Lesson #21: Abelard and Heloise (12th century A.D.)
Abelard and Heloise are one of the most celebrated couples of all time, known for
their love affair, and for the tragedy that separated them.
In a letter to Abelard, 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
It's perhaps the most tragic love story ever. Abelard and Heloise were two well-educated
people, brought together by their passion, then separated by the act of her uncle's
Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest
thinkers of the 12th century. Among his works is Sic et Non, a list of 158 philosophical
and theological questions. His teachings were controversial, and he was repeatedly
charged with heresy. Even with the controversy that surrounded him at times, nothing
probably prepared him for the consequences of his love affair with Heloise, a relationship
destined to change his life in dramatic ways.
Heloise (1101–1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert, a kind of bureaucratic
functionary in the Church, and a wealthy man. Rare for women at the time, she was
well-educated by her uncle in Paris. Abelard later writes in his 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." Heloise was one of
the most well-educated women of her time, so, perhaps it's not surprising that Abelard
and she became lovers. Also, she was more than 20 years younger than Abelard.
Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him
to teach the girl such things as Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Using the pretext
that his own house was a "handicap" to his studies, Abelard further moved in to the
house of Heloise and her uncle.
Supposedly it all started one day in the middle of a lesson when they were reading
about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There was the classic cinematic
glance of passion between them and then, in the famous line from one of her letters,
"... that day we read no more."
Apparently Canon Fulbert was not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and the
affair continued under his roof and under his nose for some time without him suspecting
anything. Inevitably, though, the two of them became careless and got caught. As
Abelard would later write: "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!"
They were separated, but that didn't end the affair. Instead, they discovered that
Heloise was pregnant. She left her uncle's house when he was not at home; and she
stayed with Abelard's sister until their daughter Astrolabe was born. Why anyone
even in those days would want to name their child after a navigational instrument
is somewhat hard to understand, but they did.
Abelard asked for Fulbert's forgiveness, and permission to marry Heloise; then with
Fulbert's assent, Abelard tried to persuade Heloise to marry him. In Chapter 7 of
Historia Calamitatum, Abelard wrote: "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?" It should be born in mind that like
all scholars of the time, Abelard was a minor priest in orders. Although he had not
yet been ordained and taken the vow of celibacy, his marriage would have blocked
his path of advancement in the Church and at the Paris University.
When she finally agreed to become Abelard's wife, Heloise told him, "Then there is
no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than
the love we two have already known." In regard to that statement, Abelard later wrote,
in his Historica, "Nor in this, as now the whole world knows, did she lack the spirit
Secretly married, the couple left Astrolabe with Abelard's sister. When Heloise went
to stay with the nuns at Argenteuil, her uncle and kinsmen believe Abelard had cast
her off, forcing her to become a nun. Why they did this has never been adequately
explained. They must have known how it would look to the world, as if Abelard had
seduced Heloise, gotten her knocked up and forced her to bear an illegitimate child,
married her late and then stashed her in a convent out of the way. It was perceived
by Fulbert's family, who were of the minor nobility, as a deadly insult. There does
seem to have been a self-destructive element in all of this.
"Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting
was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of
my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel
and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off
those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow."
What happened was that one night while Abelard lay asleep in his lodgings, Fulbert
and a gang of relatives, servants, and general thugs broke into his room and castrated
him. But poor Abelard was not without friends and supporters. The intruders were
pursued down the street by the outraged occupants of the house and a number of Abelard's
students, at least one of the attackers was lynched on the spot, and several others
were badly beaten and taken to the Provost of Paris who imprisoned them. Fulbert
seems to have escaped. Abelard survived his mutilation, which in view of the severing
of arteries involved was fortunate.
The most interesting part of the story is the relationship that grew out of the tragedy.
Abelard became a priest and Heloise a nun, eventually Mother Superior and abbess
of her convent.
In his Historia Calamitatum, Abelard wrote: "Often the hearts of men and women are
stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows more by example than by words.
And therefore... am I now minded to write of the sufferings which have sprung out
of my misfortunes ..."
The story of Abelard and Heloise is tragic, but what's more important to literature
and history is what happened after the agony was over. Both Peter Abelard and Heloise
continued to go on living, to write, to love, to contribute to our literary history.
They didn't kill themselves, or marry anyone else (unless you count the fact that
both married the church). Heloise asks for his words, saying: "While I am denied
your presence, give me at least through your words—of which you have enough and to
spare--some sweet semblance of yourself." She ends the letter with: "I beg you, think
what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief
ending: farewell, my only love."
To her passionate letters, he responds in part: "If since our conversion from the
world to God I have not yet written you any word of comfort or advice, it must not
be attributed to indifference on my part but to your own good sense ...
How do two lovers part after such a short time, with such a terrible end and no real
beginning? They had been so close. And, then their only link is through their letters,
and the works that Abelard left behind.
Heloise speaks of losing Abelard: "But if I lose you, what have I left to hope for?
Why continue on life's pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you, and none
in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures
in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore
me to myself?"