Post-classical history

The Rise of Reason

Cold and hungry, a young man staggered through the snow of the Mount Celis pass in the western Alps. At its highest point, his journey towards the Rhône valley in France had taken him almost 7,000 feet above sea level. He had always loved the beauty of the mountains and in later years spoke about his dreams of God feeding him on white bread as he wandered in the peaks. Now, though, neither God nor anyone else was around to give him food and he was close to starvation. Leaving home without money or supplies no longer seemed a wise idea, but he was not about to return to his hostile father. However, his biographer Eadmer (who died around 1124) tells us, rummaging around in his pack, his servant found some more white bread that had miraculously appeared there.1

Saint Anselm and the Logical Proof that God Exists

Posterity would come to know the young man as St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). He had been born in the town of Aosta, in the Italian foothills of the Mont Blanc range, where his family enjoyed considerable influence in the church. His beloved mother died when he was still young and his father sent him to be educated by an uncle. The experience was deeply unpleasant because his uncle, like many other schoolmasters of the time, was very quick to pick up the birch and beat his charges. As an adult and a teacher himself, Anselm would one day criticise this brutal regime and suggest that beating children only made them less enthusiastic about their lessons. ‘You have nurtured beasts out of human beings’, he chided a schoolmaster who was partial to the rod, ‘and they have grown up perverted and vicious because they have never been raised in genuine affection for anyone.’2 On returning home, Anselm’s relationship with his father deteriorated and in 1056, after a blazing row, he left Aosta for the last time and set off for France.

In truth, he had little idea where he was going except that he was heading north. This was a providential choice because in the eleventh century, northern France was the most dynamic region of Europe. The cathedral cities of Paris, Chartres, Reims and Orleans were a magnet for scholars looking to make a name for themselves. The schools attached to these cathedrals specialised in teaching the logical works of Boethius and Aristotle. But to attend them, you needed money and Anselm had none.

He barely made it across the Alps and then, for three years, he wandered from place to place. Finally, while staying in Normandy, Anselm heard about another exile from Italy who had found a safe haven at the nearby abbey of Bec, teaching the novices. This was Lanfranc (1005–89), to whom Anselm presented himself in 1059. They hit it off at once and Anselm became Lanfranc’s assistant at the monastery’s school. Bec was a new foundation, a long way from the great schools of France, so its subsequent growing reputation was almost entirely down to these two men. Then, just as Anselm was settling in, news came from Aosta that his father was dead and he could return home to claim his inheritance. He had to make a decision either to renounce his worldly position to become a monk, or leave Bec and travel back to Italy. Lanfranc consulted the local archbishop who advised Anselm to stay at Bec. He followed this advice and formally professed as a novice monk. Continuing to help Lanfranc in the schoolroom, Anselm proved that he was a good teacher. When his master left for another monastery, he took over as head of the school. He taught his pupils Latin grammar and the rudiments of logic so that they would be intellectually equipped to tackle the Bible.

At last, Anselm had found peace. The Abbey of Bec provided him with a haven in which to write and meditate. The Proslogion, the theological work for which he is famous, dates from this period. This short treatise is important because it uses reason in the service of theology. In it, Anselm does something that must have seemed daring at the time. He tries to use pure logic to prove that God exists. His attempted proof, known as the ‘ontological argument’, is one of the classic conundrums of philosophy. It goes something like this:

We have the conception of God in our minds as the being greater than any other thing of which we can conceive. However, in order for God to be truly the greatest thing that we can conceive, he would also have to exist, because if he did not then he would not be the greatest. A real greatest thing is certainly greater than an imaginary one. Thus, if God did not exist, he would not be the greatest thing we can conceive and hence he must exist.3

What the argument categorically does not attempt to do is to prove the existence of God to a sceptic. Instead, Anselm intended it to help someone who is already absolutely sure that there is a god to understand why such a god is necessary. His motto was ‘faith in search of understanding’.4 Note the order in which he places the words. For Anselm faith was prior to understanding and based on the mystical experience of God through meditation and prayer. After all, there was very little reason to deny personal experiences when they were consistent with the traditional teachings of the Church. On the other hand, for Christians there is no doubt that God has blessed man with rational faculties. It follows that we can also understand what we believe as well as accepting it from our religious experience. That is what Anselm’s ontological argument attempts to do. In fact, most philosophers have found the argument unpersuasive, but actually refuting it turned out to be fiendishly difficult. Even Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) admitted that ‘it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.’5

Criticisms of the ontological argument by other monks started appearing immediately and Anselm tried to respond to them. He added the earliest such rebuttal to his manuscripts before appending his own rejoinder. Anselm’s critics claimed that what we know by faith, we do not need also to demonstrate by reason. Indeed, using reason could open up a dangerous can of worms. It might not be long before people started to say that what we cannot prove by reason, we cannot know by any other means either. Anselm’s critics were worried that once reason was allowed to have any sort of function in the religious sphere, it would eventually become the final arbiter of religious truth. In fact, there was nobody who actually claimed that reason had a monopoly on truth or that the Christian faith was wrong. Rather, the two sides drew the battle lines between those who objected to reason intruding on such matters at all, and those who felt that reason did have a role to play.

In 1078, Anselm was promoted to abbot of Bec. However, like Gerbert, he was a better scholar than he was an administrator and had trouble keeping the abbey’s finances in the black. These worries meant that his later writings do not have the same freshness as the Proslogion. In 1093, he was promoted again to archbishop of Canterbury after the death of his mentor Lanfranc, who had previously held the see. Now, he had to throw himself into the stormy world of ecclesiastical politics and the concerns of kings. Anselm was a typical ‘turbulent priest’ who would not kowtow to royal authority. His poor relationship with William II (1056–1100) and Henry I (1068–1135), kings of England and the sons of William the Conqueror, meant that Anselm was twice exiled to the continent. If anything, he preferred this state of affairs to actually having to run his diocese and, while he was away, devoted himself to scholarship. His second exile ended only in 1107 and, two years later, he died.

The raw materials that eleventh-century theologians such as Anselm used to construct their rational arguments were the logical works of Aristotle. We have already seen how Boethius had translated and commented on these back in the sixth century. Unfortunately, the Aristotelian corpus is extremely difficult, even without the vagaries of Boethius’s obscure language; because so many Greek logical terms had no equivalent in Latin, Boethius was reduced to inventing an entirely new vocabulary. These would eventually become the standard terminology for the study of logic, but they took five centuries to catch on.

Medieval logic was mainly concerned with how things are described and to what extent those descriptions are real. Here is a frivolous example; in the village of Otham today, you will often spy white fluffy animals gambolling in a field. We call them ‘sheep’. But can we say that the concept of ‘sheep’ really exists, or should we just say that there are individual creatures that we collectively call by that name? In other words, is there such a thing as ‘sheepness’ or are there just a lot of sheep? This dispute ran on throughout the Middle Ages. Those thinkers who considered the word ‘sheep’ to be just a name that we have arbitrarily applied to white fluffy animals are called ‘nominalists’. The other camp, who insisted that ‘sheep’ do in fact exist as a category independent of all the individual sheep, were ‘realists’. We will come across these two schools of thought again.

Another key idea in logic, originating with Aristotle himself, is the distinction between substance and accident. To explain the meaning of these two terms, let us return to the white fluffy creatures mentioned above. We have already identified them as sheep, but one could easily ask what characteristics they have to have in order to be called sheep. The only properties we have said that they possess are whiteness, fluffiness and the ability to gambol. The trouble is that none of these characteristics actually captures the essence of what it means to be a sheep. Merely being white, fluffy and gambolling does not make an animal ovine. A crippled, freshly sheared black sheep would nonetheless be a sheep. On the other hand, it is impossible to be a sheep and not to be an animal. Thus, using the Aristotelian definition of substance and accident, we could say being white, fluffy and gambolling are accidental properties of a sheep. On the other hand, being an animal is a substantial property. It is possible to change the accidental properties of an object without it thereby losing its essential substance. On the other hand, any change in its substantial properties would alter its very essence and make it an entirely different kind of object.6

If all of this sounds far removed from everyday medieval concerns, in fact logic scored a notable success in the field of theology in the eleventh century by showing that reason could help defeat heresy. As the eleventh century wore on, the Church came to see unorthodox beliefs as an increasingly urgent problem. One of the earliest heretics who caused serious concern was Berenger (1000–c.1088), a French theologian who ran the cathedral school in Tours. His gripe was with the doctrine of the Eucharist and transubstantiation. Catholics believe that during the communion service or Mass, the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Luckily for the congregation, though, they still look and taste like bread and wine rather than flesh and blood. Berenger had doubts about this and taught that the bread and wine merely came to represent the body and blood of Christ. If it looked like bread and wine, he said, then that was what it was. To a modern reader or a Protestant this sounds very reasonable, but it conflicted with mainstream Christian faith at the time. How could faith and reason be reconciled in this case? Anselm’s teacher Lanfranc had the answer, and he found it by thinking carefully about Aristotelian logic. During the Mass, said Lanfranc, while the bread and wine maintained their accidental properties of looking and tasting like food and drink, their substance changed to the body and blood of Christ.7 Thus, transubstantiation could have taken place even though the perceivable properties of the host stayed the same. As long as the bread and wine took on the substance of Christ’s body, it did not matter what their accidental characteristics were. Most people agreed that this worked splendidly. Lanfranc had shown how reason could refute an argument even if it seemed to be based on common sense.

Between them, Lanfranc and Anselm pushed theology to centre stage. It became the subject that learned men aspired to master, but also one that involved high risks – not least possible accusations of heresy. Anselm, in particular, found that he had to be careful. In about 1090, a schoolmaster by the name of Roscelin (c.1050–c.1125) started circulating ideas about the Trinity. Worse, he claimed that his views had the support of Anselm and that the archbishop was a friend of his. Roscelin had already made quite a name for himself teaching logic to paying students in northern France, but in 1092 had been accused of heresy.

The doctrine of the Trinity has caused more trouble than any other. Christians believe that although God is one substance, he consists of three different persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take a master logician to see that one cannot equal three, so the Trinity seems to be inherently contradictory. In fact, it is hard to see how any rational treatment of the Trinity could be anything other than heretical. Most medieval people were comfortable with this because they were never so arrogant as to believe that human reason was able to understand everything. The Catholic Church is well justified in calling the doctrine a ‘mystery’. But to thinkers like Roscelin, the Trinity was like a bad itch that they could not leave alone. He decided that logically there had to be three Gods rather than just one in order for the Trinity to make any kind of sense. Inevitably, his ideas brought him into conflict with the Church authorities, who chased him out of France.

Roscelin moved to England and appealed to Anselm for help. However, his reputation as a heretic had gone before him and the archbishop sent him straight back to the continent. Even being associated with such a man was excruciatingly embarrassing, and Anselm decided to go on the attack. He fired off a long letter to the Pope explaining where Roscelin had gone wrong.8 The pontiff graciously accepted Anselm’s explanation, which had the effect of giving all his ideas an official stamp of approval. The Pope was agreeing that it was permissible to use logic in theology, as long as it was conducted in Anselm’s cautious way – putting faith before reason.

As it turned out, Roscelin does not appear to have been badly damaged by Anselm’s refutation of his ideas and continued his career as a teacher. A short time later, a young man turned up at his classes who, as we shall see, became one of the most celebrated and controversial figures in the history of philosophy. His name was Peter Abelard (1079–1142).

The Doomed Lovers

Abelard was born in the town of Le Pallett on the southern edge of Brittany. His father was a knight who married a relative of the local lord. Unusually for the time, he arranged for all of his children to have some tuition in Latin. Peter, his eldest son, excelled in the classroom and abandoned any ideas of inheriting his father’s estate. Instead, he set off eastwards to the centre of France and enrolled for Roscelin’s lectures.

Abelard was a big man with an ego to match. He frequently made himself insufferable in classes by openly challenging his masters. After a few years, he fell out spectacularly with Roscelin. We do not know what the dispute was about, but neither ever forgave the other. Abelard moved to Paris and began to attend classes at the cathedral school of Notre Dame. The educational market at the time was unregulated and vicious. Each master had to attract students in order to earn the fees that gave him a living. Paris already had a reputation for being a place where the best masters were working, so students came from far and wide to study at their feet. There does not appear to have been any formal qualification required to teach at this time, and the masters set themselves up as freelance lecturers as soon as they thought they could attract enough students to support themselves. Reputation was everything. Without it, they could not hope to attract new students. Of course a teacher wanted people to know that he was not only very intelligent, but also an exciting and eloquent lecturer. An excellent form of advertising was to turn up at a rival master’s lectures, engage him in argument and humiliate him in front of his students. Hopefully, they would be so impressed that they would abandon the rival as yesterday’s man and all flock to hear the heckler.

Peter Abelard was unquestionably both clever and eloquent. We know a great deal more about his life than we do about those of most medieval intellectuals because he wrote a morose autobiography called The Story of my Calamities. He begins by telling us about how his success in debate caused resentment from his masters and fellow students.9 He only lasted a couple of years in Paris before he had so effectively alienated his teachers that he had to flee. He moved 25 miles south to the city of Melun and set up his own school. There, he attracted some of the brightest and best students while he carried on his dispute with the masters of Notre Dame.

The subject at which Abelard excelled was logic. Like Anselm, he believed that he could harness the power of reason in the service of theology. However, he lacked Anselm’s caution and put reason before faith when he claimed, according to his students, ‘nothing can be believed unless it is first understood.’10 Nor did he make any effort to avoid contentious topics. In one notorious discussion, he suggested that the Jews responsible for crucifying Jesus Christ did not sin because they thought they were doing the right thing. A sin, Abelard said, could only be a culpable act, punishable by God, if you knew it was wrong.11 This, in itself, was not a new idea but Abelard picked the most outrageous example that he could think of. He was deliberately trying to generate controversy.

He was certainly a lively teacher. We have a description from one of his students who tells us: ‘There [Abelard] was, detonating astonishing and unprecedented opinions for his audience, as if to make a mockery of the ranks of the sane and wise.’12 Illustrations found in contemporary manuscripts show us what the scene would have looked like.

Abelard would have had a seat that was raised on a dais above his audience of students, who sat on the floor. He would also be equipped with a copy of the book from which he was lecturing. This gave him a natural advantage over any hecklers; the students would not have had their own copies of the book. Instead, they would make notes on sheets of wax held in a shallow wooden tray. Paper had not been invented yet and so books were made of parchment; that is, treated animal skins. This was far too expensive a material for just jotting down notes. To barrack the lecturer, a pupil could stand up but would still find himself at a lower level than his master. Abelard could also use his considerable height to face down opposition. Our source tells us how he tried to interrupt, but Abelard ‘turned his savage eyes upon him and threatened him vehemently, “See that you

4. A fourteenth-century manuscript illumination of a master lecturing his students

keep quiet and be careful not to disturb the course of my lecture.”’13 Of course, interrupting with difficult questions was exactly the tactic that Abelard had used against his own masters. So, after failing to intimidate the pupil, he had to let him say his piece or else risk looking weak to the other students.

After ten years of hard slog in the provinces, Abelard returned to Paris in triumph in 1117 as a master in his own right. He was appointed a canon of Notre Dame Cathedral, which gave him both a steady income and plenty of prestige. The way was clear to a celebrated career as scholar and then, in all likelihood, promotion to a bishopric. But this reckoned without Abelard’s unerring ability to completely wreck his chances of lasting success. His troubles began because of his affair with a remarkable woman.

Although he is hardly known today, Abelard was once very famous, not just as a philosopher but for his part in one of history’s great tragic love affairs. The object of his desire was Héloïse (d. 1164), the niece of another of the canons at Notre Dame Cathedral. Abelard tells us that ‘in looks she did not rank lowest while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.’14 For a woman, she had acquired a remarkable education in the Latin classics. She could quote at will from Ovid, Virgil and Cicero as well as compose letters in the style of the ancients. She was a strong woman with opinions of her own who used her learning to win arguments with men with whom she disagreed. Her uncle, Canon Fulbert (d. 1127), who probably owed his position to family connections, expected that once Héloïse had completed her education, she would be appointed abbess of an important nunnery such as Argenteuil, just to the east of Paris. She had been brought up there before moving to Notre Dame to live with her uncle. Being an abbess was a position fit for an upper-class woman like Héloïse, and about the only role for a female that required any sort of education.

Abelard’s own account of the affair explains that he was attracted to Héloïse because of her erudition. We do not know how old she was, but given her level of literary accomplishment, she is unlikely to have been younger than twenty. Abelard’s account continues:

All on fire with desire for this girl, I sought an opportunity of getting to know her through private daily meetings and so more easily win her over; and with this end in view, I came to an arrangement with her uncle, with the help of some of his friends, that he should take me into his house, which was very near to my school, for whatever sum he asked.15

Fulbert had a weakness for money and Abelard offered him a good rent for his lodging. Now that he was a canon of the cathedral, Abelard should have remained celibate. Although celibacy was not yet compulsory for all clerics, it was becoming impossible to get promoted to important positions like a canonry without abstaining from sex. As a celibate, Abelard was an ideal teacher for the headstrong Héloïse. His manifest suitability for the post led Fulbert to urgently request that he become her tutor. Abelard couldn’t believe his luck and set about convincing Héloïse to be his lover. By all accounts, he didn’t have to try very hard. His policy of seduction was an unqualified success and Héloïse fell head over heels in love with the dashing scholar. Before long, they were neglecting her literary education.

Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages.16

The affair was intense to say the least. Abelard admits to beating Héloïse (as expected between a young student and her master), but he gives the impression that they both enjoyed such rough play. Even more disturbingly, he raped her when she tried to resist him. Years later, he wrote in a letter to her:

Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and trying to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows. Your weaker nature meant you could not prevent me.17

Even this did not daunt Héloïse and she was as besotted with Abelard as he was with her. We do not know how long they kept up the pretence, but before long their affair was the talk of the cloister. The only person who didn’t know about it was Uncle Fulbert. Abelard’s teaching career was suffering as well because his mind was no longer on the job.

Inevitably, it ended in tears. Within months, Fulbert discovered his niece and her tutor in a very compromising position. It was impossible to deny they were lovers. Abelard fled from Paris with Héloïse and returned to his native town of Le Pallet. Soon afterwards, Héloïse found she was pregnant and stayed with Abelard’s family until she gave birth to a son. They called him Astrolabe, after the astronomical instrument that had so excited Radolf of Liège a century previously.

Leaving Héloïse at Le Pallet, Abelard returned to Paris to try to thrash out a compromise with Fulbert. They agreed that Héloïse would have to marry Abelard, but that the wedding should be kept secret so as not to undermine his career. Héloïse seemed to accept this and came back to Paris, but without her son whom one of Abelard’s brothers adopted. Sadly the compromise could not hold. Despite the supposed secrecy of the marriage, word got out. Héloïse tried to save the situation by swearing under oath that she was unmarried but this merely enraged Fulbert. Abelard lost heart and transferred Héloïse to Argenteuil, the nunnery where she was brought up, although he did not make her take her final irrevocable vows. For Fulbert, Abelard shutting his niece away like this was the last straw and he planned a terrible revenge on the man who had brought dishonour on his family.

One night, Abelard was asleep in his house in Paris. Unknown to him, Fulbert had bribed his servant to let in a posse once his master was unconscious. The plan worked perfectly. The men burst into the bedroom and set about their gruesome work before Abelard had any chance to react. We can be sure that the operation was performed professionally. The victim was pinned down with his nightshirt lifted over his head. One of the gang, skilled in surgery, would have taken a ligature and tied it around the base of Abelard’s scrotum. He pulled it tight to prevent bleeding and used a sharp surgeon’s knife to cut off the testicles. Then the posse fled. The process was so quick that Abelard later claimed that he had hardly felt a thing.18 The mental anguish the attack caused was another matter entirely. Abelard roused the watch and they captured one of the posse, as well as the treacherous servant. The guards castrated the prisoners and then blinded them as well for good measure. As for Abelard, he could no longer act as a husband to Héloïse. He sought shelter in the Abbey of St Denis outside Paris where he professed as a monk. Héloïse was forced to take her final vows and their desperate affair came to a dreadful end. As for Fulbert, he lost his canonry and property for his part in the crime. However, many people considered that his actions were justified and within a couple of years he was reinstated.

The Trials of Peter Abelard

Abelard’s castration had been a very public humiliation but it did nothing to curtail his hunger for controversy. He quickly quarrelled with the other monks at St Denis, accusing them of being insufficiently holy. This was thought to be a bit rich coming from Abelard and they packed him off to teach students somewhere outside Paris. He also started to write his own book about the Trinity. While he accepted that it was impossible to prove this doctrine was true by reason, he thought that it was possible to use reason to rebut any argument that claimed to show the doctrine was false. Reason could not conflict with faith because both were gifts that came from God. If there appeared to be a conflict then it was because there was a mistake in the argument. So, if a heretic, like Berenger of Tours or Roscelin, used reason to formulate an argument which produced a conclusion in conflict with Christian doctrine, it must be possible to use reason to refute him. This was exactly what Abelard thought he was doing, but he also had a habit of making powerful enemies who would not hesitate to use accusations of heresy against him.

Roscelin was still alive and could see exactly where Abelard was aiming his rhetorical barbs. He was still smarting from how Abelard had treated him twenty years earlier and saw an opportunity to take revenge on his pupil. He accused Abelard’s own book on the Trinity of being heretical and after a show trial in 1121, Abelard was forced to cast it into the flames. He returned to his abbey in disgrace. This would have been another good opportunity to keep a low profile but instead he upset the monks again by suggesting that their patron, St Denis, had never really existed. As St Denis was also the patron saint of France, Abelard also found himself accused of treason. This time, he fled to live alone in a hermitage. His attempt at the quiet life was also a failure; a clamouring horde of students who wanted to hear his teaching followed him to his wilderness retreat. He was soon writing and lecturing again.

Abelard’s most famous work, intended primarily as a textbook for his students, is called Yes and No. It contains little more than a host of quotations from the Church fathers arranged in such a way as to make it clear where they were contradicting each other. The aim was not to prove that they actually were contradictory, but rather to aid his students in resolving these perceived problems. Abelard wrote in the preface of Yes and No: ‘By doubting we come to inquiry and by inquiry we see the truth.’19 He meant that we can discover the truth, but only through a sceptical method of asking difficult questions. The main criticism of the book made by his opponents was that it made no effort to resolve these contradictions, and thus gave the impression (which we might not think so misleading) that they were real.

Abelard’s controversial career continued. At one point he was the abbot of a monastery in Brittany, but left when his monks tried to kill him. In 1129, Héloïse too was in trouble. She had risen to the rank of prioress at Argenteuil but she and her nuns were expelled for ‘notorious immorality’. We do not know exactly what this means, but Héloïse was a passionate woman and it is likely that it involved men. This time, Abelard was able to ride to her rescue. He gave her his old hermitage so she could found a new nunnery, which was a great success. The Paraclete, as the nunnery was called, quickly acquired papal recognition and large grants of land. It survived until the French Revolution of 1789, when almost all religious houses in France were closed down.

As for Abelard, such was his ability as a teacher that he was always in demand. In 1133, he even returned to Paris as a master of logic. Many of his enemies were dead and it seemed that he could finally work in peace. He began to revise his book on the Trinity (presumably he had kept a copy, as he had burnt the original). Unfortunately, despite the demise of his old opponents, he had little trouble stirring up new ones. In 1140, as an elderly man of 60, he found himself facing the most formidable churchman of his generation – St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153).

In traditional histories of the Middle Ages, St Bernard tends to get pigeon-holed as one of the bad guys. His preaching helped to incite the second crusade and he did not have a lot of time for religious tolerance. He was also ambivalent about the use of human reason over faith. None of this has endeared him to modern authors. However, St Bernard was by no means a religious conservative. He was a radical who devoted his life to fighting against the sins of the Church. Simony – that is, the sale of clerical positions – and concubinage, where priests kept lovers even if the Church forbade them to have wives, both provoked his ire. Likewise, he campaigned for a clergy which was uncorrupted by worldly wealth and which lived and worked among ordinary people. He reformed the monastic system to root out the laxity and luxury with which it had become associated.

At this time, Abelard was involved in a new dispute with a certain William of St Thierry (c.1075–1148), who was a friend and student of St Bernard. Out of his depth arguing with one of the great debaters of his generation, William wrote to his mentor to ask for help in combating Abelard’s novel ideas. He enclosed Abelard’s updated treatise on the Trinity, and St Bernard was able to find much in it that he did not like. His disagreement with Abelard was probably not over an obscure point about the nature of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but rather about the whole question of how reason should be used in the field of theology. St Bernard was of a mystical bent, a man who believed that the best way to gain access to God was directly through prayer and meditation. Reason, he thought, would just get in the way. Furthermore, Abelard’s alleged mistakes showed how dangerous reason could be when it led men astray. It was better by far, he thought, just to stick to faith.

Everyone knew that in a public debate, Abelard would get the best of even the great St Bernard of Clairvaux, so Bernard wanted to avoid any such set-piece occasion. In the end, St Bernard prevailed by denying his opponent any sort of fair trial. Instead, he accused Abelard of heresy at a church council in Sens in 1140. Abelard could see the way the wind was blowing and refused to cooperate. Ignoring the council, he appealed directly to the Pope in Rome. This sent St Bernard into a panic, and he launched a flurry of letters to the Vatican demanding that Abelard be condemned forthwith. His eloquence worked. The Pope sentenced Abelard to perpetual silence and confinement to a monastery.

The story of Abelard gives the impression that the hierarchy of the Church was implacably opposed to reason and logic. He was put on trial for heresy in 1121 and 1140, losing the case both times. We have to be careful, though, not to be misled by Abelard’s high-profile career. However sympathetic we might be to his plight, the fact remains that he brought most of his problems upon himself. His blatant hypocrisy and breathtaking arrogance ensured that he had a ready supply of enemies who were quite happy to use accusations of heresy to bring him down. Yet, despite his obvious character flaws, Abelard always had powerful supporters. He was twice a master of the prestigious cathedral school in Paris and abbot of a distinguished monastery (even if, like Gerbert and Anselm, he was too much of a scholar to be any good at the job). Even after his final condemnation in 1140, he found support from Peter the Venerable (1092– 1156), abbot of the great monastery of Cluny and equal in stature to St Bernard himself. Peter ensured that Abelard’s confinement took place within his own monastery where he was comfortable and well looked after.20

It was Peter who gave Abelard’s body to Héloïse at the Paraclete for burial when he died of old age a few years later. By then the Pope who had condemned him was dead; the new Pope was a supporter of reason. He even owned the two books by Abelard that his predecessor had demanded be burnt.21 Once Abelard was dead, his controversial and acerbic personality no longer obscured his ideas and they quickly came to dominate Christian scholarship. In the end, despite his enormous reputation and the silencing of Abelard, St Bernard had missed the boat.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!