06.11.15, Mews, Abelard and Heloise

Main Article Content

Linda M. Rouillard

The Medieval Review baj9928.0611.015


Mews, Constant J.. Abelard and Heloise. Series: Great Medieval Thinkers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xviii, 308. ISBN: 978-0-19-515689-8.
ISBN: 0-19-515689-7.

Reviewed by:
Linda M. Rouillard
University of Toledo

This latest title is one of several works Mews has devoted to one or the other or both of the famous scholars/lovers, a list which includes: Reason and Belief in the Age of Roscelin and Abelard (2002), Abelard and His Legacy (2001), The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France, co-authored with Neville Chiavaroli (1999), and Peter Abelard (1995).

The first chapter of this most recent title, "Images of Abelard and Heloise," studies the couple first and foremost as thinkers, rather than as star-crossed lovers, though it does include a survey of the historical attitudes towards the pair. From Jean de Meun who was interested in a woman he perceived as the ideal, loving mistress, to the nineteenth-century debate on the authorship of the then-known set of correspondence, Mews moves the discussion to Abelard's intellectual formation in chapter two, "The Early Years: Roscelin of Compiege and William of Champeaux." This chapter in particular is an excellent general introduction to the medieval curriculum and philosophical preoccupations of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries when the nature and role of language were seen as the foundation to the study of theology. In addition, Mews clearly describes the oedipal and intellectual conflict between Abelard and his teacher, William of Champeaux.

Chapter three, "Challenging Tradition: The Dialectica" addresses Abelard's first major work. In this same chapter, Mews also discusses Abelard's emphasis on the need to fully comprehend context in the process of determining meaning, emphasizing in particular the need to understand how an individual author typically uses certain words: in other words, the same terms used by different authors do not necessarily signify the same things, for meaning is not unequivocal. Indeed, Abelard was a great proponent of reading between the lines, of meaning as something greater than the sum total of particular words. In a way, Abelard's understanding of language predicts his later understanding of sin, which accords great importance to determining the intention behind a specific act. Mews rightly reminds his readers that the study of dialectics was one of the foundations of the study of philosophy; he summarizes Abelard's appreciation of this subject as "a divine gift that enables its student to see beyond the meaning of individual words to the sense that lies behind them" (53).

Chapter four, "Heloise and Discussion about Love," begins with a summary of the limited known details of Heloise's life and family circumstances. Mews deftly outlines Abelard's mostly sexual understanding of amor in contrast to Heloise's conception of love as a synthesis of both physical and spiritual dimensions grounded in deep friendship. Mews discerns a similar dichotomy on love in the Epistolae duorum amantium, one of the reasons he gives for attributing this anonymous collection of correspondence to Abelard and Heloise.

"Returning to Logica," chapter five, brings us back to the discussion of Abelard's writings of the early 1120s, another text also devoted to the nature and function of language. He further explains his belief in interpreting texts according to intention or sense, rather than interpreting au pied de la lettre, using the rhetorical concept of metaphor to illustrate his point: in fact, it is just that regular and frequent use of the metaphor that demonstrates why the reader need not and must not limit himself to literal, surface meanings.

Chapter six brings us to a consideration of Abelard's writings on Church doctrine, namely the Trinity, in a work now generally edited as Theologia Summi boni. In contrast to Roscelin's explanation of the Trinity as "God in three persons", Abelard aimed to meld pagan and sacred writing in a rational argument to explain the paradox of the Trinity. Mews defines Abelard's innovation in this work as a weaving together of philosophical theology, Platonist and patristic writing. It was this text that led to charges of heresy requiring Abelard to publicly destroy his writings in 1121.

Mews treats Abelard's Sic et Non and the Theologica Christiana in chapter seven. The Sic et Non sought to reconcile conflicting biblical authorities, in a manner similar to that of Ivo of Chartres and Anselm of Laon. Abelard, in his turn, stresses the importance of dubitare or the act of questioning and interpreting. One of the intriguing features of the Theologica Christiana is the mention of the Brahmin king Dindimus as a pivotal figure, of the same cultural importance as Nebuchadnezzar, David and Solomon. Mews concludes that this is "one of the earliest known efforts within theological literature to place wisdom from India on an equal footing with that from Jewish tradition" (133). The final section of this chapter, "A teacher at the margins," describes political struggles and coalitions among the leading academics of the time, of which Abelard was often the victim.

Heloise returns to the picture in the eighth chapter. Here Mews describes the refuge Abelard provided to Heloise and her community of nuns when they were effectively ousted from their abbey at Argenteuil by Suger, eager to appropriate their property for the benefit of his own abbey at St. Denis. Heloise's writings during this early period at the Paraclete oratory included several literary texts (poems and plays), though they are often difficult to authenticate. This chapter also summarizes the rules Abelard composed for the nuns living at the Paraclete, in addition to hymns, sermons and planctus he prepared for them. Most importantly, this chapter closes with a reminder that even though we may never be completely sure of the entire corpus of Heloise's writings, we do have testimonials from her contemporaries who recognized her brilliant talent.

"Ethics, Sin, and Redemption" begins with the Collationes, the conversation of a Jew, a philosopher and a Christian, as witnessed in a vision by the narrator. The work is divided into two dialogues which treat the different ways of worshiping God. This text further explains Abelard's emphasis on intention in determining the value or sinfulness of human actions even as it synthesizes classical philosophical wisdom, Jewish tradition and Christian doctrine. This chapter considers next the Commentaria on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, followed by the Expositio in Hexaemeron in which Abelard addresses the Genesis creation narrative, a commentary specifically requested by Heloise. Of course, any study of the creation story will have to deal with gender and with humanity's relationship to God. Not surprisingly, Abelard believed that "man shines over woman through wisdom and reasoning, and in being wiser was unable to be seduced by the devil," (197) but he does reassure his readers that if woman was created from Adam's rib, that surely symbolizes God's intention to make her a partner and not an inferior.

Chapter nine includes with brief but interesting discussions of two short works: Problemata Heloissae and the Carmen ad Astralabium. The first work is comprised of scriptural citations related to the definition of sin, passages selected by Heloise who requested commentary and explication from Abelard. Mews is careful to point out, however, that Heloise's request already contains substantial analysis on her part. This written exchange is much more than a question and answer exercise: it is the documented meditations of two intellectuals trying to reconcile their religious beliefs with lived experience. The Carmen ad Astralabium is a poem written by Abelard for the moral instruction of his son who is reminded that "meaning must be preferred to words" (202).

In chapter ten, "Faith, Sacraments, and Charity," Mews summarizes the main ideas of the Theologia Scholarium where Abelard again turns to the Trinity, working out new analogies to explain the dogma. Of interest here is his choice of a bronze seal to explain the Trinity: just as the seal has substance, form and function, so has the one God three persons. The analogy may seem trivial to modern readers, but this choice of an everyday object to explain the mystical nature of the Trinity is in itself fascinating and touching. It demonstrates Abelard's deep conviction of God's presence in man's everyday life even as his scans the material objects necessary for writing. Mews then briefly presents the Sententie, student transcriptions of some of Abelard's lectures.

The final chapter, "Accusations of Heresy," describes Abelard's final confrontation with ecclesiastical authority over the Theologia Scholarium and the Sententie. William of St.-Thierry brought the charges of heresy against Abelard to the papal legate in 1140, but the climate in which he made his accusations was just as significant. Mews meticulously traces the different political factions and the recent schism in the Church due to the conflicting claims between Anacletus II and Innocent II to the papal throne, a conflict which clearly undermined the authoritative voice of the Church. Charges of heresy following such a period of instability could then lead to a reactionary response to emphasize orthodox positions. At the 1141 Council of Sens, Bernard of Clairvaux pre-empted Abelard's response to the accusations and then mounted a campaign to discredit him before Innocent II. The pope used this opportunity to re-affirm papal authority in matters of heresy and denounced Abelard, ordering his writings be destroyed and that Abelard be imprisoned. Additionally, Abelard was forbidden to teach or write. Only through the valiant efforts of Peter the Venerable who negotiated a compromise with Bernard was Abelard able to escape his harsh punishment.

This work concludes with an extensive bibliography and index which make this a useful reference book as well as a good overview of two leading intellectuals of the the twelfth century. If is of course frustrating that we cannot conclusively authenticate certain correspondence that appears so consistent with other known writings of this couple. Given this circumstance, we note that Mews is engaged in a project that is not unlike the tasks facing Abelard and Heloise themselves. Just as Peter Abelard sought throughout his career to reconcile contradictory scriptures and conflicting scholars, just as Heloise sought to synthesize Christian and pagan writing, Mews has attempted to reconcile conflicting authorities on the relationship and writings of this famous couple, and to lend coherence to conflicted lives.

Article Details

Author Biography

Linda M. Rouillard

University of Toledo