Heloise and Abelard
Hers was one of the most beautiful and tragic (true) love stories, a model upon which many fictional love stories were later based on. But who was Heloise, the woman whose love affair with Pierre Abelard scandalized the 12th-century world?
Despite being one of the greatest women of her age, Heloise is forever connected with and known for her romance with Abelard who, skeptics and some scholars say, was an elderly man who seduced his much younger, beautiful pupil, made her pregnant, forced her into marriage and when his reputation suffered, pushed her out of sight and into a convent.
It is hard to believe that a woman of such intellect, courage, and wit would agree to be pushed over, but love is a strange beast and their correspondence is a testament to one of the best-known love tragedies of history.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay
Heloise’s exact date of birth and family background are lost. Scholars place her birth around 1098 and some believe that, as nothing is known about her father, her mother may have been a nun from a convent St Eloi that was shut down in 1107 by the Bishop of Paris following charges of sexual misconduct. Any children born as a result of such liaisons would have been sent off to other convents to be raised by nuns and it’s a known fact that Heloise spent her childhood in a Benedictine convent of St. Marie in Argenteuil, near Paris.
What is also known is that she was the ward of an uncle named Fulbert, who was a canon of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and very proud of her education. By the time she became the student of Pierre Abelard, one of the most popular teachers and philosophers in Paris, she already had a reputation of a scholar. She was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and renowned for her work in the fields of grammar and rhetoric, two branches of classical philosophy.
“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… She stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters,” Abelard wrote.
Abelard was at least 15 years older than Heloise and came from a wealthy titled family. In her letters, Heloise implies that Abelard was from the nobility and that he rejected knighthood to be a philosopher. Abelard was a student of logic, the branch of classical philosophy concerned with the evaluation of arguments. That, combined with his good looks, arrogance, theatricality and debating powers made him famous, but also earned him enemies.
Heloise and Abelard met around 1114 or 1115. In his Historia Calamitatum (Story of My Misfortunes) Abelard, intrigued by her wit, beauty, and intelligence, writes that he decided to seduce Heloise the moment he saw her. He approached her uncle and offered to tutor Heloise in exchange for lodgings in the canon’s house.
“Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts”, Abelard later wrote.
The pair exchanged many letters during their romance. The letters are lost as the couple most likely used wax tablets that could be reused over and over again. Some of Heloise’s drafts were, however, written on parchment and survived in fragments. These letters recount an intensely passionate relationship between two people well matched intellectually and by temperament. Abelard wrote poems to her and it is said that some of them were copied and passed around in Paris.
The secret romance lasted about two years until the rumors reached the canon who ordered Abelard to leave. “Oh, how great was the uncle’s grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!” Abelard wrote.
At the same time, Heloise discovered she was pregnant and informed Abelard, who arranged for her to flee Paris and stay with one of his siblings in Brittany.
Heloise gave birth to a boy named Astrolabe (this is also a name of a navigational instrument used to determine the positions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets). Astrolabe was raised by Abelard’s family in Brittany but his later life, other that he was also a man of faith, is unknown. Heloise never mentioned him in her letters to Abelard and the only time Abelard referenced him was in the verses of advice given in his autobiographical Historia Calamitatum.
Abelard tried to ease the scandal by offering Flubert to marry Heloise. Flubert agreed to this but it was Heloise who refused.
“She, however, most violently disapproved of this, and for two chief reasons: the danger thereof, and the disgrace which it would bring upon me… What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light!” Abelard wrote in Historia Calamitatum.
Allegedly, Heloise was worried that marriage would ruin Abelard’s career and hurt his philosophical work, but she also detested the idea of marriage and perceived is as a purely economic arrangement.
“Assuredly, whomsoever this concupiscence leads into marriage deserves payment rather than affection; for it is evident that she goes after his wealth and not the man, and is willing to prostitute herself, if she can, to a richer,” Heloise later wrote.
Heloise’s letters in which she wrote openly of free love and her disdain for marriage are a testament to one of the most radical feminist philosophies. “I preferred love to wedlock, freedom to a bond,” she wrote in the 12th century when women had no say in any matter and no possibility to try and rebel, disobey or plainly refuse their parents, guardians, husbands, church, and society. “What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children…? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?”
Abelard, backed by Flubert, insisted and the pair wed secretly in Paris. Heloise returned to her uncle’s home and Abelard to his lodgings. The rumors, however, spread, most likely thanks to Flubert who wanted to punish Abelard for the damage done to his reputation. Heloise attempted to deny this but the situation became so tense and unbearable for her that Abelard once again helped her flee, this time to the convent of Argenteuil where she grew up.
Angry Flubert saw this as an attempt by Abelard to get rid of Heloise by making her nun and decided to revenge. Flubert and his associates broke into Abelard’s home and castrated him. (Historians believe that Abelard wasn’t fully castrated but only lost his testicles.) The news spread through Paris and Abelard lost his position as master of the cathedral school. The bishop of Paris also punished Flubert and seized his possessions and assets. Flubert also lost his position, but only for a short period of time.
After castration, humiliated Abelard became a monk in the Abbey of St Denis in Paris where he wrote a treatise on the Holy Trinity condemned as heretical by church authorities. He left St.Denis and founded his own religious community called the Oratory of the Paraclete.
After he was elected abbot of Abbey of St. Gildas in Brittany, he arranged for Heloise, who had advanced to the position of prioress, to take over the Paraclete after learning that she and some of the other women have been evicted from Argenteuil, when a local bishop took possession of Argenteuil property through suspicious means.
Heloise and Abelard never lived together again and had no contact for nearly 12 years. When Heloise learned that Abelard wrote an account of their story – Historia Calamitatum, she reached out to him. In the letters that followed, she professed her devotion and lust for him.
“I love you more than ever; and so revenge myself on him (Fulbert). I will still love you with all the tenderness of my soul till the last moment of my life. If, formerly, my affection for you was not so pure, if in those days both mind and body loved you, I often told you even then that I was more pleased with possessing your heart than with any other happiness, and the man was the thing I least valued in you,” Heloise wrote.
“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.”
“Even during the celebration of Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers…God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought 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,” she wrote to Abelard.
The correspondence was both passionate and erudite and today consists of seven letters divided into two groups. In so-called Personal Letters, Heloise professed her love and encouraged Abelard in his philosophical work. Abelard, on the other hand, insisted that he never truly loved her but only lusted after her and recommended her to turn to God.
Some scholars saw in these “personal” letters proof that Abelard forced himself on Heloise and basically abused her and raped her. Others, citing Heloise’s writings, cite her more positive attitude toward their past relationship and her comment that she does not accept that his love for her could die, even after castration.
There are also scholars who believe that Abelard’s claims of lust and seduction were, in fact, a way to deal with guilt, take the moral burden on himself and an attempt to distance from and in a way protect his former lover, now a widely respected abbes.
Either way, the letters show a difficult, intense relationship between the two, as well as their challenges to find devotion to the monastic life.
“If my passion has been put under a restraint my thoughts yet run free. I promise myself that I will forget you, and yet cannot think of it without loving you. My love is not at all lessened by those reflections I make in order to free myself… Till after a multitude of useless endeavors I begin to persuade myself that it is superfluous trouble to strive to free myself; and that it is sufficient wisdom to conceal from all but you how confused and weak I am,” Abelard wrote to Heloise.
In a first of the second group of letters called Letters of Direction, Heloise obeyed Abelard’s wishes to stop writing about their relationship.
“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… 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… And yet you have it in your power to remedy my grief, even if you cannot entirely remove it,” she wrote to him.
The two then discussed the faith, Scripture and the origin of nuns. Abelard also provided rules for the nuns at the Oratory of the Paraclete at the request of Heloise.
“And so all we handmaids of Christ, who are your daughters in Christ, come as suppliants to demand of your paternal interest two things which we see to be very necessary for ourselves. One is that you will tell us how the order of nuns began and what authority there is for our profession. The other, that you will prescribe some Rule for us and write it down, a Rule which shall be suitable for women…” Heloise wrote to Abelard.
Among the rules, that later became a norm for nuns, is a basic standard of dress, adjusted by Heloise, which included a chemise dress of lamb’s skin, a robe, sandals, a veil with a rope girdle and a mantle in the winter. Nuns slept in their habits and at Heloise’s insistence “to keep vermin away,” they had two sets of clothes. Their diet consisted of mostly vegetables, and they ate no meat. The wine was used only for the ill. Any woman who violated her vow of chastity was severely beaten and could never again wear the veil.
The pair exchanged letters for several years until Abelard’s death in 1142. Heloise remained abbess of the Paraclete until her death in 1163.
Heloise’s place of burial is unknown. Abelard’s bones were moved to the Oratory of the Paraclete after his death and it is believed that after Heloise’s death, hers were placed alongside his.
The pair’s bones were moved again, during the French Revolution and are presumed to lie in a tomb in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where lovers and lovelorn singles leave letters in tribute to a couple or in hope of finding true love.
The Oratory of the Paraclete claims that the Heloise and Abelard are still buried there. Others believe that Abelard is at Pere Lachaise but that Heloise’s remains are elsewhere.