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Peter Abelard

1079-1142

 

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was one of the early pioneers of textual criticism. With the return of political stability and the improvement in the European economy around 1100 scholars developed a renewed interest in the works of the Church Fathers. Peter Abelard was among these scholars. During his studies he discovered apparent contradictions among the writings of St. Augustine, St. Clement and the other Church fathers. These apparent contradictions he compiled into a compendium of 158 excerpts he called Sic et Non.

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Abelard initially wrote Sic et Non as a response to criticism from Islam. Many Islamic apologists accused Christianity of contradicting itself because the writings of early church leaders differed, appearing to contradict themselves, Within the Christian tradition, these discrepancies were a significant issue since they raised questions about the integrity of Church tradition.

But Abelard did not just identify the contradictions, he also identified techniques to resolve those contradictions. For example, he pointed out that the an apparent discrepancy among the texts might be the result of using terms in different ways or the texts being addressed to different audiences. He also attempted to reconcile differences between two sources by showing the use of figurative language or might assume different facts. In this way he was able to establish the integrity of Church tradition and lay the foundation for modern hermeneutics.

While the lives of scholars are often uneventful, Abelard's life was far from ordinary. Because his hermeneutic techniques were quite advanced and because he was often willing to entertain controversial positions, such as the belief that universals are merely mental constructs, Abelard was frequently charged with heresy. He also had a very stormy relationship with a young women by whom he had a child out of wedlock. As a consequence, the woman's family had him castrated and he went off to a monastery and she went to a nunnery. Their correspondence is one of the great works of early Western civilizaiton.

Abelard also wrote an autobiography of sorts, the Historia calamatatium, which details his love affair with Heloise. Much of Abelard's life is detailed in the book, including high points like the birth of his son Astrolabe, and low points like his castration at the hands of his in-laws. The Historia calamatatium also gives a valuable account of both intellectual and monastic life in 12th century Paris. Abelard and Heloise are buried together in the Pére Lachaise cemetery Paris.

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Edited by: Christopher O. Peterson
Researched by: Raymond M. Gherardini
Written by: Victor G. Kramer
November 19, 1997

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