A period in history, such as the twelfth century, can be seen as the rush of events—‘one damn thing after another’, in the words of one critic—and as useful and, indeed, necessary as that is, occasionally one should stop the projector and look at a few individual frames to get a more nuanced view. Thus, we shall take another look at the twelfth century, a look focused on three individuals whose life experiences will allow us to see the twelfth-century church in a fuller, more personal dimension. The three persons—two men and one woman—were neither popes nor monarchs, yet they show us different aspects of the church as it lived out its life in the complexities of a Europe coming of age. One was near the centre of power, Thomas Becket as chancellor to King Henry II of England. And through the experience of another, Peter Abelard, we catch sight of the world of the schools and the contentiousness, personal and intellectual, in which he found himself. We come to an entirely different place when we meet Hildegard of Bingen, not merely because she was a woman in a man’s world, but also because she was a visionary prophet and perhaps much more. To them, then, let us turn.
Peter Abelard has fascinated observers uninterruptedly from the twelfth to the twenty-first century. Depending on which glasses one may be wearing, he is seen as a rebellious malcontent, a male chauvinist seducer, a paranoid personality, an original and seminal scholar or an unhappy monk, and there is some evidence to support each of these views. Every generation rediscovers Peter Abelard, and no generation feels satisfied that it fully understands him. Almost inevitably and probably unfairly, he is known in every generation largely because of his love affair with the young Heloise and equally inevitably moral judgements about his actions towards her are made and are almost always negative.
There is no scarcity of sources about his life, but even these, like Abelard himself, are not without controversy. There are his scholarly works on logic, ethics and theology as well as sermons, letters, hymns and perhaps even love songs. It has been estimated that his surviving works run to about one million words, and