Scandalous Lovers: Abelard and Heloise

"With our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, with our books open before us more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed more often over the curves of her body than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts."

Peter Abelard

"Abaelardus and Heloïse surprised by Master Fulbert", by Romanticist painter Jean Vignaud (1819)

It was the sex scandal of the 12th Century. Imagine the headlines if this were to happen today: Handsome cleric scores with hot pupil. It touches all our hot buttons about the teacher/student relationship. After it was all over, he said it was just sex, while she believed it was true love. Sound familiar? It is the story of Abelard and Heloise. What is it about this almost nine hundred year old love story that still captures our imagination?
One of the most brilliant, charismatic and arrogant ment of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard was the son of a noble family from the village of Pallet in Brittany. He had been destined for knighthood, but he was more suited for an acadamic career. Abelard was so brilliant that he defeated all of the famous intellectuals of the time in philosophical debates, including several of his teachers. He was a philosopher and a theologian, willing to to question all aspects of Christian doctrine, not a smooth career move, when schools were run by the Church.
He excelled in something called dialectic, which consisted of the logic of Aristotle filtered through Latin channels according to Wikipedia. While still in his teens, he arrived in Paris, where he attended the cathedral school of Notre Dame (not to be confused with the one now in Paris, this was an earlier version). At the age of only 22, Abelard set up his own school outside of Paris. In 1115, he was nominated a canon at Notre Dame.
Thousands of students were drawn to Paris by the fame of his teaching. Think of the most popular teachers at college and how hard it was to get into those classes. In his arrogance, he later wrote, that he thought of himself as the only undefeated philosopher in the world. Ego much? You know what they say about "pride goeth before the fall?" Well Abelard was about to experience that in spades.
Living within the precints of Notre Dame, was a young girl named Heloise, the niece of Canon Fulbert. Little is known about her family, who her parents were, or how she came to live with Fulbert. In a time when most men and women, even of the nobility, were illiterate, Heloise was remarkable for having studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Abélard writes that she was nominatissima, "most renowned" for her gift in reading and writing. He fell in love with her, and contrived to get himself hired as her tutor. It wasn't hard. Fulbert was particularly proud of his niece's intelligence, and wanted her to have an excellent education.
Soon Abelard was tutoring her in more than just Socrates. According to his famous Historia Calamitatum they spend more time having sex then they did studying to the point that Abelard began neglecting his own work and his classes at the university. They also weren't particularly discreet. Soon all of Paris knew what was going on except for Fulbert. While not the sharpest quill in the drawer, Fulbert finally caught the two lovebirds christening the refectory on Good Friday. To say he was a little pissed is an understatement. To top it all of, Heloise was pregnant, birth control not being top of the list of things that Abelard had learned in his studies.
Panicking, Abelard shipped Heloise off to stay with his relatives in Brittany until their son was born, who Heloise christened Astrolabe proving that it's not just celebrities in the 21st century who give their children ridiculous names. They left the child with Abelard's family to be raised, while Abelard tried to placate Heloise's uncle who was pretty apoplectic by now.
Abelard proposed a compromise, he would marry Heloise but it would have to be kept a secret. Heloise, however, was not down with this plan. She knew that being married would interfer with Abelard's prospects for advancement. Although, Abelard was a cleric, there no rules against being married, it was was preferred that they be celibate. She argued that philosophy and babies don't mix. How was her husband supposed to work while she was taking care of an infant? As far as Heloise was concerned, Abelard was going to change the world, marrying her would only ruin his future.
Of course, Abelard, being a guy and a medieval one at, wasn't about to let his woman tell him what to do. So marriage it was. However, Fulbert, wasn't a guy who was going to keep a secret this juicy, when he could tell the whole world that the brilliant Peter Abelard was his nephew-in-law. Although who knew what his real reasons were. Maybe he was trying to protect Heloise's reputation or just ticked off at Abelard, but he flapped his gums all over Paris.
Heloise wasn't about to put up with this, and when she was asked, she denied the marriage, which pissed off Uncle Fulbert royally. In retaliation, Fulbert beat her. Abelard whisked Heloise off to a convent to protect her from her uncle's wrath, while he tried to smooth things over. It didn't turn out quite as Abelard planned. Fulbert got it into his head, that Abelard was tossing Heloise aside and insulting his family. He got back at Abelard in the most loathsome manner possible.
Hold onto your stomachs, and any men reading this, you might want to look away right now. Fulbert hired thugs to castrate Abelard, to take from him that part which had ruined his niece. Or as Abelard put it "amputated from my body those parts with which I had done what they complained of." Ouch!
Of course things changed after his castration. For Abelard, it was a moment of clarity. The amorous haze had left him. He gave up his teaching position and retired to a monastery where he became a Benedictine monk. As for Heloise, he persuaded her to take the veil. Still only in her twenties, she reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately the cloistered life didn't sit well with either of them. The monks of St. Denis kicked him out because he tried to prove that the monastery wasn't in fact founded by St. Denis after all (now what was the point of this, apart from having to prove that he was right?). Abelard went off and founded his own school the Abbey of Paraclete, where he installed Heloise (it wasn't uncommon for Abbey's to contain both monks and nuns), after he left to rescue the monastery of St. Gildas-de-Rhuys.
While at St. Gildas, the monks tried to poison him when he tried to get them to give up their concubines and to live according to the rules of St. Benedict. More trouble followed, he was tried for heresy several times and forced to burn his own works for being heretical.
During this time, Heloise tried to reconcile herself to a life as a nun. She eventually became the Abbess at Paraclete, but for fifteen years she and Abelard had no contact with each other, until Abelard wrote his Historia Calamitatum, which was a letter which Abelard wrote to a friend, kind of an "if you think you life is bad, let me tell you about mine," kind of thing. It is this letter which survives which gives us the story in Abelard's own words of his affair with Heloise. Heloise somehow ended up with a copy of the letter and reading it was moved to write to Abelard to chastise him for his categorization of their love as merely lust.

She writes movingly of her feelings for him but she doesn't let him off the hook either, after all they were still technically married. "You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune, that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you. Surely, the greater the cause for grief the greater the need for the help of consolation, and this no-one can bring but you.Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you?"
Abelard replies that he hasn't written because he knew that she had good sense, and that he had confidence in her. Not exactly the words of a former lover. 8 letters have survived from the years when they were both cloistered, 5 from Abelard and 3 from Heloise. It's clear from her letters that Heloise was not always content in her choices. Having tasted sexual passion, she still misses it, while for Abelard the castration gave him clarity and allowed him to continue on with his work.

Heloise writes to Abelard that she would rather have been his whore than his wife in her first letter to him. In a sense she's arguing against marriage, because her love was pure, and not for any external reward. In any other time, this probably would have been music to a guy's ears!

"God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."

Pretty strong stuff for a nun to be writing in the 12th or any other century! She reveals herself to him in her letters but Abelard (just like a man) can't deal with it. He begs her in another letter:

"Say no more, I beg you, and cease from complaints like these which are so far removed from the true depths of love!"

It's like the 12th century version of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Abelard seems to have projected his love for Heloise into a love of God and the Holy Spirit when he became a monk. He tries to convince her in another letter that it is God who truly loves her not him. But Heloise will have none of that. She writes to him, that even at prayer, she can't help thinking about the pleasures that they shared. It is a remarkable document of a woman's passion. In her letters she shows herself to be a vibrant, intelligent, passionate woman at a time where women for the most part were seen and not heard.

Abelard died in 1142, and Heloise died 21 years later. After her death, she was buried alongside him in the church where she was Abess. They are now buried together, although there is some question about who exactly is buried in the tomb, in Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris, where countless lovers have held hands over the graves over the centuries.

Reading Heloise's letters in particular, the reader is given a remarkable glimpse into the life of a female cleric in the 12th century. In her surviving letters she writes to Abelard asking for hymns and advise on what to do when she became the Abbess of the Paraclete. It also gives a rare glimpse into the inner world of a medieval woman, letting us know that passion and orgasms wasn't something that was invented in the 20th century.

Since their deaths, the two lovers have been celebrated by countless poets from Christina Rossetti to Alexander Pope, playwrights as recently as Howard Brenton's play In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise which premiered last year at Shakespeare's Globe in London, to a late 1990's movie with Belgian actor Derek de Lindt called "Stealing Heaven" based on the book by Marion Meade. There's even a scene in Being John Malkovich where John Cusack as the puppeteer does a show with Heloise and Abelard puppets.

Recently a medieval scholar in New Zealand, Constant Mews, contends that several previously anonymous letters can be attributed to Heloise and Abelard. This letters would have been written during their secret affair, a sort of medieval version of text messaging.

Their love story brings up that age old question about student/teacher relationships. It's one of the remaining taboos in our society. Did Abelard seduce Heloise, or was she a willing participant? From his autobiography we know that he set out to seduce Heloise from the beginning. It's not known exactly how old Heloise was at the time, she could have been 16 or her early twenties. Abelard was in his late thirties at this time, old enough to know better. But then of course this was in an age when most women were married at 12 and had borne several children before they were out of their teens.

The entire love affair (pre-castration) lasted less than two years, which is longer than any of Paris Hilton's relationships but still their lives were incredibly impacted in a short amount of time. Looking at it with 21st century eyes, you wonder how much of their relationship was love, and how much of it was the hero worship of a brilliant student for her charismatic teacher? Where should one draw the line, particularly in this age of sexual harrassment. Also, what made Heloise give in to Abelard's desire for her to take the veil? The marriage could easily have been annulled since he was no longer able to function as a husband. Was her love for Abelard that great, and her trust and respect for him so large, that she would acquiesce to what he wished without a thought to her own desires? Or was she just obeying her husband?

It's clear that the love story of Abelard and Heloise will be intriguing scholars and readers for even more generations.


Anonymous said…
Not only intriguing scholars, but opera and theatre creators. See and
Thanks for the links! I find the idea intriguing. I know that Diana Rigg played Heloise on Broadway in a play in the early 1970's and Howard Brenton just wrote a play that premiered last summer at the Globe in London. Plus there was a movie made from Marion Meade's novel that I remember seeing years ago.
Anonymous said…
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