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Abelard, Peter

Abelard, Peter, one of the few striking figures that infuse a living and romantic spirit into the annals of mediaeval scholasticism. The son of a Breton nobleman, born at Palet, near Nantes, in 1079, he received the best education that the age could offer. His handsome person, melodious voice, sweet disposition, and intellectual ardour, early marked him out as destined to play a great part in the world. He studied in Paris under William of Champeaux, the head of the diocesan school, and a famous exponent of the prevailing Realism. Against this system Abelard revolted, and attached himself to Roscelinus, the upholder of Nominalism. He soon stepped into the arena himself as a philosophical disputant or lecturer; nor was it long before he drew crowds of listeners - first at Melun, then at Corbeil. Having sated himself with logic and metaphysics, he next turned to theology, which he studied under the renowned Anselm at Laon. Returning to Paris, he attained the highest fame as a theological teacher, without, however, entering the priesthood. At the age of 38 he fell in love with a young lady who had come under the influence of his impassioned eloquence - Heloisa, the beautiful niece or daughter of an ecclesiastic named Fulbert. Why they should not have married remains still a mystery, in spite of the subtle disquisitions of many biographers, and the explanation offered by the lady herself. They unhappily preferred an illicit connection, which Fulbert discovered, and, though a form of marriage was gone through, punished by an irreparable outrage upon the lover. Abelard assumed the cowl and entered the monastery at St. Denis, Heloisa seeking refuge in the convent of Argenteuil; and, for a time, their lives appear to have been sundered. Suspicions of heresy soon began to spring up against the refined philosopher, to whom the narrowness, ignorance, and debauchery of the monks, his companions, were naturally distasteful. He moved to St. Gildas, in Brittany; but the atmosphere there was the same. He then (1120) started an independent course of lectures, under the protection of the Count of Champagne, and thousands flocked to hear him. A council at Soissons condemned one of his dissertations as unorthodox. In 1122 he built himself a little oratory near Troyes, which he dedicated to the Paraclete. His fame attracted many followers; a large monastery grew up; persecutions were renewed; and in 1125, to escape annoyance, he accepted the position of abbot in his former retreat at St. Gildas. Heloisa meanwhile had become prioress of Argenteuil; but the priory (1127) was claimed by the Crown. Abelard, thereupon, made over to her his establishment of the Paraclete, and she became the abbess. It is from this period that the famous letters date. In 1136 the Abbot of St. Gildas was again lecturing in Paris, John of Salisbury being amongst his hearers. But the relentless wrath of the ecclesiastics still pursued him. A council held at Sens (1140), under the influence of St. Bernard, condemned him to lifelong seclusion. Peter of Cluni prevented this sentence being carried out, and offered him a retreat in that abbey, where he spent in peace the last two years of his troublous career. He died 1142, at St. Marcellus, near Chalons-sur-Saone. A Gothic tomb in the cemetery of Pere-la-Chaise, Paris, built of fragments from the Paraclete, commemorates the sad story of the ill-starred lovers. Pope and Rousseau have helped to perpetuate but not to sanctify their fame.

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