Peter Abelard: A Morality Tale

Often the hearts of men and women are stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows more by example than by words. And therefore, because I too I have known some consolation from speech had with one who was a witness thereof, am I now minded to write of the sufferings which have sprung out of my misfortunes, for the eyes of one who, though absent, is of himself ever a consoler. — Peter Abelard, Historia Calamitatum (History of My Misfortunes)

I recently read Etienne Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard, about the famous, ill-fated lovers of the twelfth century. It only took me three days to get through. It is arguably Gilson’s best and most accessible work. He demythologizes their story, without losing any of its romance or tragedy.

Any one who has read Peter Abelard’s brief History of My Misfortunes will find therein a man who is both vain and brilliant. Yet such was the moral temper of the times that he is as brutally honest about himself as he is scathing about his enemies. There is no doubt that many of his misfortunes were brought about by his own pride, impatience and contentiousness. Only at the very end of his life did Abelard achieve the spiritual serenity he so longed for, when the theologian was taken in by Peter the Venerable, saintly abbot of the famed Benedictine monastery at Cluny. It is Peter’s charity towards Abelard, his quelling of past controversies and reconciliation with former enemies, that forms the most inspiring chapter in Gilson’s study.

Yet Peter the Venerable’s virtues were not shared by all churchmen of the time. For example, while Abelard was abbot of the monks at St. Gildas de Rhuys, in Brittany, he had to contend with debauched religious who rebelled against his strict rule, and even tried to poison him. A study of Abelard’s epoch demonstrates just how unchanging people are. Even if some vices are more prominent in one age than another, it is clear that the ”Age of Faith” was not a “Golden Age.” Needless to say, there have been periods of relative moral improvement, or deterioration, in the Christian West. A serious study of history, seen sub specie aeternitatis, urges one to be a little less romantic about the past and a little more tolerant of one’s own time (but only a little!).

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