Constant J. Mews

title.none: Ziolkowski, trans., Letters of Peter Abelard (Constant J. Mews)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.024 08.10.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constant J. Mews, Monash University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Ziolkowski, Jan M., trans. Letters of Peter Abelard: Beyond the Personal. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. lii, 232. ISBN: $29.95 9780813215051.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.24

Ziolkowski, Jan M., trans. Letters of Peter Abelard: Beyond the Personal. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. lii, 232. ISBN: $29.95 9780813215051.

Reviewed by:

Constant J. Mews
Monash University

There has been so much controversy associated with the letters exchanged between Abelard and Heloise, that Abelard's other letters have never attracted the attention they deserve. Jan Ziolkowski has provided a useful service to students of medieval culture in making available translations that are both readable and reliable of some of these letters, under the rubric "Beyond the Personal". In fact, a number of these letters are highly personal, and of significance for understanding the contested personalities of both Abelard and Heloise. Ziolkowski does a solid job in summarizing existing scholarship relating to each of the letters that he has chosen to translate. While no major new hypotheses or lines of research are opened up in the commentary that is provided, the volume provides a serviceable introduction to specialist literature that is often difficult to access.

In a preface, Ziolkowski briefly acknowledges his debt to an outstanding scholar, Edmé Smits, "for his impeccable edition of the Latin." What is not fully explained here is that "the Latin" refers to the text of Abelard's Letters 9-14, outside the celebrated corpus of letters exchanged with Heloise. Edmé Smits (d. 1992) was an outstanding medievalist, whose academic career--tragically cut short--was first established by his meticulous edition of Abelards Letters 9-14, published in 1983. There has been a long held desire for this publication, widely used and appreciated by Abelardian specialists, to be more widely known. The appearance of Edmé Smits's edition in the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaeualis, long promised by his literary executor, Prof. L. C. Engels, is still eagerly awaited. Ziolkowski acknowledges that it has been fifteen years since the project of the translation was proposed to him.

Ziolkowski opens the volume with a useful summary of the Life and Works of Peter Abelard. He then gives translations with introductions of all of the letters that Smits edited (Letters 9-14 in the traditional numbering, as established by Duchesne and d'Amboise in 1616, and re-issued by Migne in volume 178 of the Patrologia Latina). As well, there are additional texts that Ziolkowski has chosen to translate: the three prefaces to Abelard's Hymnal for the Paraclete, the dedication letter to his commentary on the Hexaemeron, the letter to his students against Abelard, and the Apologia against Bernard. All these letters are enormously rich in theological perspective, through their shared emphasis on the role of reason in reflecting on the authority of Scripture. While a student can find many detailed notes relating to specific philological and historical issues touched on in these letters, the commentary does not focus on their theological dimension.

Nonetheless, simply by making the letters available in English, Ziolkowski has performed a valuable service. He is a gifted translator. His notes on translation style do offer perhaps the most personal part of the volume. He observes his own experience that although he initially opted to omit a small word that seemed superfluous, he moved towards greater fidelity as he came to appreciate the careful structure of Abelard's prose. Ziolkowski does not devote himself to a stylistic reading of Abelard's preference for clarity of expression, so different from the highly mannered style of monastic letter writers like Bernard of Clairvaux. Nonetheless, Abelard's style is pungent and deliberate.

The initial texts in the volume relate to Heloise and the Paraclete, beginning with Letter 9, on the study of letters--a text that he claims has been "until recently" roundly ignored. He does not mention the pioneering research of Smits in 1983 that showed how Abelard's summary of Jerome's letters in this letter as printed in 1616 (and reprinted by Migne) had been seriously "improved" by reference to the printed edition of Jerome's letters. There is no mention either of an existing translation of this letter by Vera Morton--alongside other letters of a similar genre--in a volume that is cited in the bibliography, Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003). Letter 9 documents Abelard's close sense of affinity with Jerome in stressing the role of Scripture at the Paraclete, and reporting his claim that Heloise was expert in Greek and Hebrew--an issue that has never been fully resolved. The three prefaces to Abelard's hymnal for the Paraclete are also of great value for their reporting of Heloise's criticisms of the liturgy with which she was familiar. Ziolkowski patiently summarizes some of the crucial research into the hymnal undertaken by Chrysogonus Waddell. These prefaces, which have also been translated by myself in a volume edited by Marc Stewart and David Wulstan, The Poetic and Musical Legacy of Heloise and Abelard (Ottowa: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2003), give rich testimony to how Abelard endeavoured to respond to Heloise's zeal for authenticity in liturgical celebration. A key question that still remains to be resolved relates to the precise liturgical texts that Heloise used at the Paraclete before she asked for Abelard to make a contribution. Waddell's discovery that Heloise integrated the entire pre-1147 Cistercian hymnal into the Paraclete liturgy, while only using elements from Abelard's hymnal, is not given strong attention. It is left to the reader to appreciate what these prefaces reveal about Heloise's emphasis on authenticity in liturgy--a theme that also comes out in her other writings. Ziolkowski's translations of Abelard's prologue to the book of sermons and to his commentary on the Hexaemeron similarly whet the appetite for complete translations of these significant works. Both in their way demonstrate the crucial role Heloise played in developing Abelard's thinking about the centrality of Scripture during the 1130s. By translating the beginnings but not the substance of so many important works, the reader is deprived of the full weight of Abelard's argument.

Letter 10, Abelard's only letter to Bernard--taking him to task for having raised a question to Heloise about the Matthaean version of the Lord's Prayer used at the Paraclete--is also a rich mine of insight into the emphasis on liturgical authenticity at that abbey. They opted for the Matthaean version, as given by Jerome, on assumption that it was based on a Hebrew original and thus closer to the words of Christ. Abelard also takes the opportunity to criticise the Cistercians for their own attempt to achieve authenticity in religious life. Ziolkowski provides a useful summary of the rich analysis undertaken by Waddell into this letter, which suggests that the relationship between Bernard, Abelard, and Heloise was of enormous complexity. Both Bernard and Abelard were competing for influence over Heloise. Far from being "beyond the personal" the letter shows how closely integrated liturgical reform and personal insight were for both Abelard and Heloise.

Abelard's letter to his friends, summoning them to the Council of Sens (1141) and criticizing Bernard of Clairvaux, would make more sense when related to other crucial letters, like Bernard's Letter 190 (which for some strange reason was never included in the translation of Bernard's letters by Bruno Scott James). Ziolkowski summarizes recent assessments of the controversy without actually introducing readers to the theological issues at the heart of the debate. This omission is most noticeable in his translation of Abelard's Apologia, a work of theological depth, that certainly needs explanation. Readers need help to understand Abelard's arguments about how he understands the relationship between Father and Son to be like that between power and wisdom. There are other comparable documents, like the Confessio fidei 'Universis' and Abelard's confession of faith to Heloise, that provide more accessible explanations by Abelard of his theological position, but they are not included in this volume. Berengar's Apologia against Abelard, which includes the confession of faith to Heloise, would be particularly valuable for conveying the heated passions evoked by the Council of Sens.

Ziolkowski also translates three important polemical letters of Abelard: 11, to abbot Adam about the identity of St Denis; 12 (to a regular canon); 13 (to an ignoramus in the field of dialectic); and 14 (to bishop G.--identified by Ziolkowski as Gilbert, although most charters identify him as Guibert), written just prior to the council of Soissons c. 1120. Ziolkowski retains the random sequence for these letters given by Amboise and Duchesne in 1616, reprinted by Migne. He simply alludes very briefly to the fascinating research of Smits into the textual transmission of these letters. In his introductions, he summarizes most of the relevant literature without attempting any major new interpretation of these documents. Significant detail about the textual relationship between Letter 13 and the particular version of the Theologia Christiana found in two manuscripts (Montecassino MS 174 and Tours Bibl. Mun. 85) is not mentioned, so we do not understand why Letter 13 is dated to the early 1130s, or its particular significance in relation to the shifting debate about Abelard's theology at that time. The letter is highly revealing, however, of the controversy engendered by Abelard's return to the schools in the early 1130s.

Even if Ziolkowski skirts around their theological dimension, we have to be grateful for his providing careful annotated translations of these letters, that have tended not to attract the attention of readers as much as the more personal correspondence with Heloise. Yet these letters are, in their way, all intensely personal. They attest to Abelard's particular passion for authenticity of interpretation of whatever text he was handling, whether it was Aristotle, a saint's life, or Scripture. There are many more texts of Abelard--and his contemporaries--that cry out for translation and further commentary. If these letters prompt new readers to think further about the issues that they raise, Ziolkowski's volume will have been worthwhile.