Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard (ăb´əlärd), Fr. Pierre Abélard (pyĕr äbālär´), 1079–1142, French philosopher and teacher, b. Le Pallet, near Nantes.


Abelard went (c.1100) to Paris to study under William of Champeaux at the school of Notre Dame and soon attacked the ultrarealist position of his master with such success that William was forced to modify his teaching. Abelard became master at Notre Dame but, when deprived of his place, set himself up (1112) at a school on Mont-Ste-Geneviève, just outside the city walls. Abelard's fame as a dialectician attracted great numbers of students to Paris. This part of his career was cut short by his romance with Heloise, d. c.1164, the learned niece of Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame, who had hired Abelard as her tutor.

After Heloise bore a son, a secret marriage was held to appease her uncle. Fulbert's ill-treatment of Heloise led Abelard to remove her secretly to the convent at Argenteuil. Fulbert, who thought that Abelard planned to abandon her, had ruffians attack and emasculate him. Abelard sought refuge at Saint-Denis where he became a monk. In 1120 he left Saint-Denis to teach. At the instigation of his rivals, the Council of Soissons had his first theological work burned as heretical (1121). After a short imprisonment, he returned to Saint-Denis but fell out with the monks and built a hermitage near Troyes. To house the students who sought him out, he established a monastery, the Paraclete. When Abelard became abbot at Saint-Gildas-en-Rhuys, Brittany, he gave the Paraclete to Heloise, who became an abbess of a convent there.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux thought Abelard's influence dangerous and secured his condemnation by the Council of Sens (1140). Abelard appealed to the pope, who upheld the council. Abelard submitted and retired to Cluny. He was buried at the Paraclete, as was Heloise; their bodies were later moved to Père-Lachaise in Paris. The events of his life are chronicled in his autobiographical Historia calamitatum and revealed in the poignant letters of Heloise and Abelard (tr. by B. Radice, 1974), which for almost 800 years consisted of five of his letters and three of hers.

In 1980 a scholar examining a 15th-century letter-writing manual discovered that 113 unattributed fragments of love letters contained in a section of the book had actually been written by Abelard and Heloise during their affair. These letters have added to, but not changed, the understanding of the characters of each of the lovers and of their romance's rare and intense blend of the intellectual and the erotic.


A theological Platonist, Abelard emphasized Aristotle's dialectic method. His belief that the methods of logic could be applied to the truths of faith was in opposition to the mysticism of St. Bernard. He also opposed the extreme views of William of Champeaux and Roscelin on the problems of universals. His own solution, in which universals are considered as entities existent only in thought but with a basis in particulars, is called moderate realism and to some extent anticipates the conceptualism of St. Thomas Aquinas.

His most influential work was Sic et non, a collection of contradictory selections from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. In his introduction to Sic et non, Abelard set a method of resolving these apparent contradictions, thereby making the work significant for the development of the scholastic method. This work formed the basis for the widely read Sentences of Peter Lombard, who may have been Abelard's pupil. Abelard was perhaps most important as a teacher; among his pupils were some of the celebrated men of the 12th cent., including John of Salisbury and Arnold of Brescia. Of Abelard's poetry only Latin hymns survive.


See D. E. Luscombe, The School of Peter Abelard (1969); D. W. Robertson, Jr., Abelard and Heloise (1972); R. Pernoud, Heloise and Abelard (tr. 1973); C. J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (2001); J. Burge, Heloise & Abelard (2004).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Peter Abelard: Selected full-text books and articles

Heloise and Abelard By Étienne Gilson University of Michigan Press, 1960
Abelard and Heloise By Constant J. Mews Oxford University Press, 2004
A History of the Church in the Middle Ages By F. Donald Logan Routledge, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Peter Abelard" begins on p. 152
Abelard's Theory of Relations: Reductionism and the Aristotelian Tradition By Brower, Jeffrey E The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 51, No. 3, March 1998
Early Medieval Philosophy By George Bosworth Burch King's Crown Press, 1951
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
FREE! Studies in the History of Natural Theology By Clement C. J. Webb Clarendon Press, 1915
Realists and Nominalists By Meyrick H. Carré Oxford University Press, 1946
A Comprehensive History of Western Ethics: What Do We Believe? By Warren Ashby; W. Allen Ashby Prometheus Books, 1997
The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard By Etienne Gilson; A. H. C. Downes Sheed Sheed & Ward, 1940
Medieval Philosophy By John Marenbon Routledge, 1998
Librarian's tip: "Peter Abelard" begins on p. 155
The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty Oxford University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Abelard and Heloise: Calamities and Credos"
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
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