The Fame of Abelard
By Jalissa Rodriguez
MA Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 2016
Introduction: Abelard was a master of self-promotion, a town crier calling for the crowd to look at him. Abelard was uncensored and the focus of public talk, an unusual attribute for a medieval scholar as the twelfth century was a time of group consciousness and conformity in life and in thought. There was often a lack of independent thinking and individuality, as citizens were the subjects of a king, God, and church. Abelard bent the boundaries of group culture by establishing himself as a distinct and magnetic individual.
Fame in the Middle Ages was (for the most part) limited to the divine and the holy or to great rulers. But, with the arrival of Abelard, it now included scholars and minor nobility. Throughout his life Abelard developed a type of celebrity culture by adding new dimensions to the meanings, possibilities, and rewards of medieval fame. Using his personal skills and a time of change to his advantage, Abelard invented himself as a public figure. Surprisingly, the fame and celebrity status of Abelard has yet to surface as a separate category of academic discussion. Abelard played an essential role in shaping a new dimension of fame, one based on scholarship, intellectual combat, and a colourful controversial life.
Discussing Abelard’s life is an opportunity to open a discussion of both his individual fame in the twelfth century and of what fame was in the Middle Ages. The complex nature of celebrity culture and Abelard’s life sparks interesting questions about how Abelard achieved fame and whether it was intentional, how people reacted to the emerging idea of individual fame, and the benefits and damages it brought to his life. Elements of medieval fame may also provide us with insight into the origins of modern celebrity culture and of the rise of the individual in a time of collective values.
Abelard was one of the first to be recognized for his individual life and accomplishments outside of the realms of church and state. Luscombe writes, “the greatest testament to Abelard’s fame was the fact he wrote about it himself,” provoking reactions of either “enthusiasm or horror”. Abelard received opposing reactions from the public, and was aware that these reactions were bringing him personal attention in the form of fame (or infamy).