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Petrarch and Abelard: A Comparison
by Thomas A. Donaldson
December 1995

    Attempting to piece together the inner thoughts and feelings of a someone who lived in the past is one of the many challenges faced by historians.  The difficulty of this endeavor stems from the fact that most of the past figures during these centuries simply did not write about themselves in great detail.  The volume of autobiographical literature composed during the medieval and early modern period was relatively minuscule compared to that which is produced today.  Augustine's Confessions, arguably the first autobiography, did not see many successors until the twelfth century, and even then such writing was scarce.[1]   The autobiographies which survive from the past offer us a unique privilege: they allow us to become acquainted with a past figure on a deeper, more intimate level.  The autobiography extends our knowledge of an individual beyond what he did to who he was, and also indicates to us how he perceived himself.

    Peter Abelard, one of the most prestigious figures in twelfth-century Europe, has been recognized as one of the first  autobiographers.  He wrote his autobiography, the Historia Calamitatum, in the form of a letter to a friend.  In this letter, he recounts many of the misfortunes which he endured during his life, including the persecution of him by his teachers and classmates, the burning of his theological work on the Trinity, and his lustful love affair which resulted in punishment by castration.  In this respect, Abelard's story lacks significant practical usage; historians could have easily learned what happened to Abelard in other records.  The real value of Abelard's narrative comes from his description of his own inner thoughts and feelings regarding his calamities.  He perceived and evaluated himself on many different levels: which sins he had committed, why God had singled him out to endure so much suffering, and how he felt about his reputation in society.   Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), the famous fourteenth-century humanist, also distinguished himself through autobiographical writing.  In "Letter to Posterity," for example, Petrarch offers us a history of his accomplishments, but also evaluates himself, giving us a sense of his own self-perception.  His most famous work, Secretum, also offers a self-analysis in the form of an internal dialogue.  In this matter, Petrarch clearly stood out from his contemporaries, for no one expounded upon their internal thoughts and feelings to the extent which Petrarch did.  In fact, the depth of self-exploration which Petrarch achieved in his writing would not be reached by any other Renaissance figure.

    Both Abelard and Petrarch offer us a detailed perception of themselves through their writing, and the fact that they often evaluate themselves with regards to similar criteria lends itself to a comparison between their own self-perception.  Each figure felt deeply concerned with his personal spirituality.  For this reason, Abelard and Petrarch explored their sins in their autobiographies, trying to discern how they could overcome them.  Both took special care in criticizing two sins in particular, lust and pride.  I will show that each possessed an intellectual pride (that they themselves recognized) which made them anti-authoritarian in their views.  However, it becomes clear that key differences distinguished their self-perceptions from one another; for example, Petrarch saw himself within the context of his own time, while time was unimportant for Abelard.  Nonetheless, each used writing to explore and evaluate themselves.

Writing for the Self

    Both Abelard and Petrarch employed their pens to work out and describe inner thoughts and feelings.  Abelard wrote his autobiography with the explicit purpose of offering consolation to a friend, although self-consolation appears to be his primary purpose.  He tells his friend at the beginning of the letter: "I have decided to write you a letter of further encouragement based upon my own misfortunes."[2]   He never explicitly conveys the belief that he is writing the letter primarily for himself, but two factors lend themselves to this theory.  First, Abelard's deep-rooted conceit hardly knew any limits.  After all, the beginning of his letter tacitly says, "You think you have problems?  You should hear about my problems, and then yours will not seem so bad."  His ego would not allow him to write a letter without including a significant amount of personal narrative.  Secondly, Abelard compares his personal misfortunes to other misfortunes in his life, and not to those of his friend.  After his theological treatise on the Trinity was burned, he said the following: "I compared what I was then enduring with what I had formerly suffered in my body[3]  and counted myself the most wretched of men."[4]   He also believes that at least some of his calamities occurred as divine punishments for his irreligious behavior.  For example, he felt that his castration was punishment for his lustful relationship with Heloise.  In summary, this letter has nothing to do with Abelard's friend.  Abelard wrote this letter in order to work through his own troubles and console himself.

    The act of writing for Petrarch also included a unique element of self-examination.  For Petrarch, much like Abelard, writing offers a personal curing effect.  Nothing demonstrates this tendency better than the following passage of his letter to Tommaso da Messina concerning the study of eloquence:

                    Meantime I feel my own writings assisted me even
                    more since they are more suited to my ailments,
                    just as the sensitive hand of a doctor who is
                    himself ill is placed more readily where he feels
                    the pain to be.  Such cure I shall certainly never
                    accomplish unless the salutary words themselves
                    fall tenderly upon my ears.[5]

In other words, Petrarch writes so that he may sort out his own thoughts and feelings, which is very much why Abelard wrote his Historia Calamitatum.  The nature of Secretum further suggests that Petrarch wrote exclusively for himself.  While Petrarch probably knew that this work would be found and published after his death, he never sought to publish it during his own lifetime.  He claims that the book is personal:

                    So, little Book, I bid you flee the haunts of men
                    and be content to stay with me, true to the title
                    I have given you of "My Secret": and when I would
                    think upon deep matters, all that you keep in
                    remembrance that was spoken in secret you in secret
                    will tell to me over again.[6]

In this passage, Petrarch explains the intent of the work.  Upon its completion, he will read again whenever he feels the need for self-contemplation.  He writes for the "future Petrarch" as well as the present, and this characteristic really distinguishes him from Abelard.  As shown earlier, Abelard did write for the purpose of self-consolation, but his autobiography does not indicate a similar eagerness to re-read what he has written.

Exploration of Lust and Pride

    For both figures, writing developed into a forum for the exploration and evaluation of personal spirituality.  Petrarch certainly wrote more extensively on this matter than Abelard, but each concerned himself significantly with the sins he had described in his autobiography. In Secretum, Petrarch (in the two voices of "Augustinus" and "Francescus") admits to having committed the sins of concupiscence and pride and elaborates on them in some detail.  Abelard also admits to committing these two sins in his autobiography.[7]   Each faced the fact that he had committed these sins and had to console himself to make them easier to live with.  Writing was their tool.

    Abelard reconciled his sins through his belief that he received divinely ordained punishments for them which in turn cured him.  His lustful relationship with Heloise resulted in the attack on him which resulted in his castration:

                    I fell to thinking how great had been my renown and
                    in how easy and base a way this had been brought
                    low and utterly destroyed; how by a just judgement
                    of God I had been afflicted in that part of my body
                    by which I had sinned.[8]

Thus in Abelard's view, God ordained the punishment of castration upon him.  Abelard also believes that his pride was corrected in this manner: "This was accomplished by humiliating me through the burning of the book which was my special glory."[9]   Abelard's belief in his divinely ordained punishments serves a dual purpose for him.  On the one hand, he indicates that the sins he had committed were cured, and therefore he was no longer inflicted by them.[10]   Telling himself that his sin was corrected allows him to feel better about his own chances for salvation.

    Secondly, ascribing his misfortunes to divine ordination gives them a context which he can more easily accept.  He was persecuted by his teachers, peers, and classmates; he was castrated by his enemies, and later in his life he fell off his horse, inflicting a serious injury to his neck.  Abelard's depression would have overwhelmed him had he not believed that there was some rational basis for all of these misfortunes.[11]   He thus consoled himself in the fact that God had prescribed his calamities:

                    And since everything occurs by divine ordinance, let
                    every faithful soul under every affliction find
                    consolation in the thought that God in His great
                    goodness never permits anything to occur outside
                    His plan and that no matter wrongdoing is done, He
                    makes it work to the best issue.[12]

By putting his life into this context, Abelard can better accept his seemingly chaotic series of misfortunes.  To summarize, Abelard explored his sins through his writing, believing that they were corrected by God's grace through His ordained punishments.

    Francesco Petrarch evaluated his sins on a much deeper level in his Secretum.  In contrast to Abelard's work, which mixes a personal discussion of his sins with a narrative of events in his life, Petrarch engages in a completely internal discussion.  I say "discussion" because indeed that is what it was; two voices, Francescus and Augustinus, partake in an internal dialogue to work through Petrarch's inner feelings.  In this sense, Petrarch significantly contrasts himself from Abelard.  While Abelard may have faced an internal struggle, he did not use writing to weigh two different sides.  The nature of Secretum is truly unique to Petrarch, for such an elaborate, internal dialogue had never been  attempted before.

     Petrarch, like Abelard, sought to deal with the two sins of lust and pride.  He tells himself through the voice of Augustinus  that he needed to correct these two things:

                    S. Augustine. are charmed with the very chains
                    that are dragging you to your death, and, what is most
                    sad of all, you glory in them!
                    Petrarch.  What may these chains be of which you speak?
                    S. Augustine.  Love and glory.[13]

Regarding the former, Francescus attempts to reconcile his past relationship with Laura with his personal spirituality.  The fact that the two voices arduously quarrel on this matter indicates that Petrarch is clearly torn on the issue.  Francescus cannot bring himself to believe that his love for Laura obstructs his path toward salvation.  In fact, he tries to show the contrary, that Laura inspired much of his spirituality.  However, Augustinus argues that Francescus holds Laura in higher esteem than God, showing that he must relinquish his love for her.  Despite Francescus's obstinacy, he finally caves in: "I must own myself beaten."[14]

    Petrarch, unlike Abelard, had a very difficult time just admitting his passion for a woman.  Abelard probably did not mind recognizing his sin because he had already found a solution for it: he had been punished by God before he wrote his autobiography, so he was already cured.  Abelard essentially looked back, acknowledged that the problem was there, but realized that he no longer needed to worry about it.  In Secretum, on the other hand, Petrarch evidently felt he needed to find a solution for his passion for Laura.  Petrarch provided himself with different possible "remedies" through the voice of Augustinus.  Augustinus suggested replacing his love for Laura with that of another, but Francescus felt that his love for Laura was too deep for such a solution.  However, both voices agree that he should remove himself from his present location to another which would be more suitable for the healing of his soul.  One can clearly see that Petrarch tried to sort out his deep, internal struggle regarding his relationship with Laura in his writing.

    Petrarch also shows himself stricken with pride, and relates it to his desire for glory.  Augustinus admonishes Francescus on this matter:

                    Therefore you will easily understand how often you
                    are deluded by that glory you hope for from your
                    eloquence and how your pride therein rests but
                    upon a foundation of the wind.[15]

Petrarch did achieve a reputation for Latin eloquence which could not be matched by any contemporary.  His glory even extended far beyond the boundaries of Italy, a commendable accomplishment given the slow communication channels of the fourteenth century.   As suggested in this passage from Secretum, Petrarch valued this reputation highly.  He is clearly hurt when his "friends" condemn him for possessing an unlearned style of writing:

                They did not dare to blame my style, not even to
                praise it too reservedly, and confessed that it is
                rather elegant and well chosen but without any
                learning.  I do not understand how this can be,
                and I trust they did not understand it either.[16]

This passage suggests that Petrarch was protective of his reputation for eloquence.  Petrarch later criticizes his critics for envying him and holding a grudge against him for no reason.  In another letter, Petrarch defended his style against the claim of the papal curia that it was "too lofty."[17]   Nonetheless, he tells himself through the voice of Augustinus that his concern for his reputation and desire for glory is founded on pride.

    Abelard also believed that his pride developed from fame: "But success always puffs up fools...And the more success I had in philosophy and sacred science [theology], the more I withdrew from philosophers and divines through an unclean life."[18]   Abelard, like Petrarch, felt a deep concern for his own reputation and documented it in his writing.  Throughout his narrative, he points out that the physical mutilation of his body meant little to him compared to his reputation: "I bemoaned the damage to the reputation far more than that to my body."[19]   He also recognizes, like Petrarch did in "On His Own Ignorance," that his fame causes envy in others which leads to their disapproval and condemnation.

    Both Abelard and Petrarch possessed a certain degree of pride in their own intellect due to their extraordinary brilliance.  Abelard recognized early in his career that his intellectual talent had "ability beyond [his] years."[20]   He later relates his scholarship to his pride: "my pride which my scholarship especially nursed in me in accordance with the saying of St. Paul: Knowledge puffs up."[21]   Petrarch conveys a similar idea in his Secretum.  Augustinus, while lecturing Francescus on the issue of pride, says the following: "Now let your mind realise, as it easily can, on what paltry grounds your pride is set up.  You trust in your intellect."[22]

    The ultimate manifestation of the intellectual pride of these two figures is shown in their anti-authoritarian views.  By "authority," I refer not only to contemporaries in positions of authority, but also to general ideas and beliefs whose truth was accepted by the overwhelming majority of society.  Neither Abelard nor Petrarch would be so easily convinced.  Generally speaking, neither figure passively accepted a common belief without filtering it through their his intellect.  Abelard used his own reason as his authority; likewise, Petrarch more boldly said, "I am my own authority."[23]

    Colin Morris notes that Abelard had "an unfailing talent for getting himself into trouble."[24]   This "talent," as Morris calls it, comes largely from his views on authority.  For Abelard, the esteemed position of a person in society does not necessarily mean that he deserves respect, nor does it ascribe intrinsic validity to every word which comes out of his mouth.  For example, Abelard had no moral problem deceiving of Heloise's uncle despite his relatively high social position.  Furthermore, Abelard showed little respect for his teachers.  His audacity to argue with his first teacher, William of Champeaux, astonished his classmates.  He studied later under Master Anselm and treated him with similar disrespect.  Referring to Master Anselm, he says, "And so I enrolled under this old man whose great name rested on long practice rather than on ability or learning."[25]   He tells us that talent (which he believed he possessed) is more important than practice (which was Anselm's limit).  Abelard quickly became weary of Anselm and stopped attending his lectures.  Thus Abelard clearly believed that his intellect was  superior to that of his teachers, and quite possibly it was.

    Abelard's intellectual pride also extended into the realm of beliefs and tradition.  Early in his education, Abelard endeavored (with much success) to interpret a passage from the Bible without using a textbook to assist him.  To understand the temerity of this undertaking, it must be put into the appropriate context.  The traditional method of biblical study, which was established in the early Middle Ages, involved a rigid, verse-by-verse study.  Students read at least one interpretation of each verse by a Church Father which was considered to be correct.[26]   Thus, Abelard's view that any intelligent man could read the Bible and understand it without interpretive literature was not only anti-authoritarian, but it uprooted tradition.  Abelard showed a similar tendency during his stay at the abbey of St. Medard.  While reading Bede, he apparently discovered a contradiction regarding the founder of their monastery, Dionysius: "When I saw this, I pointed out as in jest to some of the monks grouped about me this testimony of Bede which contradicted our tradition."[27]   Although Abelard asserted the truth of Bede's statement, the monks refused to entertain his discovery and condemned him immediately.

    Thus, resulting from an acknowledgement of his own intelligence, Abelard accepted his logical reasoning methods as his authority and rarely anything else.  He recounts that at one point in his career, one of his arch-enemies, Alberic, attempted to prove Abelard wrong on a section of his theological work on the Trinity.  However, by using logic, Abelard easily proved his adversary wrong, sending him out of the room in a rage.[28]

    Petrarch also used his intellect in his views against authority.  As a humanist, he studied history and the classics and came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as absolute human authority.  Consider his view on Aristotle: "I certainly believe that Aristotle was a great man who knew much, but he was human and could well be ignorant of some things, even of a great many things."[29]   He recognizes that Aristotle was a human being, just like himself, and that it would be impossible for any single human being to know everything.  This humanization of authority comes from Petrarch's well-developed sense of history.  By understanding figures in the context of their own time, he realized that they could make mistakes just as easily as anyone else could.  This aspect is demonstrated in his Rerum Familiarium, in which he wrote casual letters to many of the ancients, often discussing them in their own time.  For example, he criticizes Seneca for his correspondence with Nero:

                Your consenting to teach a cruel tyrant could
                have resulted from bad judgement or error, or
                some kind of fate...but this desire of yours was
                certainly the fault of your judgement.[30]

Petrarch's criticism even reached Cicero, who was clearly his favorite ancient author.  The contradictions he identified in Cicero's work further influenced Petrarch's notion that there could be no absolute authority on any given matter.
 Petrarch also believed that the use of "authority" had often gone too far in the intellectual sphere.  He particularly sought to uproot the dominance of scholasticism, a movement which ironically identifies Abelard as one of its founders.  In the work entitled "On His Own Ignorance," Petrarch attacks those who champion Aristotelian logic:

                These friends of ours, I have already said, are so
                captivated by their love of the mere name "Aristotle"
                that they call it a sacrilege to pronounce any opinion
                that differs from his on any matter.  From this position
                they derive their crucial argument for my ignorance,
                namely, that I said something of virtue -- I do not
                know what -- otherwise than he did and did not say it
                in a sufficiently Aristotelian manner.[31]

In the passage above, Petrarch criticizes his "friends'" faith in the absolute authority of Aristotle.  Petrarch knows better than to place all of his faith into a single human being; that is why he considers himself to be the best authority.[32]   In summary, the intellectual pride with which both Petrarch and Abelard consciously identify resulted in their powerful anti-authoritarian views.

    Petrarch and Abelard both believed that they were able to overcome their lust,[33]  but in light of their extreme vanity, sparked from their glory and intellect, were they really able to defeat pride?  Abelard believes that his pride ended after the burning of his book, although he never relinquishes the value which he placed on his reputation.  Toward the end of his narrative, in an apparently self-conscious effort, he uses a passage from St. Augustine to justify his concern for his reputation:

                "The man who, relying on his own conscience, neglects
                his own reputation is cruel...For ourselves our
                conscience suffices, for your sake our reputation
                should not be sullied but should exercise an influence
                among you... There are two things, conscience and
                reputation; conscience for yourself, reputation for
                your neighbor."[34]

However, Abelard's use of this passage from Augustine does not adequately support his selfish concerns.  According to this passage, Augustine believes that the reputation is only important as it relates to other people.  We must guard against acquiring a bad reputation, for it might influence others.  Abelard does not worry about his own reputation because it might hurt others, but rather himself.[35]   We cannot know for certain what Abelard's true feelings on the matter were, for he never elaborates on it to the extent Petrarch did.

    Petrarch, like Abelard, really wants to believe that he defeated pride.  In Secretum, Augustinus tries to convince Francescus that his endeavors to further perpetuate his glory are fruitless.  In Petrarch's "Letter to Posterity," he conclusively states that pride has not plagued him: "I have taken pride in others, never in myself, and however insignificant I may have been, I have always been still less important in my own judgement."[36]   However, the tone of conscious humility in this passage (which is almost laughable) cannot be ignored.  How can Petrarch say that he has never taken pride in himself in light of a work such as the Secretum, a work wherein he criticized himself for his pride?  Petrarch's writing shows that he struggled with pride most of his life, but was never able to overcome it.

Petrarch's Contrasting Sense of Time

    Petrarch exhibits a characteristic in his self-perception which Abelard does not demonstrate: Petrarch sees himself in the context of time.  He tells us in his autobiography: "In order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages."[37]   It is also not insignificant that he titled this autobiography "Letter to Posterity."  He wrote with the future reader in mind, and for that reason his personal narratives carefully dated all of the major events in his life: his birth, his first meeting with Laura, his apparent triumph over concupiscence, and Laura's death (among others).  Observe the detail in which he documented his birth: "I was born in exile, at Arezzo, in the year 1304 of this latter age which begins with Christ's birth, July the twentieth, on a Monday, at dawn."[38]   This passage provides the best characterization of Petrarch's sense of time.  For a fourteenth-century man to know the exact day and time he was born was rare, if not unique.   Compare the documentation of his birth to that of Abelard: "I was born in a town called Le Pallet in Britanny near the border about eight miles I would say east of Nantes."[39]   Abelard specified the exact location of his birth, but he did not place it in time.  Time does not factor into his narrative at all; it is merely a string of events, one after another.

    Petrarch's sense of time probably developed from his  humanism.  Petrarch and other Renaissance humanists placed a new emphasis on the study of history, resulting in a perspective where time was a key element.  The attempt to systematize a length of time through "periodization" began in part with the humanists of the Renaissance.  Coluccio Salutati, for example, separated the evolution of the Latin language into distinct periods.  Similarly, Petrarch probably coined the term "Babylonian captivity" to describe the Avignon papacy and the term "Dark ages" in reference to the Middle Ages.  The study of history, a humanistic endeavor, helped influence Petrarch's concern with time.  Another element of humanism, the imitation of the classics, influenced Petrarch's unique perspective on time.  His discovery of Cicero's collection of letters may have prompted him to compose his own collection, the Rerum Familiarium, in which he meticulously dated each letter.  In one of his letters to Cicero, Petrarch conveyed his sympathy for him because some of his work had been lost.[40]   This reflects Petrarch's concern for his own future survival.

    In fact, Petrarch fully acknowledged the immortality of the written word.  While man's stay on the earth is relatively brief, writing possessed a survivability which would reach far into the future.  A summary of this notion appears in his De Vita Solitaria: "through reflection and writing [we] leave our remembrance to posterity and so arrest the flight of the days and extend the all too brief duration of life."[41]   With this concept in mind, Petrarch labored vigorously to produce as much writing as he could before his death.  Petrarch probably composed his Secretum under the premise that it would be found and copied after his death, and indeed it was.  He sought to achieve immortality in the world, and the pen was his means.

The Contrasting Relationship with Others

    Petrarch, unlike Abelard, clearly recognized the importance of his relationship with others.  In De Vita Solitaria, Petrarch highly praises the solitary life, but he says that would never shun his friends in order to live completely alone:

                It will never be my view that solitude is disturbed by
                the presence of a friend, but that it is enriched.  If
                I had a choice of doing without one or the other, I
                should prefer to be deprived of solitude rather than
                of my friend.[42]

Given the extent to which Petrarch praises his easy-going lifestyle, his claim that he would give it all up for a friend is extremely powerful.  Petrarch's concern for others is also reflected in his style.  In his Familiares, a collection of letters to his friends, he departed from the traditional, rigid ars dictaminis letter-writing style.  He describes his style as "plain, domestic, and friendly."[43]   As a true rhetorician, he suggests that the nature of his style would inevitably change depending upon his audience.  He further complicates this concept with another matter:

                Thus, writing entails a double labor: first to consider
                to whom you have undertaken to write, and then what his
                state of mind will be at the time he undertakes to read
                what you propose to write.[44]

This elaborate notion of looking into the future and endeavoring to perceive another's mood had never been entertained by anyone before Petrarch.  It shows his deep concern for his audience, a concern which Abelard does not share.

    I showed earlier that Abelard's autobiography, apparently a "letter of consolation to a friend," had nothing to do with Abelard's friend.  Abelard only consoled himself by writing the letter, showing that he had given his friend little consideration.  In this sense, he apparently differs from Petrarch.  But what about Heloise?  Can we say that Abelard truly loved Heloise, showing that he had the potential to care for others?  After Heloise's uncle discovered their relationship, Abelard says

                I made an offer beyond his fondest hopes to make
                satisfaction by marrying her whom I had defiled,
                provided this be done secretly so that my
                reputation would not be damaged.[45]

If love can be defined as "sacrifice," Abelard certainly did not love Heloise, for he refused to give up his reputation for her.  Even if he did love Heloise, it cannot be denied that he loved himself more.  Thus, in contrast to Petrarch, Abelard assigned very little significance to his relationships with others.

The Debate over Individualism

    Because of their self-critical, introspective character,  Petrarch and Abelard have found themselves at the center of an ongoing historical debate regarding the development of the "individual."  Jacob Burckhardt was one of the first to treat the subject.  In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, he argued that the Italians, beginning with Dante at the end of the thirteenth century, first demonstrated modern individualistic tendencies.  It is difficult to summarize what Burckhardt meant by the term "individuality," as his treatment of the term is extremely vague.  One might call it the result of an unrestricted development the human consciousness.  Burckhardt believed that the Middle Ages had imposed restrictions on this development: "Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation -- only through some general category."[46]   However, Italy provided the necessary remedies for these restrictions,[47] allowing the self to play a greater role in determining his own self-consciousness.

    Burckhardt discussed at greater length the developments which this new individuality created, and he used Petrarch as a frequent example.  The development of the individual fashioned l'uomo universale, or the "all-sided man."  Burckhardt frequently employs the term "poet-scholar" to convey this notion of a multi-talented individual in his discussion of different Renaissance figures.  Dante was among the first of this breed, for he "was called by some a poet, by others a philosopher, by others a theologian."[48]   Individuality also resulted in the pursuit and acquisition of glory.  Petrarch, for example, acquired a fame during his career which extended far beyond the boundaries of Italy.  Other demonstrations of individuality appeared in the form of written works that included an element of wit.  Burckhardt believed that Petrarch also fell into this category, for he was one of the first to assemble a collection of witty quotations.[49]   Individualism also allowed for a more complete description of man; in addition to his actions, his inner feelings, his motives, and his character were being more fully explored.  As I have shown, Petrarch effectively conveyed his inner thoughts and feelings in this manner.  Biographies, too, achieved a new level of completeness in that they took into account the personal characteristics of their subjects.  Burckhardt felt that all of these developments were made possible by the development of the individual, an exclusively an Italian phenomenon.

    Twentieth-century historians have attacked Burckhardt's conception of individualism.[50]   According to the vague criteria he lays forth for "individual," some non-Italian medieval figures could be qualified as individuals.  Peter Abelard, for example, demonstrated the independent thought and inner spirituality characteristic of Burckhardt's individual.  Burckhardt's position of exclusive Italian Renaissance individualism has thus been dismissed as too radical.

    Some medievalists have gone much further than a mere rejection of Burckhardt's position.  In The Discovery of the Individual1050-1200, Colin Morris argued that individualism first arose during the period that has been labeled the "twelfth-century Renaissance."  For Morris, an "individual" is one who possesses "the sense of a clear distinction between my being, and that of other people."[51]   Like Burckhardt, Morris spends little time on his definition of "individual" and more time on the "before" and "after": the developments which created him and the resulting movements that individualism allowed.  Morris's twelfth-century individual was created primarily as a result of two important movements which began in the mid-eleventh century: the rise in learning (in the form of cathedral schools and universities) and the increasing availability of social options.  The latter development requires some explanation.  Morris believed that during earlier centuries, under feudalism, man was so "caught up within a network of loyalties" that he had very few options; his social position was forced upon him.[52]   The only real choice he could exercise was  "world renunciation," that is, joining a monastic order.  However, the rise of cities and the "managerial revolution" gave each person more options, allowing for more personal choices.  Morris's individual is created from his ability to choose.

    Morris documented several twelfth-century movements which he believed were results of the "discovery of the individual."  Young lads known as juvenes demonstrated their privilege of individual choice by departing their fathers' estates in search for a property-holding woman to marry.  The twelfth century also placed a new emphasis on the notion of Christ's suffering.  Abelard, for example, related the suffering he endured in his own life to that Christ suffered.  Morris argued that individualism further demonstrated itself in the appearance of the autobiography, which often arose out of personal distress.  Once again, Abelard serves Colin Morris as an example; his Historia Calamitatum, which I have given extensive treatment, offers a description of his misfortunes.

    Abelard and Petrarch find themselves in the middle of this debate over "individualism" -- each serving as a model individual for his respective time period.  However, their "individualism" cannot be compared until a complete, cohesive definition of the term "individual" is offered.  Both Burckhardt and Morris have told us what movements created the individual and what developments the individual subsequently created, but they do not adequately define the term "individual."  Without a working definition, it is impossible to determine whether Petrarch was more individualistic than Abelard, or vice-versa.  Even fewer can be said about individualism as a movement in their own time periods.


[1] See Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1987; reprint, 1995) 79.

[2] Peter Abelard, The Story of Abelard's Adversities, trans. J.T. Muckle (reprint, Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1992) 11.

[3] The guardian of Heloise, Abelard's lover, got angry with him because they those not to marry after her pregnancy.  He sent some men to Abelard's residence in the middle of the night, and they castrated him.

[4] Abelard 52.

[5] Rerum Familiarium I,9.  These quotations come from Aldo Bernardo's translation of Petrarch's Rerum familiarium libri.  Bernardo published them in three volumes.  The first volume has the title Rerum Familiarium libri I-VIII, ed. Aldo Bernardo (Albany, l975).  The second and third have the title Letters on Familiar Matters: Rerum familiarium IX-XVI and Letters on Familiar Matters: Rerum familiarium XVII-XXIV (Albany, l982-85).

[6] Francesco Petrarch, Secretum, trans. William H. Draper (reprint, Westport: Hyperion Press, 1994) 6.

[7] See Abelard, p.25, "And while I was laboring under my pride and lechery, God's grace provided a cure for each..."

[8] Abelard 39.

[9] Abelard 25.

[10] "God's grace provided a cure for each...I would have you know correctly the story of each cure..." (Abelard 25).

[11] Abelard was clearly depressed for some time: "having suffered ill fortune so long I fell into deep despair, feeling that the
whole world was conspiring against me" (55).

[12] Abelard 79.

[13] Secretum 109.

[14] Secretum 137.

[15] Secretum 51.

[16] Francesco Petrarch, "On His Own Ignorance," quoted from Cassirer, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) 102.

[17] See Rerum Familiarium XIII, 5.

[18] Abelard 25.  A few lines below these, he relates his two sins, pride and lechery, and the punishments he received for each.  The "unclean life" and "carnal allurements" which he describes in this passage are not simply references to his lust, but also his pride.

[19] Abelard 52.

[20] Abelard 13.

[21] Abelard 25.

[22] Secretum 50.

[23] Rerum Familiarium XXIV, 1.

[24] Morris 52.

[25] Abelard 21.

[26] Abelard, J.T. Muckle's footnote (#22), p.22.

[27] Abelard 53.

[28] See Abelard, 45-46.

[29] "On His Own Ignorance" 74.

[30] Rerum Familiarium XXIV, 5.

[31] "On His Own Ignorance" 102.

[32] This is not to say that Petrarch always believed he was right.  As a human, he would have recognized that he, too, made
mistakes.  He simply placed more trust in himself than any other human, past or present.

[33] Petrarch, in "Posterity," claims that he had defeated lust by age forty: "As I approached the age of forty, while my powers were unimpaired and my passions were still strong, I not only abruptly threw off my bad habits, but even the very recollection of them" (62).

[34] Abelard 71; the first ellipses are mine, the second have been imposed by Abelard or the translator.

[35] For example, the reason why Abelard was so concerned about his reputation after his mutilation was because it would restrict him from entering the priesthood; see Abelard, pp.39-40, and J.T. Muckle's footnote: "No one who had any serious blemish could become a priest" (#46).

[36] "Posterity" 63.

[37] "Posterity" 64.

[38] "Posterity" 61.

[39] Abelard 11.

[40] Rerum Familiarium XXIV, 4.

[41] Francesco Petrarch, The Life of Solitude (reprint, Westport: Hyperion Press, 1995) 301.

[42] The Life of Solitude 164.

[43] Rerum Familiarium I,1.

[44] Rerum Familiarium I,1.

[45] Abelard 31.

[46] Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860; reprint, London: Penguin Books, 1990) 98.

[47] Burckhardt believed that disorganization in the political sphere in Italian cities allowed for the development of the individual.

[48] Burckhardt 101.

[49] "With Petrarch begin the collections of witty sayings after the pattern of Plutarch (Apophthegmata, etc.)" (p.111).

[50] Source: Ronald Witt, "Renaissance Individualism and the Beginnings of the Modern World," Lecture given in class, 20 September 1995, Duke University.

[51] Morris 3.

[52] Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987) 36.

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Peter Sadlon
Updated Sept 10th 2007

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