He was brilliant and a ferocious debater and very quickly made a reputation for himself. This is in the days before universities. The very first university established in Europe in was likely to be in Bologna followed by Paris in about 1150. Up until that point, when the university in Paris had been formally given a charter by Philip Augustus, students travelled to where ever a famous teacher, that they wanted to study under, lived. This is what Abelard did and this is what other people did for him when his reputation grew.
Like Cicero and Socrates, Abelard was a brilliant man and a brilliant debater who oftentimes scored points against his opponents, while not intending to be cruel, without realizing the effect he had on those he defeated. He was a knight and philosophy was his battlefield; he made enemies. Abelard also had powerful protectors like the king's counsellor Stephen de Garlande.
Eventually around 1114, Abelard became master of the cathedral school at Notre Dame in Paris. He obtained lodgings at the home of a cleric named Fulbert, who was hoping that he would tutor his niece Heloise. Heloise has been given far more education than most women would have had at this time and her reputation went far and wide. Peter the Venerable wrote a letter to her that he had heard of her in his youth. Heloise and Abelard began an affair. She became pregnant. At this time, teachers at the cathedral schools, while not clerics, were expected to behave as though they were, i.e. chaste, no marriage. This pregnancy seriously threatened Abelard's career. Through a series of events, Fulbert thought Abelard was abandoning his niece and hired some men to break into Abelard's room one night and castrate him. The crime rocked Paris.
When chastity became a big deal in the church, some men sought to improve their reputation as holy men or make chastity simpler to uphold if they mutilated themselves. The church, to prevent these horrors, made it mandatory for anyone who held a position in the church as a cleric or a monk must be intact.
When Abelard was mutilated, he viewed it as just punishment by God upon himself and he resolved to make amends by becoming a monk. He also asked Heloise to enter a convent. Normally after such a disaster, the Church would ask people to take some time before taking such an irrevocable step but somehow the way was smoothed for both of them very quickly. Abelard went on teaching and people came from all over Europe to be instructed by him. He also wrote a couple of books, one of which he was forced to burn as heresy because the enemies he made were starting to go after him. Bernard de Clairvaux, who was later canonized and also helped found the Templar Knights, was his bitterest enemy. So much so, that biographers of St. Bernard cannot discuss him without saying Abelard's name in the next breath. If there is an afterlife, somewhere Bernard is gnashing his teeth over this. At least we hope so.
After Abelard was forced to burn one of his books, he was persecuted again by St. Bernard. This time he was not able to defend himself properly, partly because he was ill, partly because the judges were all allies of Bernard's. So Peter invoked the privilege of appealing to the Pope, another useless gesture because the Pope was a disciple of Bernard's. He was sentenced to perpetual silence without even seeing the Pope. Abelard was about sixty years of age at this point and very ill, too ill to walk all the way from Paris to Rome but this is what he set out to do. He had to pass by the great monastery at Cluny on his way and was invited by the Abbot Peter the Venerable to stay and rest.
The Abbot of Cluny was second only to the Pope in power within the church, so Abelard was fortunate to have found himself another powerful protector at a time when he desperately needed one. Peter was able to reconcile Bernard to Abelard and have the sentence against Abelard lifted, provided he stay at Cluny. Shortly after this, he died and Peter the Venerable allowed his body to be sent to the Paraclete, where Heloise was living, so that she may bury him. He later provided an absolution of sins for Abelard as well.
Next week, I will provide a more detailed history of the affair with Heloise but I thought it was important to know who Abelard was and to do both at the same time would make for a long article. If you are someone stumbling upon this blog looking for info for an essay, do check dates and facts because I am going on memory for most of this.