Star-Crossed Lovers Week: Abelard and Heloise

Abelard and Heloise: The Twelfth Century’s Romeo and Juliet

Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abelard was one of the most respected, yet controversial philosophers and teachers of his time.  Though born of minor nobility, he gave up his rights as the eldest son to become a scholar, a career he was well-suited for.  While being taught at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris, Abelard defeated his teacher in argument, overhauling philosophical theory of the time.  By 1115, Abelard was no longer the student of philosophy and religion; he was the teacher, taking the chair at Notre Dame.  It is said that thousands from all over Europe came to hear him speak.

Abelard seemed to thrive on controversy and challenge.  Having quickly conquered the intellectual world, he became bored and upon meeting the seventeen year old Heloise, Abelard discovered a new conquest.

Heloise resided in Notre Dame under the care of her uncle, a secular cannon named Fulbert.  It was there that Abelard deliberately sought out and seduced Heloise.  Abelard grew careless and boasted of the affair, even allowing the songs he composed of her to be sung in public.  Fulbert acknowledged the affair and tried unsuccessfully to separate the lovers, but this only made them more desperate and clumsy.  The two were eventually caught in bed together.

Abaelardus and Heloïse in a manuscript of the ...

Abaelardus and Heloïse in a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (14th century) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Soon Heloise became pregnant, and Abelard sent her away to Brittany to have their son.  Abelard offered to marry Heloise in secret in order to appease Fulbert, but Heloise declined the offer.  Heloise and Abelard held a negative view of marriage, seeing it as a permitting of fleshly sins, no better than prostitution.  They both viewed scholars, such as Abelard, as men who should be beyond earthly desires.  Abelard would have sacrificed his career to keep Heloise, but she insisted on being his mistress, preferring ‘love to wedlock and freedom to chains’.  Eventually Abelard sent Heloise to a nearby convent in order to avoid confrontation with Fulbert.  Abelard still visited Heloise, and the two often snuck off to the refectory for lovemaking.   Enraged at the treatment of his niece, Fulbert ordered servants to break into Abelard’s room by night and castrate him on the spot.  Abelard ran off to St. Denis Abbey and resumed teaching before his wound healed, and Heloise took her vows.

In the nine years following, Heloise raised herself to prioress.   Her love for Abelard never ceased, and her love for God never blossomed.  Abelard, lacking physical urges and finding value in his teachings, felt quite the opposite of his former lover.  Heloise heard nothing from Abelard for over a decade.  It was through a third-party that Heloise received a letter in which, Abelard shared fears for his safety while in St. Gildas.  Heloise’s first letter to Abelard shows worry for Abelard’s safety but also reveals her pain.   Abelard had not only ignored her for over ten years, he never fully recognizing the sacrifices she made for his success.  Heloise accused Abelard of never loving, but only lusting after her, a fact which he later acknowledged.

Article written by Andrea Cefalo, author of The Fairytale Keeper: a novel of corruption, devotion, and the origins of Grimm’s fairytales.  To follow Andrea Cefalo and hear more about The Fairytale Keeper series, please visit:

Source:  Héloïse, and Peter Abelard. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. Print.

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