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Response to Review no. 52

I am delighted by Christopher Holdsworth’s review, particularly because he recognizes that my Abelard has two intended audiences: students for whom it is an introduction to medieval history and literature, and experts who may be stimulated by it to take particular questions much further than I do. Each of these audiences will occasionally be aggravated or distracted by the needs of the other. Students will have little use for my 50 pages of notes and references to works in Latin by Abelard and his contemporaries, and they may also be repelled by the large size of the book. Experts, on the other hand, will say (as Holdsworth does) that my notes are inadequate. They focus on the primary sources; they do not discuss the modern explanatory literature in detail. Consequently, as Holdsworth points out, I have no substantial discussion of the forgery question and neither do I explain why I think Abelard was a canon of Notre-Dame (a crucial matter in discussing the legality of his marriage).

Why does my book have these shortcomings? I judged that I must not put general readers off before they begin by loading Abelard down with notes and appendices. Ideally, I would have liked two volumes, one of text and one of notes, like John W. Baldwin’s Masters, Princes and Merchants (Princeton, 1970), which concerns another twelfth-century scholastic, Peter the Chanter. But in that form my book might never reach a student audience and the price would be £90, instead of £45 which is already high for a biography. I state my views about forgery in the form of the credo in the Preface, which Holdsworth cites, because that is a concise way to express them. In my ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ the reader will see: ‘Dronke, Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies‘ and ‘Luscombe, From Paris to the Paraclete: the Correspondence of Abelard and Heloise‘. I also refer, both in the Preface and in the ‘Further Reading’ section, to the bibliography and commentary by Constant Mews (‘Mews, 1995’, as cited by Holdsworth), which is now the expert’s starting point for any question about Abelard. Dronke and Luscombe have shown that there are no anachronisms in Historia Calamitatum and that the letters of Abelard and Heloise are convincing as twelfth century writings. The enigma remains – and will probably always remain – that there are no manuscripts earlier than 1280. Mews believes he has found more letters by Abelard and Heloise; these are to be published by St Martin’s Press in ‘The New Middle Ages’ series, ed. Bonnie Wheeler of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

Mews lists about 1000 items in his bibliography of 1995 and I have absorbed as many of these as I can. Holdsworth credits me with having a grasp of John Marenbon’s The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (1997), which is not really the case. Marenbon kindly let me have page-proofs of his book in 1996, so I was able to refer to it when finalizing the typescript of my Abelard; but it was too late for me to reconsider my chapters on ‘Logician’ and ‘Theologian’ in the light of his work. I have created a problem for specialists in medieval thought by reversing the chronology of Abelard’s writings on logic, and I look forward to their reactions. This illustrates how my book operates. Modern logicians have assumed that Abelard wrote his simplest works first. But this does not accord (I suggest at pp. 103-4) with the primary sources: neither with Historia Calamitatum, nor with the titles on the manuscripts, nor with John of Salisbury’s memoirs. I devote only a couple of pages to this, as there are so many controversial aspects of Abelard’s life which I have to consider in a general biography. In due course the experts will show whether I am right or wrong. In Sic et Non Abelard set his contemporaries hundreds of problems to sort out. On a smaller scale, I have done the same with the sources for Abelard’s own life. ‘In such a mass of words’, Sic et Non begins, ‘some things that are said seem not only diverse from each other, but even adverse’.

I am delighted that Holdsworth has started the process of taking particular questions further than I do. I had not thought of the points he makes about the age of abbesses, Hebraica veritas, the sermon ‘Adtendite’, or why the abbot of Citeaux may have acted as a peacemaker between Bernard and Abelard. On Abelard’s attitude to Jewish scholarship, I should have included Anna S. Abulafia, Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (1995) in my ‘Further Reading’ section. Even within the limited terms of my biography, I should certainly have said more about whether Abelard was a canon of Notre-Dame. I assumed that he was because Heloise describes him as ‘cleric and canon’. But, as Holdsworth points out, Abelard’s name is not found among the witnesses of documents relating to Notre-Dame. As I use the evidence of these documents to argue that Fulbert was suspended from his canonry after Abelard’s castration (pp. 198-9), I should have discussed what their silence signifies in Abelard’s case. Everything depends on how we interpret Abelard’s statement in Historia Calamitatum:

I returned to Paris, to the school which had long ago been intended for and offered to me, and from which I had been expelled at the start. I held my position there in peace for several years.

Radice, whose translation this is (Radice 1974, pp. 64-5), comments: ‘As magister scholarum at Notre-Dame, Abelard would be adopted into the Chapter as a canon’. But there is no proof that he was, though it is a plausible supposition, as his predecessor, William of Champeaux, had been a canon. How long does Abelard mean by ‘several years’? If he were a canon of Notre-Dame for, say, three or four years, his name should appear among the witnesses of documents. But perhaps he was only appointed a canon of Notre-Dame shortly before his seduction of Heloise. In that case, his name might not appear among the witnesses of documents, because he only held the canonry for a short period. What we need is more evidence and – someday perhaps – this and other enigmas in Abelard’s life may be resolved.

Abelard boasted, ‘I have said many things in many schools’ (my p. 330). I suggest that ‘for most of his contemporaries, what Abelard said was more significant than what he wrote’ (p. 330). Today, we have to depend on the statements which he and his contemporaries committed to writing. His surviving academic works comprise about a million words in Latin, often using a technical vocabulary. They are undated and the light they throw on the events of his life is frequently difficult to interpret. Making what we know about Abelard accessible to modern readers in the form of a biography is inevitably a process of selection, which is bound to be partial in many senses. Abelard roused strong feelings among his contemporaries and any biography of him should do likewise. I hope ‘to restore the former fame of Abelard and Heloise among the reading public’ (p. 329) and Holdsworth’s review helps to do that.