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Damaged Goods: Enuch Controversy of Peter Abelard

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In The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the eleventh-century theologian Abelard was ashamed of being a eunuch because of the widely-held beliefs in Western European culture about castration. The term ‘eunuch’ was commonly used to refer to male slaves who had their genitals removed via castration, but castration was sometimes done willingly amongst free men. Abelard felt conflicted about his religious status after his castration because of earlier controversy over castration in the Bible. Abelard’s beliefs against castration were compounded with the use Germanic law codes in Western Europe. Abelard’s views on eunuchs were not held by other Christians in Eastern Europe. The Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe desired eunuchs from the time of the Roman Empire and shared these values with the Islamic world. Slavery in Europe during the Viking Age localized eunuchs in the East and further divided Christians in the West and East. Christian beliefs about eunuchs varied during the High Middle Ages because of the ethnographic features of Western and Eastern Europe.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise portrayed eunuchs in Western Europe as spiritually impure because castration was used to punish clerical misconduct. Abelard, a French philosopher and cleric, was castrated by the male kin of his wife Heloise after sending her to a convent once word spread of their affair. Abelard was not only punished for breaking his clerical celibacy, but for deposing of Heloise after they had eloped. After Abelard’s castration, he emphasized his embarrassment and said that his reputation had “dimmed or rather completely blotted out.” The castration itself embarrassed Abelard because it sullied his reputation by symbolizing Abelard’s disregard for prioritizing clerical principles and philosophy over carnal pleasure. Furthermore, Abelard wallowed in his own shame by quoting canon law when saying that ‘No man whose testicles have been crushed or whose organ has been severed shall become a member of the assembly of the Lord.’ This statement signified that eunuchs were not welcome into the clergy of Western Europe. However, Abelard immediately joined the abbey of St. Denis to teach philosophy after word spread about his castration.

The contradiction between Abelard’s claim and his actions showed that male eunuchs were able to join and/or stay in the clergy but were most likely turned away because of the cultural stigma of castration in Western Europe. Abelard felt discouraged from affiliating with the clergy of Western Europe because his castration signified punishment for his amoral actions. Early Christian doctrine and canons during Late Antiquity contributed to Abelard’s negative cultural attitude toward eunuchs in the eleventh-century. In the Bible, the original Gospel of Matthew (c. 70 A.D.) specifically discussed eunuchs in 19:12 by stating that “…there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Matthew 19 also mentioned eunuchs “who have been so from birth” and eunuchs “who have been made eunuchs by others.” While Abelard claimed that eunuchs were “abominations to the Lord”, the original scripture mentioning eunuchs foretold their place in heaven. 

The theologian Origen of Alexandria (c. 184- 253 A.D.) supposedly castrated himself as a literal interpretation of Matthew 19, according to Church historian Eusebius (c. 263- 339 A.D.). Origen’s self-castration showed that the complete removal of temptation was believed to be the correct way of maintaining abstinence by some Christians. Metaphorical interpretation of Matthew 19 was shown by Clement of Alexandria’s (c. 132- 217 A.D.) polemic against castration that argued that “…a true eunuch is not one who is unable, but one who is unwilling to indulge in pleasure.” Clement’s polemic showed that physical castration was viewed by other Christians as an excuse to not maintain self-control through celibacy. Retrospectively, Abelard’s disdain for castration was partially thanks to the Constantinian Revolution. The Council of Nicaea directly approved of the metaphorical interpretation of Matthew 19 by adhering to Hellenistic views of philosophical legitimacy. During the Constantinian Revolution of the fourth-century A.D., Emperor Constantine’s (r. 306- 337 A.D.) Edit of Thessalonica in 380 A.D. legally made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Hellenistic views during the time of the Emperor Constantine enforced the idea that celibacy was necessary to a philosophic authority.11 To be viewed as philosophically legitimate as they were legally legitimate, Christians needed to practice celibacy. Constantine supported the metaphorical interpretation of Matthew 19 when he called the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

The Council of Nicaea banned self-castration in the Nicene Creed by stating that “If someone enjoying good health has castrated himself…his belonging to the clerical state is to be at an end…”. Furthermore, the Nicene Creed allowed eunuchs to join the clergy if they “have been made eunuchs by barbarians or by their masters”.This part of the Nicene Creed directly contradicted Abelard’s claim of not being able to join the clergy after being forcibly castrated. The acceptance of eunuchs into the clergy by the Nicene Creed meant that social stigma surrounding castration was what really upset Abelard. Stigma surrounded castration in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages because of Germanic legal influences. The Leges barbarorum were a collection of Latin laws created for Christian-converted Germanic people during the Early Middle Ages. The Leges barbarorum categorized castration with sexual crimes like rape and as an alternative punishment to paying fines. The Lex Frisionum (c. 802 A.D.), for example, included castration as a punishment and as a crime worthy of a fine. Likewise, The Frankish Lex Salica used castration as a punishment if a virgin was raped to death by a slave and the Ripuarian Franks’ Lex Ribuaria used castration as punishment if a slave girl was raped by another slave. Eunuchs in Germanic societies symbolized crimes of the flesh. Abelard’s reputation was ruined after word spread about his castration because it reflected his immoral lack of celibacy as a member of the clergy. 

Abelard’s Western view of eunuchs was somewhat based in Roman culture because of the Roman value of manhood. Within the Roman Empire, two groups of eunuchs were present: eunuch slaves and the Galli. Eunuch slaves in the Roman Empire were usually males who were castrated before puberty and served the Roman emperors. The Galli was a Greek cult that worshipped a goddess named Matra Mater and practiced self-castration as grown men in the second-century B.C. Roman sources from as far back as the second-century B.C. described eunuchs as desirable, but the Galli were ridiculed for willingly emasculating themselves. The attitude toward the Galli showed that masculinity was extremely valued in the Roman Empire and self-castration was considered an insult to Roman manhood. Abelard’s distaste for willing emasculation reflected Roman ideals of manhood. This reflection meant that Western Europe did maintain Roman values after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D. While eunuchs were discredited in Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe continued the Roman tradition of keeping eunuch slaves. The court of the Byzantine Empire received eunuch exports during the Middle Ages since the time of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284- 305 A.D.). Eunuchs in the Royal Palace of Constantinople worked exclusively as doctors, teachers, dressers, security, politicians, emperors’ assistants, military officials, and as singers. Within the Eastern Church of Constantinople, eunuchs were singers, monks, priests, and patriarchs.

 Based on Abelard’s previous statements, eunuchs in the Eastern Church of Constantinople and the Royal Palace of Constantinople were much more highly regarded than in Western Europe. Farther East, the rise of power to the Abbasid caliphate in 750 A.D. led to an overwhelming demand for eunuch slaves in the Islamic world. Eunuchs guarded harems, taught women and children, worked as military officials, guarded holy sites, and even guarded tombs of the wealthy. Both Byzantine and Islamic eunuchs were respected and involved with administrative, religious, and military matters in the East. The presence of Vikings in Central Europe further contributed to the negative attitudes of Abelard and his contemporaries by minimizing their exposure to eunuchs in Western Europe. The Viking raids in the eighth-century resulted in an economic boom for Scandinavians because the Abbasid caliphate and Byzantine Empire paid for captured boys. Men and women from Northwestern Europe were sold and kept as slaves within Central Europe and Scandinavia, but young boys were exported East because of their potential as eunuchs. Early Christian doctrine against castration and Germanic legal implications made the need for eunuchs in Western Europe obsolete, even within slavery during this time. 

The international exportation of young boys to the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid caliphate led to a large presence of eunuchs in Eastern Europe with virtually no presence in Western Europe. This localization of eunuchs prevented Western generations, like Abelard, from being exposed to eunuchs and further solidified stigma and doctrine against castration. Abelard’s stance on castration and feelings toward himself after becoming a eunuch were nothing but reflections of the historical differences in Christian doctrine and his location. Abelard’s location in Francia during the eleventh-century exposed him to Germanic stigma surrounding eunuchs. Likewise, the popularity of doctrine against castration was supported in Western Europe and influenced Abelard’s view of his status in the clergy after he became a eunuch. Abelard’s views on eunuchs contradicted Eastern European views because the Byzantine Empire retained Roman slave practices. Muslims and Vikings both had less direct roles that facilitated the geographical presence of eunuchs in the East. Abelard was a product of his time and location. 

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Damaged Goods: Enuch Controversy Of Peter Abelard. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
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