I would not want to give you cause for finding me disobedient in anything, so I have set the bridle of your injunction on the words which issue from my unbounded grief; thus in writing at least I may moderate what it is difficult or rather impossible to forestall in speech. For nothing is less under our control than our heart – having no power to command it we are forced to obey. And so when its impulses move us, none of us can stop their sudden promptings from easily breaking out, and even more easily overflowing into words which are the everready indications of the heart’s emotions: as it is written, ‘A man’s words are spoken from the overflowing of the heart.’ I will therefore hold my hand from writing words which I cannot restrain my tongue from speaking; would that a grieving heart would be as ready to obey as a writer’s hand!
Heloise on the Third Letter to Abelard.
‘Heloise and Abelard’ is one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories. The nine hundred year old love affair of the 12th century philosopher and theologian and his student Heloise continues to inspire and move us. Their passionate relationship scandalized the community in which they lived. The details of their physical and spiritual intimacy is also a cautionary tale for our time.
There are still societies whose policies result in rigid attitudes of intellectual, theological and sexual repression. This great love story, and the courage and passion of its protagonists, has much to teach us about our own understanding of religious tolerance, sexual equality and intellectual freedom.
Here is an admonitory tale screaming to us from across the centuries to reason, and to question, question, question!
In twelfth century Paris, the intellectually gifted young Heloise, the niece of Notre Dame’s Canon Fulbert, strives for knowledge, truth and the answer to the question of human existence. It soon becomes apparent that only one teacher in Paris can provide the education that she seeks. Though twenty years her senior, Abelard quickly becomes intrigued by Heloise’s uncommon wit and intelligence, for Heloise is on par intellectually with Abelard.
They soon find themselves so entwined that neither can resist the spiritual and physical desires of their bodies, yet they both know that the laws of the time forbid such a relationship. But their physical love and the strength of their passion proved to be a power impossible to resist.
When Heloise becomes pregnant, they realize it is not safe for her to remain in Paris. They flee for Brittany, Abelard’s place of birth. In a scheme to protect the dignity of his fallen niece, and return Heloise to his home, Canon Fulbert arranges a secret marriage between Heloise and Abelard. But shortly after the two lovers are wed, they discover Fulbert’s true plot is to ruin Abelard and keep Heloise for himself. For her safety, Heloise escapes to the convent at Argenteuil, but it is too late for Abelard and he is brutally attacked in Paris.
As a result of his humiliating punishment, Abelard no longer considers himself capable of continuing as a teacher at Notre Dame, and he and Heloise understand what they must do. Canon Bedell pleads with Abelard to not force such a fate upon Heloise, but both Heloise and Abelard agree that they must take Holy Orders as Monk and Nun. In a heartbreaking moment, Heloise must give up her child, knowing that she will never see him again.
Through their famous correspondence of twenty years, their love continues to flourish, in spite of their separation. After many years pass, in a chance meeting, Heloise and Abelard are briefly reunited at a ceremony in Paris. Though they have been physically apart all these years, at last in the sight of the other, the former lovers realize that the love they share is the reason for human existence. As the glorious ceremony begins, they triumphantly promise to remain “Forever One”.
They never met again, yet through their famous letters, their love endures.
“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.”
Six hundred years later, it was Josephine Bonaparte, so moved by their story, the she ordered that the remains of Abelard and Heloise be entombed together at Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris. To this day, lovers from all over the world visit the tomb where the remains of Heloise and Abelard rest eternally together.’
Now the above story, it’s a simplified versions, somewhat sweetened of the real struggle, on a Men dominated society, common, not only to Heloise, but of injustice for many women through the annals of History.
Heloise (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert. She was well-educated by her uncle in Paris. Abelard later writes in his autobiographical “Historica Calamitatum”: “Her uncle’s love for her was equaled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters.”
John Marenbon, in his book on Abelard, has two chapters in which he deals with Heloise’s contribution to his ethics. The first of the two chapters is about dismissing claims that Heloise did not write her own letters. That, in itself, is telling. Take any woman philosopher who is not actually around to fight her ground, and chances are, someone will argue that she did not author her own work. Marenbon’s defense is spirited and convincing, but it does not go far towards building up an account of what Heloise might have had to contribute to the philosophy of her age. The second of the two chapters does a little better, as it claims that Abelard’s later account of Caritas as unconditional love of God was influenced by Heloise’s description of her love for Abelard. She, was, Marenbon said, a writer he had to take seriously, and this is reflected in his revisions of his own ethical thought.
‘Many commentators dealing with the question of Heloise’s tumultuous “inner life” as an abbess have focused primarily on Heloise’s refusal to relinquish her sexual desires for Abelard. In these cases, her desire has been construed as a form of subversion and transgression, thus relegating her to the position of the unruly female who must accept the “bridle of the [monastic] injunction.” Instead of being used as a heuristic for dialogue, it places the female subject into a position that must be controlled and subjugated. Rather than desire being an agent of actualization for the female subject, it shuts down avenues for negotiations of subjectivity. Furthermore, the inordinate focus on Heloise as a romantic heroine obscures the fact that she is also acutely anguished by the uncertainty of her heavenly reward. Despite claiming that she has done everything for the love of Abelard, Heloise still expresses her anxiety about her spiritual salvation. She believes that in her struggle against her own body and subjectivity, God will grant her a little “corner of heaven.” Thus, Heloise’s sudden redirection in the third letter should be approached for what it simply is, as a well-calculated rhetorical move on her part, for she knows that Abelard will not confront the question of her continued desire directly. Heloise starts afresh on another subject which she knows he would be more amenable to discuss, the management of the Oratory of the Paraclete. As such, though Heloise’s third letter to Abelard is submerged in mundane theological concerns, Robert Edwards argues that the third letter of Heloise continues an ongoing struggle and negotiation of and for desire. Desire here, however, is not only the overtly passionate eroticism that suffuses Heloise’s first two letters to Abelard, but desire in the broader sense, encompassing her own longing to attain intellectual communion with him. Prior to this letter, Heloise has already been sending a deluge of complaints to Abelard. She demands remuneration for the infinite debt he supposedly owes her; she pesters him to address her old perpetual complaint against God; she demands consolation for her emotional distress. In a sense, Heloise is seeking recognition from Abelard, asking him to realize that he has left her mired in their past, that he has forgotten about her after his castration. Abelard’s conversion is a continued source of anxiety and despair for Heloise, as she can no longer request the same sort of idealized engagement with him she so treasured from their past. Her dilemma arises from a desire explicitly forbidden by traditional monastic profession: a desire to let her past shape and influence her present and future religious life and a desire to construct a new order that would allow her to continue upholding her cherished notions of secular love.
And what a love it was. Until recently, we could read it directly only in eight letters discovered in the 13th century and composed long after the lovers’ entry into monastic life. The first, from Abelard, isn’t even directed to Heloise. Written for an unnamed monk, it’s what a medieval reader would have called a “letter of consolation,” meant to comfort a troubled friend by convincing him that your problems are greater than his. This early variant of schadenfreude, the so-called “Historia Calamitatum,” is how we learn of Abelard’s first arrival in Paris, of his growing renown as a teacher and his encounter with the well-educated young Heloise. Here too we learn of Abelard’s rash decision to move into her uncle Fulbert’s home and become her tutor, of their love and her pregnancy, of Fulbert’s rage, Abelard’s attempt to pacify him by proposing marriage and Heloise’s resistance — at least in part because of the damage it would do to her lover’s reputation. We learn that Abelard prevailed over his pupil, that the wedding was initially kept secret and that Fulbert ordered a terrible act of vengeance. Days after thugs broke into Abelard’s bedroom at night and castrated him, the newlyweds took vows of celibacy and repaired to their respective religious institutions.
The letters written after the “Historia Calamitatum” are the richest, containing the rash, ringing, reckless and altogether impious declarations of love for which Heloise will always be known. Here is a voice that refuses to stay in the Middle Ages; it reaches through the centuries and catches us at the throat. “Men call me chaste,” she writes. “They do not know the hypocrite I am.” Even during the celebration of Mass, she confesses, “lewd visions” of the pleasures she shared with Abelard “take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.” She asserts the primacy of desire, boldly professing the amorous, sacrilegious motives that drove her into the convent: “It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone. . . . I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him. . . . I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of hell.” Her bravado, her defiance, her ruthless honesty and her apotheosis of eros over morality are everywhere apparent — and still today they are shocking.
Love is Heloise’s religion, even when she’s wrapped in the robes of a nun. And in the practice of this religion, she is as uncompromising as she is unconventional. For her, love has no business with the law or money or social safety nets. It is for this reason, more than any other, that she opposes Abelard’s desire to wed: “I never sought anything in you except yourself. . . . I looked for no marriage bond.” Indeed, she proclaims,”if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore.”
The dust will not settle on such words. At once intrepid and idealistic, transgressive and submissive, taboo-busting and sweet-natured, noble and naughty, they have seduced scholars for centuries. This woman, this prioress, who was prepared to sacrifice not just earthly reputation but heavenly salvation for the sake of her secular love, is a literary original. Petrarch couldn’t read her without scribbling exclamations in the margins; the three letters to Abelard that have come down to us from her monastic confinement have sufficed to make her name as a writer.
Only recently — and miraculously — has a new cache of material turned up, fragments of 113 letters that many scholars believe Abelard and Heloise exchanged before Abelard’s castration. Copied in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria, discovered in 1980 by Constant J. Mews and finally published as “The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard,” these short but eloquent missives present two people vying — with no coyness or gender typecasting whatever — to outdo each other in expressions of adoration. “To a reddening rose under the spotless whiteness of lilies,” the woman addresses the man. “To his jewel, more pleasing and more splendid than the present light,” the man addresses the woman. The letters have unleashed a new storm of interest in the couple; it is to this that we owe the British filmmaker James Burge’s biography, “Abelard and Heloise.”
Burge spends much time glossing the new correspondence — unfortunately, trivializing rather than illuminating it. “This sounds to modern ears like a promise of sex,” he tells us at one point, then rushes to explain: “The question of when exactly they first consummated their love awaits more assiduous scholarship.” Given that scholars are still arguing about Heloise’s birth date (she’s been put between 15 and 27 years of age at the time of her encounter with Abelard, who would have been in his late 30’s), you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for this golden factoid. But what’s really missing in Burge’s biography is an ear for the lyricism of his subjects’ correspondence, a feel for the mystery of their bond.
Antoine Audouard’s novel “Farewell, My Only One” doesn’t draw explicitly on the new letters, but it’s substantially truer to their spirit. It also has an ingenious narrative scheme: the story is told from the point of view of a wandering student, William, who falls in love with Heloise at the same time that he becomes Abelard’s disciple. When he has outlived both, at the end of the tale, we discover an even closer connection.
Audouard, a former director of the French publisher Laffont-Fixot, evokes in gritty and poetic detail the streets of 12th-century Paris (where the narrator tells us he “stumbled over a pig”). He’s also very good at conveying the process of infatuation: William falls for Heloise when she loses consciousness in a crowd: “I am not strong. I have never carried a woman,” he marvels. And yet he does, and even lunges after the flower that has fallen from her hair. “A few crushed petals” are all that remain, though, when he opens his “clenched fist” — a foretaste of what happens when we grasp what we love too firmly.
But Audouard spends too much time alone with William — building churches, cleaning grates, making friends — and we resent being taken away from the lovers. Then again, anyone writing about Abelard and Heloise must compete with their own eloquence. The early letters are so clear and beautiful they can be read alone, without anachronistic glossing or fictional superstructures. Like the later letters — recently reprinted in a volume edited by the British medievalist and Abelard biographer Michael Clanchy — they glow. Together they preserve the myth of a shining couple, persecuted by authority and hounded by circumstance but true to each other, ready for all sacrifice, passionate even to the grave.
It’s a potent myth and a necessary one — but it is a myth. The reality of Abelard and Heloise’s story may be no less moving, but it’s less than perfect. You could argue, first off, that their relationship was already on the decline by the time Abelard was castrated. And that Fulbert’s vengeance was taken because Abelard was insufficiently, rather than excessively, close to his niece. Heloise already lived in a convent at the time of Abelard’s mutilation — not as a nun, but nevertheless under the protection of the nuns. Ostensibly this was a tactic to preserve the secrecy of their marriage; to Fulbert, however, it may have suggested that Abelard was planning to get rid of his wife. Is this what it meant to her? The arrangement, in any case, was neither ideal nor particularly gallant, and Abelard’s visits were decreasing in frequency: “You sadden my spirit,” Heloise writes in the last of her early letters.
Is it possible that Fulbert’s crime saved rather than sank the lovers’ passion? That by turning Abelard into a romantic martyr at the very moment his interest was flagging, Fulbert reinvigorated Heloise’s loyalty and gave Abelard an excuse to ignore her without blame?
This is, in fact, what he did for the next 12 years. It wasn’t until Heloise had become abbess of her own convent and stumbled upon his “Historia Calamitatum” that she was able to draw Abelard back into communication with her. And even then religion had changed him; the passion and warmth of the early letters had fled.
In the later letters, Abélard has become pious and self-centered. When Heloise entreats him to take pity on her loneliness, he sends her a set of prayers to say for him. When she serenades their love, he moans about the trouble he’s having with the other monks at his abbey. Never an easy man to get on with, he has made blood enemies of men whose well-being he is supposed to preserve: they are, he assures Heloise, relentlessly trying to poison him. Therefore the refrain, “Pray for me.”
It is Heloise’s tact and generosity that allow the dialogue to continue and even attain exemplary dimensions. Seeing that her beloved is no longer capable of the language of passion, she smothers her love song (“the loss,” as Burge states, “is history’s”) and addresses him on the only terms he still knows and values. Like the star student she once was, she begins to quiz him on every biblical, monastic and moral question she can think of. In doing so, she inspires much of the most valuable — and satisfying — work of Abelard’s life. Disdained by his own monks as well as by the Vatican (he was twice condemned for heresy), he found an enthusiastic audience in Heloise and her nuns. It is for Heloise that he undertakes what one scholar has called “the most substantial writings of the 12th century on women’s place in Christianity”; it is for Heloise that he writes countless sermons, hymns and disquisitions on spiritual themes. Heloise’s convent becomes, in some sense, the couple’s joint project, their spiritual child. Their cooperation struck onlookers as a dazzling example of friendship between a man and a woman.
If Heloise didn’t get what she most wanted from Abelard, she got the very best he had to give. His reflections, his confidences and his final, all-important confession were addressed to her; his most urgent worldly plea was to be buried where she would be near him. Is their story a fraud because Abelard, as Mews has written, was “tagging along behind” Heloise in matters of the heart?
The love stories that touch us most deeply are punctuated by human frailty. Look at them up close and you see the fault lines, compromises and anticlimaxes. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo is just as intemperately in love with a girl called Rosaline as he is later with Juliet. Tristan and Isolde’s passion could well be the fruit of substance abuse, of a love potion they drank unknowingly. And Abélard and Heloise? They weren’t equally strong or passionate or generous. Still, they put their frailties together and begat a perfect myth, as well as something perhaps even more precious — a surprising, splendid, fractured reality. “There is a crack,” the Leonard Cohen lyric goes, “a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”
The Problemata Heloissae, And My Motivation
In all honesty my original intention was to focus on Heloise’s as:
Problemata Heloissae (The “Questions” of Heloise): Prefatory Letter, Heloise to Abelard.
The letter introduces 42 questions (the “Problemata”) that have arisen from the daily biblical readings Heloise and her nuns do. The questions involve issues of sin and judgment, intention versus action, law and punishment, damnation and repentance, as well as contradictions or odd references in the Bible. Heloise does not hesitate to draw an analogy between herself and Marcella, Jerome’s celebrated and very learned colleague and correspondent.
However I understood that focusing on such letters the main story would be lost and that it’s Heloise main love’s requital to Abelard, so the Theological letters would be of no interest to most readers anyway, the real story is told above.
Too much had been said about the couple to add new insights into their story, so I just put together from several sources what I thought would be interesting to the readers if unfamiliar with the story.
Also I would like to remind to our readers how different the times in the Middle Ages were compared to our contemporary values, Religion was, how we should say? No a fact of Life, but ‘the major fact of Life’ that took precedence over anything else.
Books Discussed in This Essay
SHARON JANE GO SHUA A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Letters of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English
HELOISE AND ABELARD A New Biography. By James Burge. HarperSanFrancisco,
FAREWELL, MY ONLY ONE By Antoine Audouard. Translated by Euan Cameron. Houghton Mifflin,
ABELARD AND HELOISE By Constant J. Mews. Oxford University, cloth, $74; paper,
THE LETTERS OF ABELARD AND HELOISE Translated With an Introduction and Notes by Betty Radice. Revised by M. T. Clanchy. Penguin, paper,
THE LOST LETTERS OF HELOISE AND ABELARD Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. By Constant J. Mews. With Translations by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant J. Mews. Palgrave Macmillan.
Cristina Nehring Eloise and Abelard: Love Hurts. writes regularly for The Atlantic. She is the author of the forthcoming “Women in Love From Simone de Beauvoir to Sylvia Plath: A Feminist Defense of Romance.”