that his work was controversial, was the fact that it was so contentious as to be recorded, giving us access to his work and to primary and secondary sources that a slightly less notorious person would quite possibly not have incurred. According to, The School of Peter Abelard, “ his work was so popular and horrifying that people wrote about it extensively giving us many sources of study including Abelard’s own work” (Luscombe 1969, 1-4). This means people can still access it and evaluate opinions concerning it. Another benefit of his work being divisive was that he was written about excessively by peers, admirers, rivals, and straight-out enemies, as opposed to just friends or just enemies or no one at all. These perspectives allow us to see him from many different angles and to therefore gain a truer understanding of him as an individual. His students wrote about him, his lover wrote to him, and his rivals etched out criticisms. St Bernard wrote about him having “put degrees on the Trinity, Modes in the Majesty, numbers in Eternity” (Clanchy 1997,115). This shows that it was not just Abelard who knew he was applying logic to Catholicism, but even his rivals saw it in the same way, if with less approval. Being able to look back at what Abelard himself wrote and what others wrote about him has allowed his contributions to the scholastic world to be preserved and passed down through history. One of the reasons that Abelard was considered controversial was because he seemed to encourage litigious students by emphasizing doubt and inquiry in their behavior and beliefs at least in the classroom.

Abelard encouraged doubt and inquiry in his students, himself, and basically everyone else he encountered including his lover, Heloise. According to Bernard of Clairvaux, Abelard’s chief rival, Abelard was asking too many questions (Clanchy 1997, 7). However this statement is both too blunt and too brief to adequately capture the true feelings of people confronted and subsequently offended by Abelard’s willingness to apply reason to religion. After all, there was no disagreement among scholastics about the need for proof and questioning…. The issue was simply which inquiries were appropriate (Clanchy, 1997, 121). Abelard was simply asking the wrong, or depending on the viewpoint, the right questions. Unfortunately, at least for Abelard, he tended to emphasize contradiction and doubt rather than certainty and solutions, an approach to teaching that tends to undermine all authority (Kreis 2004). Though in reality he claimed to have doubted, so that he could question, so that he could prove things like God’s divinity and the rationality of the Holy Trinity. He was successful in the case of the Trinity. This approach was not looked upon with favor by many of the other clergymen. In the twentieth century, doubt, questions, and sometimes an inability to find concrete answers are all things to be expected in higher education particularly in the liberal arts. However, in the early thirteenth century this was not the case. Things that were not concrete were supposed to be divine and were therefore, outside of man’s understanding. Also, during Abelard’s life the main force of continuity in Europe was the Catholic Church (Bellows 1958, V). Understandably, an educational process that undercut the authority of any such adhesive force would tend to make said force at the very least mildly irked, if not fully concerned, suggesting eventual ramifications. This is the fate that befell Abelard when his work on the Trinity was decreed heretical and burned by Pope Innocent II in CE 1140 (Luscombe 1969, 18). Thus his career as a theologian was heavily opposed. However, before it reached the state of heresy, Abelard’s willingness to doubt slid seamlessly into another of his major scholastic skills, dialectics. Doubt and questions, while important in their own right led undeniably to debate.

Dialectics, an early type of debate, was Abelard’s specialty. The method takes conflicting statements and compares them by applying a series of logical tests to all claims involved (Clanchy 1997, 6). This was the method Abelard employed with the Trinity, “the upshot of which is that belief in the Trinity is rationally justifiable since as far as reason can go the doctrine makes sense—at least, once the tools of dialectic have been properly employed” (Stanford 2004). Meaning that Abelard doubted the Trinity, questioned it, and then applied a form of logic to it in order to prove its religious legitimacy. For Abelard, this was a success. All the same, St. Bernard along with Pope Innocent II, took severe exception to this. The problem in their eyes was not that the Trinity was worth worshipping, but that someone had possessed the monumental hubris to attempt to prove that it was worth worshipping through a reasoning process. Unsurprisingly Abelard’s work on the Trinity led to debating, one of his fortes. Considered possibly the greatest logician of his time, his skill at debate was unparalleled.

“First and foremost a logician, with an unwavering faith in the reasoning process, he fell in with the dialectic preoccupations of his age, and did more than any one else to define the problems and methods of scholasticism, at least in the matter of universals” (Kreis 2004).

In short, he spent much of his time devoted to logic and reason and the pursuit thereof. In fact, he was originally a traveling scholar in search of masters of dialectics (Grane 1970, 36). He used his incredible skills at reasoned arguing to convince others to trust and follow him though often unintentionally. His impressive ability to think concepts through and argue them with verve and eloquence earned him adversaries and the fear of the church along with disciples. “He lived for and delighted in contradiction and argument” (Clanchy 1997, 6). He even applied the method of dialectics to his work on the Trinity, which caused no end of irritation to Bernard of Clairvaux. He also did his best to debate his work openly with Bernard, but Bernard betrayed him and called a council against him for heresy. In the end, “Abelard’s voice of reason was no match against Bernard’s Divine wrath” (Clanchy 1997, 115). His excommunication and more burnings of his work on the Trinity followed Bernard’s actions. More than his willingness to argue concepts in his own work, Abelard drew in other people and encouraged debate over what were considered holy matters, like who could or could not interpret the scriptures. His willingness to question and doubt, along with his penchant for debate caused him to be betrayed, and also pushed the envelope on the educational front. Later they would become common qualities and even at the time they were not new ideas. Abelard’s contribution of inquiry and debate became remarkable because of his larger-than-life personality.

All of Abelard’s intellectual qualities are all well and good, but they would have had limited effect on the world of education if it were not for his alarmingly strong and potent personality. He was “daring, original, brilliant” (Kreis 2004). He was also vain, confident, and even cocky. He was able to accumulate followers and students even when he was trying actively to be solitary. There is at least one glaring example of this, his love affair with Heloise. Heloise was ten to twenty years Abelard’s junior (Clanchy 1997, 9). She lived in Paris with her uncle, a canon named Fulbert. Fulbert’s affection for his niece was equaled only by his desire to see her educated to the highest degree of excellence he could provide her. The end result of this situation was that he hired Abelard to tutor her and gave him absolutely no supervision. He even gave Abelard full disciplinary power over the object of his affection. Abelard took the job with his usual self-confidence. In the words of Peter Abelard himself, as translated by Henry Adams Bellows, “It was this young girl whom I, after carefully considering all of those qualities which are wont to attract lovers, determined to unite with myself the bonds of love and indeed the thing seemed very easy to be done,” (Bellows 1958, 16). Some may wince at his obvious conceit, but he was actually quite successful at seducing Heloise. They were lovers until he got her pregnant, married her, and then was castrated by her uncle’s men, though their relationship continued through letter writing for over a decade. After his injury, he made her become a nun and he became a monk. He tried to keep their relationship seemingly professional after that in their famous correspondence. However, she would not be denied. In her letters she repeatedly denies God and expresses her yearning for him as a lover (Clanchy 1997, 13). Heloise was often his inspiration for his works and was an intellectual thinker in her own right (Luscombe 1969, 18). Her devotion to him is but one example of his ability to accrue admirers, students, and followers, and his seeming inability to get rid of them once obtained. His followers were of such significance that in The School of Peter Abelard by D.E. Luscombe, no less than two chapters out of sixteen, an eighth of the book, including the conclusion, are fully devoted to his followers and disciples, while the rest of the book inevitably mentions them throughout.

Arguably, one of Abelard’s greatest educational contributions to separating education and religion was his insistence of interpreting faith with reason. “He championed the use of reason in matters of faith (he was the first to use ‘theology’ in its modern sense)” (Stanford 2004). Theology in its modern sense is the study of religion. This was strange because at the time you did not study religion, you practiced it. Along with being a bit quirky, the idea of examining religion with logic was also an interesting intellectual trend. Instead of just keeping education out of religion, Abelard went one step further and applied an educational concept, logic, to Catholic Christianity. It was like a complete overhaul of the current curriculum. It was a shift from monastic to scholastic theology (Luscombe 1969, 6). Monastic theology was not really theology at all. It was mainly memorization of scripture, copying of important works, and the learning to interpret the scriptures. In contrast, scholastic theology was applying logic and dialectics to as many aspects of Catholic Christianity as possible. The monastic system was the standard approach for European learning at the time and Abelard started to move away from that format. He introduced secular philosophy into the study of sacred theology (Ibid, 13). This pulled away from blind loyalty in churchmen and blind faith in God. This is not to say that Abelard was not a religious man, he once said that “I do not wish to be so much an Aristotle as to be shut out from Christ”, but he trusted heavily in analytical skills and attempted to use them to regain his reputation (Clanchy 1997,117). This was such a disturbing concept for the church that in 1140 Pope Innocent II forbade his followers from holding or defending Abelard’s mistakes and ordered his writings destroyed (Luscombe 1969, 18). Abelard was not the first to apply reasoning to religion; he was simply the most memorable in making his contribution more lasting. All in all, Abelard championed a skill still highly desired in universities today, the ability to think and reason.

It is possible to argue that Peter Abelard was insignificant in relation to education. After all, educational advancement was not one of his top priorities, if it was even on his list of things to do. When he was supposed to be tutoring, he spent his time seducing and occasionally hitting his student. It was even said that his penchant for debate was more to get students involved in discussion than to actually teach them or reach a conclusion on any one subject (Kreis 2004). It would even be possible to say that his affair with Heloise distracted him from the everyday realities of teaching. Abelard himself wrote that his teaching became “utterly careless and lukewarm” when he was seeing her since he spent his nights in her bed and his days attempting to be scholarly (Bellows 1958, 19). However, academic progress did not necessarily need to be his goal to be one of the results of his life. In Peter Abelard’s case, there were many things that led to his contribution to education, which as individual acts would not have achieved the same ends. As for seducing Heloise, that cannot be denied. Nevertheless, he did actually fall in love with her, both for her beauty and for her intellect, which allowed them to have many intelligent conversations and even for her to use other philosophers in argument against marriage with him (Grane 1964, 48-56). She was even said to be a major part of his inspiration on his writings, his muse so to speak. If this does not contradict an accusation of mediocrity concerning his lectures while seeing her, it at least evens the score. The issue of debate as a form of engaging students rather than as a form of teaching them is barely arguable. Part of the reason for this is that today, engaging students is considered a form of teaching in and of itself. Therefore, it is possible to argue that Abelard was simply being extremely, if unintentionally progressive. Whether or not it was unintentional is inconsequential, since it was a phenomenon that occurred either way. Peter Abelard may not have had progressive education in mind, but that was indeed what he helped to achieve.

Abelard lived an unorthodox life, of denied heritage and religious debate and belief. He was full of contradictions, like being a fully practicing Catholic, while being willing to use reason to understand and explain religious mysteries. Peter Abelard was a person who was so controversial that minute details along with the broad strokes of his life were recorded for later generations. He encouraged doubt, which in turn led to inquiry, which in turn led to debate, often concerning sensitive subjects. He used reason to evaluate and examine religion and religious practices. All of these highly contributory facets of his personality were made blatantly noticeable by his forceful and sometimes shocking disposition. More importantly, all of these things combined to make Abelard one of the most significant contributors to the separation of church and education, something the struggle of his life helped to make possible for the universities of today.





Separation of Church and Education


Page Author: Elise Holbrook-Bruns

Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19



Abelard, Peter. The Story of My Misfortune. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Glencoe: the Free Press 1958.

Clanchy, M.T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1997.

Grane, Leif. Peter Abelard; Philosophy and Christianity in the Middle Ages. Translated by Fredrick and Chistine Crowley. Great Britain: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1970.

Keck, Karen Rae. The Ecole Glossary. (January 15, 2012).

Kreis, Steven. “Lectures On Modern European Intellectual History.” The History Guide. (accessed January 15, 2012).

Luscombe, D.E. The School of Peter Abelard; the Influence of Abelard’s Thought in the Early Scholastic Period. Edited by M.D. Knowles, Litl. D., and F.B.A. London; Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities; Stadium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. Translated by Richard North. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Stanford University. “Peter Abelard.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (January 15, 2012).


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