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Chapter One


Toward the end of the Historia calamitatum Peter Abelard complains of having been cornered into a "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" stance. Specifically, he tells of the criticisms he endured first for not having been more solicitous of Heloise and her nuns and then for having intensified his attentiveness to the spiritual needs of the community. While delivering these ministrations, and at the instigation of Heloise, Abelard generated a large and heterogeneous array of texts for Heloise and the nuns of her convent (or, to give credit where it is richly due, often with Heloise).

Letter Nine belongs to this body of writings, which has been styled collectively as the Corpus Paraclitense (Paraclete Corpus), in recognition of the convent named by Abelard and presided over by Heloise. The corpus comprises Letter Nine, The Paraclete Hymnal, the lament poems (planctus), the Problemata, The Commentary on the Six Days of Creation, and The Sermons. Whether the correspondence between Heloise and Abelard (Letters One through Eight) fits within this corpus is debatable, partly because of their contents, partly because of their transmission (which is less restricted and less bound to the Paraclete than that of the other texts).

The only major item in the corpus that may have been lost would be a commentary on the Song of Songs. In addition, it cannot be determined exactly what the psalter was that Abelard mentions in Letter Three to Heloise. Possibly it contained antiphons he chose. In any case, the reference to the psalter, which is not anticipated by any request for one in Letter Two from Heloise, demonstrates at least that already when writing Letter Three, Abelard was immersed in the Paraclete liturgy. The extended passage at the end of Letter Three makes apparent that he and she tailored the liturgy of the Paraclete sometimes to respond to particularities in Abelard's life and psychological state. Sorting out which of these features owe to him or to her individually would be troublesome under the best of circumstances, but it is all the more difficult because extant manuscripts only record practices from later than Abelard's lifetime, after other influences had made themselves felt.

The array of writings is unparalleled: no other twelfth-century author, male or female, composed for a female religious community anything approaching either the number or the variety of these texts. Making the dossier all the more extraordinary is the extent to which it represents a close engagement of two astounding minds, since Heloise was most definitely an active partner in articulating questions, espousing opinions, and making demands. In fact, the Paraclete corpus (and remember that the name is modern) was the result of her initiative, if anyone's. She solicited from Abelard a history of nuns, a rule designed for women, hymns, sequences, sermons, answers to theological and scriptural questions, and a commentary on the opening of Genesis. Letter Five records her request for the history and rule. Abelard's preface to the first book of The Paraclete Hymnal preserves large portions of her request for hymns. Although the dedication letter to The Commentary on the Six Days of Creation does not quote her letter of petition, it at least refers to it. The same holds true for the prologue to The Sermons. Finally, the Problemata opens with the letter from Heloise that laid the groundwork for the subsequent queries from her and responses from Abelard.

When Abelard obliged Heloise by presenting the women with these writings, the sisters no longer resided at Argenteuil (on the seine northwest of Paris, of which it is now a suburb) but instead occupied the Paraclete (five miles southeast of Nogent-sur-Seine, on the road from Paris to Troyes, close to the village Quincey and the river Ardusson). Abelard had founded the Paraclete as an oratory after leaving the monastery of St. Denis and had transferred it to Heloise and some other of the nuns in their hour of need, after their eviction from Argenteuil by Abbot Suger.

The text is only implicitly a letter, in that it lacks a formal salutation and valediction. Its abruptness has fostered speculation that it is actually not a complete letter in its own right, but rather the continuation and completion of Letter Eight, which breaks off abruptly. Arguing against this theory is the emphasis placed in Letter Nine on the study of biblical languages, which marks it apart from the earlier letters as well as from the Problemata, even though a few of these texts (Letter three, Letter eight, and the Problemata) at least glance at the study and interpretation of the Bible. Whatever decision we reach on the relationship between Letters Eight and Nine, no one would dispute that the two are related closely to each other as well as to the Problemata. Yet whether Letter Nine antedated or postdated the Problemata has not been established definitively.

Another possibility is that Letter Nine is an integral text but not a letter. Indeed, in the sole surviving medieval manuscript, Paris, Biblioth��que nationale de France, MS lat. 14511 (late fourteenth or early fifteenth century), Letter Nine is heralded: "Incipit sermo magistri Petri Abaelardi ad uirgines Paraclitenses de studio litterarum" (Here begins the sermon of Master Peter Abelard to the virgins of the Paraclete on the study of literature). From the last three words of this incipit derived the title that has sometimes been given to it, De studio litterarum (On the Study of Literature). But what are we to make of the second word? In content Letter Nine does in fact show a slight overlap with one of The Sermons (Sermon 18), which touches incidentally upon the study of languages while pursuing its larger theme of Pentecost and the gift of tongues.

But there is no call to force Letter Nine upon the Procrustean bed of the sermon genre solely on the basis of the Latin word sermo. taken more generally, sermo meant "talk," and in medieval thinking about the epistolary genre letters were regarded as one side of a conversation with a person or people who were absent. Favoring the notion that Letter Nine passes muster as a letter are two facts. One is that the writings with which it is most closely related are all letters (Letters One through Eight) or at least strongly letterlike (Problemata). the other is that Letter Nine eluded being absorbed into The Sermons, which Abelard put together for the Paraclete. A perspective that helps in delineating the genre of Letter nine, as of Letters Twelve and Thirteen, is to consider them as "letter-treatises."

Until recently, Letter Nine was roundly ignored. Because it had the misfortune not to have been copied within the principal manuscripts that transmit the earlier letters, it failed to be printed in the editions of the correspondence between Abelard and Heloise that have become modern standards or in the English translations that are the only exposure to the writings of the couple that most people in the Anglophone world receive. Worse still, it has sometimes been judged astringently. One famous scholar who scrutinized it concluded that "[i]t is, by far, the least original" and categorized it as "only a florilegium of extracts from [Jerome's] works and a recollection of his deeds." This denigration of the letter misses the point, since its imposition of Jerome and Marcella upon Abelard and Heloise was deliberate and sophisticated, and its evocation of a Hieronymian education for women is as engrossing now as it was idealistic and unrealistic then.

In Letter Nine Abelard encourages the sisters to apply themselves to biblical studies and, to that end, to delve into the three sacred languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) under the guidance of their leader, Heloise. This threesome, enunciated already by Isidore of Seville (about 560-636), qualified as being sacred because all three were attested in the Sacred Scriptures; Latin passed the test mainly on the somewhat tenuous grounds that the phrase "Iesus nazarenus rex Iudaeorum" (Jesus of nazareth, King of the Jews), often reduced to the acronym INRI, or some section of it was identified in the Gospels as having been inscribed on the cross. Additionally, Abelard reveals in this letter his adherence to a belief, common since Christian antiquity, that Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans in their language, namely, Latin.

More than once, Abelard asserts that Heloise commanded not only Latin but also Greek and even Hebrew. Jerome, for his grasp of the three sacred scriptural languages, was touted as the vir trilinguis (man of three languages); evidently, at least to Abelard's way of thinking, Heloise could be certified as a femina trilinguis (woman of three languages). Although Abelard and Peter the Venerable glorified Heloise for her erudition, no other source but Letter Nine claims that she knew any Greek, and only the chronicler William Godel(l) and later sources indebted to him also call her knowledgeable about Hebrew. William was a monk of St. Martial in Limoges who wrote about a decade after Heloise's death; the text ends with the year 1173. Perhaps her Hebraism consisted in the familiarity with the meaning of basic vocabulary and names that was much valued in the etymologically minded Latin Middle Ages. Yet Abelard specifies that she had the capacity to compare biblical texts in the three languages. In any event, the caution has been issued that envisaging the Paraclete as "a kind of Erasmian collegium trilingue" was more a dream on Abelard's part than a reality. Above all, the letter espouses a return to an apostolic life, to be achieved through deep study of the Gospels. It is for attaining an understanding of the bible and a fulfillment of it in life that he urges upon the nuns immersion in scriptural languages.

In setting forth a curriculum for the women, Abelard takes as a point of departure Jerome's letter to Laeta (Letter 107, written in 403). Laeta had written to Jerome to request advice on how to raise her infant daughter as a virgin consecrated to Christ. The daughter, named Paula, is sometimes designated "the younger Paula" to differentiate her from Laeta's mother-in-law, Paula. (Laeta's husband and Paula's father was Toxotius, son of the older Paula and brother of Eustochium.) In his reply Jerome delivered lengthy counsel on the education and upbringing of a young girl. Abelard's extensive appropriations and invocations of Jerome's letter serve to bring out the parallels between Jerome and himself in offering spiritual guidance to women, composing texts for them, and suffering slanderous criticism as an outcome.

Simultaneously Abelard presses upon Heloise the place of Jerome's female correspondents and advisees, such as Laeta, the two Paulas, Asella, Eustochium, and other Roman women. Then again, Heloise may have embraced the role of Marcella even before Abelard attempted to cast her as any of the women in Jerome's circle, and she may have given the impetus for his identification with Jerome. In the letter that introduces the Problemata she cites Jerome on Marcella, reminding Abelard how greatly Jerome admired the woman not merely for studying the bible but also for posing questions to him. In any case, in writing this epistle to Heloise and her spiritual daughters, Abelard resorts to more than a dozen quotations from various writings by Jerome, particularly letters to women. The grand design behind this intentionally heavy reliance is to ensure that the idealized monasticism Abelard foresees for the nuns (and for himself as their mentor) will have the validation of the earliest and purest models for a Christian community. In sum, Letter nine raises intriguing questions about monasticism and the education of women as well as about other narrower topics, such as the knowledge of Greek and the reputation of Hebrew in the twelfth century.

The letter is to be dated between 1132 and roughly 1135, probably after the writing of Letters one through eight and the Problemata but before the assembly of the The Sermons. It survives in a single manuscript, Paris, Biblioth��que Nationale de France, MS lat. 14511 (toward 1400, copied probably in Paris, from St. Victor), fol. 18r-44v, where it caps an initial section of Abelardiana that encompasses the Apologia "Universis," sermon 14, the commentary on the Athanasian Creed, and the Problemata, fol. 44v-50v (for the last of which this manuscript is also our unique witness). The standard edition is that of Smits.

The reason for which Letter Nine failed to be preserved with the letters to Heloise may be that it is not addressed to her and in fact that it epitomizes the turns in their relationship he and not she sought to achieve. These very vicissitudes may have rendered the letter less suited to be stored carefully with the earlier ones, especially the personal letters. The letter is directed to the nuns collectively, of whom Heloise is prima inter pares on the strength of her erudition, rather than owing to her past history with him; and yet at the same time that shared past history no doubt contributes to Abelard's evaluation of Heloise, as well as to his extolling of learning as desirable for the women of the Paraclete.


Among the other things that blessed Jerome, who is very much concerned with the education of virgins of Christ, writes for their edification, he especially recommends to them the study of sacred literature, and he does not so much encourage them to it by words as summon them by example. In fact, mindful of the opinion he uttered when informing the monk Rusticus ("Love the knowledge of the Scriptures and you will not love the sins of the flesh"), he judged love of this study to be all the more needful for women as he perceived them to be weaker by nature and feebler in the flesh. In thus encouraging virgins, he adduces an argument from an analogy that is not derived solely from virgins; for this reason, to achieve a comparison with an element of lesser worth, he takes as an example widows and wives, so that through the matrons of the world he might arouse all the more to study those who are betrothed to Christ and so that by citing the virtue of laywomen he might dislodge or even destroy the sloth of nuns.

And since in accord with that dictum of Gregory's "Everyone starts out from the most modest things so as to arrive at greater ones," it helps to state at the outset with what great steadfastness he desired to steep young virgins in sacred literature. For this reason, to leave out the rest, let that statement now come out into open view which commends to Laeta, in regard to the upbringing of her daughter Paula, instruction in literature, for the teaching of morals:

A soul that is to be a temple of God (he said) must be trained in this way: [...] have a set of letters made for her, of boxwood or of ivory, and let them be called by their names. Let her play with them and let play be her learning. And not only should she hold fast to the sequence of the letters [...], but also the sequence should be jumbled frequently and final letters should be mixed up with middle ones, middle ones with initial [...]. When she has begun to guide with her hand the stylus upon the wax [...], either let her tender fingers be controlled by another's hand or let the rudiments be marked on the tablet so that her own tracings, kept within the margins, may be drawn along the same grooves and may not be capable of straying outside.

Let her spell out syllables for a prize and let her be motivated by the little gifts by which that age is won over. In learning let her have other girls as companions, so that she may envy them and be fretful when they receive praise. She must not be scolded if she should be a little slow, but her talent should be encouraged by praises, so that she both rejoices when she has outdone others and grieves when she has been outdone herself.

First and foremost, care must be taken that she not hate her studies and that a bad association with them acquired in childhood not persist beyond unformed years. Let the very nouns from which she grows accustomed little by little to form sentences not be random but diligently selected and arranged, for example, the names of prophets and apostles; and let the whole list of patriarchs out of Matthew and Luke ensue, going down from Adam, so that as she accomplishes one task, she may also be made ready for future recollection of them.


Excerpted from LETTERS OF PETER ABELARD, BEYOND THE PERSONAL Copyright © 2008 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
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