Constant Mews

constant-mewsEducation: British born, Mews was educated at the universities of Auckland (BA, MA) and Oxford (DPhil). He came to Australia in 1987 and joined the staff of the School of History, after teaching for five years (1980−1985) at the Université de Paris III and spending two years as a Leverhulme research fellow at the University of Sheffield, UK, working with Professor David Luscombe on editing the writings of Peter Abelard. He was promoted to Professor in 2008 and elected FAHA in 2005. He has been Director of the Centre for Religious Studies (until 2014, the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology) at Monash University since 1991.

Expertise: medieval intellectual and inter-religious history, with a particular interest in the twelfth century. He has published extensively on Abelard and Heloise, as also on Hildegard of Bingen and religious women in medieval culture. A listing of his numerous refereed journal articles and book chapters may be found at https://monash.edu/research/people/profiles/profile.html?sid=463&pid=2697

Books:

As author:

Peter Abelard, ([Authors of the Middle Ages], 1995); The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (1999-2008); Abelard and his legacy (2001); Reason and belief in the age of Roscelin and Abelard (2002); Abelard and Heloise (2005).

As editor:

Sole editor:

Listen Daughter: the Speculum Virginum and the Formation of Religious Women in the Middle Ages (2001).

Co-editor:

Petri Abaelardi Opera Theologica II, (1987) (with Eligius-Marie Buytaert); Hildegard of Bingen and Gendered Theology in Judaeo-Christian Tradition (1995) (with Julie S. Barton); Ecology, Gender and the Sacred (1999) (with Kate Rigby); Rhetoric and Renewal in the Latin West 1100-1540: Essays in Honour of John O. Ward, (2003) (with Cary J. Nederman, and Rodney M. Thomson); Christine de Pizan. The Book of Peace (2008) (with K. Green and J. Pinder); Interpreting Francis and Clare of Assisi: from the middle ages to the present (2010) (with Claire Renkin); Ars musice / Johannes de Grocheio [edited and translated], 2011) (with John N. Crossley, Catherine Jeffreys, and Leigh Mckinnon).

Selected monographs:

The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France, Transl. by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant J. Mews (New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1999; New York ; Basingstoke : Palgrave, 2001), xvii, 378 pp. Second edition (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).

Translated into French as La voix d’Héloïse. Un dialogue de deux amants, trans. Emilie Champs, Vestigia, Fribourg: Academic Press Fribourg; Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2005).

In the first edition of this monograph, published in 1999, Mews first put forward his reasons for identifying the collection of extracts from over one hundred anonymous love letters and poems, written in twelfth-century Latin and recorded in the notebook of Johannes de Vepria, librarian in the late fifteenth century of the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux (edited in 1974 by Ewald Könsgen as the Epistolae duorum amantium), with the letters that both Peter Abelard and Heloise say that they exchanged at the time of their affair in Paris in the early twelfth century. In this book, he examined the social, historical and literary context in which this famous philosopher and theologian conducted his affair with Heloise, the brilliant young niece of a cathedral canon. While their relationship was known through Abelard’s subsequent autobiographical account and an exchange of letters with Heloise, reviewing their past relationship, it had always been assumed that the messages they exchanged at the time of their affair had been lost. Based on his knowledge of Abelard’s vocabulary and evolving thought, Mews mounted arguments for identifying the very distinct voices of the male teacher and the philosophically gifted young female student in this exchange with Abelard and Heloise. The second part of the volume includes both Köngsen’s 1974 Latin edition of the letters and a facing English translation prepared in collaboration with Neville Chiavaroli. One reviewer commented, ‘While the philosophy of the translation was to retain the original flavor of the Latin as closely as possible, the resulting texts are nevertheless elegant and even moving’ (Kramer 2002: 647). The book was shortlisted for NSW Premier’s Prize in History (2000).

Critical reception of the book focussed on two aspects: the texts’ revelation of the different understandings of love presented by Abelard and Heloise in the letters and, more particularly, the claim of authenticity for the included extracts. Mew’s argument that this series of 113 anonymous letters should be attributed to Abelard and Heloise while they were in the midst of their love affair brought about a new wave of controversy in Abelardian scholarship (surveyed most extensively by Marenbon 2008, 267−80, who considers both the critiques of the first edition and the author’s published responses). A second, revised edition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) included an additional chapter, ‘New Discoveries and Insights 1999-2007’, following through debate since 1999.

The idea that Mews has given Heloise a voice, as a twelfth-century educated woman, recurs in the reviews of the book. As one critic wrote, ‘in reinterpreting Heloise’s definition of true love, Mews has conferred on Heloise an independent voice in the intellectual dialogue of her times’ (Kramer 2002, 648; also Caldwell 2002, 416). More generally critics acclaimed the book’s penetration of the myths surrounding Heloise and Abelard (see, for example, Marenbon 2008, 267−8). ‘For those interested in Heloise studies, Mews’s book is an excellent starting point for understanding the various interpretations both of the evidence for Abelard and Heloise’s relationship and of the relationship itself’ (Meckler 2003, 572).

Reviews: (First edition) The History Teacher 35/3 (May 2002), 416−7 (Christine Caldwell); Church History 71/3 (September 2002), 646−8 (Susan R. Kramer); Mediaevistik 15 (2002), 308−9 (Martijn Rus) (in French); Speculum 78/2 (April 2003), 572−4 (Michael Mekler); Médiévales 51 (Autumn 2006), 185−8 (Damien Boquet) (in French).

John Marenbon, ‘Lost Love Letters? A Controversy in Retrospect’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 15/2 (June 2008), 267−80.

Abelard and Heloise, Great Medieval Thinkers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), xviii, 308 pp.

This monograph examines all the major writings of Peter Abelard, in the fields of logic, theology, biblical exegesis and religion, arguing that they all elucidate different aspects of the continuously evolving thought of this remarkable thinker of the twelfth century. Abelard was a controversial figure, accused of heresy by his critics. As a consequence, there has been a tendency to view him as a logician and rationalist philosopher without attention to his achievement as a philosophical theologian, interested in questioning the influential assumptions made by St Augustine about Christian doctrine. The monograph also examines what we know about Heloise, arguing that her interest in ethical questions had a profound influence on Abelard, in particular in the last ten years of his life.

Described as a ‘beautifully detailed historical account of the two figures’ (Cameron 2007, 215), the first chapter (‘Images of Abelard and Heloise’) contains ‘a captivating survey’ of the ways in which the famous lovers have been portrayed since their affair in the early years of the twelfth century, and how these various representations have been received by popular, religious and scholarly audiences. ‘One cannot help but admire the detailed historical and historiographical work presented here’ (Cameron 2007, 214). The following ten chapters are, to a great extent, a presentation of Abelard’s ideas, which Mews seeks to put in the context not only of his interactions with Heloise (drawing on the author’s own earlier work on the lost letters), but also within the rapidly transforming intellectual climate of early twelfth-century Europe (Pick 2006, 319; Cameron 2007, 215). ‘Abelard is thus presented not as an isolated genius but as one of a collection of scholars attempting to master the new learning on grammar, logic, and dialectic, and to use these insights to understand how humans may speak of God’. … ‘The result is a study that thoroughly contextualizes Abelard’s innovations and Heloise’s influence’ (Pick 2006, 319).

Reviews: Journal of Religion 86/2 (April 2006), 318−19 (Lucy K. Pick); Speculum 82/1 (January 2007), 214−5 (Margaret Cameron).

Christine de Pizan. The Book of Peace, edited and translated by Karen Green, Constant J. Mews, Janice Pinder and Tania van Hemelryck, with Alan Crozier (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2008), xi, 347 pp.

This volume provides an annotated translation of the Livre de paix of Christine de Pizan, the outstanding and prolific author of many treatises of literature and moral guidance in the early fourteenth century, produced with two colleagues from Monash University, Karen Green and Janice Pinder. The text was written between 1412 and 1414, a time of severe corruption and civil unrest in France, as a political manual for the dauphin Louis de Guyenne, and first edited by Charity Willard in 1958. Mews’ particular contribution to this volume was his examination of Christine’s familiarity with a wide range of Latin texts about the ethics of public life that inspired her to write a treatise of particular relevance to France in the early fifteenth century, composed at a time when the body politic was threatening to collapse into a disastrous civil war. ‘Mews’ excellent essay … convincingly expands Willard’s pioneering attribution of Christine’s sources from classical …, late-antique, and Christian authorities to compendia by authors ranging from Brunetto Latini to Pseudo-Seneca (Martin of Braga), the latter in translation’ (Margolis 2010, 655).

The volume was awarded the 2007−2008 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature by the Modern Languages Association.

Review: Speculum 85/3 (2010), 655−6 (Nadia Margolis).

 

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