Abelard and Heloïse

I wasn’t going to read the letters of Abelard and Heloïse originally, because I was going to stick to fictional letters. But then I came across Forbidden Love: from the letters of Abelard and Heloïse, an installment of the Penguin Great Loves series. I sort of hate reading excerpts from things but I am a sucker for a cute & small book. And this one surprised me; these are good letters, and a good story, and not that I can actually know, but seem like a good selection.

The first letter here is Abelard’s account of his whole ordeal to a male friend. The academic and monastic infighting read like a soap opera, and that’s without even getting into the whole illicit affair followed by shotgun wedding followed by religious vows followed by castration business. People were doing some really crazy stuff in the 12th century.

Amusingly, one of the reasons Abelard liked Heloïse, or so he says, was because she’d be able to write him (dirty) letters:

Knowing the girl’s knowledge and love of letters I thought she would be all the more ready to consent, and that even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages in which we could write many things more audaciously than we could say them, and so need never lack the pleasures of conversation.

The ability to “enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages” is a common element in epistolary literature, unsurprisingly. The letter can be seen as a substitute for its writer (to its reader) and for its reader (to its writer). Heloïse knows this and exhorts Abelard to write to her, for comfort:

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 everyone suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it is everyone’s. There is nothing personal or private about it, it is the general view which is widely held. I only wish that it were mine alone, and that the love you professed could find someone to defend it and so comfort me in my grief for a while. I wish I could think of some explanation which would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you hold me cheap.

I beg you then to listen to what I ask—you will see that it is a small favour which you can easily grant. While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words—of which you have enough and to spare—some sweet semblance of yourself. It is no use my hoping for generosity in deeds if you are grudging in words.

It’s sort of amazing what a complicated—and modern—emotional relationship underlies this, and how much it comes through in a relatively formal level. Why don’t you write? Because you never really loved me—everyone is saying it. And the constant nagging about how it’s all his fault she’s entered a convent (“your old perpetual complaint against God concerning the manner of our entry into religious life and the cruelty of the act of treachery performed on me”). When Abelard replies to her entreaty with a cold religious letter asking her to pray for him, she really lets loose:

Of all wretched women I am the most wretched, and amongst the unhappy I am unhappiest. The higher I was exalted when you preferred me to all other women, the greater my suffering over my own fall and yours, when equally I was flung down; for the higher the ascent, the heavier the fall.

I love Heloïse; she’s got some spirit. Nothing, of course, like Pamela. “The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend [amica], or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.” “Men call me chaste; they do not know the hypocrite I am. They consider purity of the flesh a virtue, though virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul.” Not like Abelard, either—“How mercifully did he want me to suffer so much only in that member, the privation of which would also further the salvation of my soul without defiling my body nor preventing any performance of my duties!”

Abelard’s duties are kind of a riot. He’s made such enemies of the monks he must live among that he lives in perpetual fear of being poisoned. He really seems like a character. “Without defiling my body”!

Also, how cool is it that the couple named their child Astrolabe?

3 comments to Abelard and Heloïse

  • Very interesting – I have this Penguin version too and do mean to get to it. I’d also recommend another book, Heloise and Abelard by James Burge, in which he searches out the real people behind the letters. It’s a story that is just endlessly fascinating.

  • The letters are certainly some of the most interesting to come out of the High Middle Ages. They give us fascinating insights into so many aspects of Western European life at that time. While my article titled “Love and Redemption” has more of a theological purpose, I spend a good deal of it retelling the story of Abélard and Héloïse.

  • Ooh, I have this book as well so might have time to read it this summer, especially since it is so short.

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