The autobiography of Abelard and medieval individualism

The autobiography of Abelard and medieval individualism

By Sverre Bagge

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.19:4 (1993)

Abstract: This article discusses Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum in connection with the debate on ‘the individual’ or ‘individualism’ in the Middle Ages, which has been going on between adherents of ‘the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century’ and scholars placing the emergence of the modern individual in more recent periods. The conclusion largely supports the latter point of view. Abelard does not tell a continuous story of his life, he does not describe a conversion or a new understanding of his own self as the result of his tragic experience and, as an intellectual, he does not emphasize his own independent thinking in opposition to his surroundings. By contrast, he understands his own life through models derived from sacred history, according to the contemporary idea of typology. However, his vivid description of the tragic events of his life and of his own reactions to them contains a strong element of subjectivity and his emphasis on merit rather than status when competing with other intellectuals is in a certain sense individualistic. In this respect Abelard may also be regarded as representative of more widespread attitudes in contemporary scholarly milieux. Finally, it must be noted that similar objections can be raised against renaissance or early modern individualism as the ones adduced here against regarding Historia Calamitatum as an expression of medieval individualism.

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