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Paganism in Medieval Christendom: The Effects of Classical Learning on Abelard and Heloise

Updated on June 24, 2014

The twelfth century was a dynamic time for education and Christian theology. With the rise of cathedral schools and the resulting tension with those of the monastic schools, the proper way to study both humanity and God was up for debate. Additionally, the remnants of the pagan tradition had yet to leave the scholastic culture, resulting in an interesting blend of Christian and pagan influences on the intellectuals of the time period. Peter Abelard, a twelfth century philosopher and monk, was no exception. As such, his life and correspondence with Heloise, his lover whose intellectual capabilities matched his own, display the unique fusion of the often contradictory doctrines. This paper will demonstrate how the philosophical synthesis of pagan and Christian thought manifests itself in the letters of Abelard and Heloise and illuminates the intellectual trends of the twelfth century.

Historia Calamitatum

Throughout the five letters between the separated lovers, there is a distinct mix of Christian and pagan metaphors made by each individual. This can be seen especially in Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, the incidental beginning of the correspondence. Within this letter, Abelard speaks frequently of Roman poets and philosophers, quoting them and incorporating their teachings into his arguments. For instance, he uses pagan literary metaphors when discussing his decision to pursue academia, saying he “withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be educated in the lap of Minerva” (Historia Calamitatum 3). Later on he quotes Ovid, a renowned Roman poet, using the line “Envy seeks the heights, the winds sweep the summits” in order to explain the spread of his reputation through William of Champeaux’s slanderous ways (Historia Calamitatum 6). Such references to pre-Christian works and myths display the continued emphasis on classical learning throughout the twelfth century. Abelard flaunts his vast knowledge and rigorous intellectual training by showing his mastery of both Christian and pagan works in this letter, something that is possible only if the society continues to allow such materials to be studied. Thus, despite the fact that most of Western Europe was Christianized, pagan literature and thought were still valued enough to be a part of the budding academic’s education.

Letter Two: Heloise

Pagan influences can be seen in the writings of Heloise as well, for she was a highly educated and clever woman. In Letter Two, she quotes some of the prominent early Roman philosophers such as Seneca and Cicero, displaying her familiarity with classical literature while strengthening her argument that Abelard must write to her more often (48, 49). When confessing that her heart still belongs to him, she uses a distinctly classical manner of expression, most likely the result of her personal lessons from Abelard himself (Letter 2, 54). Her stance on her marriage to Abelard is defended using the work of Aeschines Socraticus, for she believed that marriage in itself is not what makes a relationship holy; instead, it is the true feeling of one for the other (Letter 2, 52). She says that when a woman marries a man for his money, she is not entering into matrimony but prostitution. For this reason, Heloise claims she would rather be Abelard’s whore than an emperor’s wife, thus declaring that her love is for him alone, not his fame (Letter 2, 51). Interestingly, this notion that what makes a deed good or evil is the intention which fuels it is derived directly from the teachings of the great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo. Therefore, Heloise utilizes a fusion of classical and Christian philosophies to chastise Abelard for his neglectful behavior and validate her enduring love, demonstrating her vast knowledge of both traditions.

The Paraclete

Le Paraclet:
Le Paraclet, 10400 Ferreux-Quincey, France

get directions

The Paraclete was a monastery founded by Abelard. Heloise became the abbess of the Paraclete, and it is where she wrote her letters to her husband.

In addition to illuminating further that pagan philosophy was still respected during this time, Heloise’s use of such allusions also exhibits the goal of twelfth century intellectuals to preserve the wisdom of the old Roman philosophers. While acknowledging that these great thinkers were pagans, Christian philosophers accepted the teachings of the early greats, such as Plato and Aristotle, with the caveat that these individuals were God-inspired. Some of Plato’s lessons were believed to be precursors to Christianity, for faith in the existence of universals is required in Platonic idealism, making it conducive to the Christian faith. When philosophies did not mesh as nicely with Christian doctrine, such as in the case of Aristotle, twelfth century scholars argued that all that was good and true could be taught and trusted by Christians. This formed an ideal intellectual situation in which it was acceptable to study more than just the Scriptures and the writings of early Christian theologians.

Religious Tension in Medieval Schools

However, this was not necessarily accepted as positive by all Christians, for Abelard tells of receiving harsh criticism from other teachers within the church for holding classes on both the Scriptures and secular literature (Historia Calamitatum 19). Much of this could be due to the tension between those who believed in the theological education of monasteries, as was traditional, and those who were in support of the more recently developed cathedral schools. The main difference between the two institutions was that secular topics, such as the trivium and quadrivium, were taught in the cathedral schools, carrying on the tradition of classical learning. Monks educated within a monastery were expected to spend their lives in contemplative prayer while copying scripture or liturgical texts, not teaching the “profane arts,” as Abelard calls them (Historia Calamitatum 19). However, cathedral schools attracted those who sought to understand and further theology, medicine, or law instead of merely preserving Christian writings. This new intellectual trend appealed highly to individuals such as Abelard who, despite being a monk, desired to contribute more to Christian thought than just a few extra copies of the Bible.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Denis

Abelard resided at this cathedral upon becoming a monk.
Abelard resided at this cathedral upon becoming a monk. | Source

Man's Relationship with God

Regardless of the Church’s efforts, pagan teachings continued to bleed into theology, influencing much more than the writings of theologians; such influences affected the primary understanding of the relationship between God and man. A key feature of this is the treatment of the Christian god as a deity whose favor must be won. This subtle element of man’s connection with God harkens back to the contractual relationships between pagans and the gods of old. Both Abelard and Heloise display such a relationship; in Letter Three, Abelard argues that the more God is pleased by the obedience of his female followers, the more likely he is to grant their prayers (59). Heloise speaks of expecting “no reward” from God for her seemingly pious actions since they were not done with a pure desire to serve and honor him (Letter 2, 54). Both statements diverge from the notion of a forgiving, loving God which would develop in later centuries with the continued shedding of pagan influences. Instead, their view of God still maintains the need to please him in order to gain favors during their time on Earth. Heloise takes this intermingling of traits a step further in Letter Four, for she refers to God as “Fortune who is only ill-fortune” and thereby blends the characteristics of the Christian and pagan gods even more so (65).

Reason vs. Faith

Another rather controversial carry over occurred when philosophers attempted to apply reason to matters of faith. This practice was hotly debated by the Christian intellectuals of the time, some arguing that reason should never be used to understand the nature and teachings of God, others taking a more liberal approach. St. Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the first to apply logic to the belief in God, employing a method later referred to as revealed exegesis to study and explain biblical texts. Others, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, wholly rejected any attempt to understand faith by way of reason, claiming that to do so was blasphemy since God could never be understood by the feeble minds of men. This intellectual tension resulted in the persecution of some theologians, for any who utilized logic without sufficiently extolling the value of faith and the immeasurability of God was in danger of being condemned as a heretic.

Abelard was also amongst those who found it useful to use reason in order to further the understanding of the Scriptures, putting him at odds with Bernard. He argues in Historia Calamitatum that “nothing could be believed unless it was first understood,” thus defending the application of pagan reasoning systems to his analysis of the Christian holy texts (20). This he backs up by quoting from the book of Matthew, in which God criticizes those lacking in understanding for teaching others (Historia Calamitatum 20). Abelard was a logician at heart, holding the ideals of Aristotle close while trying to reconcile conflicting theological concepts, which resulted in the development of the scholastic method. He was highly celebrated for his work on the matter, and swarms of students came to him for instruction on critical analysis and logical reasoning. However, his biblical exegesis also caused him a great deal of misfortune throughout his life, for his enemies within the Church, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, were constantly on the attack, aiming to have his writings labeled as heretical for their use of logic and reasoning. The controversy resulted in his displacement, the burning of his book on the Trinity, and multiple assassination attempts. Such events illustrate the areas in which pagan and Christian education did not mesh and manifest the intellectual debate which plagued the twelfth century.

The tomb of Abelard and Heloise, Paris, France
The tomb of Abelard and Heloise, Paris, France | Source

Abelard's Shift

Perhaps it was this discord and the constant fear of death or banishment which Abelard’s writings evoked that caused the changes seen in his style of expression. Historia Calamitatum is filled to the brim with references to pagan philosophy and literature; conversely, Letters Three and Five are almost completely lacking in references to anything that is not directly Christian in nature. While he continues to apply a logical approach to the problems posed by Heloise, he restricts himself to quoting only those such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine if he is not citing the Bible directly. This could also be due to the fact that Heloise spent much of Letter Four divulging her anger with God and the lot she was given, provoking Abelard to limit himself to the sole use of ecclesiastically approved texts and authors as sources for his argument supporting God’s grace (65). Additionally, with the time afforded him to understand all the implications of his castration, perhaps he was simply more dedicated to his role as a monk, finally letting go of his desire to be “a true peripatetic philosopher” as was Aristotle (Historia Calamitatum 3). Abelard’s bodily loss was certainly a factor in his increased piety, for, unlike Heloise, he was no longer capable of the “shameful behavior” which had always tempted and distracted him from his duties as a monk (Letter 5, 80). As such, it became easier for him to repent from his past sins and devote himself whole-heartedly to the study of theology.


The Dedication of Heloise

Unlike Abelard, Heloise’s references to pagan philosophers and poets do not taper off. She continues to quote Seneca and Lucan in her later letter, even after Abelard had stopped doing so. This is most likely due to her frustration with her life, with Abelard, and with Christianity as a whole. In her letters, she never displays the kind of devotion to religion that her lover does, most likely because the one thing to which she had devoted her entire self was Abelard. As such, mixing Christian and pagan philosophies mattered less to her, especially since she found the religion to be centered around the social fulfillment and worldly gratification of man, making it full of hypocrisy in the first place (Letter 4, 69). Thus, the inconsistencies between the two creeds affected her less; she was more interested in impressing Abelard with her wide breadth of knowledge than God with her piety.


Although Christianity dominated the social sphere, remnants of pagan philosophy remained firmly intact within the minds and practices of many. The ways of the ancient Romans continued to influence the interpretation of the Scriptures, the relationship of the people with the Christian god, as well as the education system. For this reason, pagan references and ideologies can be seen in the letters between Abelard and Heloise, demonstrating just how deeply influential classical studies proved to be. As such, it was the mixing of Christian and pagan philosophies which defined the intellectual life of the twelfth century. The effects of this synthesis would impact monks, nuns, teachers, and theologians for generations to come.

Works Cited

Abelard and Heloise. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Translated by Betty Radice with an introduction by Michael Clanchy. London, England: Penguin Books, 2004 (orig. 1974).

© 2014 Megan Faust


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      Nicholas Daly 

      3 years ago from NSW Australia

      As you got hub of the day with the Rastafari hub, I came to check out this one- both a very specific and engaging area to explore, and well written (not sure if you'll be writing on hubpages again, as it's been awhile?). Anyway I'll follow, maybe there are other philosophical hubs soon to come or maybe not!


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