Anselm & Abelard pt 3 – History Fact Friday

Previously in this series, I wrote brief biographic sketches of two men: Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard. Today, I want to contrast their views of the world and theology, particularly the topic of the atonement.

Basically, the atonement is a theological shorthand for “how did Jesus’ death save people?” It is a complex issue that has been debated for centuries and there are lots of opinions on it.

Before we get into it, let’s summarize what we learned about these two men’s lives. Anselm was from landed aristocracy and was involved in a lot of political debates in both the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ realms. Abelard was a peasant philosopher who wrote theological love letters to his beloved Eloise.

Both Anselm and Abelard opposed the popular theology of the atonement they encountered among their fellow clerics. Basically it was taught that Satan owned you and Christ bought you or ransomed you from him. Neither man found this acceptable (and neither did most of the church fathers, but it was popular nonetheless).

Anselm’s Famous Syllogism

In his essay “Cur Deus Homo?” (Why God Man?), Anselm laid out what is essentially the modern Western view of the atonement. Here are some essential statements of his syllogism:

Everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.

Nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a creature to take away the honor due to the Creator and not make recompense for what he takes away.

When you render to God what you owe to Him, even without having sinned, you ought not to count it as payment for a debt you owe because of sin.

it is necessary that the Heavenly City be completed from among men, and if this completion can occur only if the aforementioned satisfaction is made, and if only God can make this satisfaction and only a man ought to make it: it is necessary that a God-man make it.

Anselm goes on, but this begins us down the road. He builds his syllogism thus:

  1. Sin creates a debt from the creation to the Creator.
  2. The debt must be paid by man.
  3. The debt is too big for man and only God can pay it.
  4. Thus, only a God-man could pay it.
  5. Jesus alone can satisfy the debt.

Anselm’s rhetoric is sound. He rejects the idea that Satan is involved in the atonement at all. It is strictly God and man. This was a radical idea indeed.

But notice the financial nature of his argument. Sin creates a debt to God – a requirement for payment.

Abelard’s Position

Abelard rejected Anselm’s financial syllogism. He argued that the God-man was not required for the Atonement. Instead, he argued that Jesus’ atonement for sin was a manifestation of the reality of love. In essence, that salvation through Jesus’ death was the definition of love. It was not a necessary act, but rather a volitional act.

Where Anselm lived in a world of fealty and ownership, Abelard lived in a world of unrealized love and devotion. He was free from the ‘worldly’ concerns that consumed Anselm, and thus did not feel it necessary to define God’s forgiveness of sin by necessity and debt but rather by feeling and love.

Thus, forgiveness of sin was not found in the satisfaction of a debt but rather in the knowing of love.

Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.

Who Was Right?

I will leave the final interpretation to you. Personally, I think both Anselm and Abelard captured part of the idea of the Atonement. My interest in them is bound up in my belief that truth exists in tension – that God allows diverse experiences and thinking to mold our diverse thinking and we then frame our theological concepts. Theology is not the rule of one true over many, but many facets of one grand thought in the mind of God, sparkling and kindling passions in the hearts of man.

It is a poor testimony to the state of the church in the 12th century that Abelard was essentially hunted down by Bernard of Clairvaux because he disagreed with Anselm. His view, known as the Moral Theory today, is virtually unknown in the western church.

Anselm was a political favorite of popes; Abelard was an obscure monk teaching the masses. Anselm’s theory has become church dogma; Abelard’s is viewed as nearly (not quite) heretical. Instead of appreciating the wonderful tension of the truth, generations rejected Abelard because they HAD TO BE RIGHT.


Anselm & Abelard pt 2 – History Fact Fridays

Last week, we began this series with a biographical sketch of Anselm of Canterbury. Today, we continue the series with a sketch of the life of Peter of Abelard.

Peter of Abelard, the Peasant Philosopher

Unlike Anselm, Peter Abelard was not born into a noble family. His family were Bretons, living in the town of Le Pallet – about ten miles east of Nantes in Brittany.

Also unlike Anselm, Abelard has no contemporary records of his life. All we know about his life is found in his writings and in the writings of those who opposed him. His autobiographical Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Downfall) is our primary source for his personal life.

Strictly speaking, the two were only barely contemporaries. Peter Abelard was born in 1079, when Anselm was already in his mid forties. Still, as we will see next week, no two thinkers better embodied the differences of the theologies which emerged from the medieval period.

His Childhood

Peter ‘s father was a soldier by trade, which means he was more than likely a mercenary. We know nothing about his mother.

Encouraged by his quick intellect, Peter’s father provided him with a basic liberal education, perhaps thinking that his son could become something of an officer in the roaming corps of soldiers who worked in Europe.

Instead, Peter pursued philosophy. Particularly, he excelled at dialectics and became immersed in the thinking of Aristotle. He abandoned his home and wandered France, looking for intellectual challenges. He spent some time learning from Roscellinus of Compiegne before he moved to Paris and became a student at the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Lecturing in Philosophy

In Paris, Peter changed his last name to Abelard. He began his studies under William of Champeaux and very shortly was outshining his teacher. Before too long, William and Peter were debating fiercely, with William taking the prevailing view of platonic Realism while Peter began to develop his own views based on Aristotelian Nominalism (more on these terms later).

In 1115, at the age of thirty-six, Peter had bested most of the greatest minds of his age and become the chair of the school of Notre-Dame. Unfortunately, he had also begun an affair with the young daughter of one of the canons.


The object of his affection was an intelligent woman named Heloise. Abelard claims to have fallen in love with her at first sight and expended tremendous effort to be made part of her father Fulbert’s household. Once in the household, he eventually won Heloise’s affection and they were secretly married.

Heloise and Abelard had a child named Astrolabe, and for some reason Fulbert publicly revealed their relationship. When she was forced to deny their marriage, Heloise was exiled to a nunnery, and Fulbert sent a group of local troublemakers to kidnap and castrate Abelard.

With his child under the care of a family member and his body maimed such that he could never be with Heloise again, Abelard abandoned his public career and joined a monastery. Heloise became a nun and eventually an abbotess.

Abelard and Heloise maintained a correspondence until their deaths. Their letters can only be described as eroticism of the theological. They wrote theological questions and answers as passionately as any couple ever wrote about intimacy and romance.

Nominalism and Aristotle

This was possible because Abelard’s nominalism freed him from the medieval philosophy of realism. Simply put, realism holds that everything in the world has itness. For example, all trees have a form of treeness that makes them trees. There is this central idea in the mind of God that is a tree.

When the neo-Platonists of the last couple centuries of the period before Christ taught this, they applied to the entire world. Thus, what we observe in the real world is a faulty reflection of the true itness. This was picked up by the Gnostics and extended to the idea that what we observe here – the material world – is corrupt and sinful. This idea, in its essentials, was carried into the medieval period by most philosophers of the day.

Nominalism however says that these ideas of itness, these universal realities, are created in the mind of man. Trees are all trees only because we human beings recognize the similarities and name them as treeness.

By the same token, what we define as “love” is only defined as love because we choose to define it that way. Thus, deprived of the physical acts we refer to as love and intimacy, Abelard and Heloise  simply defined their theological conversations as intimacy and expressed their love that way.

In this Abelard followed Aristotle’s philosophy while the rest of the thinkers around him (or at least the majority) followed the realism of Plato, as interpreted by the neo-Platonists.

Life in the Monasteries

As you can imagine, Abelard’s view of the world were enough of an irritant to the people around him. But deprived of Heloise, he seems to have turned to intentionally irritating people. In the monasteries, he would apply his encyclopedic knowledge of church doctrine to question everything.

Eventually, he was pushed out of the monastery and became a hermit. From his simple hermitage at Nogent-sur-Seine, he build a hermitage known as the Oratory of the Paraclete. Driven again into exile by his enemies, he fled to southern Brittany. And yet, he managed to install Heloise as the abbotess at the Paraclete.

Last Contentions

During his time at the Paraclete, Abelard’s teaching (and he was something of a rockstar in his day) attracted the attention of another popular teacher – Bernard of Clairveaux. Bernard would later become the instrumental preacher of the Second Crusade, but in 1136, he became enraged over Peter’s teaching and actively opposed him. He summoned a church trial and had Peter arrested.

The fifty-seven year old Peter stood trial and argued so convincingly that he was released. But Bernard was not easily deterred. He summoned a second court and had Peter imprisoned again. This time, Peter protested to Rome. In 1141, on his way to the Holy See, he died at the prior or St. Marcel. His last words were reportedly, “I don’t know.”

His body was initially buried at St. Marcel but was later transferred to Heloise’s care at the Paraclete. When Heloise died in 1163, she was buried next to her beloved Abelard. Their bodies still rest next to one another.

Contrasting Abelard with Anselm

The differences between Abelard and Anselm should be immediately obvious if you have read these brief sketches of their lives. Anselm – landed nobility, chaste until death – had little in common with Abelard – Breton peasant turned teacher, castrated for his affair with a younger woman. There are three things to remember about Peter Abelard:

  • Not a landowner, Abelard had no sense of fealty or vassalage. He was a free agent, no matter what he did.
  • Abelard knew love and passion. He embraced love as the defining attribute of God.
  • Abelard valued the human mind over ‘ultimate reality.’

Anselm & Abelard pt 1 – History Fact Friday


I decided to take a little break from writing about medieval politics to focus on a couple characters who deserve our attention. One crafted a theological argument that continues to reverberate in our theological treatises today. The other was possibly the best theological and philosophical mind that Europe ever produced. The first is so well-known that there is a college in my area named after him. The other is mentioned, when he is mentioned, only in brief passing in a few medieval history books.

Today, I will focus on the first – Anselm of Canterbury. We will get a brief biographic sketch. Next week, I will present his counterpart and oft adversary – Peter of Abelard. The following week, I will show the core issues of their disagreements and the reasons that Anselm is known while Abelard is nothing more than obscure footnote.

The Life of Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm was born into a noble family in 1033. His family lived in Aosta  – a region of the Kingdom of Burgundy in what is now northern Italy.

Candia and Norman Blood

His father’s family was from the House of Candia. Originally a line of Lombard nobles, they came under the Normans around the time of Anselm’s birth. This was less than a century after the Normans arrived in Europe, and they were in the process of conquering Italy and Sicily.

Led by the sons of Tancred of Hauteville, the Normans had conquered Greece, much of Italy and eventually Sicily; waged a war against the Byzantines; and served as soldiers of fortune in various other campaigns. Tancred’s fourth son, Robert d’Guisgard, was particularly influential in Italy, but he spent most of his time in the southern part of the peninsula.

The House of Savoy

While Anselm’s father had Norman ties, his mother’s family was related to the House of Savoy – a landed, Frankish noble family. The founder of the house, Humbert I, had gained control of a semi-autonomous, secluded county within the Kingdom of Burgundy centered in Aosta. Although the relationship is not clear from the record, Anselm’s mother was related to Humbert and possibly a cousin to his son and successor, Otto.

In response to the Norman conquests, Burgundy had been incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire as the Kingdom of Arles (or Arelat). Although it was autonomous, it had been ruled by the titular emperor since 993 but this shift meant a change in allegiances and fealty which doubtless would have influenced young Anselm as he was growing up.

Anselm as a Noble

I recount all of this to demonstrated that Anselm was born into the landed nobility, even if it was in a secluded area. What’s more, he was part of a family that was ruling but now under the influence of the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire. He also knew of the Normans and their own form of nobility, including the precursors of the code of chivalry.

Every man is a product of his age. Anselm was no different. His childhood years were spent in the circle of nobles who were trying to make sense of 11th century Italy and France, which is to say that he was living at the end of what is known as “The Dark Age” and the High Middle Ages.

His Career Path

At the age of fifteen, Anselm asked his father to allow him to take monastic orders. His father refused, probably because Anselm already demonstrated the acumen and skill necessary to take over the family’s holdings. But Anselm was heartbroken and fell into some kind of psychosomatic illness for years.

While Anselm was ill, his mother died. Rebelling against his father, Anselm fled to France. Somehow, he wound up in Normandy where,  in 1059, he took his orders. Sometime thereafter, he became abbot of Bec.

Twenty years later, Anselm is still in Normandy, but we find him embroiled in a land dispute with the Duke of Normandy. In 1079, he was consecrated as bishop of Bec, which had not previously been a diocese.

The reason for this move is significant. The archdiocese of Rouen was vacate, and had been for quite some time. One churchman, the bishop of Évreux, wanted the seat but knew that others were angling to install Anselm at Rouen.This would have meant that Évreux would have had to swear fealty to Anselm as archbishop.

The bishop of Évreux installed Anselm as bishop of Bec, thus disallowing him from becoming archbishop. He then was able to bypass Anselm and become archbishop himself.

This kind of political move happened often in Norman France. Anselm was not oblivious to it or naive. It was simply the way things worked.

Archbishop of Canterbury

As most people who had Western Civ during high school know, in 1066 the armies of William the Conqueror landed in England and made William the King of England. William set about putting England in order, but in 1070 he had the current archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand.

William then summoned a Lombard-Norman bishop, Lanfranc, from Normandy to take over as archbishop. It took a couple of years for Lanfranc to stabilize his hold on the English church, but by 1073, he was firmly ensconced.

Five years later (1078), William died and Lanfranc was instrumental in having William’s son, William Rufus, crowned as William II. In 1089, Lanfranc contracted a fever and died.

Choosing Anselm

William II was in a difficult position. Lanfranc had done much to consolidate the Norman control of the English church. William needed to appoint a Norman successor who would continue to move this agenda forward.

In 1093, William II the Norman king of England needed to replace Lanfranc. He looked around for a supporter of the Norman cause who was not necessarily a Norman. He also needed someone who was qualified for an archbishop’s mitre. He found his man in Anselm.

Anselm, however, was no man’s fool. What’s more, he had been cheated out of the archdiocese of Rouen. Pope Gregory VII had made sweeping reforms to European catholicism after becoming pope in 1073, and Anselm had embraced these reforms at Bec. So, Anselm made hefty demands of William before he would take the archdiocese of Canterbury.

He boldly demanded that William recognize the authority of Pope Urban II (there was a papal schism at the time). He required William to return any lands he or his father had seized from the see of Canterbury. And perhaps most bold of his demands, Anselm demanded that William would acceptance Anselm’s spiritual advise at a level that almost amounted to an Old Testament prophet.

William and Anselm compromised, with William only returning the lands and taking the other demands under advisement. On December 4, 1093, Anselm swore fealty to William and was enthroned. Almost immediately, the two began to tussle.

English Kings and Papal Authority

Anselm was a papist, and he wanted to unite the English church more closely with Rome. What’s more, he supported the Gregorian reforms which included a ban on secular investiture (kings appointing priests and bishops) and clerical marriage. Anselm was himself a celibate monk with an absolute devotion to Rome.

Under Landfranc, the English clergy had been encouraged in their independence. They had no desire to come under papal authority. In 1095, they called for William to depose Anselm; but the Anglo-Norman nobles sided with Anselm, so William did not.

Anselm continued to call for reform. He demanded that William allow him to go to Rome to seek papal confirmation of his see and to ask the pope to resolve the conflicts. William flatly told Anselm that if he left, it would be to exile. Anselm left anyway.

Archbishop in Exile

As soon as Anselm left, William seized the see’s property. Anselm wound up in Lyon, in France. He then traveled to Rome where Pope Urban II affirmed the Gregorian reforms, including a ban on secular investiture – denying king’s the right to appoint bishops. Although Urban confirmed Anselm’s enthronement, he chose to stay out of the dispute.

In 1100, William II died and his successor Henry I invited Anselm back to England. Henry was unwilling to return the see’s land, and found himself at odds with Anselm as his brother had been. Their argument was taken again to the Pope, and Urban’s successor Paschal II confirmed Anselm’s place while still denying secular investiture.

Henry refused to accept Paschal’s ruling and continued to ordain bishops in England. Furious, Anselm then went into exile again over the dispute. At one point, he threatened to excommunicate Henry I over the issue. Finally, in 1106, Paschal mediated a compromise.

Anselm refused to return, staying this time at his former abbey in Bec. It was not until Henry journeyed to Bec and met Anselm personally that the two signed the Concordat of London and Anselm returned. He spent his final two years working with Henry to consolidate the Church of England and bring the churches more and more under the pope’s authority. He died in 1109.

This is the world of Anselm’s Theology

This should clue us in as to the nature of Anselm’s world. Medieval Europe, Normandy and England especially, was a place where vassalage and land rights were a big deal. The abbots of monasteries were often vassals of secular lords.

Land and vassalage were more than economic niceties. They were cultural sin quo non. You simply could not have had any kind of society or culture without them. The European feudal system had been developed in the wake of the fall of central government in Italy and had become so integrated into their thinking that medieval people could not think outside of it. (That’s not to say they didn’t try.)

Thus, whenever we read Anselm, we have to remember that this is his world. Particularly, there are three points I want the readers to note:

  1. Anselm was born into landed nobility.
  2. Anselm had no romantic or intimate involvement with women that we know of.
  3. Anselm worked toward a church unified under Rome’s primacy.

These three factors will come into play in a BIG WAY when we discuss Anselm’s theology in a later post.