Petrarch and Abelard: A Comparison
Thomas A. Donaldson
Introduction 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. 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." 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 and counted myself the most wretched of men." 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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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." 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. 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.
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.
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
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. ...you 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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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." Nonetheless, he tells himself through the voice of
Augustinus that his concern for his reputation and desire for glory is founded
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." 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." 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." 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." 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."
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
Colin Morris notes that Abelard had "an unfailing talent
for getting himself into trouble." 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." 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. 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." 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.
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." 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.
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
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.
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. In summary, the intellectual pride with
which both Petrarch and Abelard consciously identify resulted in their powerful
Petrarch and Abelard both believed that they were able to
overcome their lust, 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
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. 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." 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
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." 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." 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." 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. This reflects Petrarch's concern for his own future
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." 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
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.
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." 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.
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.
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." However, Italy provided the
necessary remedies for these restrictions, 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." 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. 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. 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." 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. 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.
 See Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200
(Toronto: University of Toronto, 1987; reprint, 1995) 79.
 Peter Abelard, The Story of Abelard's Adversities, trans. J.T.
Muckle (reprint, Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1992) 11.
 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.
 Abelard 52.
 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).
 Francesco Petrarch, Secretum, trans. William H. Draper (reprint,
Westport: Hyperion Press, 1994) 6.
 See Abelard, p.25, "And while I was laboring under my pride and lechery,
God's grace provided a cure for each..."
 Abelard 39.
 Abelard 25.
 "God's grace provided a cure for each...I would have you know correctly
the story of each cure..." (Abelard 25).
 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).
 Abelard 79.
 Secretum 109.
 Secretum 137.
 Secretum 51.
 Francesco Petrarch, "On His Own Ignorance," quoted from Cassirer, The
Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948)
 See Rerum Familiarium XIII, 5.
 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.
 Abelard 52.
 Abelard 13.
 Abelard 25.
 Secretum 50.
 Rerum Familiarium XXIV, 1.
 Morris 52.
 Abelard 21.
 Abelard, J.T. Muckle's footnote (#22), p.22.
 Abelard 53.
 See Abelard, 45-46.
 "On His Own Ignorance" 74.
 Rerum Familiarium XXIV, 5.
 "On His Own Ignorance" 102.
 This is not to say that Petrarch always believed he was right. As
a human, he would have recognized that he, too, made
simply placed more trust in himself than any other human, past or present.
 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).
 Abelard 71; the first ellipses are mine, the second have been imposed by
Abelard or the translator.
 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).
 "Posterity" 63.
 "Posterity" 64.
 "Posterity" 61.
 Abelard 11.
 Rerum Familiarium XXIV, 4.
 Francesco Petrarch, The Life of Solitude (reprint, Westport:
Hyperion Press, 1995) 301.
 The Life of Solitude 164.
 Rerum Familiarium I,1.
 Rerum Familiarium I,1.
 Abelard 31.
 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
(1860; reprint, London: Penguin Books, 1990) 98.
 Burckhardt believed that disorganization in the political sphere in
Italian cities allowed for the development of the individual.
 Burckhardt 101.
 "With Petrarch begin the collections of witty sayings after the pattern
of Plutarch (Apophthegmata, etc.)" (p.111).
 Source: Ronald Witt, "Renaissance Individualism and the Beginnings of
the Modern World," Lecture given in class, 20 September 1995, Duke University.
 Morris 3.
 Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1987) 36.