Peter Abelard

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Pierre Abelard
BirthplaceLe Pallet near Nantes

Abelard, Peter

Abelard, Peter (ăbˈəlärd), Fr. Pierre Abélard (pyĕr äbālärˈ), 1079–1142, French philosopher and teacher, b. Le Pallet, near Nantes.


Abelard went (c.1100) to Paris to study under William of Champeaux at the school of Notre Dame and soon attacked the ultrarealist position of his master with such success that William was forced to modify his teaching. Abelard became master at Notre Dame but, when deprived of his place, set himself up (1112) at a school on Mont-Ste-Geneviève, just outside the city walls. Abelard's fame as a dialectician attracted great numbers of students to Paris. This part of his career was cut short by his romance with Heloise, d. c.1164, the learned niece of Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame, who had hired Abelard as her tutor.

After Heloise bore a son, a secret marriage was held to appease her uncle. Fulbert's ill-treatment of Heloise led Abelard to remove her secretly to the convent at Argenteuil. Fulbert, who thought that Abelard planned to abandon her, had ruffians attack and emasculate him. Abelard sought refuge at Saint-Denis where he became a monk. In 1120 he left Saint-Denis to teach. At the instigation of his rivals, the Council of Soissons had his first theological work burned as heretical (1121). After a short imprisonment, he returned to Saint-Denis but fell out with the monks and built a hermitage near Troyes. To house the students who sought him out, he established a monastery, the Paraclete. When Abelard became abbot at Saint-Gildas-en-Rhuys, Brittany, he gave the Paraclete to Heloise, who became an abbess of a convent there.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux thought Abelard's influence dangerous and secured his condemnation by the Council of Sens (1140). Abelard appealed to the pope, who upheld the council. Abelard submitted and retired to Cluny. He was buried at the Paraclete, as was Heloise; their bodies were later moved to Père-Lachaise in Paris. The events of his life are chronicled in his autobiographical Historia calamitatum and revealed in the poignant letters of Heloise and Abelard (tr. by B. Radice, 1974), which for almost 800 years consisted of five of his letters and three of hers.

In 1980 a scholar examining a 15th-century letter-writing manual discovered that 113 unattributed fragments of love letters contained in a section of the book had actually been written by Abelard and Heloise during their affair. These letters have added to, but not changed, the understanding of the characters of each of the lovers and of their romance's rare and intense blend of the intellectual and the erotic.


A theological Platonist, Abelard emphasized Aristotle's dialectic method. His belief that the methods of logic could be applied to the truths of faith was in opposition to the mysticism of St. Bernard. He also opposed the extreme views of William of Champeaux and Roscelin on the problems of universals. His own solution, in which universals are considered as entities existent only in thought but with a basis in particulars, is called moderate realism and to some extent anticipates the conceptualism of St. Thomas Aquinas.

His most influential work was Sic et non, a collection of contradictory selections from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. In his introduction to Sic et non, Abelard set a method of resolving these apparent contradictions, thereby making the work significant for the development of the scholastic method. This work formed the basis for the widely read Sentences of Peter Lombard, who may have been Abelard's pupil. Abelard was perhaps most important as a teacher; among his pupils were some of the celebrated men of the 12th cent., including John of Salisbury and Arnold of Brescia. Of Abelard's poetry only Latin hymns survive.


See D. E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard (1969); D. W. Robertson, Jr., Abelard and Heloise (1972); R. Pernoud, Heloise and Abelard (tr. 1973); C. J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (2001); J. Burge, Heloise & Abelard (2004).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Abélard, Peter


Born 1079 in Palais; died Apr. 21, 1142, in the abbey of Saint Marcel near Châlons-sur-Saône. French philosopher, theologian, and poet.

Abélard studied in Paris with Roscelin and William of Champeaux. In 1113 he opened his own school, which attracted many students. The tragic story of Abélard’s love for Héloïse ended with their withdrawal to a monastery (1119).

In the argument about the nature of universals, Abélard developed a doctrine which was later called conceptualism, according to which general concepts are neither realities nor simple verbal designations but are contained in the meaning of words and represent an idea content applicable to a great many separate objects when there are similarities or concurrences among them. In ethics Abélard transferred emphasis from the act to the intent and considered acting according to one’s conscience to be the criterion of morality. Abélard’s development of Scholastic “dialectics,” consisting of the presentation of opposite arguments (the work Sic et non), made him one of the most prominent representatives of the Scholastic method. The rational tendency in Abélard’s theology (“I must understand in order to believe”) provoked the protest of the representatives of orthodox mysticism (Bernard of Clairvaux); Abélard’s doctrines were condemned by the Soissons (1121) and the Sens (1140) councils and also by Pope Innocent II.

Abélard’s Latin love poetry, autobiography, Historia calamitatum (1132–36, published in 1616; Russian translation in 1902 and 1959), and correspondence with Héloi’se (1132–35), which was already translated into French during the 12th century and inspired many writers, are notable for their psychological depth.


Opera omnia. Paris, 1855.
Philosophische Schriften, vol. 31, nos. 1–4. Münster, 1919–33.


Fedotov, G. P. Abeliar, P. Petrograd, 1924.
Sidorova, N. A. Ocherki po istorii rannei gorodskoi kul’tury vo Frantsii. Moscow, 1953.
Rémusat, C. Abélard, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1845.
Ottaviano, C. Pietro Abelardo. [Rome, 1930.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Abélard, Peter

castrated by irate father of lover, Héloise. [Fr. Lit.: Héloise and Abélard]

Abélard, Peter

(1079–c. 1144) French theologian takes Héloïse, abbess, as lover; marries her in secret. [Fr. Hist.: EB, I: 18]
See: Scandal
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.