Tag Archives: Medieval Lovers

Abelard & Heloise: 5 Lesser-Known Facts about these Medieval Lovers

When most people hear the name Peter Abelard, they think of Heloise and their affair. Some liken this romance between teacher and student to Romeo and Juliet. What began with forbidden love ended in tragedy and separation, but that is where the similarities end.  So, for a special Valentine’s Day post, I’ve found five more interesting tidbits about the Middle Age’s most famous star-crossed lovers.

Abelard Was Looking for a Mistress Before He Met Heloise

abelard and his pupil heloise by edmund blair leighton

Leighton’s Abelard and His Pupil Heloise. (1882)

Abelard didn’t step blindly into a teacher position and then fall for his pupil, Heloise.  In fact, according to Pierre Bayle’s The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Abelard admits in a letter that he had already been searching for a mistress to help him pass “agreeably those hours he did not employ in his study” and while several women had caught his attention, he was not looking for “easy pleasure.”

In a letter written years later to a man named Philintus, Abelard says, “I was ambitious in my choice, and wished to find some obstacles, that I might surmount them with the greater glory and pleasure.” This suggests some forethought on the part of Abelard when it came to an affair.

Abelard Planned to Seduce Heloise Before She was His Student

It appears that Abelard had interacted with or at least known of Heloise before he was her teacher. In the same letter written to Philintus, Abelard says a young woman in Paris caught his eye. She was indeed Heloise.

In that same letter, Abelard writes that “by the offices of common friends I gained the acquaintance of Fulbert [Heloise’s uncle and caretaker]; and can you believe it…he allowed me the privilege of his table, and an apartment in his house?” Later, Fulbert asked Abelard if he would tutor Heloise. Imagine the cannon’s excitement when one of France’s most respected scholars agreed to tutor his niece. It was during their lessons that Abelard convinced a reluctant Heloise to become his lover.

Heloise and Abelard May Have Been Kinky

abelard and heloise surprised by master fulbert jean vignaud 1819

Vignaud’s Abelard and Heloise Surprised by Master Fulbert. (1819)

Okay. This isn’t exactly a fact and it may be a stretch. Bear with me. Heloise and Abelard had sex in places that put them at high risk for getting caught. Did they do this to spice up their lovemaking? It’s possible.

Besides this, the pair may have had domination and submission fetishes. In his biography of Heloise and Abelard, James Burge claims Heloise felt wild freedom in completely surrendering to Abelard. Priya Jain, in an article for Salon magazine, suggests her submission to Abelard may have extended into their sex life. Abelard mentions physically punishing Heloise during her lessons. He also says Heloise was reluctant to have sex in a church refectory but did so after some convincing. We can only speculate whether this translates to fetish, but it seems plausible.

Some might argue that medieval women were generally submissive to men, especially their husbands and fathers. But Heloise was not your average medieval woman.

A Public Marriage Might Have Been Career-Suicide for Abelard

Statue of Abelard by Jules Cavelier 1853 Louvre

Cavelier’s Abelard. (1853)

In previous years, it was considered acceptable for lower clergy—such as a scholar attached to a Church—to have a wife or lover. But by the twelfth century, these scholars were held to the same vows of chastity as monks and priests.

This didn’t deter Abelard from his affair or even make him particularly cautious. As mentioned above, the pair had sex in places where they could have easily been caught— Fulbert’s bed chambers, a church refectory, and a convent kitchen, to name a few. Strangely, the affair did not cost Abelard his career, even though Fulbert was a well-connected canon in Paris. Sadly, it was Heloise who suffered the greatest consequence at first.

When Heloise got pregnant, she left Paris to live with Abelard’s sister in Brittany. There she gave birth to a son. Eventually, Heloise agreed to a secret marriage. This meant Heloise’s reputation remained tarnished and she had to live in a convent. Meanwhile, Abelard lived life as usual. Some historians suggest Abelard began losing interest in Heloise, which must have been devastating to the woman who gave up so much for him. Around this time, Fulbert hired a man to castrate the scholar. This not only put a quick end to the affair, it prevented any future affairs Abelard might have had. It also left him humiliated.

Heloise Was Incredibly Unconventional

Jean-Baptiste Mallet Heloise at the Abbey of Paracelt

Mallet’s Heloise at the Abbey of Paraclete.(early 19th cent.)

For the most part, women—even those of higher status—were not as well-educated as their male counterparts. Abelard mentions that most women hated learning anything beyond needlework. Yet, Fulbert recognized his niece’s intellect and chose to nurture it. After all, Fulbert convinced one of France’s greatest scholars, Abelard, to instruct Heloise in philosophy. Even Abelard was impressed with her wit and how quickly she learned. Besides this, her well-written letters, rise to prioress, and unconventional yet logical arguments all speak to her intelligence and knowledge.

Heloise’s ideas about relationships were as counterculture as her education. Though it wasn’t exactly rare to have a child out of wedlock during the Middle Ages, it certainly wasn’t ideal. Most women would have married their lover for the sake of their reputation and that of their child. When Heloise’s pregnancy was made known, Fulbert insisted on a marriage and Abelard offered. Yet Heloise—at least initially—turned down the idea. She even recruited Abelard’s sister Lucilla to help convince him that


Abelard and Heloise. Manuscript Roman de la Rose. (14th cent.)

the marriage was a bad idea. In a letter to Abelard, Heloise says, “The name of mistress instead of wife would be dearer and more honorable for me…” In another letter, she says, “Even if I could be Queen to the Emperor and have all the power and riches in the world, I’d rather be your whore.”

Not only was her refusal unconventional, it was considered gravely sinful at the time and a risk to her soul’s salvation if she did not repent. Whether she decided to repent at some time in her life, I do not know. We do know that Heloise did submit to a secret marriage not long after the birth of their son, Astrolabe.

That brings up another unusual move on Heloise’s part. She named her son after an astronomical device invented by Muslim astronomers. During the Middle Ages, parents gave their children Christian names. For certain a bastard named Abelard would have drawn a few strange looks. Sadly, not much is known about their son.

Heloise’s lifelong devotion, while not exactly counterculture, is rather strange. One would think that after years apart, Heloise might have developed feelings of resentment towards Abelard. After all, Heloise had no desire to take holy orders, but she did at Abelard’s insistence. Yet, years later the two began a correspondence again that shows her undying affection for him and when Abelard died in 1142 at the age of 63, his remains were taken to Heloise who outlived him by 20 years. She asked to be placed in the same tomb as Abelard, but it is more likely that the two were entombed near each other. Later their remains were moved. Abelard and Heloise now rest side-by-side in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Lenoir's Tomb of Abelard and Heloise. (1817) Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Lenoir’s Tomb of Abelard and Heloise. (1817) Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

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Andrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel, The Countess’ Captive, was released in 2015.  To keep up with her blog posts, upcoming novels, and musings, follow her on Facebook and Twitter or sign up for the VIP monthly newsletter.


Works Cited

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

Bayle, Pierre. “Letters of Abelard and Heloise.” Project Gutenburg. N.p., 27 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

Cavlier, Jules. Abelard. 1853. Stone Scultpure. Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Heloise.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 July 1998. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Jain, Priya. “Lust, Revenge and the Religious Right in 12th Century Paris.” Salon. N.p., 18 Dec. 2004. Web. 8 Feb. 2017.

Leighton, Edmund Blair. Abelard and his Pupil Heloise. 1882. Oil on Canvas.

Lenoir, Alexandre. Tomb of Abélard and Héloïse. 1817. Tomb. Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Luscombe, David Edward. “Peter Abelard.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Mar. 1999. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Mallet, Jean-Baptiste Mallet. Eloise at the Abbey of Paraclet. Oil on canvas
Grasse, Musée Fragonard.

Nehring, Cristina. “Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts.” Sunday Book Review. The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2005. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Vignaud, Jean. Abelard and Heloise Surprised by Master Fulbert. 1819. Oil on Canvas.


Star-Crossed Lovers Week: Heloise’s First Letter to Abelard

Heloïse imagined in a mid-19th-century engraving

Heloïse imagined in a mid-19th-century engraving (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time this letter was written, Heloise and Abelard had been parted for over a decade.  Never once had Abelard sent Heloise a letter recognizing the immense sacrifice she made for him or to check after her well-being.  Heloise’s response below comes after a letter was passed to her from a third-party in which Abelard wrote of his fears for his life at the hands of his own pupils.  After ten years of separation, Heloise worries after her lover of so long ago and writes poetically of her devotion to him and yet pain at his ignoring her.  And so while Heloise and Abelard may have been the Romeo and Juliet of their time, so may Heloise have been the Shakespeare, as well.  Below are bits and pieces of Heloise’s first letter to Abelard.

Not long ago my beloved, by chance someone brought me the letter of consolation you had sent to a friend.  I saw at once from the superscription that it was yours, and was all the more eager to read it since the writer is so dear to my heart.  I hoped for renewal of strength, at least from the writer’s words which would picture for me the reality I have lost.  But nearly every line of this letter was filled, I remember, with gall and wormwood, as it told the pitiful story of our entry into religion and the cross of unending suffering which you, my only love, continue to bear.

…You revealed the persecution you suffered from your teachers, the supreme treachery of the mutilation of your person, and then described the abominable jealousy and violent attacks of your fellow students. 

…No one, I think, could read or hear it dry-eyed; my own sorrows are renewed in the detail in which you have told it, and redoubled because you say your perils are still increasing. …We beseech you to write as often as you think fit to us who are His handmaids and yours.

…You have dealt us fresh wounds of grief as well as re-opening the old.  I beg you, then, as you set about tending the wounds which others have dealt, heal the wounds you have yourself inflicted.

…In the precarious early days of our conversion long ago I was not a little surprised and troubled by your forgetfulness, when neither reverence for God nor our mutual love nor the example of the holy Father made you think of trying to comfort me, wavering and exhausted as I was by prolonged grief, either by word when I was with you or by letter when we had parted.  Yet you must know that you are bound to me by an obligation which is all the greater for the further close tie of the marriage sacrament uniting us, and are the deeper in my debt because of the love I have always borne you, as everyone knows a love which is beyond all bounds.

Abelard and his pupil, Héloïse, by Edmund Blai...

Abelard and his pupil, Héloïse, by Edmund Blair Leighton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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. Surely the greater the cause for grief the greater the need for the help of consolation, and this no one can bring but you; you are the sole cause of my sorrow, and you alone can grant me the grace of consolation.  You alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort; you alone have so great a debt to repay me, particularly now when I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that when I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself.  I did more, strange to say—my love rose to such heights of madness that it robbed itself of what it most desired beyond hope of recovery, when immediately at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and my will alike.  God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.  I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours.  The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.  I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more gratitude I should win from you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation. …You kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains.  God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all on the earth to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

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.

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.