The Immortal Lovers
Abelard and Heloise
Abelard and Heloise are one of the most celebrated couples of all time, known for their love affair, and for the tragedy that separated them.
In a letter to Abelard, Heloise wrote: "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."
It's perhaps the most tragic love story ever. Abelard and Heloise were two well-educated people, brought together by their passion, then separated by the act of her uncle's vengeance.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Among his works is Sic et Non, a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions. His teachings were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. Even with the controversy that surrounded him at times, nothing probably prepared him for the consequences of his love affair with Heloise, a relationship destined to change his life in dramatic ways.
Heloise (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert, a kind of bureaucratic functionary in the Church, and a wealthy man. Rare for women at the time, she was well-educated by her uncle in Paris. Abelard later writes in his Historica Calamitatum: "Her uncle's love for her was equaled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters."
Heloise was one of the most well-educated women of her time, so, perhaps it's not surprising that Abelard and she became lovers. Also, she was more than 20 years younger than Abelard.
Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach the girl such things as Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Using the pretext that his own house was a "handicap" to his studies, Abelard further moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle.
Supposedly it all started one day in the middle of a lesson when they were reading about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. There was the classic cinematic glance of passion between them and then, in the famous line from one of her letters, "...That day we read no more."
Apparently Canon Fulbert was not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and the affair continued under his roof and under his nose for some time without him suspecting anything. Inevitably, though, the two of them became careless and got caught. As Abelard would later write: "Oh, how great was the uncle's grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!"
They were separated, but that didn't end the affair. Instead, they discovered that Heloise was pregnant. She left her uncle's house when he was not at home; and she stayed with Abelard's sister until their daughter Astrolabe was born. Why anyone even in those days would want to name their child after a navigational instrument is somewhat hard to understand, but they did.
Abelard asked for Fulbert's forgiveness, and permission to marry Heloise; then with Fulbert's assent, Abelard tried to persuade Heloise to marry him. In Chapter 7 of Historia Calamitatum, Abelard wrote: "She, however, most violently disapproved of this, and for two chief reasons: the danger thereof, and the disgrace which it would bring upon me... What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light?"
It should be born in mind that like all scholars of the time, Abelard was a minor priest in orders. Although he had not yet been ordained and taken the vow of celibacy, his marriage would have blocked his path of advancement in the Church and at the Paris University.
When she finally agreed to become Abelard's wife, Heloise told him, "Then there is no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known." In regard to that statement, Abelard later wrote, in his Historica, "Nor in this, as now the whole world knows, did she lack the spirit of prophecy."
Secretly married, the couple left Astrolabe with Abelard's sister. When Heloise went to stay with the nuns at Argenteuil, her uncle and kinsmen believe Abelard had cast her off, forcing her to become a nun. Why they did this has never been adequately explained. They must have known how it would look to the world, as if Abelard had seduced Heloise, gotten her knocked up and forced her to bear an illegitimate child, married her late and then stashed her in a convent out of the way. It was perceived by Fulbert's family, who were of the minor nobility, as a deadly insult. There does seem to have been a self-destructive element in all of this.
"Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow."
What happened was that one night while Abelard lay asleep in his lodgings, Fulbert and a gang of relatives, servants, and general thugs broke into his room and castrated him.
But poor Abelard was not without friends and supporters. The intruders were pursued down the street by the outraged occupants of the house and a number of Abelard's students, at least one of the attackers was lynched on the spot, and several others were badly beaten and taken to the Provost of Paris who imprisoned them. Fulbert seems to have escaped. Abelard survived his mutilation, which in view of the severing of arteries involved was fortunate.
The most interesting part of the story is the relationship that grew out of the tragedy. Abelard became a priest and Heloise a nun, eventually Mother Superior and abbess of her convent.
In his Historia Calamitatum, Abelard wrote: "Often the hearts of men and women are stirred, as likewise they are soothed in their sorrows more by example than by words. And therefore... am I now minded to write of the sufferings which have sprung out of my misfortunes..."
The story of Abelard and Heloise is tragic, but what's more important to literature and history is what happened after the agony was over. Both Peter Abelard and Heloise continued to go on living, to write, to love, to contribute to our literary history. They didn't kill themselves, or marry anyone else (unless you count the fact that both married the church). Heloise asks for his words, saying: "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." She ends the letter with: "I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my only love."
To her passionate letters, he responds in part: "If since our conversion from the world to God I have not yet written you any word of comfort or advice, it must not be attributed to indifference on my part but to your own good sense..."
How do two lovers part after such a short time, with such a terrible end and no real beginning? They had been so close. And, then their only link is through their letters, and the works that Abelard left behind.
Heloise speaks of losing Abelard: "But if I lose you, what have I left to hope for? Why continue on life's pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you, and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?"