Heloise, seduced and abandoned by her teacher, Peter Abelard, is one of the most famous (and forgiving) tragic heroines of all time.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Among his works is “Sic et Non,” a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions. His teachings were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. Even with the controversy that surrounded him at times, nothing probably prepared him for the consequences of his love affair with Heloise, a relationship destined to change his life in dramatic ways.
Heloise (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert of Paris and a brilliant student. Abelard later writes in his “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.”
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 further moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle. She was supposedly a great beauty, one of the most well-educated women of her time; so, perhaps it’s not surprising that Abelard and she became lovers. Also, she was more than 20 years younger than Abelard… And, of course, Fulbert discovered their love, 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!”
They were separated, but that didn’t end the affair. Instead, they discovered that Heloise was pregnant. She left her uncle’s house when he was not at home; and she stayed with Abelard’s sister until their son Astrolabe was born.
Abelard asked for Fulbert’s forgiveness, and permission to marry Heloise; then with Fulbert’s assent, Abelard tried to persuade Heloise to marry him. 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 believed that Abelard had cast her off, forcing her to become a nun.
“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.” After his castration, Abelard became a monk.
At the convent in Argenteuil, Heloise took the habit and eventually became prioress. She and the other nuns were turned out when the convent was taken over by the abbey at which Abelard had first taken his monastic vows. At this point Abelard arranged for them to enter the Oratory of the Paraclete, an abbey he had established, where Héloïse became abbess.
About this time, correspondence began between the two former lovers. In letters which followed, Heloise expressed dismay at problems Abelard faced, but scolded him for years of silence following the attack upon him, since they were still married.
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.”
Ultimately, after telling Heloise of instances where he had abused her and forced sex, Abelard insisted he had never truly loved her, but only lusted after her, and their relationship was a sin against God. He then recommended her to consecrate herself fully from then on to her religious vocation.
Some scholars insist Abelard was attempting to spare her feelings (or his feelings, altered from disrupted hormones) and others point to the damage of his hormones and psyche, but from this point on, their correspondence focused on professional subjects rather than their romantic history.
Heloise never wavered in her devotion to Abelard, and their tragic love story is a testament to her unconditional love.
- Star Crossed Lovers Week: Listen to the Letters of Abelard and Heloise (andreacefalo.com)
- My Top Five (smpauthors.wordpress.com)