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  • Letters of Peter Abelard: Beyond the Personal
  • Fiona J. Griffiths
Letters of Peter Abelard: Beyond the Personal. Translated by Jan M. Ziolkowski. [Medieval Texts in Translation.] (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2008. Pp. lii, 232. $29.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-813-21505-1.)

With this new translation of Peter Abelard’s lesser known letters, Jan M. Ziolkowski encourages readers to look “beyond the personal” as they consider a man who, more than any other, embodied the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual currents of the twelfth-century renaissance. Philosopher, theologian, and logician, Abelard earned fame as a young man in the schools of northern France, establishing himself not only as a creative thinker but also as a controversial and even divisive figure, whose intellectual battles reflected the military ethos of the knightly class. Early disputes with his teachers—Roscelin of Compiègne, William of Champeaux, and Anselm of Laon—presaged Abelard’s later quarrels with the monks at St. Denis, with whom he took refuge following his disastrous affair with Heloise, and with Bernard of Clairvaux, his chief opponent at the Council of Sens. Appropriately, an entire section of Ziolkowski’s translation is devoted to letters relating to Abelard’s stormy relationship with Bernard (Epp. 10, 15 and his Apologia) and another to “Other Controversies,” among them Abelard’s missive to the abbot of St. Denis (Ep. 11); a letter celebrating the superiority of the monastic versus the [End Page 597] canonical life (Ep. 12); a sophisticated defense of Dialectic addressed to an “Ignoramus” (Ep. 13); and a letter to the bishop of Paris, written during the course of Abelard’s conflicts with Roscelin (Ep. 14).

Ziolkowski’s subtitle, Beyond the Personal, takes issue with the fame of the so-called “personal” letters of Abelard and Heloise (Epp. 1–5). Although written in the early 1130s, some years after the two had entered the religious life, these tell the poignant story of their love affair, marriage, and monastic profession, a dramatic tale that has gripped readers since the fourteenth century. Dogged by questions concerning their authenticity, however, these letters have attracted their own share of controversy. Moreover, the traditional division between the “Personal Letters” and the “Letters of Direction” (Epp. 6–8), as they appear in the Penguin translation, has served to solidify Abelard’s reputation as a romantic antihero, whose callous seduction of Heloise plays badly against her own protestations of selfless love. That Abelard continued to care for Heloise after she entered the monastery, composing for her and for the nuns of the Paraclete (“our oratory,” as he writes to her [p. 70]) a corpus of liturgical, exegetical, and exhortatory texts, has often been overlooked. Ziolkowski remedies this state of affairs, including in the first section translations of Abelard’s letters to the nuns of the Paraclete, among them Ep. 9, encouraging the study of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; Ep. 16, his prologue to the sermon collection he compiled for the women; his prefaces to the 133 hymns of the Paraclete Hymnal; and his dedication to the Expositio in Hexameron. As Ziolkowski notes, many of these works were written at Heloise’s explicit request, making her Abelard’s active collaborator and intellectual partner, even after the end of their affair.

This helpful and appropriately revisionist collection will be warmly welcomed by scholars, teachers, and students. Ziolkowski’s translation is elegant and readable while remaining faithful to Abelard’s characteristic style. The letters themselves, spanning some twenty years of Abelard’s career, provide important insights into the spiritual and intellectual context of northern France in the early-twelfth century. All are authentic. Together with the Penguin translation, Ziolkowski’s volume now presents Abelard’s letters in their entirety, affording a new appreciation of a man, who, in his own life, richly reflected the tensions and contradictions of his age.

Fiona J. Griffiths
New York University


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