The Medieval Review 11.11.23

Godman, Peter. Paradoxes of Conscience in the High Middle Ages: Abelard, Heloise and the Archpoet. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 224. $98. ISBN 978-0-521-51911-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Juanita Feros Ruys
University of Sydney

This book makes a welcome contribution to the concept of the ethical and knowable medieval self through the prism of emotions theory and history. The Preface harnesses the big guns of emotionology in Martha Nussbaum, Richard Sorabji, Simo Knuuttila, and Robert Kaster, and the application of their combined work in ancient, early Christian, and modern emotions to two of the most enigmatic, rhetorical, and deceptively "personal" sets of texts in the Middle Ages--the letters of Heloise and Abelard--is an exciting prospect.

Focusing on the concept of fictio (feigned penitence), to which he gives a twelfth-century monastic origin, Godman opens the volume with three chapters ("Moral Moments," "The Neurotic and the Penitent," and "True, False, and Feigned Penance") that consider sincerity, hypocrisy, and confession--and their associated emotional and ethical states--in Christian spiritual writings from Augustine and Gregory the Great through penitential handbooks to Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux. These chapters offer a valuable and readable summation of much heavy literature on these topics (as the footnotes will attest).

Chapter Four then moves to the specific study of Abelard. "Fame Without Conscience" offers one of the best and most insightful studies ever written on Abelard. It is a joy to read and a true testament to the role of careful philology, rather than faddish theory, in elucidating a medieval Latin text. This chapter deserves to be excerpted and included in any reading list dealing with Abelard's thoughts and writings. In this study of Abelard's self-narrative known most commonly as the Historia calamitatum, Godman posits a split in the authorial self between Abelard the subject and Abelard the narrator, and he deftly elucidates the shifts within the text between the sometimes conflicting aims and desires of these two in terms of both ethics and emotions.

It is odd, however, that despite his insistence on careful lexical analysis in the interpretation of a text, Godman should fall into some basic and traditional errors regarding the Abelard-Heloise story. For instance, Godman states that Abelard "eloped with her [Heloise] to Brittany" (87), when Abelard's Latin clearly reads "eam...transmisi" (I sent her). Even more disturbing is Godman's chronology of events in which he declares that following Abelard's own entry into religion "his next offence" (93, my emphasis) was to coerce Heloise to do likewise. It is a major complaint of Heloise's subsequent letters that Abelard insisted on her entering the convent of Argenteuil not after him, but before him, as though he did not trust her once he himself had left the world. To overlook or elide this distinction is to miss much of Heloise's ethical outrage regarding Abelard's misreading of her interior states of loyalty and steadfastness to him.

Where Chapter Four brings to the forefront the emotional regimes that shape Abelard's Historia, Chapter Five, "Cain and Conscience," focuses upon Abelard's permutation of ethics and morals in this text. These are evoked, Godman argues, through the figure of Cain, the symbol of moral muteness. Godman outlines the struggle with concepts of divine and human justice that is played out within Abelard's autobiography, as it is in other of his writings (particularly the Ethica). Like a good therapist, Godman then renders whole once more the splintered authorial voice of the Abelard of the previous chapter by concluding: "Now the author of his emotions, not their slave, he is able to control them and to choose what--or what not--to feel. The moral intelligence of his feelings, mastered by the adult Abelard at the end of the HC, measures the distance that separates him from the ethical adolescent of its opening" (117).

That this is a book of contrasts is revealed when Godman turns his attention to Heloise. Chapters Six and Seven are as pedestrian as the preceding chapters on Abelard were innovative and inspired. This is largely because Godman studiously avoids reading or engaging with any scholarship on Heloise that has been published in the past two to three decades, which leads to a reinvention of the wheel in some cases, and the restatement of tired old chestnuts in others. Chapter Six, "Feminine Paradoxes" (and I worry that the essentialism latent in this title colours much of the author's thinking on Heloise, much in the manner of Henry Adams's famous quote [1]) opens, for instance, with an analysis of the salutatio to Heloise's first letter, the roles assumed by her therein, and her negotiations over the issue of debt between herself and Abelard--all topics that have been thoroughly explored in publications of the 1980s and 1990s which remain uncited here.

As with the chapters on Abelard, it becomes clear that Godman's analysis continues to prove deficient in what he claims as one of the strengths of his text: close lexical analysis of the Latin. It is unfortunate that he could once again, in line with tradition, translate "innocens" (a key word in Heloise's Ep. II) as "innocent" (131) rather than "harmless" (it appears in direct contrast to "nocens"), a distinction that makes a world of difference to Heloise's claims about her ethical stance in relation to Abelard's misfortunes. Godman insightfully notes that Heloise's letters need to be read allusively and through their silences (122), but struggles to apply this thinking, asserting that Heloise "never mentions maternal love or refers to Astralabe in her letters to Abelard" (132). On the contrary, as I argued over ten years ago, a strong though subvocal discourse on the maternal role runs throughout Heloise's writings.

In Chapter Seven, "Sincere Hypocrisy," which particularly deals with Heloise's Ep. IV and her confession of both sexual temptation and hypocrisy, Godman is again hampered by his decision to approach the text without a sense of current thinking on it. There is a vast (largely feminist, if this has any relevance) literature on Heloise's adoption of the role of hypocrite which might have been consulted here. Certainly Godman's earlier assertion that "the body, in Heloise's stern judgement, counts for nothing" (13), which comes into play again in this chapter, would struggle to gain traction in the face of very perceptive and finely argued contemporary thought about Heloise's sexuality, spirituality, and her understanding of the role of the body in both of these, particularly within her own monastic context. Godman's conclusion that in matters of monastic sexuality Abelard relies on Cassian whereas Heloise chooses Augustine is a blunt assessment that certainly conflicts with at least one published analysis of Heloise's Ep. IV, which suggests that Heloise sets the thought of Cassian and Augustine against each other in her letter, using them both to produce her own unique view on her situation in terms of sexuality, the body, memory, and hypocrisy. Godman's restriction on analysis of the writings of Heloise to her Epp. II and IV on the grounds that thereafter "An impasse is reached, which is bypassed by her changing the subject and asking for advice about the Rule..." (163) reifies the tired old division of Heloise's letters into the intensely personal and the unemotionally corporate. This overlooks much sophisticated work that has been done to draw out how cleverly Heloise maintains and expands the ethical arguments of her first two letters in her subsequent ones (Ep. VI and the introductory letter to the Problemata, a text very revelatory of Heloise's ethical stance, and one which Godman does not consider in this book).

The jump effected in Chapter Eight, "The Poetical Conscience," from this twelfth-century Parisian cauldron of inner anguish, hypocrisy, and tortured self-analysis of ethical states to the deliberately arch and insincere Archpoet in the German court of Rainald of Dassel seems perplexingly sudden and unmotivated. Godman's thesis to this point has proved an interesting one, applied with careful attention to the words of actual letters that were written (whatever we may believe of their intended audience and circulation) at least to some extent to express and explain a lived life and to negotiate the meanings of that life with another person. To leap from this to an obvious parody of the confessional genre begs a more compelling rationale than the one briefly supplied in the Preface: "the Archpoet took fictio to its limit...created a new figure of spiritual sophistry" (x). More to the point, if Godman's subject matter, as outlined in his introductory chapters, is actual fictio, the sincere feigning of an ethical state, then to move to consideration of what might be thought of as a meta-state of feigning fictio seems to require rather more finesse than it is afforded here. Also evident in this chapter is a certain relaxation in the rigour of the literary analysis applied to the text at hand. In comparison with the fine scrutiny of word choices, unstated meanings, the proposition of dual and conflicting authorial personae, and the like, to which Godman subjected the actual letters of Abelard and Heloise, his analysis of the Archpoet's fictional Confession seems strangely flat, superficial, and to deal with the text very much at face value.

It could have rendered this study much more compelling and cohesive had Godman chosen to look at another, or other, texts more closely associated either in terms of genre or context with those he had already explored. He had earlier poured scorn upon the Monodiae of Guibert of Nogent (48), so presumably this was never going to be an option in this regard, but how interesting to consider what Godman might have achieved in applying his insights in fictio and emotionology to the "autobiographical" confession of faith that is the Opusculum of Herman-Judah. [2] Alternatively, Gerald Bond's insightful study into the simultaneously personalized and yet fictionalized poetic writings of Marbod of Rennes and Baudri of Bourgueil provides an example of how slyly insincere poetic personas can be fruitfully examined. [3]

If the chapter on the Archpoet hangs somewhat oddly off a much more comprehensive study of Abelard and Heloise, then what can be said of the "Envoi" which leaps erratically in six pages from the Archpoet to a character in Boccaccio's Decameron, the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the affidavit of guilt signed by Albert Speer in the late 1970s? Each of these might have made an intriguing study in its own right, but it again marks a certain lack of discernment (that medieval monastic virtue) that they are all jumbled together here, regardless of context, and more significantly, regardless of genre. Godman's rationale in his Preface, that they prove the ongoing relevance of questions of feigned confession (x), is not entirely convincing. The character in the Decameron might be reasonably compared with the Archpoet's persona, but the Confessions of Rousseau are closer in intention to the writings of Abelard and Heloise. Interestingly, the tantalizing details of Speer's late-life admission of guilt which Godman relates here suggest that this may have provided the best comparison of all with the medieval correspondence and Abelard's experience in particular.

A final point cannot go unremarked. Godman notes Abelard's strange erasure of Roscelin from his autobiography (71), but performs his own disappearing act in this volume. Surfacing intermittently throughout his study of Abelard and Heloise are hints of and allusive references to the thesis, advanced by Constant J. Mews, that the Epistolae duorum amantium might constitute the early love letter collection of Abelard and Heloise. [4] Godman pours scorn on this hypothesis, as he is entitled to do, but that he manages to achieve this without ever mentioning Mews or citing the key work in which it is advanced comes across rather oddly in a book devoted to authorial ethics. Because Godman's critique is in fact performed largely through implication (see, for example, xi and 163-164), only those "in the know" regarding the ongoing international dispute over these letters can appreciate its continuation here. It will surely be noticeable to all, however, that although Mews is renowned as an expert on Abelard, and has particularly written on the ethical interiority of Abelard and Heloise, not one of his many works is listed by Godman in his Bibliography. [5] This almost begins to look like an act of invidia of the sort that Abelard might have complained about enduring.

On mechanical issues, there is a very odd copyediting regimen in place with regard to commas which are positioned within sentences in such a way as to interrupt the flow of thought; the Index is neither particularly comprehensive nor entirely accurate.

Despite the flaws in both conception and execution which can be attributed to Paradoxes of Conscience, it cannot be denied that it is also brilliant, thought-provoking, and capable of initiating debates, which is surely the aim of any worthwhile monograph. Godman's elucidation of fictio, and particularly the twelfth-century history of this state along with its emotional expressions, adds an important consideration to medieval monastic history. Likewise, Godman's harnessing of emotions theory is cutting edge and will hopefully prompt further explorations of medieval texts in the same manner. While attention to recent scholarship might have obviated some of the failings of the volume, by the same token, the intensely personal, text-driven, and, dare it be said, passionate approach of the author to his material makes it fascinating to read, and its insight into the mind of the Abelard (or perhaps, Abelards) who wrote the Historia calamitatum sets a new benchmark in Abelard studies.


[1] Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1936), p. 284: Heloise "was not a philosopher or a poet or an artist, but only a Frenchwoman to the last millimetre of her shadow...she philosophized only for the sake of Abélard." See in this regard Godman's summation of Heloise as "lost in the labyrinth of her own interiority" (155).

[2] See Karl F. Morrison, Conversion and the Text: The Cases of Augustine of Hippo, Herman-Judah, and Constantine Tsatsos (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1992); and Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History, and Fiction in the Twelfth Century, trans. Alex J. Novikoff (Philadelphia and Oxford: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

[3] Gerald Bond, The Loving Subject: Desire, Eloquence, and Power in Romanesque France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).

[4] Constant J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2008).

[5] Constant J. Mews, Abelard and Heloise, Great Medieval Thinkers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).