Abelard and Heloise is not only the pre-eminent love story of medieval times, but arguably the most known and reflected upon true life love affair in all of literature. The tragedy of their affair and subsequent happenings is a story that even the greatest tragic writers in history would have difficulty dreaming up. Nine hundred years after they were written, Abelard and Heloise’s letters to each other remain powerful, heart wrenching and stimulating in their depth, intellect and emotion.
Peter Abelard was a scholar, a leading philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician of his time (he lived from 1079 to 1142). His philosophic theory of Conceptualism resulted in the downfall of the theory of Realism, long the dominant theory (while both admit of universal mental acts, Realism claims such acts correspond to universal intentional acts, whereas Conceptualism does not). His talent and success as a teacher and speaker resulted in significant popularity, with large crowds gathering to hear him speak. Around 1115, he was at the peak of his popularity and academic success, stepping into the chair at Notre-Dame, and being nominated canon. However, his theories, personalities and methods caused constant disagreements and jealousies with other powerful teachers, mostly within the church, causing him a lifetime of discontent, danger and pain.
While at Notre-Dame, Abelard met Heloise, who was living under the care of her uncle, the canon Fulbert. Heloise was a somewhat well known scholar herself, being very well versed in classical knowledge of Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Abelard set out to seduce her, gaining a place at her Uncle’s house as her teacher and overseer. He succeeded in his seduction, which was soon discovered and they were separated. Fulbert was furious and was intent on revenge. Abelard and Heloise continued to see each other secretly. Eventually Heloise got pregnant, and was sent to Brittany by Abelard where she gave birth to a son.
In an attempt to appease Fulbert, Abelard proposed marrying Heloise in secret, so to protect his career prospects. Heloise actually argued against the marriage, but Fulbert agreed with Abelard and they were married. However, in an attempt to ruin Abelard, Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage. In turn, Abelard encouraged Heloise to go to the convent of Argenteuil to become a nun. When Fulbert found out, he assumed Abelard had pushed Heloise to become a nun so to get rid of her. In turn, Fulbert sent some servants into Abelard’s home at night and had him castrated.
Abelard now turned inward, spending years at various places, first trying the life of a monk, and eventually turning back to teaching, but trouble seemed to be a constant companion. He eventually built and consecrated the Oratory of the Paraclete in a deserted location and again students began to flock to him. Fearing more troubles, he left Paraclete, though he was eventually able to establish Heloise as head of a new religious house at the Paraclete (though they themselves had had little or no contact for years). Heloise had grown much in stature and was very well respected, becoming abbess.
For ten more years, Abelard constantly fought danger and trouble. During this time, Abelard, being around 54 years old, wrote his Historia Calamitatum (referred to as Story of His Misfortunes). This was written in the form of a letter to soothe a troubled friend by highlighting to this friend how much worse Abelard’s problems were. The letter, one of the great auto-biographical sketches of all time, paints a thorough picture of Abelard’s plight and includes a history of his affair and marriage to Heloise. The letter shows Abelard as somewhat arrogant and highlights his constant feeling of persecution. Nine hundred years later, the letter also provides us a glimpse into the often depraved inner workings the Church had descended to a thousand years after Christ, and gives a picture of intellectual medieval life that is fascinating.
It is best to give you some glimpses into Abelard’s thinking as written in Historia Calamitatum, so you get a picture of his being. He describes his sinful downfall into lust in a manner which many politicians of today would be wise to recall:
But success always puffs up fools with pride, and worldly security weakens the spirit’s resolution and easily destroys it through carnal temptations.
He then credits God for correcting him, turning two of his greatest calamities into actions of God’s grace.
…I was wholly enslaved to pride and lechery, God’s grace provided a remedy for both of these evils, though not one of my choosing: first for my lechery by depriving me of those organs with which I practiced it, then for the pride which had grown in me through my learning…by the burning of the book of which I was so proud.
Abelard describes the growing love and lust between Heloise and himself in a manner very frank and open.
We were united, first under one roof, then in the heart; and so with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than our 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…In short, our desires left no stage of love-making untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more eagerly for our previous inexperience, and were the less easily sated.
Immediately after his castration, Abelard writes of the thoughts that tormented his mind:
All sorts of thoughts filled my mind — how brightly my reputation had shone, and now how easily in an evil moment it had been dimmed or rather completely blotted out; how just a judgement of God had struck me in the parts of the body with which I had sinned, and how just a reprisal had been taken by the very man I had myself betrayed. I thought how my rivals would exalt over my fitting punishment, how this bitter blow would bring lasting grief and misery to my friends and parents, and how fast the news of this unheard-of disgrace would spread over the whole world.
It is easy to get a sense of Abelard’s thought process and teaching style when he discusses why he wrote On the Unity and Trinity of God, a treatise which got him in some trouble with others in the church. He says it was written…
for the use of my students who were asking for human and logical reasons on this subject, and demanded something intelligible rather than mere words. In fact they said that words were useless if the intelligence could not follow them, that nothing could be believed unless it was first understood, and that it was absurd for anyone to preach to others what neither he nor those he taught could grasp with the understanding…
Abelard spends much time contemplating vice and how to prevent it from entering the soul. There is much wisdom in his writing, as you can see here:
The senses are like windows through which vices gain entry into the soul. The capital and citadel of the spirit cannot be taken except by a hostile army entering through the gates…the liberty of his soul is captured through the window of the eye, and the word of the prophet is fulfilled: ‘Death has climbed in through our windows.’ So when the marshaled forces of distraction have marched through these gates into the citadel of the soul, where will its liberty be and its fortitude. Where will be its thoughts of God? Especially when sensibility pictures for itself pleasures of the past and by recalling its vices compels the soul to take part in them and, as it were, to practice what it does not actually do.…no good comes from looking often on what may one day seduce you, and in exposing yourself to the temptation of what you find it difficult to do without.
It is the writing of Historia Calamitatum that prompted Heloise to write a letter to Abelard, their first contact in years. The letter is mesmerizing in its emotion, passion and reaching out for kindness; Heloise still being devoted after all the years of separation, after all the pain caused by Abelard’s seduction and their subsequent affair. She shows much compassion for the problems Abelard has faced, though also chides him for his years of silence to her.
It is always some consolation in sorrow to feel that it is shared, and any burden laid on several is carried more lightly or removed…. Letters from absent friends are welcome indeed….I was not a little surprised and troubled by your forgetfulness, when nether reverence for God nor our mutual love nor the example of the holy Fathers made you think of trying t0 comfort me, wavering and exhausted as I was be prolonged grief, either by word when I was with you or by letter when we had parted….
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; you are the sole cause of my sorrow, and you alone can grant me the grace of consolation. You alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort; you alone have so great a debt to repay me, particularly now when I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that when I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself…I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and my will alike.
It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it is done. What my intention towards you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge.
She asks him point blank, and surmises, what she fears.
Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence? Tell me, I say, if you can — or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it.
In subsequent letters, she continues to encourage Abélard in his philosophical work, and he in turn dedicates his profession of faith to her. However, as will be shown in examples below, he also tells her that he never truly loved her. He claims that he only lusted after her, telling her that their relationship was a sin against God. He continually tells Heloise to focus her love on Jesus Christ, and to focus her energies and love on her religious vocation.
In her next letter to Abelard, the grief Heloise has suffered becomes painfully clear.
A heart which is exhausted with grief cannot find peace, nor can a mind preoccupied with anxieties genuinely devote itself to God…But if I lose you, what is left for me to hope for? What reason for continuing 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? O God –if I dare say it–cruel to me in everything! O merciless mercy! O fortune who is only ill-fortune, who has already spent on me so many of the shafts she uses in her battle against mankind that she has none left with which to vent her anger on others.
Heloise discusses how easy it is to seem to others pure, but she admits her own struggles continue, especially when one realizes that “virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul.”
It is easy enough for anyone to confess his sins, to accuse himself, or even to mortify his body in outward show of penance, but it is very difficult to tear the heart away from hankering after its dearest pleasures….In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet–they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts.
In the fourth letter, Abelard addresses many of Heloise’s complaints, including once more expressing his belief that their problems were really blessings.
…you presume to blame God for the manner of our entry into religion instead of wishing to glorify him as you justly should. I had thought that this bitterness of heart as what was so clear an act of divine mercy had long since disappeared.
He recounts their sins of passion together in some detail, then telling her:
…if you would allow consideration of our advantage to be an element in divine justice, you would be able to call what God did to us then an act not of justice, but of grace….Think and think again of the great perils in which we were and from which the Lord rescued us; tell always with the deepest gratitude how much the Lord has done for our souls..Consider the magnanimous design of God’s mercy for us, the compassion with which the Lord directed his judgement towards our chastisement, the wisdom whereby he made use of evil itself and mercifully set aside our impiety, so that by a wholly justified wound in a single part of my body he might heal two souls.
Abelard finally responds to Heloise’s question on his love for her by deflecting it to God.
It is he (God) who truly loved you, not I. My love, which brought us both to sin, should be called lust, not love. I took my fill of my wretched pleasures in you, and this was the sum total of my love….to him, I beseech you, not to me, should be directed all your devotion, all your compassion, all your remorse.
In reading the letters, Heloise comes across to me as nearly a saint. Her patience is never-ending, her devotion and love a constant, her intelligence and selflessness unbounded. Abelard comes across primarily as a somewhat cold intellect and scholar. He often seems egotistical, uncaring, cold and selfish, completely undeserving of Heloise. However, further letters and deeper contemplation of the reader shows that Abelard has truly converted to an extremely deep belief in the theology of the Church and a love for Christ that supersedes human love. His intent is not cruel at all, but to share with Heloise the love and grace he has found through his devotion to the Trinity.
I must provide you a few other bits of wisdom that sprang from their various letters that did not fit above. Mainly, these nuggets of wisdom are just further proof of the deep intellect of their minds.
Abelard: There is no wider distinction between true friends and false than the fact that the former share adversity, the latter only prosperity.
Heloise: …a man becomes guilty by breaking any one of the law’s commandments, for the Lord himself who laid down one also laid down the other, and whatever commandment of the law is violated, it shows disregard of him who laid down the law in all its commandments, not in one alone.
Heloise: And since discretion is the mother of all virtues and reason the mediator of all that is good, who will judge anything virtuous or good which is seen to conflict with discretion and reason.
The letters between Abelard and Heloise have rightly earned an important place in the Western Canon.
About the Edition
The edition itself is nicely done by Folio Society. It was published in 1977. The tough cloth binding has a nice pattern of gold stamped on the front cover, as well as the title being done in a similar fashion on the spine. The illustrations are wood-engravings done by Raymond Hawthorn. These are very nicely done and complement the book well, one at each chapter heading. The introduction by Betty Radice provides an excellent introduction and overview of the affair, as well as of Abelard and Heloise themselves. Radice also did the translation, which certainly reads well. The front and end pages contain a nicely done map of the Kingdom of France in the time of Abelard.
- Printed and Bound in Great Britain by W&J Mackay Limited
- Set in 12 point Bembo Type leaded I point with Romulus Open for display
- Guard Bridge Fine Book Wove Paper
- Scholco Halflinnen Cloth blocked with a design by Sally-Lou Smith
(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)