Shakespeare immortalized the fictional lovers Romeo and Juliet, but for historic doomed lovers, readers have always gone to the story of Heloise and Abelard. The letters between them, written in twelfth century France, are flirtatious, intellectual, dramatic, tragic, and erotic. The world for centuries has been fascinated by the eight letters exchanged by them when they were forced to be apart, but then a few years ago emerged a cache of letters they sent each other while they were also having passionate physical and intellectual exchanges. James Burge has drawn upon the letters old and new to produce Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography (HarperSanFrancisco) which is a genial guide to the classic story, a thoughtful and affecting work that explains the times, religion, and politics of a vastly different age. No American reader, however, will come away without thinking about the current influence of conservative or restrictive religious ideals, or of the continued desire of those in power to impose moral values.
In 1115 Abelard was 36 years old, and master of the Cathedral School at Notre Dame in Paris. He had begun a climb in religious and intellectual circles that would eventually make him, according to some, the most famous man in the world. He was a logician, whose studies would be greatly influential during his own time and still have merit among the philosophers of our time. Others thought that characteristics such as “whiteness” were universals that were somehow “out there”, and that each white object participated in its own way in the property of being white. Abelard, however, rejected such abstract entities, and maintained that “white” was no more than a word with a universal meaning. Arguments over this sort of thing have been going on between philosophers since before Plato, but Abelard was able to refine the arguments about Universals and refute his philosophical competitors. Indeed, even Bertrand Russell said regarding Abelard’s writings on the subject that “most modern discussions of the problem of Universals have not got much farther.” Driven by strict logic, Abelard had a frequent inability to see that others were often driven by emotions, and his capacity to understand the motivations of others led to his often making enemies.
Heloise was fifteen years younger when they met. She was the niece of a local Parisian canon named Fulbert, and she came to the attention of Abelard because of her learning and her desire to learn. She became Abelard’s pupil. Abelard wrote to another monk, “In looks she did not rank lowest,” and “I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success.” That is from one of the older letters, one written man-to-man, but the newly discovered letters reveal a passion within the logician “How fertile with delight is your breast, how you shine with pure beauty, body so full of moisture, that indescribable scent of yours.” His letters from the new cache indicate infatuation “Write anything, even a couple of words if you can,” he begs, and when she sends too few words, he pouts, “Indeed your words are few but I have made them many by rereading them.” They found letters enticing, but spent lots of time in personal tutorials. “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 often over the curves of her body than to the pages…” “Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new we welcomed it.” There might have been some sadomasochistic play “There were sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness sweeter than the most fragrant balm.”
Heloise was consumed as well; this couple enjoyed their intellectual exchanges, enjoyed romance, but they really enjoyed sex. At least one time they made love in the refectory of a church. Years later, looking back on the torrid year and a half of their affair, Heloise wrote even as an abbess, “The lovers’ pleasures that we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they can never displease me… I ought to deplore what we did but I sigh only for what we have lost.” The loss came about because of the fury of her uncle Fulbert, in whose house Abelard was lodging. When Fulbert found out about the affair, he threw Abelard out, and when Heloise became pregnant, he forced them to get married. There was a secret marriage ceremony, although the union could not be kept from being the subject of rumor and gossip. Heloise denied being married, in order to protect Abelard’s career. They had a child, and strangely named him Astralabe, after an astronomical instrument; Burge jokes that this would be like a modern couple naming a child Microprocessor. It would seem that Fulbert would have been satisfied with the outcome he had engineered, but he was still enraged at the loss of his family’s honor, and perhaps at the loss of Heloise as well. He sent his henchmen out to Abelard’s house one night, and they castrated him. Abelard became a monk and made Heloise become a nun. She had not originally wanted to get married, nor did she want to take vows, but she did so out of submission to the man who was everything to her. She knew what was important to her, even years afterwards, writing, “The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.” Even in charge of nuns who were supposed to stay chaste, Heloise never repented of the joys she and Abelard had shared.
Abelard was a prickly character, and traveled from one school and monastery to the next, usually after upsetting those he left. He continued to write treatises on logic, and maintained that logic could not only be applied to scripture, but also to such mysteries as the Trinity. Such ideas got him into trouble, and he was tired for heresy, accused (wrongly) of such things as claiming there was more than one God. He also insisted that intent had to be taken into account before an individual could be accused of a sin; this is a view from the emerging humanism of the time, but elders of the church clung to the idea that just being humans descended from Adam and Eve made people inherently sinful. At both his trials he was condemned, and ordered to burn his book, but he was at least able to go on teaching. He also became reacquainted with Heloise, and they worked together on philosophical problems as well as the practical issues of her leadership of the Paraclete, a monastery founded by Abelard. Abelard’s advice to the abbess shows that he valued women, and particularly women within the church. The classical misogyny of the church would become pronounced a century later, but he had no part in it.
He preceded her in death, when his body was taken back to the crypt of the little church of Heloise’s abbey, and she was eventually buried there as well. The Paraclete did not survive the French Revolution, but the lovers’ remains were brought back to Paris and became initial celebrity occupants of the newly formed Pére Lachaise cemetery. It may be that the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison get more visits there now, but the Gothic Revival monument of Abelard and Heloise does not lack for flowers brought by those captivated by a romantic and frankly sexual story. Burge has been careful to set quotations from the letters in the circumstances of their times. There are, sadly, huge gaps in the story, years we do not know about and thoughts that even these prolific pen-pals kept to themselves; Burge has always indicated when he is making suppositions. He is particularly strong on church history and thought, especially contrasted with the words of Heloise who joined a religious to a sexual rapture. There can be no doubt that these two were serious thinkers and soundly Christian, but theirs was a strikingly modern faith that could accommodate desire and eroticism.
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.