Abelard and Heloise

The Legacy of Historic Lovers

Abelard
Abelard.

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 lost you."

Who Were Abelard and Heloise?

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century, though his teachings were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. Among his works is "Sic et Non," a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions.

Heloise (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert. She was well-educated by her uncle in Paris. Abelard later writes in his autobiographical "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."

Abelard and Heloise's Complicated Relationship

Heloise was one of the most well-educated women of her time, as well as a great beauty. Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach Heloise.

Using the pretext that his own house was a "handicap" to his studies, Abelard moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle. Soon enough, despite their age difference, Abelard and Heloise became lovers.

But when Fulbert discovered their love, he separated them. 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!"

Their separation didn't end the affair, and they soon discovered Heloise was pregnant. She left her uncle's house when he was not at home, and she stayed with Abelard's sister until Astrolabe was born.

Abelard asked for Fulbert's forgiveness and permission to secretly marry Heloise, to protect his career. Fulbert agreed, but Abelard struggled to persuade Heloise to marry him under such conditions. 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!"

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 of prophecy."

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.

Fulbert responded by ordering men to castrate him. Abelard wrote about the attack:

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.

The Legacy of Abelard and Heloise

Following the castration, Abelard became a monk and persuaded Heloise to become a nun, which she didn't want to do. They began to correspond, leaving what are known as the four "Personal Letters" and the three "Letters of Direction."

The legacy of those letters remains a great topic of discussion among literary scholars.

While the two write of their love for each other, their relationship is decidedly complicated. Furthermore, Heloise writes of her dislike of marriage, going so far as to call it prostitution. Many academics refer to her writings as one of the earliest contributions to feminist philosophies.