Peter Abelard and Heloise

Collected Studies

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David Luscombe
Variorum Collected Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Abelard and Heloise: Collected Studies by David Luscombe is a collection of nineteen previously published essays written between 1966 and 2005 on an array of topics concerning Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil. Luscombe selected, edited, and organized the essays, beginning with one introducing the letters of Abelard and Heloise and some of the debates concerning the letters. Four sections follow, each corresponding to an important period or role played by Abelard during his life: philosopher, theologian, his relationship with Heloise, and monk. While the essays contained in each section are not mutually exclusive and are not confined to each period in Abelard’s life, there is a sense of historical movement through the essays. As a whole, they are of the finest scholarship, giving a comprehensive view of the many historical and theological questions about Abelard and Heloise.

Overall, the book is an accessible read. Luscombe is a clear and straightforward writer and introduces complex topics with ease. For example, in the second essay, “Peter Abelard,” Luscombe explores the way Abelard’s innovations in philosophy informed his later articulations of Trinitarian theology, natural law theory, and the Christian relationship with pagan philosophy. While any one of these topics could be difficult to navigate, Luscombe so clearly articulates Abelard’s thinking that a junior or senior undergraduate could follow. However, the book is more appropriate to the graduate level.

One of the good things about this book is that Luscombe brings up questions that are relevant to contemporary and popular areas of study, such as interreligious dialogue and gender studies. For example, he examines the continuity Abelard sees between Christianity and pagan philosophy. For Abelard, creation itself was so revelatory that forms or parallels of Christian belief could be found among pagans, and he gives many examples of pagans following positive moral codes, discovering monotheism and forms of Trinitarian belief, and embracing the monastic impulse. His understanding of natural law—and the common beliefs that emerge from it—provide a common basis for interreligious dialogue.

Taking the essays as a whole, one can see Luscombe recognizes Heloise’s agency in a way that some scholars have not. For him, Heloise was not a young, adolescent girl who was seduced by her teacher and was obedient to him until her death. Instead, he sees her as a woman in her early twenties, who was an accomplished scholar and famous in her own right before ever meeting Abelard. Further, while Abelard made enemies of many of the abbots in Paris, Heloise was able to navigate ecclesiastical politics and was respected by them, continuing successfully as the abbess of the Paraclete long after his death.

In several parts of the book, Luscombe gives examples of Heloise’s independence. First, Heloise states she would rather have been Abelard’s mistress than his wife, as she valued the love, partnership, and personal freedom between them, which did not often exist in a medieval marriage. Second, while Heloise went to the convent at Abelard’s direction, she never submitted to the idea that it was her true vocation. While Abelard interpreted his castration and monastic life as a positive intervention by God in his life, Heloise insisted that she was only in the convent because Abelard had asked it of her (232-235). She also shared this idea with other abbots, who encouraged her to see her role in a more positive way, as she was an effective abbess and could greatly benefit the women in her community. Third, while some scholars suggest that Heloise was not responsible for the final version of the Paraclete’s Rule because it deviated from Abelard’s version, Luscombe gives evidence that she did make decisions independent of Abelard, so the deviation should not disqualify her authorship (11).

His recognition of her maturity and self-determination calls for a greater examination of the dynamics of their relationship. In “The Letters Since Cluny, 1972,” Luscombe draws attention to Dom Jean Leclerq’s plea for “studying the experiences of Abelard and Heloise as two totally different psychological sublimations,” by attending to the differences in vocabulary that uses different psychological languages to express different psychological experiences (232). Leclerq’s suggestions seem especially relevant in light of the great attention to experience in gender studies. We might learn that Heloise was not simply locked up by her husband and following his commands, but rather managing her husband so that she could get what she wanted out of the relationship.

Finally, further exploration needs to be done on Abelard and Heloise’s ideas about monasticism. Both of them contributed to a plan for building a double monastery of males and females that lived under one abbot, with the men and women being governed by a provost and deaconess respectively (8). The communities were to live complimentary lives, with men doing the heavy, outdoor work and ensuring the safety of the nuns, while the nuns did more “appropriate” indoor work like sewing and cooking. While there had been joint monasteries by this time, there had not been one that was based on the kind of vision offered by Abelard—one that took into account the specific spiritual needs of men and women respectively and the fruitfulness that could occur through their collaboration.

Luscombe writes that not enough work has been done on Abelard’s massive amounts of writings on monasticism. Further, he says, “According to S. Hilpisch, he is the only person in the twelfth century who offered a theory about double monasteries, that is, monasteries with both men and women” (283). Such research could prove valuable as scholars unfold the ideas presented in John Paul II’s popular Theology of Body (Pauline Books and Media, 1997), in which he discusses complementarity and celibacy, as well as other attempts at theologies of gender. There is also a growing community of people who are participating in intentional Christian living, that involves both genders living cooperatively, but with a commitment to chastity. Such communities might find some benefit from the shared vision of Abelard and Heloise.

There are many more topics that Luscombe touches on that would be excellent for further study, but there are too many to review here. I unreservedly recommend this book for people at graduate level or higher who are doing pertinent historical or theological studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melissa Smeltzer is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Ancilla College in Donaldson, Indiana.

Date of Review: 
September 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Luscombe is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History in the University of Sheffield and a Fellow of the British Academy.


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