Heloise & Abelard

Heloise & Abelard

The French poet Lamartine said that one does not tell the 12th century story of Heloise and Abelard, one sings it. It is a story of passion, revenge, steadfastness, and deep spirituality. Our knowledge of this very private love affair between a monk and a nun is based on their correspondence after many years of silence, triggered when Peter Abelard wrote a letter to console a troubled friend, telling the friend of his own calamitous life. Your problems, he claimed, are nothing compared with what I have suffered, yet God can turn the worst situations to serve His own good. By chance, Heloise saw what Abelard had written, and in the letter extracted here, asked why he did not write to console her as well. The story was hers too, and he had not told it as it really was.

Peter Abelard was born in 1079 in Brittany. Determined to study philosophy, he became a wandering scholar, seeking out teachers wherever he went. Sharp, self-confident, bristling with new ideas and methods, he soon clashed with the teachers he met and began to give classes of his own. Wherever he went, students crowded around to learn from him. In 1115, at the age of 36, his achievements were recognized when he was appointed Master at the great school of Notre Dame in Paris.

One of the canons of Notre Dame cathedral, Fulbert, had an attractive teenage niece named Heloise. She was an orphan who lived in his care and Fulbert took great pride in her. Because she was highly intelligent, he made a bargain with the new scholar of philosophy. Abelard could live at their house in exchange for giving Heloise private lessons. It was Abelard wrote,

“giving a newborn lamb into the care of a hungry wolf.”

For Abelard, a cleric in minor orders, the young Heloise was irresistible. In spite of his moral scruples and religious vows, he seduced her and soon became obsessed with Heloise. Neglecting his studies of philosophy, he turned poet, and the songs that he wrote for her were sung throughout the streets of Paris. Heloise, in turn, abandoned herself to her growing love for her tutor, Abelard.

In 1118 she gave birth to a baby boy. Her uncle Fulbert was enraged, and in an effort to atone, Abelard said that he would marry Heloise–providing that it could be kept secret so as not to damage his career. It was not impossible for teachers of philosophy to marry, but it was unusual. Fulbert agreed to the arrangement, but Heloise would have nothing to do with it. She did not want Abelard to take on the burdens of marriage or to distract himself from study. Heloise was willing to make the sacrifice of loneliness and social disgrace for the sake of love, but Abelard insisted they marry. Eventually they were married in secret. Abelard went on teaching, and Heloise stayed at home with her uncle, who, in his anger, told people what had really happened. To save Heloise from further embarrassment, Abelard took her to the community of nuns at the convent at Argenteuil, outside Paris. Fulbert, thinking that Abelard was trying to abandon responsibility for his niece, looked for revenge by hiring some thugs to assault the young scholar. They brutally castrated him. Shamed and unable to face the world, Abelard sought refuge in the monastery of St. Denis.

The lovers, now monk and nun, began to reconstruct their separate lives. Heloise made her way toward becoming an abbess. Abelard resumed both teaching and writing, and proved as brilliant and controversial as ever. Two years later he founded his own religious community, the Paraclete–the Comforter–near Troyes, and began to teach there. Then, in 1125 he was elected abbot of a remote, unruly monastery in his native Brittany, and left the order he had founded. Five years later, he gave the convent of the Paraclete to Heloise and her community. It was soon after this, when his life was endangered by scheming Breton monks, that he wrote to console a troubled friend, reliving events from 16 years before. Seducing Heloise had brought disaster on the lovers, he explained, but out of disaster, God had brought a greater good. They both loved God and had been reconciled to following his will.

When Heloise, entirely by chance, saw his account of their life together–it is not known how it came into her hands–she wrote to Abelard. Perhaps he had willingly embraced a life of penance, she told him, but she had not. Her passionate desires remained painfully unabated. She felt that consolation could come only from Abelard, not from God. She explained in her letter,

“I have as yet done nothing for Him. I should certainly groan about what I have done, but I sigh rather over what I have lost.”

In the same letter, she asked Abelard how she could ever learn to be satisfied with the religious life of a nun. Once more Abelard reviewed their past. Heloise had been the greater lover. He had tried to possess her, forcing first marriage and then convent life on her. But her love, though not possessive, was nevertheless misdirected. Earthly love, he argued, pales in the light of the love of God. That was where they must find the fullness of their own love, as man and woman, abbot and abbess, husband and wife. Catastrophe, he explained to her, had saved them from a higher love:

“See then my beloved, see how with the dragnets of his mercy the Lord has fished us up from the depths of the dangerous sea.”

Was Heloise persuaded? It seems that she was at least reconciled to the inevitable. From “a grieving heart” she asked Abelard to do something that she knew would make use of his talents as a religious philosopher. She asked him to set down guidelines for herself and her nuns to live by. In considering convent life., Abelard was forced to picture Heloise’s daily existence. At least she knew that for a period of time she was always in his thoughts.

In life, they never came together again; but in death they lay together at the convent of the Paraclete, as Abelard had wished. Legend claims that when Heloise was buried in 1164, 22 years after Abelard, he reached out from the grave to embrace her.