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Peter Abelard

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Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was one of the great intellectuals of the 12th century, with especial importance in the field of logic. His tendency to disputation is perhaps best demonstrated by his book Sic et Non, a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions about which there were divided opinions. This dialectical method of intellectual reflection -- also seen in Gratian's approach to canon law -- was to become an important feature of western education and distinguishes it sharply from other world cultures such as Islam and the Confucian world. Abelard's mistake was to leave the questions open for discussion and so he was repeatedly charged with heresy. For a long period all his works were included in the later Iindex of Forbidden Books. The text here gives a good account of Abelard's pugnaciousness.

He is perhaps as famous today for his love affair with Heloise (1100/01-1163/4) and its disastrous consequences, which resulted in her giving birth to son (called Astrolabe), to Abelard's castration by Heloise's angry relatives, and to both their retreats to monastic life. Heloise was one of the most literate women of her time, and an able administrator: as a result her monastic career was notably successful. Abelard, a intellectual jouster throughout his life was notably less happy as a monk. He incurred the displeasure and enmity of abbots, bishops, his own monks, a number of Church councils and St. Bernard of Clairvaux . The last months of his life were spent under the protection of Peter the Venerable of Cluny, where he died. The tomb of Abelard and Heloise can now be visited in the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

The Historia Calamitatum, although in the literary form of a letter, is a sort of autobiography, with distinct echoes of Augustine's Confessions. It is one of the most readable documents to survive from the period, and as well as presenting a remarkably frank self-portrait, is a valuable account of intellectual life in Paris before the formalization of the University, of the intellectual excitement of the period, of monastic life and of a love story that in some respects deserves its long reputation.

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