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16.11.18, Ruys, The Repentant Abelard

16.11.18, Ruys, The Repentant Abelard

It can be difficult to pull for Peter Abelard. He gleefully tweaks his former teachers and measures his own intellectual acuity by his distance above them. He wins the twelfth-century popularity contest that is the burgeoning university culture in Paris: students flock to his charismatic personality and celebration of personal ingenium that he applies to subjects as daunting and recalcitrant as the biblical book of Ezekiel, or the Trinity. He abuses the effect of that charisma by embarking on a torrid sexual relationship with his precocious and eager pupil Heloise, whose uncle once trusted Abelard enough to hire him as live-in tutor. Once the uncle has Abelard castrated, Abelard quickly disposes of his now-wife as nun, himself as monk, and their marriage as a pale physical shadow of the spiritual relationship they can enjoy now that sex between them is impossible. He wears down the pleas of the bitterly erotically nostalgic Heloise to renegotiate some kind of earthly marriage tie, and redirects their correspondence into abbey administration, but the epistolary exchange leaves him sounding emotionally and rhetorically tone-deaf and callous. And along the way Heloise proves that she's a better writer than he is. Abelard eventually goes on trial for Trinitarian heresy, a trial that, in his own self-congratulatory account, bears emphatic resemblance to Christ's before the Pharisees. His proto-autobiographical Historia calamitatum certainly justifies the name (although the name is not original), but one can't help feeling that quite a few of those calamities were self-inflicted.

Acknowledging that Abelard needs defense, Juanita Feros Ruys's book offers two late Abelardian texts for that defense. Mirroring his 1119 conversion to the monastic life from a life of self-indulgence, she posits a mid-1130s conversion of his attention back to his wife and son, possibly even prompted by his correspondence with Heloise. As proof of this heart-softening turn to family, Ruys gives us the Carmen ad Astralabium, 521 elegiac distichs of advice to Abelard's son Astralabe, and to his wife the Planctus, six lyrics lamenting interpersonal and especially familial disasters in the voices of biblical characters: Dinah (upon the circumcision and death of her rapist), Jacob (when he believes his two favorite sons are dead), the maids of Israel (when Jephthah must sacrifice his daughter in order to fulfil a vow to God), Israel (upon the death of Samson), and David twice (upon Abner's murder by David's nephew Joab, and upon the death of his beloved friend Jonathan). The book consists of those two Latin texts, introduced, edited, translated, and extensively annotated, for the first time whole in English. And its apparatus repeatedly argues that Abelard's return out of asceticism back into earthly ties and responsibilities produced literary works that add a personal and experiential dimension to his typical originality and intellectual complexity. This volume then holds significant value for literary history, not merely Abelard studies.

The thematic title of the book raises the possibility that the book might be a work of literary criticism. Make no mistake: it is not primarily a work of literary criticism, and the gestures toward that genre it does make prompt more questions than answers. The issues the first part of its title, The Repentant Abelard, raises, it theorizes in just over two pages, and those of its second part, Family, Gender, and Ethics, in a page and a half. It gives its thesis, the repentance of Abelard, chronological but not conceptual precision: what does "repentance" mean, theologically or otherwise, when it designates a turn away from heavenly to earthly life? And in regard to the personal, experiential, original, and intellectually complex nature of Abelard's work that the book repeatedly asserts, what were twelfth-century notions of family, personhood, authorial innovation? How might we compare Abelard with those mores as well as assert his originality? How might his originality emerge as response to the issues of his time? How does his authorial performance add to our understanding of those issues? The book provides a good deal of literary contextualization in its commentary, but does not cohere those insights into systematic argument or theorization. Symptomatically although infrequently, it asserts by means of tentative tags like "perhaps" (203), "could suggest" (54, 74), or non-rhetorical questions (58, 75, 77), whose ideas it then treats as conclusive.

The book has enough to do without arguing. It is instead best categorized and valued as a comprehensively annotated edition and translation of two Abelardian texts hard to get hold of but of great interest to those who care about the life and thought of that infuriatingly fascinating figure and of the peculiar ways his originality could tinker with genre. The book opens with a short introduction laying out themes and structure. Then follows a Chapter 1 of forty-six pages: an orientation to the Carmen ad Astralabium, covering date and purpose of composition, main themes, structure and style, differentiation from similar didactic texts, and a particularly detailed manuscript reception history. Throughout, Ruys presents the Carmen as "original and complex" (27) and "a summa of Abelard's thought over a number of decades" (14), not, as some have seen it, "a meandering collection of unremarkable sentential advice" (3). Then follows a thirty-page Chapter 2 orientation to the Planctus, covering genre (particularly problematic for these sui generis pieces), rhetorical occasion, order, technical use of voice, themes, and four brief analyses: on Abelard's feminized lyric voice of Dinah, on his masculine voice of Jacob, on Old Testament atonement in the lyrics, and on the homosociality of David and Jonathan.

Chapter 3 is the Latin text of the Carmen, every deviation within the four manuscript witnesses collated, as well as the apparently pedagogical glosses (often basic grammatical clarifications) in Ruys's control text: Paris, Bibiothèque nationale de France, n.a. lat. 561. The English translation, Chapter 4, is relatively readable and smooth. Seventy-four pages of notes on the Carmen comprise Chapter 5. This commentary records biblical, classical, and contemporary sources and analogues; it cross-references other lines in the Carmen and in Abelard's other writing (further supporting Ruys's argument that the work functions as a summa of his thought); it annotates word choice, explains manuscript glosses, and accounts for reception history of the lines in question; it provides historical context and cites secondary sources. Although the notes quote liberally from Latin but only irregularly translate that Latin into English, they provide a wealth of information for diverse interests and may comprise the heart of the book. The Planctus gets the same treatment in Chapters 6-8: Latin text, English translation, and notes. The text of the Planctus is less problematic, editorial emendations collated rather than manuscript witnesses (of which there is but one). Its translation Ruys describes as "word-for-word and line-for-line" (9), a decision that points the reader back toward the original Latin. In a few places the English is too Latinate to be readily comprehensible, e.g., "the one through whom you perished, betrayed, let his demise be the same, / but worthy of no tears which your death brings to all" ("The Lament of David over Abner the Son of Ner whom Joab Killed" 4-5). The notes, prominently featuring close comparison with the biblical text, for obvious reasons, also name critical studies of each lyric when such studies exist.

Three appendices offer manuscript reformations of the Carmen: sententiae added to the work in a Berlin manuscript; briefer sententiae added in a Madrid and a Vatican manuscript; and a twenty-four-line piece of the Carmen that appears in a Melk manuscript.

This book is a loving and unusually thorough presentation of two medieval Latin poetic texts interesting and scarce enough to merit such treatment. Its wealth of introductory and commentary material provides a scaffold from which more elaborate and focused arguments will be able to build. And in broad sweeping gestures it has indicated some of the directions those arguments could most profitably take.