From beginning to end, this true life story is filled with real people who contain compelling virtues and obvious faults, good intentions as well as bitter resentments. This is because the medieval battle between reason and faith is as determined by the personalities and prejudices of its actors as it is by the sincerely held religious and theological differences that divided them. That was true in the Middle Ages, and it still is.
Peter Abelard—born in 1079, the Brittany-born, mostly Parisian, pre-scholastic philosopher and theologian around whom this story revolves. He was brilliant and arrogant, articulate and good-looking.
He was like the explorers and adventurers of later centuries who boldly and sometimes recklessly crossed oceans and risked everything in order to discover peoples and continents. But in Peter’s century and context, he was setting out to explore and find undiscovered ways of knowing. Our story opens in 1140, when he is sixty-one years old. He died two years later.
Bernard of Clairvaux—born in 1090, the rural French monk, abbot, theologian, and churchman who was, in many ways, like Peter, but in other respects, his complete opposite. He, too, was born with certain privileges, and wired to take charge and give orders. But he was also considered a spiritual master and mystic by those who knew him best: his fellow monks.
Bernard was the consummate “insider” to Peter’s “outsider” in the Catholic Church; he wanted nothing more than to fortify and protect
it. He was fifty years old in 1140 when he faced off with Peter and would remain the world’s most influential Christian for another decade. He was canonized—made a saint—in 1174, only twenty-one years after his death.
Their personal differences, worldviews—and fight—are at the center of this tale.
• • •
The others, in the order in which they appear…
William of Champeaux—born in 1070, the philosopher, then monk, then bishop, who clashed with and was humiliated in Paris by Peter Abelard. He then turned his attention to the young monk, Bernard, and cared for him, supervising his elevation from novice to the role of abbot in a very short amount of time. William died in 1122.
Pope Innocent II—born around 1075, the holy pontiff (1130–1143) who was forced to flee Rome after a dubious papal election that involved Bernard at the center of the intrigue. From Pisa to Genoa to France, Innocent ended up moving the papacy away from Rome, escaping an angry Roman populace and a counter-elected antipope.
He believed that, in many respects, he owed his papacy to Bernard, and once in France, he came even more under the influence of the powerful abbot of Clairvaux.
Pope Eugenius III—born in 1080, a monk, then abbot in the monastery of Clairvaux, therefore a novice under Bernard, before he rose in the ranks of the Church and was groomed by Bernard to become the first Cistercian pope in history.
As Holy Father (1145–1153), Eugene was a handy tool for whatever
Bernard wanted to accomplish throughout the world. Peter the Venerable—born in 1092, the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, the largest and most powerful religious house in the world. Abbot Peter was viewed by the Church as a near-rival in influence to whomever might be sitting on St. Peter’s papal throne. He was also usually supportive of the pope, as when he helped Innocent II avoid schism in 1134.
It was Peter who sheltered, protected, and advised a bruised Peter Abelard after the confrontation with Bernard in Sens. Abelard lived under this abbot’s care for the rest of his days, and it was Peter the Venerable who pronounced an absolution for all of
Abelard’s sins after his death.
Berengar—born around 1055, was Peter Abelard’s father, and a knight. We know little else about him. Berengar of Poitiers—born around 1120, was one of Peter’s students in Paris, and one of his most pugnacious defenders immediately after the episode with Bernard in Sens.
Is it any wonder that the central characters in this story were all
men? Probably not, but there were two women who were also
essential to what happened:
Heloise—born around 1100, a brilliant French student and scholar, then nun, abbess, and writer who is sadly remembered mostly for the affair she had with Peter Abelard twenty years before the events of this story take place. They remained close, even if from a distance, throughout Peter’s life, and it was Heloise who revived Peter’s confidence and spirit, preparing him for the fight with Bernard.
Hildegard of Bingen—born in 1098, a Rhineland mystic who was understood by few during her lifetime, but who has since become recognized as a model of faith, reason, and spiritual understanding.
She never met or corresponded with Peter, but she did with Bernard, and his championing of her spiritual visions provides an interesting counterpoint to his condemning Peter a few years previously. Pope Benedict XVI named Hildegard a saint and Doctor of the Church in 2012.