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where Notre-Dame still stands to this day. Abelard™s school was the
¬rst on the spot where the Sorbonne has been for the last 900 years,
so in a sense he could be considered the founder of the University of
Paris. He was a brilliant teacher: knowledgeable, charming, and
inspirational. Students ¬‚ocked to hear him, and he achieved one suc-
cess after another. When he was about thirty, he took over the head-
ship of the cathedral school, so obtaining a very prominent position
in the city of Paris. At this moment, when he was at the pinnacle of
his career, there occurred the biggest and most crucial disaster in his
life: he fell in love.
He caught sight of a young girl called H©loïse. Abelard says: per
faciem non erat ín¬ma, per abundántiam litterárum erat suprema
˜in beauty she was not the last, in learning she was the ¬rst™. He
decided to seduce her. That plan too was a success. He managed to

A natural history of Latin

rent a room in her uncle™s house, where she lived, and the rest was
very simple. But things probably did not turn out quite the way
Abelard had intended. Not because H©loïse herself presented any
obstacle to his designs, on the contrary. It all just became so much
more serious than he had obviously planned. They fell passionately
in love, devoted themselves to each other and their love. For the ¬rst
time in his life Abelard neglected his teaching and his studies,
and instead spent his time writing love poems, which became very
popular and were widely circulated. Unfortunately they have not
survived. Eventually their love affair became public knowledge, and
at last the inevitable happened: even the naïve Fulbert, H©loïse™s
uncle, realized what was going on.The situation was dif¬cult. Fulbert
insisted that Abelard and H©loïse should get married, especially as
she was pregnant. But Abelard belonged to the priesthood, and it
would be the end of his whole career if he were to marry. Unable to
decide, he hummed and hawed for several months. Finally they
married in secret, but afterwards Abelard refused to acknowledge
the marriage. Fulbert and his relatives concluded that Abelard had
intended to deceive H©loïse all along, and decided to take their
revenge. They broke into his house at night and castrated him.
At that point Abelard decided to become a monk. He took his
vows in the monastery of Saint-Denis shortly after he had been
attacked, and he ordered H©loïse to do the same, which she did in the
convent of Argenteuil. Her nearest relatives tried to dissuade her:
she was only nineteen years old. But she was calm and quoted from
the ancient poet Lucan the words which Pompey™s wife is supposed
to have uttered immediately before she committed suicide: Cur
ímpia nupsi, si míserum factura fui? ˜Why did I marry against
God™s wish if I was only to make him unhappy?™ With these words,
Abelard writes, she hurried to the altar, received the nun™s veil from
the bishop, and took her vows. On the surface that is the end of the
love story between Abelard and H©loïse. Physical love was no
longer possible, and they remained bound by their vows for the rest
of their lives. And yet the most interesting part of the story is still
to come.

Latin and Europe

The events we have just narrated took place in about 1117 to 1119,
when Abelard was thirty-eight or thirty-nine and H©loïse eighteen
or nineteen. Abelard wrote his Historia calamitatum some ¬fteen
years later, probably in 1134, when he was ¬fty-¬ve. There he gives
a detailed account of what happened to him during those last ¬fteen
years, which, like all of his life, were full of con¬‚ict. At that time he
was abbot in a monastery, and H©loïse was abbess in a convent. From
the same period in their lives a number of letters have come down to
us.The ¬rst is from H©loïse to Abelard, and in it she explains that she
has happened upon a copy of his Historia calamitatum and that,
having read it, she feels constrained to write to him. There follows
Abelard™s answer, H©loïse™s reply, and so on. The letters are some
of the most widely read and discussed in world literature. In particu-
lar, the ¬rst two by H©loïse have fascinated and surprised readers
throughout the centuries.
In these letters she begins by explaining her love for Abelard: te
semper, ut ómnibus patet, immoderato amóre complexa sum ˜I have
always embraced you with unfettered love, as everyone knows™.
Most of the time she calls him unice ˜my only one™. Everything he
does and thinks is higher and better than anything else; his genius
and knowledge place him above kings and emperors; he was the most
beautiful of all, could sing and write better than anyone, was desired
by all women, married and unmarried alike. For her part she has
always done what she has done out of love for him, not for any other
reason.And that especially applies to her entry into the convent. Tua
me ad religiónis hábitum iússio, non divina traxit dil©ctio ˜It was
your command which made me take a nun™s vows, not my love for
God™. And therefore, she continues, I do not have any real moral
worth. Outwardly I live a pious life, but what really counts is the
heart™s desire, and in my heart only you mean anything to me.
Moreover, she says, I live in chastity and am considered virtuous.
But I still remember all the times when we were together in the
¬‚esh, where we were, what we did, and I think of you again and again
at every moment, even during holy Mass. I am worthless in the sight
of God and my suffering is intense. The one person who can and

A natural history of Latin

should help me is you by writing to me and sending me words of
comfort. Indeed it is your duty: you are my husband. Write to me
and care for me!
Abelard™s reply is markedly cool in comparison with H©loïse™s
violent fervour. He places himself more or less in the role of her con-
fessor and tells her that her struggle is a struggle to reach God, and
that it is the more noble the harder she has to ¬ght. He has been
relieved from lust himself, but then he does not acquire any merit
from ¬ghting it either, whereas she, on the other hand, wins a great
victory by ¬ghting her physical desires. This thought probably did
not altogether comfort H©loïse. At the beginning of her third letter
she simply remarks that she will stop writing about this since that is
what he tells her to do, but that she is not in command of her own
feelings. Nihil enim minus in nostra est potestate quam ánimus ˜For
nothing is less under our own control than our heart™. After that
there is no more about feelings; the correspondence goes on to talk
instead about what form the rules of conduct in H©loïse™s convent
should take.
The story of Abelard and H©loïse is one of Europe™s great love
stories. The letters have been translated into many languages, and
several writers have taken up and retold the story.This is hardly sur-
prising, since it contains violent emotions and violent deeds, heroism
and deceit, and lifelong love in spite of everything. It does not make
it any less interesting that both parties were celebrities in their day.
In particular, as we shall see, Abelard™s pioneering contribution to
philosophy and theology means that he has an important position in
the history of European ideas.
Nonetheless, probably the most remarkable thing about this
whole story is that they both wrote it down. Above all, how was the
abbess H©loïse able to reveal her innermost feelings so nakedly? Is
this really plausible? Many have believed that the whole correspond-
ence is a forgery from a later period. But by studying the Latin of the
letters, scholars have in fact been able to prove that they must have
been written at Abelard™s and H©loïse™s time, and in all probability
by them themselves. In other words, a man and a woman in the

Latin and Europe

twelfth century really did express their innermost feelings to each
other in letters written in a Latin which for the most part completely
follows the classical rules. They wrote as people spoke a thousand
years earlier and did so with great elegance. In such circumstances it
is not possible to have uncontrolled outbursts, but that does not
make the letters seem cold. On the contrary, the feelings come across
all the more strongly because the writers express themselves in such
a restrained but precise way, without any hint of sentimentality.

The thinkers

As we have said, Abelard played an important role in the develop-
ment of European philosophy, a ¬eld where advances were closely
bound up with the knowledge and use of language. Indeed, philosophy
is arguably the most demanding way of using language.Throughout
antiquity it was the Greek philosophers and their ideas who had held
sway, even among the Romans. Only two Latin writers were widely
read, Cicero and Seneca, and for the most part they produced popu-
larized versions of Greek ideas. Some Christian thinkers were more
independent and innovative, particularly Augustine, but even he
had derived many of his ideas from Greek philosophers and theo-
logians. In late antiquity knowledge of Greek became increasingly
rare, and writers like Cassiodorus collected parts of the wisdom of
the Greeks into short Latin compendia. One of Cassiodorus™ con-
temporaries translated a number of important original works by
Aristotle and commentaries on them into Latin, a contribution
which proved to be of great value for hundreds of years to come. His
name was Boethius, and he was remarkable both as a man and a
Boethius came from an old and distinguished Roman family, and
he became one of the most important of¬cials of the Ostrogothic
king Theoderic, who ruled from Ravenna. But after many years in
which he wielded great power he fell into disfavour, was sent to

A natural history of Latin

prison in 523 and executed in 524.While he was awaiting his verdict,
he wrote a beautiful work entitled De consolatione philosophiae
˜The Consolation of Philosophy™. Philosophy, in the shape of a
woman, comes to visit him in his cell and discusses his misfortune
with him. He tells her how he has acted for the good and protected
the weak, and how the powerful and evil have harmed him. She
answers that he has had a good life in spite of that, and that the evil
are worse off than him. The whole thing turns into a dialogue about
the de¬nition of good and evil, and is interleaved with short re¬‚ect-
ive poems. One begins like this:

Felix qui potuit boni
fontem visere lúcidam,
felix qui potuit gravis
terrae sólvere víncula.
Happy, the one who can see
the clear source of good,
happy, the one who can release
the chains of heavy earth.

Boethius was able to wait calmly for his death sentence and write
beautiful poetry in the meantime.The ideas which gave him peace of
mind came from the classical Greek philosophers, above all from
After him almost nobody in western Europe read Plato in the
original for the best part of a thousand years, and only one of Plato™s
dialogues had been translated into Latin. There was more by
Aristotle, Plato™s apprentice, mainly as a result of Boethius™ efforts.
The most important Greek philosophers were almost unknown in
western Europe from the seventh until the twelfth century, and in
that period philosophy was more like an annexe of theology. The
most important philosophical question was how to prove logically
the existence of God.
Petrus Abelard was one of the people who revived philosophy,
above all by daring to ask uncomfortable questions. He was a very
talented logician, and with inexorable rigour of argument he called

Latin and Europe

attention to the contradictions and obscurities in Christian teachings.
As a result, he became something of an embarassment to the Church
authorities, who accused and convicted him of heresy in his old age.
But his ideas proved impossible to conceal. On the contrary, it
became increasingly important to reconcile Christianity on the one
hand with the demands of logic and on the other with the general
world picture that was the legacy of the ancient philosophers. This
whole set of questions acquired renewed urgency once Aristotle™s
works became more widely available in Latin translation in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Strange as it may seem, they had not been translated directly from
the Greek originals but from Arabic. This in turn was due to the
meeting of Arabic and Latin cultures in central and southern Spain,
which had been under Muslim rule since the eighth century.
Aristotle was very important to Muslim philosophers, who had
access to translations from Greek into Arabic. The philosopher who
in Europe is called Averroes wrote important commentaries on the
works of Aristotle in Spain in the twelfth century. Both Aristotle and
Averroes were translated into Latin and attracted a great deal of
The Church did not really have anything which was equivalent to
this cogent and coherent philosophy, and the questions which
Abelard had begun to raise came to seem even more problematic.
Gradually the solution which emerged was a fusion or synthesis of
Christian doctrine and an Arabized version of ancient philosophy.
The person who was ¬nally responsible for bringing this about was
a certain Thomas from Aquino in Italy, hence the name by which he
has become known to posterity, Thomas Aquinas. He was an intel-
lectual giant who lived in the thirteenth century and produced vast
numbers of theological texts. One of his main works is called
Summa theologíae ˜Summation of Theology™, another one is called
Summa contra gentíles ˜On the truth of the Catholic faith against
the Gentiles™. In these works he very systematically and thoroughly
settles all the questions about what to believe and how to live as
a Christian.

A natural history of Latin

Thomas was enormously successful. He was not only canonized,
but was commonly called doctor ang©licus ˜the angelic teacher™.
Little by little his understanding of Christianity became the of¬cial
line of the Catholic Church, as indeed it still is to this day. Numerous
theologians followed in his footsteps. They are called Thomists,
and the theological movement associated with his work is called
Thomism. In principle the Catholic Church has had the same of¬cial
philosophy for the last 800 years. This has not completely prevented
continous philosophical activity even within the Church, while in
Europe at large philosophy and theology have slowly but surely
gone their separate ways.
For several hundred years after the time of Thomas it goes with-
out saying that all philosophers in Europe wrote in Latin. It was the
only language which had a fully developed terminology, except for
Greek, which hardly anyone knew. It is not until the sixteenth cen-


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