Obviously the love story of Abelard & Héloise is pretty well-known but that's not what I'm interested in anyway. I first really came across Abelard in one of my classes at Reading, about the twelfth century. It was by my favourite professor ever (Malcolm Barber) and I really didn't expect it to be as interesting as it was. But mostly I learned that Abelard was amazing and hilarious and that St. Bernard was the biggest bitch ever. I think I even wrote this on my written exam at the end of the year, haha. I ended up writing my thesis about him and although it wasn't a particularly great scholarly piece (god knows how I got a first) I did enjoy it so much. It was on his condemnation at the Council of Soissons in 1121, and whether or not it was a justified condemnation on grounds of his work (the Theologia ‘Summi Boni’) or if, like he himself said, people just had a grudge against him and therefore condemned this work. I obviously won’t go into details here because I don’t think it’s that interesting for everyone (it is for me though), but it is definitely one of my favourite topics that I’ve written on.
My absolutely favourite work by him is the Historia Calamitatum because it's basically "OMGZ EVERYONE HATES ME BUT I'M SO AWESOME EVERYONE IS SO STUPID" but cleverly disguised as something more intelligent. Like so:
"My own teaching gained so much prestige and authority from this that the strongest supporters of my master who had hitherto been the most violent among my attackers now flocked to join my school. [...] Within a few days of my taking over the teaching of dialectic, William [his former teacher William of Champeaux] was eaten up with jealousy and consumed with anger to an extent it is difficult to convey, and, being unable to control the violence of his resentment for long, he made another artful attempt to banish me."
"But the abbey to which I had withdrawn was completely worldly and depraved, with an abbot whose pre-eminent position was matched by his evil living and notorious reputation. On several occasions I spoke out boldly in criticism of their intolerably foul practices, both in private and in public, and made myself such a burden and nuisance to them all that they gladly seized on the daily importunities of my pupils as a pretext for having my removed from their midst.”
“When it become apparent that God had granted me the gift for interpreting the Scriptures as well as secular literature, the numbers in my school began to increase for both subjects, while elsewhere they diminished rapidly. This roused the envy and hatred of the other heads of schools against me; they set out to disparage me in whatever way they could, and two of them especially were always attacking me behind my back […]”
Obviously his arrogance is pretty annoying, but I don’t think he was that far off, really. Although he was very much a thinker of his time, he was an extremely intelligent one and I have no doubt that he influenced many many people, as he still is doing now! For me one of the things I love most about my degree(s) is that I learn so many things that I start being passionate about. I am hoping to do more medieval philosophy/theology one day so I can study Abelard even more intensely. In the meantime, I hope I've at least made some of you interested in him! I can recommend lots of books, but I think that the Historia Calamitatum is the only "fun" (non-philosophical/theological) read, howeverrrr, M.T. Clanchy wrote an amazing book called Abelard: A Medieval Life which teaches you lots about Abelard as well as the twelfth century in general, and it's an easy read.