Peter Abelard (1079–1142) and Heloise (d. 1164) are two of the most celebrated and controversial personalities of twelfth-century Europe. Their lives are well known through the Historia calamitatum, or History of My Calamities, as well as through an exchange of letters between Heloise and Abelard that always follows the Historia calamitatum in the manuscript tradition. For over eight hundred years, these two personalities have functioned as mythic figures onto whom a variety of images and ideals have been projected relating to reason and authority, love and renunciation, wisdom and religion. Yet the actual ideas that attracted their attention have tended to be little understood, except through gross simplifications. Abelard has regularly been typecast by his critics, most influentially by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090/91–1153), as a clever dialectician who never acquired spiritual depth as a theologian. Readers of the Historia calami tatum sometimes find Abelard a difficult personality, overconfident in his own skills. They may dislike the way he seems to abuse the trust of Heloise and then seems to neglect her after she enters the religious life, at his behest. Others admire the brilliance of his analytic capacity, the brazenness with which he attacks authority, and the passion with which he declares his feelings.
Heloise, by contrast, generally attracts a more sympathetic response, although more for her declarations of selfless love than as a thinker about ethics. She has long been admired as a woman of great learning, although opinions have varied greatly about her attitude toward the religious life.