Tag Archives: peter abelard

The 12th century


The Ambulatory at St-Denis, the birth of Gothic architecture

Every once in a while you are confronted with ‘important’ periods in history — 135 BC to AD 14, for example, takes us through the collapse of the Roman Republic to the death of Augustus, the first Emperor. Or the fourth century, with the continuation of Diocletian’s reforms, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the various church councils and associated theologians, all culminating in what Peter Brown calls the ‘second’ Golden Age of Latin literature. Or the 16th century, an age of Reformation and print and philosophy and war.

The 12th century is similarly important, especially its middle decades.

The final year of the 11th century is the year the Crusaders took Jerusalem. The final decades of 1000s also saw the Investiture Controversy and the Gregorian Reform, which continued beyond 1100 and adjusted the balance of secular and ecclesiastical power in Europe. In the midst of this is St Anselm (1033-1109), whose Cur Deus Homo was completed in the year 1100; this brilliant logician and theologian was to die in 1109.

Not that Latin theology was left with no new lights in the upcoming decades — St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helped drive forward the new Cistercian Order and is a high point in western mysticism, particularly his sermons on the Song of Songs, begun in 1135; he is often called the Last of the Fathers and is a ‘Doctor’ of the church. Bernard sharpened his wit in intellectual combat against Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who is an early ‘scholastic’ theologian (whereas Bernard was a monk) who was more given over to Aristotle than to Plato, to logic than to mysticism, and who was involved in the methodological revolution in the universities that we call ‘Scholasticism’.

Abelard was important and is known even to non-medievalists today, often because of his relationship with Heloise and their illegitimate son, Astrolabe (we have even a Penguin Classics translation of their letters!). However, some of his controversial conclusions were rejected by the succeeding tradition; one of his successors, Peter Lombard (1100-1160), on the other hand, wrote what would become the standard textbook of theology for the Middle Ages, the Sentences (1147-50), on which the luminaries of the next century, such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), would write commentaries. Although his orthodoxy, like Abelard’s, was challenged, his memory was acquitted at the Lateran Council of 1215.

Around the same time as Peter Lombard’s greatest work and the mystical masterpieces of St Bernard, but in the final years of Abelard, Gratian wrote his Decretum — or, rather, ‘Concord of Discordant Canons’. This is one of the most influential works of canon law from the Middle Ages, drawing together the various sources of the law under systematised headings and providing Gratian’s own dicta to sort out the discrepancies between. It is at once a source for canon law, a juristic text for legal principles, as well as a study in Christian sacraments. The Decretum is a wondrous piece of 12th-century learning, born in the university at Bologna in 1139 with final edits in the 1140s. Like Lombard’s Sentences it would become a standard textbook for the rest of the Middle Ages.

These are what initially inspired me to write this post. Nonetheless, this is also the century of the birth of Gothic art under the vision of Abbot Suger of St-Denis; the great architecture of Norman Sicily comes this century as well. Towards the end of the century the Nibelungenlied — Germany’s great vernacular epic — was written (I’ve blogged on it here often in the past). The latter half of the century also sees Chrétien de Troyes (1130-1191), Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215), and Hartmann von Aue (1160-1210s). This the century of that medieval stereotype, the troubadour.

No piece about the twelfth century should go without mentioning the dubiously historical work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155), that famous History of the Kings of Britain was written, including many famous tales of King Arthur. More reliable was William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), who wrote several important works of English history in Latin prose.

One could go on. It’s interesting to see these convergences, especially the significant pieces written 1140-60.

Letters as Literature

Pliny the Younger

The idea of writing a post such as this has been floating around in my head for a good, long while now. Letters, epistles, epistolography, are often thought of as ‘sub-literary’ or ‘documentary’ ‘evidence’ for the study of the history of a particular period or person. That is to say, the value of the letter as a piece of writing is to be found in the information which the scholar or other interested party can mine from it.

The implication, on the other hand, that letters are actually literature says that letters are intrinsically interesting of themselves. That is to say, you can read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger of Ambrose of Milan or Leo the Great or Boniface or Abelard and Heloise or Erasmus or J R R Tolkien or C S Lewis for themselves rather than for their content alone.

I am not arguing that letters are not useful documents — from them we learn the tastes and friendships and horrors of individuals as well as, quite frequently, the events of their times. So Cicero’s letters to Atticus of the latter part of 50 BC and through 48 BC provide the student of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey an interesting and informative angle on this highly important Late Republican series of events. Or the letters of Pope Leo the Great from 448 through 455 are important sources for the events leading up to and resulting from the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Nevertheless, what I am saying is that letters are more than simply useful documents. They are interesting documents. Without knowledge of Latin, certain varieties of artistry in the letters of Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61-113) can come to the fore concerning how he constructs his identity or the concerns of what good style and oratory are. The art of philosophy is readily apparent in many of the letters such as those of the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) or the controversial philosopher-theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142).

If you can read letters in their original tongue, be it Latin or Greek, English or French, you can get a glimpse of their artistry in another manner. For Cicero the orator is not stylistically identical to Cicero the epistolary correspondent. Likewise Leo the Great. Not having read any of the letters of C S Lewis (1898-1963) as an adult, I cannot say for him, but I would be unsurprised if his letters differ from his essays and lectures in terms of style as well.

Furthermore, an investigation of the style of these letter-writers will reveal their use of literary devices, from devices of sound to puns to literary tropes. I, myself, have done an analysis Pope Leo the Great’s Letter 28, the ‘Tome’, and have found it full of rhetorical devices of balance and antithesis, thus mirroring the theological content of the letter.

Of course, my reference to Leo’s ‘Tome’ brings up another issue surrounding the literariness of letters. All letters, whether real ones such as Cicero’s or fictive ones such as C S Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, are written with a particular audience in view. Many of these, however, including many of Cicero’s, have a wider immediate audience than the ‘intended’ recipient — most famously, the letters of Paul the Apostle (AD 5-67) have found themselves in almost every language on earth in the hands of people living in places the Apostle did not know even existed. Certainly, Paul did not think of the Papuan living in the 21st century when he wrote. Yet he was also undoubtedly thinking beyond the Corinthians of his own day as well.

Thus does Leo write his ‘Tome’ to Flavian of Constantinople yet put enormous rhetorical effort into it, not only in the devices employed but also in the cadence and rhythm of the words, consistently using a prose rhythm known to us best from Ammianus that will last throughout the Middle Ages, but also the prose metre known to us best from Cicero. This consciousness of a wider audience in the letters of people such as Cicero or Pliny or Leo or Erasmus leads to more careful artistry in both the original copy as well as in polished versions presented for publication.

This careful literariness in so many of the famous epistolographers of history should make us pause when we read them, then. How are we to say that this is a less ‘mediated’ version of the character we are reading? Pliny has polished his letters and arranged them to produce a particular vision of himself. Leo has similarly polished his letters and sought to uphold certain values throughout. Who knows what that pope would fear and wonder in the dark nights of Vandal invasions of Rome?

All of this is to say — read some published letters. They run through a range of subjects from oratory to philosophy to poetry to any other piece of literature to art and architecture to theology to politics to daily life to economics. They do so with a certain style that raises them above mere ‘documentary’ evidence for the past.

Recommended Letter Collections (chronologically)


M. Tullius Cicero. I would recommend them all, but they are legion, so read D R Shackleton Bailey’s Selected Letters (Penguin Classics) instead. Online: The complete letters in English at the Perseus Project.

L. Annaeus Seneca. A nice sampling of Seneca’s letters is in the Penguin Classic Letters from a Stoic translated and selected by Robin Campbell.

Pliny the Younger. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics). This corpus is short enough that you can read them all; furthermore, there is much to be said for reading an entire collection of letters as its author/editor intended.

Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s letters vary greatly in subject matter; therefore, to get a sense of the man, read the selections gathered in the Translated Texts for Historians volume, Political Letters and Speeches as well as the small sampling in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ambrose volume, available online.

Pope Leo I (the Great). No translation exists of all of Leo’s letters, but the bulk can be found in the NPNF volume, available online, and a somewhat different selection in the volume from The Fathers of the Church, translated by Edmund Hunt.


Boniface. I’ve not read all of Boniface’s letters, but I found those I did read to be of interest. There is a recent edition by Ephraim Emerton, and they are also available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Peter Abelard. There is a Penguin Classic, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, where I first met these two star-crossed (and on his part castrated) lovers/monk and nun.

Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, as a ‘Renaissance’ humanist, takes up many of the perceived ideals of epistolary writing found in Pliny and Cicero. A selection is available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.


C S Lewis. Letters to Children. This I own and enjoyed in my youth.

—. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. This is an interesting series of fictive letters to a correspondent called Malcolm. An interesting project from a literary standpoint.

—. Letters. Walter Hooper has edited all of them, I think; but there must be a ‘selected letters’ out there for the faint of heart!

J R R Tolkien. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Selection, ed. Humphrey Carpenter.

—. Letters from Father Christmas. This amazing volume contains letters Tolkien wrote in the person of Father Christmas to his children. It is a delight!

There are, of course, many more bodies of correspondence out there to be discovered. I just know very little about them or have not read them at all, so I am not keen to recommend them. Add your own recommendations in the comments!

Aristotle and the Renaissance

Ancient Roman bust of Aristotle

One of the great stories that buttresses the myth of the ‘Dark Ages’ is the ‘loss’ of Aristotle in western Europe until he was kindly delivered back to us hopeless barbarians by learned, sophisticated Muslims at some point in the early days of the ‘High’ or (better, if you ask me) ‘Central’ Middle Ages.

It does seem that most of western Europe lacked much Latin Aristotle in the Early Middle Ages, although Cassiodorus in the sixth century seems to have had some Aristotle in his library. Nevertheless, between Cassiodorus and the twelfth century, knowledge of Aristotle in the Latin West seems to have dried up.*

Nonetheless, in the ferment of ideas that was Islamic Spain, the Syriac-based Arabic translations of Aristotle had created a number of Muslim interpreters of Aristotle, and they along with Aristotle himself began to be translated into Latin in the twelfth century along with various other scientific/philosophical texts of antiquity. As well, some Aristotle comes to the West straight from Constantinople’s mouth — that is, in translation straight from the Greek by the likes of James of Venice.

One of the more colourful characters of this period was Peter Abelard (1079-1142), an Aristotelian who sought to integrate the learning and method of philosophy with the study of theology. This, and his love affair with one of his students (Heloise; their son was Astrolabe), made him not entirely popular with the authorities of the day, but many of his varied writings survive to this day for the interested reader.

In the next century, the Latin Aristotle was made properly complete with translations and revisions from the Greek by William of Moerbeke (1215-1286). Because of the similarities in grammar and syntax between Latin and Greek being more extensive than between Greek and Syriac or Arabic, and because William was a very careful and systematic translator, the new Latin Aristotle was closer to the Greek Aristotle than ever before.

The thirteenth century thus saw a new Aristotelianism in the works of Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) and, arguably the greatest (or at least most famous) Aristotelian of all time, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Aristotle and Aristotelian philosophy are thus highly mediaeval creatures, not children of the Renaissance. Indeed, they are a product of the period in which we see many of those most stereotypically mediaeval cultural traits abounding — tournaments, Corpus Christi celebrations, transubstantiation, mendicant friars (Franciscans and Dominicans), female mystics, ‘Crusades’, courtly love, Arthurian romances, the Inquisition, Robin Hood and other suchlike things.

And so, when we consider our dear friend The Renaissance, whatever happened that humanism produced the type of philosophy that it produced in the period covered by the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, it was not the rediscovery of Aristotle.**

In fact, I would argue that it was not the rediscovery of Greek and Latin poetry and philosophy at all but a new attitude towards these treasures that marks the humanists of the Renaissance such as Petrarch or Pico della Mirandola. Many of the ideas and texts we associate with the Renaissance were abroad in the Middle Ages, in Aristotle’s interpreters, in Boethius, in Isidore of Seville, in Augustine, in Plato, in Plato’s commentator’s, in the surviving manuscripts of the poets and of Cicero, Quintilian, etc.

What was born in the Renaissance was not a rediscovered Aristotle. And, although many ‘forgotten’ texts were rediscovered in the monasteries of Europe in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Era and then printed in precursors to critical editions, ancient philosophy was not reborn. The new humanism was more consciously focussed on the human aspect of philosophy, poetry, civilisation.

The mediaeval mind was thoroughly Christianised, trying to fit the ancients into Catholic categories and create a comprehensive worldview that took into account the secular learning of the ancients as well as the sacred learning of theology and revelation. The ancients were themselves deeply religious — Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, were all religious systems as much as abstract philosophies. The ancient pagans, be they philosophers or poets, were not humanists but, very often, animists or polytheists or practical monotheists or pantheists or panentheists. They, too, had a thoroughly theological outlook.

The new outlook of the Renaissance is not paganism rediscovered, but paganism reinterpreted.

*Not in the Greek East, nor in the Syriac East. It is, in fact, from the Syriac translations of Aristotle (by Christians) that the Arabic were made. You can understand, then, why some western mediaeval interpreters of Aristotle, working with a Latin translation of an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek original, may have missed the mark.

**Nor was it the rediscovery of Lucretius, despite the claims of The Swerve by Greenblatt — see the Guardian’s review; if you want a look at Lucretius in the Early Modern period, try The Lucretian Renaissance by Passannante (2011) instead — see the Bryn Mawr Classical Review’s review.