Peter Abelard
Peter Abelard
Intellectual Activity in the High Middle Ages

James Batchelor, Dickson College 2008

The High Middle Ages was a time of vigorous activity and transformation; an era in which theological and logical concepts were comprehensively explored by some of the greatest thinkers of the medieval world; St Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. The schism between nominalism and realism largely defined the philosophical thought of each of these great intellectuals, and thereby strongly influenced their interpretations of theological issues. Abelard’s writings on the Holy Trinity were highly contentious; opposing in beliefs to both Aquinas and Bernard, the latter of which tenaciously refuted them. Abelard’s erudite views best represent the development in education during the High Middle Ages and the ensuing evolution of thought that advanced society into the modern world. Thus began a revolution of universal knowledge independent from traditional theological beliefs, and a frantic search for the truth in natural existence. It is this development, which can be most effectively attributed to the dynamic nature of an era of rapid growth and change in both physical being and mind.

The concept of universals has remained highly contentious among intellectuals throughout history; Abelard and Bernard were in constant disagreement over such philosophical matters. Realism in classical and medieval philosophy was merely an extension of the Platonic theory of forms, which held that things in nature are linked together in mentality and actuality by universals or socially constructed comparatives. (D.A Rausch, 1997). For example by such thought, lions and tigers are both from the animal universal because they each possess the essence of what the mind perceives as an animal-like quality. The nominalist view in this scenario is that the animal universal exists in the mind only and has no real value beyond the name itself. Both Aquinas and Abelard rejected the views of realism and nominalism, and instead followed a branch of thought intermediate to the two, called conceptualism or moderate nominalism. This view holds that universals do exist in the mind, and that whether they exist in actuality, is a truth beyond the means of human knowledge. (Spade, P, 1994). For example, Abelard was able to convince his teacher, William of Champeaux, through rigorous debate that there was more to universals than Plato initially explored. This Abelard describes in the following, Historia Calamitatum, an autobiographical letter:

‘Now, the basis of this old concept of his regarding the reality of universal ideas was that the same quality formed the essence alike of the abstract whole and of the individuals which were its parts: in other words, that there could be no essential differences among these individuals, all being alike save for such variety as might grow out of the many accidents of existence. Thereafter, however, he corrected this opinion, no longer maintaining that the same quality was the essence of all things, but that, rather, it manifested itself in them through diverse ways.’ (Peter Abelard, Historia Calamitatum) .

It is here where the philosophical thought of Bernard truly separates from the thoughts of Abelard and Aquinas. He particularly disagreed with the way in which such detailed speculation left no mystery in God’s work and so instead preferred to study values such as love and grace. Thus there is this immediate division in philosophical thought between Bernard and the likes of Aquinas and Abelard; one clinging to the past, the others advancing through the search for further answers.

Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas
The religious thoughts of these three great intellectuals often conflicted, particularly those of Bernard and Abelard who frequently quarrelled on the subject of the Holy Trinity. One of Abelard’s literary works, Theologia, aroused great controversy. He applied his conceptualist views in suggesting that each of the three persons of the Trinity had an actual existence, a view of which many such as Bernard contested as heretical. This was naturally so as at this stage the Trinity, while comprised of three separate entities, was accepted by most as one spiritual being; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. (Joyce, J, 1912). However Abelard argued that while the three entities might be considered a universal in the psychological sense, it is difficult to believe that they are such in the physical sense. Bernard once again disapproved of Abelard’s attempts at explaining God’s existence; ‘as the general attitude of the piece did not allow for any mystery in the Trinity or in the nature of god.’ (Kiefer, J, 1999). Bernard believed that no mortal could quite so easily arrive at a complete understanding of God’s existence, and so concluded that Abelard’s cheek ultimately deserved condemnation. In fact it was Bernard himself who burned Abelard’s Theologia, and a clear division between the religious thoughts of the two is clearly noticed. Aquinas’ thoughts on the trinity, while from a later time than Bernard and Abelard, provide a union between conceptualism and the Trinity, which somewhat brings together the conflicting thoughts of the two. He believed that the Trinity transcends the rational world, and that the universal of the three entities is in essence within those who have experienced salvation by God. Here there is a more definitive answer than Abelard’s, of whose theory merely speculated on the concept, and within is a sense of mystery which Bernard himself would have found hard to dispute.

Dynamism is a quality characterised by vigorous activity and progress, an apt adjective for a time in which so named heretics such as Peter Abelard challenged the thoughts that had long been strictly accepted by the church. This fervent questioning of reason and logic thus brought about a revolution of thought unexperienced in the West since classical times. During the Dark Ages, as the stereotype surrounding the age suggests, expansion on philosophical and theological concepts was somewhat stagnant. (Cantor, N, 1988). It therefore came as a shock to those such as Bernard, that Abelard was questioning sacred matters such as the Holy Trinity on the grounds of logical and philosophical endeavour. His notorious work, Sic Et Non, revolutionised theological analysis, whereby he exposed the numerous contradictions in current theological thought, pointing out ambiguities and unanswered questions within the words of the fathers. Abelard wrote in Sic Et Non that:

‘There are many seeming contradictions and even obscurities in the innumerable writings of the church fathers. Our respect for their authority should not stand in the way of an effort on our part to come at the truth.’ (Peter Abelard, Sic et Non)

Regardless of the harsh consequences Abelard faced for writing such things, he continued to teach as long as there were those willing to learn. He set up various institutions, some of which evolved into the first universities and philosophical institutions separate from the church. (King, P, 2004). Although Aquinas and Bernard were also men of great intelligence and wisdom, they participated intellectually within the safe realms of the church and with little inconvenience to the outside world. The controversy caused by Abelard’s secular views, and his relentless hold on them, began ripples of change which would not have been started by the likes of Bernard and Aquinas. Most notably his questioning of the Holy Trinity and realism led others in his wake to further develop these theological and philosophical notions, as is described in the following:

Abelard's students were active as kings, philosophers, poets, politicians, theologians, and monks; they include three popes and several heads of state. Explicit references to Abelard's thinking in the later Middle Ages are few, likely because of the cloud cast by the verdict of the Council of Soissons, but it is clear that he had a seminal influence on twelfth-century philosophy and perhaps on later fourteenth-century speculation as well.’ (King, P, 2004).

This therefore makes Abelard a better candidate of dynamic change in the High Middle Ages than Bernard or Aquinas, as his deviation from these long accepted truths led him to speculate on thoughts well ahead of his time, thus slowly but surely bringing the medieval era along with him on a path of intellectual development and physical change.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
St. Bernard of Clairvaux
The thoughts of Bernard, Aquinas and Abelard, although dissimilar in some respects were analogous in their endeavours to search for explanations and answers. Abelard and Aquinas were conceptualists; believing that universals only exist in the mind and that understanding the nature of reality is impossible for man, whereas Bernard removed himself from such logical thought entirely. Abelard set himself apart from others in questioning the validity of accepted theological concepts such as the Holy Trinity and the nature of God’s existence, whereas Bernard and Aquinas took on more traditional views in such theological thought. In the words of Gandhi, disagreement is often a good sign of progress; thus Abelard’s questioning of matters strictly accepted as truths, and numerous disagreements with his peers, instigated progress in the field of knowledge. His relentless hold on his somewhat unorthodox philosophies, coupled with his passion for teaching and rigorous debate, brought about the return of educational institutions separate from the church, thus bringing knowledge back to the people after the collective illiteracy of the Dark Ages. It is this progression and valour in the face of opposition that one can clearly identify in Peter Abelard; thus earning his place in history as a pioneer of medieval thought and dynamic change.


Abelard, P, twelfth century, Historia Calamitatum translated by Henry Adams Bellows, 1922, Retrieved 10/2008 from:

Abelard, P, 1120, Sic et Non, sourced by James Harvey Robinson in ‘Readings in European History’ Retrieved October 21,2008 from:

Abelard P, Ethica the complete translation by Luscombe, David. (1971). Oxford University Press.

D.A Rausch, 1997, Realism: Elwell Evangelical Dictionary, Retrieved 09/2008 from:

Joyce, G, 1912. The Blessed Trinity, Retrieved October 21, 2008 from

King, Peter, 2004, "Peter Abelard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Retrieved Sep, 2008 from:

Norman, C, 1988, Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100–1600, Cambridge: CUP

Spade, Paul Vincent, 1994. Five Texts on the Medieval Problem of Universals. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.