Observations on the Theologies of Abelard and Heloise

Analysis of the first two letters between Heloise and Abelard demonstrates the variety of theological and practical viewpoints of thirteenth century France. Interesting points of contrast emerge on examination of their views of theological authority, Abelard's "calamities", their entry into monasticism, and the own-ership of the Convent of the Paraclete.

Theological Authority

Comparison of these letters shows a marked difference in the theological use of authorities. Heloise's letter appeals to di-verse authorities; Abelard's letter uses only one.

Abelard places primary theological authority in the Bible (he quotes Biblical material thirty-six times in his letter). Arguably, the letter also uses the authority of the general tradi-tion of the Church (regarding the efficacy of prayer and the Divine Office) and Abelard's personal authority.

Heloise only rarely cites the Bible (six times in her letter, generally as parallel phrasings rather than quotations) and quotes secular and pagan authors, Seneca (110) and Aeschines Socratius. (114)

The idea of the authority of the individual is apparent in Heloise's letter. Heloise overtly gives her own desires and moti-vations authority, "Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent." (115)

She also recognizes Abelard's will as authoritative for her, "I have finally denied myself every pleasure in obedience to your will, kept nothing for myself except to prove that now, even more, I am yours." (117) Their marriage was not her will, but his. She is just as happy to be his "mistress" or "whore". Her motivation for her relationship with him has been from pure motives, and should be so judged, "God knows I never sought anything in you ex-cept yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours." (113) Her subjection to his will is her own free decision; the final arbiter then is her own will.

Heloise also raises a theology of obligation and debt. "How great the debt by which you have bound yourself to us needs nei-ther proof nor witness." (111) "Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me." (117) His misfortune obligates him to comfort her, (113) not her to comfort him!

In the comparison of the two letters, then, we see a contrast between Abelard's grounding of authority in the Bible with Heloise's grounding of authority in the words of secular authors, the feudal concepts of debt and obligation, and the desire, mo-tives, and will of the individual.

Abelard's Calamities

For Heloise, Abelard's misfortunes have been caused by human be-ings; he has been "persecuted", "attacked", "mutilated", plotted against, slandered. (109) To Abelard, however, he has been under attack by Satan, "May divine mercy protect me through the support of your prayers and quickly crush Satan beneath our feet." (119) Heloise's letter contains no reference to Satan.

In this difference, again, the individualism of Heloise is ap-parent. Given her understanding of the authority of the individ-ual, Abelard's enemies are personally acting against him, they are not mere tools of a supernatural being. Interestingly, neither Abelard nor Heloise seem able to entertain the idea that Abelard may have treated his enemies badly, or that such concepts as tact and judgment have a place in their lives.

Their Entry into Monasticism

To Abelard, their entry into monasticism was, "Our conversion from the world to God," (119) that is, it was done for the love of God. In his eyes, Heloise has sanctity, "You whose sanctity must surely have the greatest influence in the eyes of God." (123) Her sacrifice of prayer will protect him. "Here you have an example, sister, and an assurance how much your prayers for me may prevail on God." (121)

Heloise, however, entered the convent for love of Abelard, not God, "I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him." (117)

Again, their ultimate concern is quite different. Abelard is considering their lives in relation to God while Heloise is con-sidering their lives in relation to each other.

Whose Convent is it, anyway?

Abelard, troubled by his sins, asks to be buried at the Paraclete where, "There is no place, I think, so safe and salutary for a soul grieving for its sins and desolated by its transgres-sions than that which is specially consecrated to the true Paraclete." (125) To Abelard, then, the convent is truly God's.

To Heloise, however, the convent may belong ultimately to God but it is truly Abelard's, "And so it is yours, truly your own, this new plantation for God's purpose." (111) "You devote your care to another's vineyard; think what you owe to your own." (112)

In this issue, also, Abelard is focused on God, while Heloise concentrates on individual this-world actions and responsibili-ties.


The comparison of the two letters reveals two strongly contrast-ing personalities and theologies. Abelard appears to stand in the tradition of Irenaus, Augustine, and Benedict, while Heloise emerges as a forerunner of Voltaire and Rousseau.

Abelard's themes are centered on Biblical authority, Satan's persecution, and a surrender to God; he focuses beyond the world on God. Heloise holds up her personal will and her love, and sees the world in terms of the actions of people, not of God and Satan. She concentrates on personal relationships within the present world.

In this short sample, we hear a conversation between a mediaeval man and a modern woman.

The ultimate goal of the humility:

When a monk has climbed all twelve steps, he will find that perfect love of God which casts out fear, by means of which everything he had observed anxiously before will now appear simple and natural. he will no longer act out of the fear of Hell, but for the love of Christ, out of good habits and with a pleasure derived of virtue. (7)

Many of the practical provisions of the Rule are intended to help the individual to be humble through obedience and through submission to and submergence in the community.

If anyone makes a mistake in chanting…he must immediately humble himself publicly. (45)

If a monk while working does anything wrong, breaks or loses something or offends someone…he shall go at once to the abbot and his brothers and confess, offering to make satisfaction. (46)

If anyone becomes proud of his skill and the profit he brings the community, he should be taken from his craft and work at ordinary labor. (57)

The ordained monk must be neither arrogant nor proud. (62)

All monastic concerns should be managed by the deans as the abbot has decided. With several in charge, no one will have the opportunity to become proud. (65)

Individual desires have no place in the monastery. (3)

The emphasis on silence is for the sake of humility, "I held my peace and humbled myself and was silent, even from speaking good things." (Ps 39:2 in 6).

The reader for meals "will ask all to pray for him, that God may protect him from the sin of pride." (38) Priests entering the monastery "must give to all examples of greater humility." (60).

Monks sent on a journey submit to public humiliation, presumably to counteract any tendency to be proud of their experiences:

On the day of their return they should prostrate themselves at the completion of each Hour of the Divine Office and ask the prayers of the entire community for any sins they may have committed by seeing or hearing evil, or by idle chatter. (67)

The provisions forbidding personal possessions act to encourage humility (as well as to encourage total reliance on the community).

Without the abbot's permission a monk may not receive from or give to anyone, even his parents, letters or parcels. (54)

So that this vice of private ownership may be cut away at the roots, the abbot is to furnish all necessities: cowl, tunic, shoes, stockings, belt, knife, pen, needle, towel, and writing tablet. (55)

The vice of private ownership must be uprooted from the monastery. No one, without the abbot's permission shall dare give, receive or keep anything. (33)

Some Implications of Holiness through Humility Under the Rule

At first glance the rank order in the monastery (63) would seem to act against the development of humility. The rank order provides plenty of practice for each monk in submission to others because obedience is ordered to any senior, not just to the abbot. "The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot. " (71) If the community was one of equals, however, there would be no way for each monk to think himself inferior as the program of humility demands.

The link of holiness with humility implies that those who hold high position in the community, especially the abbot, will be less able to achieve holiness. Indeed, the qualifications for the position of abbot do not include holiness or humility, "The abbot should be chosen for his virtue and wisdom." (67). The goal of the monks is not to rise in rank or to have authority, but rather "let them try to outdo each other in obedience" (72).

Holiness in the Rule is not primarily related to service to others in the greater community but to bring the individual to perfection, "They have laid the foundation to fight, with the aid of God, against their own bodily and spiritual vices." (1). The monastic community under the Rule is inward-directed. Although the virtues of service to others are listed in Chapter 4, "The Instruments of Good Works", they are to be applied wholly within the walls of the monastery:

"But the workshop in which we must diligently perform all these things is the seclusion of the monastery and our stability in the community." (4)


Thus, the monks under the Rule are to be obedient so that they may become humble. Because they are humble, God will hear their contrite prayers in the Holy Office. Holiness then is humble obedience to the Rule and the community for the sake of being acceptable to God.

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