Rethinking Héloïse and Abélard

One of the greatest love stories of the Middle Ages...or is it?

More often than not, the story of Héloïse and Abélard is hurled onto the same stockpile of ‘star-crossed lovers’ to which Juliet, Troilus, Mélisande and Pyramus belong. Admittedly it has all the conventional elements of a tragic romance: a philosopher and his student fall in love; the girl’s uncle opposes; they marry in secret; the girl bears a child; the philosopher is brutally castrated; faced with no other option they both enter religious orders, while exchanging passionate letters to the end of their lives. A heady mix of piety and illicit desire, guilt and fury, it appears good enough, if not too good, for stage and screen.

Yet one forgets. One forgets that unlike their fictional counterparts, Héloïse of Argenteuil and Pierre Abélard were people who actually lived and altered the contours of western philosophy and theology. One forgets that until recently, the most influential version of their Latin correspondence had been a heavily corrupted and sentimentalised French translation by Pierre Bayle. One also forgets that what prevented their marriage, ultimately, was not the heroine’s uncle or any external authority, but an independent decision of her own. In reconsidering the lives of Héloïse and Abélard, I find myself similarly questioning some rather basic concepts: sexuality, tragedy, and faith.

The beginning of the Letters (as per Betty Radice’s new, and generally loyal, translation) would outrage a romantic: ‘in looks she did not rank lowest’ was Abélard’s first comment on his pupil, as related by him in his Historia calamitatum, an autobiographical epistle addressed to a friend which eventually came into the hands of Héloïse herself. As if this were not enough, he goes on to describe an act of disinterested seduction, confident that he ‘should have an easy success’. We do not have any first-hand account of Héloïse’s initial reaction; however, as the physical relationship between them develops, the exploitative nature of the courtship disappears entirely. ‘Need I say more?’ he writes at a later point, ‘we were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love’. The transformation of selfish desire into self-abandonment, through the medium of bodily union, is delightfully refreshing at a time when the fin amour tradition and love-at-first-sight plots were soaring to its height.

The short-lived and intense period of physical intimacy between the scholars is recounted with nothing less than explicit eroticism—Abélard admits to occasionally striking his mistress out of ‘love and tender feeling’, and later, that ‘our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it’. Nevertheless, fear and remorse loom in even the most ecstatic passages. Both gradually left their intellectual pursuits to waste, the affair was soon uncovered and the pregnant heroine, foreseeing the impending catastrophe, remarked: ‘we shall both be destroyed. All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been.’ Her prophesies come into fulfilment as a band of men, summoned by Héloïse’s uncle, broke into Abélard’s bedroom and made him into what was considered ‘an abomination to the Lord’.

In the swift and troubling sequence of events that preceded the castration, Héloïse’s refusal to a public marriage proves the most perplexing. In one of her later letters she famously claims, ‘I despised the name of Wife, that I might live happy with that of Mistress’; Abélard explains her stance elsewhere that ‘only love freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie’. Her insistence can be explained either through a quasi-Pauline contempt for marriage as mere justification for sex, or a practical consideration of the adverse effects a family might have on her lover’s and her own career. Some have also attributed Héloïse’s decision to a proto-feminist heroism, namely the belief that a woman’s emotional and professional life needs not be completed by the presence of a man.

The verbal vehemence of letters can be most easily dismissed as sexual frustration, especially in the post-Chatterley trial world. While the assumption is true of both lovers for a period of time (much longer in the case of Héloïse), one does need to question whether sexual frustration is as self-perpetuating and terminal as it is often taken to be. In the course of her letters, Héloïse’s vacillation between piety and ‘all that is amorous and tender’, with Abélard’s recommendation to the former, eventually condenses into an epiphany that ‘it will always be the highest love to show none’. The correspondence ends with her release of her erstwhile husband from all personal oaths and obligations, as they devote themselves wholly to religious life. This doubtlessly anticipates Freud’s theory of sublimation, whereby physical longings are channelled into intellectual or artistic productivity. Abstinence is never the sheer denial of human sexuality; it is invariably through withdrawing from something that one recognises its immense potential. It is rather a magnification, a transfiguration.

I don’t intend to judge whether the conclusion of the letters is completely satisfying. It will disappoint those accustomed to the ending of an Austen or Gaskell novel, maybe those expecting strange potions and violent deaths as well. What I can conclude with, then, is that if you happen to be sauntering through the Père Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris, you will find a beautiful neo-gothic sepulchral chapel in which Héloïse and Abélard now rest. Their stone effigies lie only inches away from one another, hands clasped above their chests; on the lips of Héloïse there lingers even the faint suggestion of a smile. They were, above all, a man and a woman who loved, suffered, and never relented in their search for light and truth—and they pray still.

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