A Medieval Love Story

True-Life Romance in the 12th-Century

Heloise
Image of Heloise from World Noted Women. Public Domain

He was a brilliant scholar at the University of Paris, charismatic, engaging, and handsome. He drew students like moths to his flame, challenging his masters as well as his peers with scintillating displays of logic. His seemingly unshakable core of self-confidence was justified by his talents for dialectic, teaching, and poetry. His name was Pierre Abelard.

She was a rare apparition in the cloister of the Paris cathedral: a young woman, still in her teens, pursuing philosophical studies with no evident desire to take the veil.

 Though undoubtedly lovely, she was renowned more for her keen mind and her thirst for knowledge than for her beauty. Her name was Heloise.

That two such extraordinary individuals in the same academic world should find one another seems inevitable. That their eloquent expressions of love should have survived for us in their own words is a rare gift of history.

That tragedy should await them makes their story all the more poignant.1

The Pursuit of Love

While Abelard surely caught sight of Heloise at some time in the busy academic scene of Paris, there were no social occasions on which they were likely to meet. He was occupied with his studies and university life; she was under the protection of her Uncle Fulbert, a canon at the cathedral. Both turned away from frivolous social pastimes in favor of a happy absorption with philosophy, theology, and literature.

But Abelard, having reached his thirties without ever knowing the joys of romantic or physical love, had decided he wanted such an experience.

He approached this course with his usual logic:

It was this young girl whom I, after carefully considering all those qualities which are wont to attract lovers, determined to unite with myself in the bonds of love... 2

Canon Fulbert was known to care deeply for his niece; he recognized her academic ability and wanted the best education that could be provided for her.

This was Abelard's route into his house and confidence. Claiming the upkeep of a home of his own was too expensive and interfered with his studies, the scholar sought to board with Fulbert in exchange for a small fee and, more significantly, for providing instruction to Heloise. Such was Abelard's reputation -- not only as a brilliant teacher but as a trustworthy individual -- that Fulbert eagerly welcomed him into his home and entrusted him with the education and care of his niece.

I should not have been more smitten with wonder if he had entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf...

Learning of Love

We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it.

There is no way to know what entreaties or wiles Abelard used to seduce his student. Heloise may very well have loved him from the moment they met. The force of his personality, his razor-sharp mind, and his handsome demeanor undoubtedly resulted in an irresistible combination for a young woman. Not yet twenty, she had no hint of how she and her uncle had been manipulated, and she was at just the right age to see Abelard's presence in her life as ordained by Fate -- or by God.

Moreover, rarely have two lovers been so suited to each other as Abelard and Heloise. Both attractive, both extremely intelligent, both enraptured with the arts of learning, they shared an intellectual energy that few couples of any age -- or era -- have been fortunate enough to know. Yet in these early days of intense desire, learning was secondary.

Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words.

However base Abelard's original intentions had been, he was soon overwhelmed by his feelings for Heloise. Finding his once-beloved studies burdensome, his energy for learning flagged, he delivered uninspired lectures, and his poems now focused on love.

It wasn't long before his students deduced what had come over him, and rumors swept Paris of the heated affair.

Only Canon Fulbert seemed unaware of the romance that was taking place under his own roof. His ignorance was fostered by his trust in the niece he loved and the scholar he admired. Whispers may have reached his ears, but if so they did not reach his heart.

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!

How it happened is not entirely clear, but it's reasonable to assume that Fulbert walked in on his niece and his boarder in an extremely private moment. He had ignored the rumors and believed in their good conduct; perhaps it was a direct confrontation with the truth that so drastically affected him. Now, the extent of his fury at the very least matched the extent of the trust he had placed in them both.

But physically separating the couple did not quench the flame of their love for one another; on the contrary:

The very sundering of our bodies served but to link our souls closer together; the plentitude of the love which was denied to us inflamed us more than ever.

And not long after they were parted, Heloise got a message to Abelard: she was pregnant. At the next opportunity, when Fulbert was away from home, the couple fled to Abelard's family, where Heloise was to remain until their son was born. Her lover returned to Paris, but fear or awkwardness kept him from attempting to heal the breach with her uncle for several months.

The solution seems simple to us now, and would have been simple to most young couples then: marriage. But, although it was not unknown for scholars at the university to wed, a wife and family could be a serious impediment to an academic career. Universities were relatively new systems that had sprung from Cathedral schools, and the one at Paris was renowned for its theological teachings. The brightest prospects that awaited Abelard resided in the Church; he would be forfeiting the highest possible career by taking a bride.

Though he never admits such thoughts kept him from proposing marriage, that they were included among his considerations seem clear when he describes his offer to Fulbert:

... in order to make amends even beyond his extremest hope, I offered to marry her whom I had seduced, provided only the thing could be kept secret, so that I might suffer no loss of reputation thereby. To this he gladly assented...

But Heloise was another matter.

Love Protests

That a young woman in love should balk at marrying the father of her child may seem perplexing, but Heloise had compelling reasons. She was well aware of the opportunities Abelard would be passing up if he tied himself to a family. She argued for his career; she argued for his studies; she argued that such a measure would not truly appease her uncle. She even argued for honor:

... it would be far sweeter for her to be called my mistress than to be known as my wife; nay, too, that this would be more honourable for me as well. In such case, she said, love alone would hold me to her, and the strength of the marriage chain would not constrain us.

But her lover would not be dissuaded. Shortly after their son Astrolabe was born, they left him in the care of Abelard's family and returned to Paris to be married secretly, with Fulbert among the few witnesses. They parted immediately thereafter, seeing each other only in rare private moments, in order to maintain the fiction that they were no longer involved.

Love Denied

Heloise had been correct when she had argued that her uncle would not be satisfied by a secret marriage. Though he had promised his discretion, his damaged pride would not let him keep quiet about events. The injury had been a public one; its reparation should also be public. He let word of the couple's union get about.

When his niece denied the marriage, he beat her.

To keep Heloise safe, her husband spirited her away to the convent at Argenteuil, where she had been educated as a child. This alone may have been enough to keep her from her uncle's wrath, but Abelard went one step further: he asked that she wear the vestments of the nuns, except for the veil that indicated the taking of vows. This turned out to be a grave error.

When her uncle and his kinsmen heard of this, they were convinced that now I had completely played them false and had rid myself forever of Heloise by forcing her to become a nun.

Fulbert became incensed, and prepared to take his revenge.

It happened in the early morning hours when the scholar lay sleeping, unawares. Two of his servants accepted bribes to let attackers into his home. The punishment they visited upon their enemy was as horrifying and shameful as it was excruciating:

... for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.

By morning, it seemed all of Paris had congregated to hear the news. Two of Abelard's attackers were apprehended and made to suffer a similar fate, but no reparation could restore to the scholar what he had lost. The brilliant philosopher, poet, and teacher who had begun to be renowned for his talents now had fame of an altogether different sort thrust upon him.

How could I ever again hold up my head among men, when every finger should be pointed at me in scorn, every tongue speak my blistering shame, and when I should be a monstrous spectacle to all eyes?

Though he had never considered becoming a monk, Abelard turned to the cloister now. A life of seclusion, devoted to God, was the only alternative his pride would allow him. He turned to the Dominican order and entered the abbey of St. Denis.

But before he did so, he convinced his wife to take the veil. Her friends entreated her to consider ending her marriage and returning to the outside world: after all, he could no longer be her husband in the physical sense, and an annulment would have been relatively easy to obtain. She was still quite young, still beautiful, and as brilliant as ever; the secular world offered a future the convent could never match.

But Heloise did as Abelard bid her -- not for any love of convent life, or even for love of God, but for love of Abelard.

Love Endures

It would be difficult to imagine that their love for one another could survive separation and Abelard's tragic injury. In fact, having seen to his wife's entry into the convent, the philosopher appears to have placed the entire affair behind him and devoted himself to writing and teaching. For Abelard, and indeed for all who studied philosophy in his time, the love story was but a sideline to his career, the impetus that triggered a change in his focus from logic to theology.

But for Heloise, the affair was a seminal event in her life, and Pierre Abelard was forever in her thoughts.

The philosopher did continue to care for his wife and see to her security. When Argenteuil was overtaken by one of his many rivals and Heloise, now the prioress, was turned out with the other nuns, Abelard arranged for the displaced women to occupy the abbey of the Paraclete, which he had established. And after some time had passed, and wounds both physical and emotional had begun to heal, they resumed a relationship, albeit far different than the one they had known in the secular world.

For her part, Heloise would not let herself or her feelings for Abelard be overlooked. She was ever open and honest about her enduring love for the man who could no longer be her husband. She pestered him for hymns, sermons, guidance, and a rule for her order, and in so doing kept him active in the work of the abbey -- and kept her own presence constant in his mind.

As for Abelard, he had the support and encouragement of one of the most brilliant women of his times to help him navigate the treacherous course of 12th-century theological politics. His talents for logic, his continued interest in secular philosophy, and his absolute confidence in his own interpretation of Scripture had not won him friends in the Church, and his entire career was marked by controversy with other theologians. It was Heloise, one might argue, who helped him come to terms with his own spiritual outlook; and it was Heloise to whom he addressed his significant profession of faith, which begins:

Heloise, my sister, once so dear to me in the world, today even dearer to me in Jesus Christ...3

Though their bodies could no longer be united, their souls continued to share an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey.

Upon his death Heloise had Abelard's body brought to the Paraclete, where she was later buried beside him. They lie together still, in what could only be the end of a medieval love story.

Your letter written to a friend for his comfort, beloved, was lately brought to me by chance. Seeing at once from the title that it was yours, I began the more ardently to read it in that the writer was so dear to me, that I might at least be refreshed by his words as by a picture of him whose presence I have lost...4

The story of Abelard and Heloise might have been lost to future generations were it not for the letters that survived them. The course of events that their romance followed was described unstintingly in a letter Abelard wrote, known to us as the Historia Calamitatum, or "the Story of My Misfortunes." His intent in writing the letter was ostensibly to console his friend by telling him, essentially, "You think you've got problems? Listen to this..."

The Historia Calamitatum was widely circulated and copied, as letters sometimes were in those days. There is a school of thought that Abelard had an ulterior motive in its composition: to call attention to himself and keep his work and his genius from slipping into oblivion. If that was indeed the case, the philosopher, though still confident in his abilities to the point of arrogance, showed a remarkably brutal honesty and a willingness to accept responsibility for the disastrous results brought on by his vanity and pride.

Whatever his motives for writing the letter, a copy eventually fell into Heloise's hands. It was at this point that she took the opportunity to contact Abelard directly, and an extensive correspondence ensued from which the nature of their later relationship can be gleaned.

The authenticity of the letters supposedly written by Heloise has been called into question. For more on this matter, see the Mediev-l Discussion of Heloise's Letters to Abelard, collected from the Mediev-l mailing list and presented online by Paul Halsall at the Medieval Sourcebook. For books examining their authenticity, see Sources and Suggested Reading, below.

Notes

Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in February of 2000, and was updated in February of 2007.Notes

1 As with most names from the Middle Ages, you will find both "Abelard" and "Heloise" rendered in a variety of ways, including, but by no means limited to: Abélard, Abeillard, Abailard, Abaelardus, Abelardus; Héloise, Hélose, Heloisa, Helouisa. The forms used in this feature were chosen for their recognizability and their ease of presentation within the limits of HTML.

2 The excerpted material on these pages is all from Abelard's Historia Calamitatum unless otherwise noted.

3 From Abelard's Apologia.

4 From Heloise's first letter.

Additional Resources

Abelard's autobiography is online here at the Medieval History site:

Historia Calamitatum, or, The Story of My Misfortunes
by Peter Abelard
Translated by Henry Adams Bellows, with an introduction by Ralph Adams Cram. Presented in fifteen chapters, an introduction, a foreword and an appendix.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.


translated by Betty Radice
A Penguin classics collection of their correspondence.


by Etienne Gilson
Literate analysis of the letters of Abelard and Heloise focuses on individual topics and themes rather than a chronological presentation.


by John Marenbon
A re-examination of Abelard's work as a logician and theologian.


by Marion Meade
This fictionalized account is well-written and fairly accurate, and has been made into a well-received film.
 

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Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in February of 2000, and was updated in February of 2007.