1079-1142: Pierre Abelard

14th century miniature of Abelard and Héloïse (Public Domain)


The multitalented theologian, philosopher and poet Pierre Abelard (1079-1142) is most famous for the tragic love affair he has with his former student Héloïse. The affair quickly turns platonic when Abelard is castrated by Héloïse’s uncle.


But Abelard is also a radical freethinker whose writings attract a fair amount of controversy. In 1121, the synod in Soissons condemns Abelard’s work Theologia for heresy. Abelard is mandated to burn the book with his own hands. In 1141, Abelard’s heretical writings are condemned and burned for a second time. He lives out the last year of his life in a monastery.


Abelard dies in 1142. Always the skeptic, his dying words are supposedly “I don’t know”.


For Abelard,


“Constant and frequent questioning is the first key to wisdom … For through doubting we are led to inquire, and by inquiry we perceive the truth.”
– Abelard, prologue to Sic et Non (1120)