233. The Personal Letters of Abelard and Heloise (c. 1132)

Abelard and Heloise are renowned in history as tragic lovers, but again I must confess complete ignorance of their story before reading this.

Peter Abelard was a rather self-opinionated and arrogant young philosopher who clashed and defeated his teachers in philosophical arguments, setting up his own schools and attracting many students away from his rivals. He seduced Heloise, the niece of Canon Fulbert while employed as her tutor, and encouraged her into marriage despite her misgivings that this move would hurt his career. Hiding her away in a convent in fear of Fulbert’s revenge, Abelard was attacked and castrated by Fulbert’s henchmen.

With Abelard unable to continue a full marriage, he becomes a monk, and insists that Heloise enter a convent, and that they both devote themselves to separate lives in service of the Church. While Abelard sees his misfortune as God’s punishment for his lustful actions, Heloise still has her natural desires but must continue in her new religious devotions, not having chosen that life and still desperately in love with Abelard.

Abelard’s misfortunes continue as he is put in charge of a abbey of dissolute monks to bring them back in line, but he is understandably unpopular in his attempts and believes they intend to murder him. Abelard and Heloise begin to correspond again in letters over a decade later when Heloise (now prioress) and her sisters are thrown out of their convent, and Abelard is instrumental in finding them a new home. After this their correspondence becomes more pedestrian as she accepts her situation, and the remaining letters are written to seek and give advice on writing a set of rules for nuns to live by,  similar to St Benedict’s rules for monks.

Source :   The Penguin Black Classic translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 0140442979)

Thoughts : The personal correspondence between the two lovers shows clearly the divide between Abelard’s religious (almost fanatical) acceptance of his misfortunes and celibacy, and Heloise’s natural yearnings. I must admit I felt far more sympathetic for Heloise’s plight, despite the violence and misery Abelard has suffered. Her letters to Abelard rebuking him for ignoring her are heart wrenching, while I found Abelard’s holy acceptance and preaching back at her cold, distant and selfish.

Favourites scenes/quotes:

Both these quotes are from Heloise’s first letter to Abelard,

“God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage, and conferred all the Earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore”  (page 114)

“Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. 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”   (page 115)

Personal rating:  4/10

In the years 1120-1140:

from the Book of Key Facts (Paddington Press, 1978)

  • Venice is becoming an important centre for trade, warring with Byzantium over trading concessions (1122) and extending its trading rights to Tyre (1123)
  • King Henry I of England dies 1135, but his nephew Stephen seizes the throne over Henry’s daughter Matilda, who is married to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, throwing England into a lengthy civil war (1139-1153)
  • A series of popes and antipopes are elected due to the clash between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor, starting with Pope Innocent II supported by powerful Bernard of Clairvaux. (We will be playing six degrees of medieval separation soon with Bernard reappearing)

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