Stephen Jaeger

title.none: Clanchy, Abelard (Jaeger)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.006 99.08.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen Jaeger, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Clanchy, M. T. Abelard, A Medieval Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997. Pp. xiii, 416. $59.95. ISBN: 0-631-20502-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.06

Clanchy, M. T. Abelard, A Medieval Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997. Pp. xiii, 416. $59.95. ISBN: 0-631-20502-0.

Reviewed by:

Stephen Jaeger
University of Washington

Bernard of Clairvaux, who may have been assailed late in life by doubts whether his persecution of Peter Abelard was justified, would certainly take a sense of satisfaction and legitimation from the current disarray of Abelard's works-- especially if he could compare the state of his own writings and his standing among scholars, theologians, general readers. Bernard's complete works are available in a splendid eight- volume scholarly edition with a sophisticated critical apparatus and extensive concordances; Abelard's are spread out all over the library in individual publications, now in periodicals, now in individual volumes, in pamphlets, and his poem to his son Astralabe is available in a fine edition published privately and only slightly easier to purchase than a manuscript copy. To consult the autobiography and the sixteen extant letters in standard editions requires assembling five different volumes: Monfrin's Historia; two volumes of Mediaeval Studies, 1953 and 1955, for Muckle's edition of the personal letters; conveniently, McLaughlin's edition of Abelard's rule for the Paraclete is in the same journal, 1956; and finally, letters 9 through 16 in the edition by E.R. Smits. The diaspora of Abelard's works will not be overcome, in this writer's lifetime at least, by an Opera Omnia Abaelardi. The three volumes of Abelard's theological works now available in excellent editions of the CCCM would certainly irritate the great Cistercian, but he would take heart at the gap in that same series that the volume of Abelard's sermons ought to have filled. His own works, Bernard would note, are almost all available in English, French and German translations (to mention only the ones I happen to know of), some of them dual language editions, whereas the only works of Abelard readily available in translation are the Historia calamitatum, personal letters, letters of direction for the Paraclete, the Dialogue, the Ethics -- and the prologue to the Sic et non turns up now and then in anthologies.

But if questions of editions and translations were the only hindrances to Abelard studies, the problems would seem small. The suspicion of inauthenticity hovered over the personal letters for some time and recently infected the autobiography and parts of the letters of direction. And even though studies by Etienne Gilson, Chrysogonous Waddell, Peter Dronke, Barbara Newman, and Constant Mews (who has now authenticated the "Epistolae duorum amantium" as genuine love letters of young Abelard and Heloise)--to name only the most important--have given not only textual but what we might call deep- authentication to these works, the effects of that suspicion register in a hiatus of studies (chronicled by Michael Clanchy in the work under review, pp. 326-330) and in a tendency to read the Historia and personal letters, and to regard the love affair of Abelard and Heloise, as a historical legend (D. W. Robertson), or at least a composition based on literary topoi (Peter von Moos and John Benton). Some kind of interdict lingers over the figure of Peter Abelard. It was there in the twelfth and it is still there in the nineteenth and the twentieth century. It fragments his works and his image like an exteriorizing of the shattering that his own character and personality suffered during his lifetime.

Abelard has never received a biography to compare with the two- volume study of Bernard by Elphege Vacandard (first publ. 1895). J. G. Sikes (1932) and John Marenbon (1997) devote single chapters of their Abelard monographs to his life by way of giving context to their studies of his intellectual contribution. A range of books has focused on Abelard and Heloise: Etienne Gilson (1938), D. W. Robertson (1972), Regine Pernoud (1973), Adalbert Podlech (1990).

The new biography by Michael Clanchy now occupies this gap as the standard historical study of Abelard's life. It is a work of great energy and insight, its vision unclouded by some of the phantoms of Abelard scholarship in the last decades. I doubt that it would irritate Bernard. Having prosecuted Abelard as a monstrous perverter of the faith, Bernard could only have been shocked and deeply offended by recent trends in Abelard studies that minimized Abelard's heresy, denied the authenticity of Abelard's self-indictments, tried to transform Abelard from an arrogant, overweening, self-important, rash, lascivious warrior of the intellect into a fairly ordinary and orthodox thinker, and all but showed the upstart logician dancing cheek to cheek with the heretic hunting Cistercian abbot. Clanchy wants Abelard restored to the stature of an utterly unique figure: pertinacious in his theological claims, spiting authority, unshakeably convinced that he is the most brilliant and desirable figure of a man yet to walk the earth and his enemies shallow fools motivated by envy. Clanchy presents Abelard as Abelard's contemporaries saw him, as titan and giant, either monstrous, or brilliant, or both, not as the ordinary fellow misunderstood and misrepresented that revisionist scholarship of the last decades has tried to make him into: "The time has come to restore the former fame of Abelard and Heloise among the reading public. Their accounts of themselves are outstanding documents of humanity..." (pp. 329-30). Clanchy confirms Gilson's judgment, "Abelard was one of those people 'whose infallible instinct leads straight to dangerous questions and provoking replies; he is an adventurer of the mind'" (p. 331).

Clanchy presents his work as an "introductory book" aimed at (and dedicated to) students. But it is much more. The most advanced students of Abelard will not want to take Clanchy's own modest siting of the book too seriously. Alongside its "introductory" aspects, it also provides analyses based on a thorough knowledge of Abelard and Abelard studies, that are as stimulating as they are provocative.

The book is organized according to the various roles Peter Abelard played in his lifetime: master, logician, knight, lover, man, monk, theologian, heretic. These are interspersed with overviews of areas of twelfth century intellectual life: "Knowledge-Scientia," "Literacy," "Experimentum-Experience," "Religio-Religion." It ends with a broad assessment of "the man himself."

I found the "Heretic" section the most fully developed. It gives a rich historical context for the two heresy trials Abelard faced, at Soissons in 1121 and at Sens in 1140. It is at the same time a very well informed and searching analysis of the events of both those trials, of the motives and strategies of Abelard and his judges. Clanchy offers a nuanced reading of the roles both of Bernard of Clairvaux in Abelard's conviction at Sens and of Peter the Venerable in his final years.

The section, "Lover," also is one of the most rewarding. It has original and intelligent readings of the love of Abelard and Heloise. It stresses Peter Dronke's study of "Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies," which demonstrates an impassioned participation of contemporaries in the tragic love affair and a strong sympathy with Heloise. It is a pity that Clanchy could not use the study by Constant Mews, about to appear, of the love letters which he now has shown to be the authentic correspondence of the two at the height of their love affair ("Epistolae duorum amantium"). These letters confirm the direction of Clanchy's reading. Clanchy also uses Peter the Venerable's letter to Heloise written after Abelard's death to cast an interesting light on their post-castration love. The concept of "pure love," which plays such a part in Heloise's letters and her arguments against marriage, and was a buzzword across the whole spectrum of writings on love and friendship in the twelfth century, gets rather short shrift. But this is a minor quibble. Clanchy validates the contemporary view of the affair as a love tragedy and of Heloise as its heroine, and that is an important gain in clarity.

Clanchy argues that Heloise's influence on Abelard may be greater than previously imagined. With reference to Barbara Newman, he suggests Heloise in 1117 was not the malleable, star-struck teenager she is generally taken to be, but a mature woman in her 30's far better read in the classics than Abelard, the specialist in logic. It is an intriguing thought that "Heloise may have inspired Abelard to become a writer, with something really grand to leave to posterity" (p. 169). He does after all confess to her in one of their early love letters, "In many ways I am not your equal, to tell the truth in all ways I am not your equal, because you surpass me in the very things in which I seem to excel" ("Epist. duorum amantium," nr. 50, ed. Konsgen, p. 29). But of course this may well be the voice of a lover prostrate in body and mind before his beloved, not that of a professor judging his student's work.

But while arguing Heloise's considerable influence, Clanchy missed an opportunity by not giving greater highlight to Richard Weingart's book, The Logic of Divine Love. Weingart shows that Abelard's conception of divine love is an adaptation of Heloise's "pure love." In other words, Heloise's way of loving Abelard became, in Abelard's theology, God's way of loving mankind. That is no small influence.

Abelard the logician comes off as dull. It is remarkable that while his own students found him spell-binding, that quality is nowhere communicated in his works on logic, which appear dry and trivial, lightened only by the kind of jokes and personal references Clanchy can cite abundantly. There is light and fire in his debates with William of Champeaux on the nature of universals, but that subject gets no coverage in "Logician" (pp. 95-118). Abelard's intellectual depth and the revolutionary character of his thought become evident in regarding him as a philosopher of language and founder of a science of language (Jolivet), but less so in regarding the Sic et non as the forerunner of the scholastic Summa. It was that, surely, but its questioning of the language that records and transmits Christian doctrine shows Abelard's daring genius far more than its preparation of, say, the mind-desiccating tedium of Peter Lombard's "Book Sentences." Seen as a forerunner of Scholasticism, Abelard appears less a daring rogue theologian and more a contributor to the actuarial tables of Christian doctrine.

The organization of the book tends to atomize the subjects a bit more than one would expect in an introductory biography restoring original genius stature to its subject. A narrative with subplots and excursuses might have served that purpose better than the individual analyses into which the book divides. But Clanchy avoids narrative and prefers to create sharp focus on subjects and theses, even at the cost of going back over ground already covered, sometimes several times. Clanchy is writing biography by way of close analyses.

It is perhaps an inevitable side-effect of Clanchy's stimulating suggestiveness, that he occasionally veers over into questionable claims. His gift for bold, free-wheeling connections serves him both well and ill. I think he goes over the edge in connecting Abelard with the figure of the learned wizard ("Scientia-Knowledge, Science and Magic"). The complex of magic and science combined is undoubtedly present in the twelfth century, but Abelard doesn't seem to have fit into it, as did, say, Gerbert of Aurillac in the 10th century, Michael the Scot or Albert the Great in the thirteenth, and a variety of wizards in courtly romance (Clanchy refers to Merlin) whose training seems to have been in part simply the study of the liberal arts. (See studies of the court magician by Stephan Maksymiuk and Richard Kieckhefer.) Also I'm a little skeptical that anyone would have concluded from Abelard's musical compositions that he had access to the music of the spheres ("Music and Science," p. 31). At least I know of no contemporary who thought of Abelard in those terms, and Heloise's comments on his music make her understanding clear: she thought it was one of his skills as lover. The interworking of "cosmic" and "human" music (musica mundana and musica humana in Boethius's terms) was evoked as a principle of moral training (moralis disciplina) in cathedral schools, but Abelard had a negative relation to that kind of learning.

Clanchy does not shun conjecture. The occurrences of "may have" and "might have" are many. But they are ordinarily interesting and informed conjectures, following a train of thought beyond the point where what is known gives way to what is not known. I hope conservative readers will distinguish the free-wheeling Clanchy from the one pointing the way to possible solutions of aporias in the present state of research. Both speak the same language.

This important book is a pleasure to read, both in its depth of knowledge and in its unconventionality in a genre girt about by fairly stiff conventions. What Clanchy says of Abelard on the final page of his book applies well to Clanchy himself: "The zest in [his] writings comes from his transgressing the particular tone which his readers expect."