February 20, 2018

Heloise and Abelard

On this day in 1164 Heloise was buried alongside Abelard in the cemetery at Le Paraclet, the nunnery which he had founded for her, and at which she was abbess for over thirty years. The story of their love has been told or distorted in every possible genre, and appropriated to every end -- such as the 1993 self-help book Impossible Love, in which Abelard and Heloise become the ur-text for "LOVERS WHO DID IT WRONG AND LIVED TO TELL THEIR TALE." Still, the original source material, of which there now seems to be significantly more, remains compelling reading.

The Heloise and Abelard relationship was a legend in their own lifetimes, and those who turned it out as either a tale of inspiration or forewarning built upon facts chronicled by Abelard himself. When hired to tutor the brilliant, twenty year-old Heloise, Abelard was a renowned logician and theological philosopher, and a middle-aged celibate. Overcome by love, he contrived to live in her guardian uncle's household, where "Our hands sought less the book than each other's bosoms"; she became pregnant and gave birth (viewing their union as celestial, she named the boy "Astrolabe"). They married in an attempt to appease the uncle, and kept it secret in an attempt to protect his reputation. When neither the uncle nor the reputation seemed to cooperate, Abelard had Heloise removed to a convent; in revenge, or believing that Abelard was reneging on his vows, the uncle had him castrated. Abelard retired to a monastery, and Heloise, at his insistence, became a nun.

These events took place over a year; twelve years later, Heloise read Abelard's published description of them, and wrote to him. Her letters show her grateful for his provision of Le Paraclet, and still in love: "God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor 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." They also show her to still have a few issues:
    Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence?' Tell me, I say, if you can -or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love.
In asking for some display of kindness, or love, or backbone, Heloise points out that "When in the past you sought me out for sinful pleasures your letters came to me thick and fast, and your many songs put your Heloise on everyone's lips, so that every street and house echoed with my name." Recently, one medieval scholar has identified a neglected 15th century manuscript as being a compilation of these letters, some 100 exchanged between them while still lovers (The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, Constant J. Mews, 1999).

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