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The storied medieval lovers are assessed by a tough-minded scholar who pares away the sentimental embroideries of later, more romantic ages. Robertson's hanky stays completely dry: curtly he describes Abelard's ill-starred liaison with Heloise as ""sordid."" Abelard's celebrated autobiography The History of My Calamities wherein he speaks of the ""lechery"" which made him indifferent to his scholarly pursuits, and his subsequent castration at the behest of Heloise's vengeful uncle, is presented as a teleological, providential tract designed for the edification of a convent of nuns, of which Heloise was, in later years, abbess. Trenchant and ironic, Robertson has written a little essay on medieval sensibilities designed to show that they were in fact very alien to our own: Abelard and Heloise, demystified, serve as swooning proof that the modern exaltation of sentimental, romantic love would have been as incomprehensible to the medieval world as the teachings of Freud. Robertson is indeed a good deal more interested in the disputatious career of Abelard the dialectician and philologist who outraged the religious establishment of his own day by applying ""reason"" to revealed truth and thus planting the germ of an intellectual revolution which led to Aquinas, William of Ockham, Descartes, and Kant. Even when dwelling on Abelard the scholar, however, he is reluctant to make him the precursor of any ""modern"" tendencies. If he errs at all, it is on the side of caution: his Abelard is neither the progenitor of the cult of personality nor a seminal rationalist philosopher. For serious students of medieval history, not for those preparing to have a good cry over the misfortunes of true lovers cruelly parted.

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1971
Publisher: Dial