Heloise and Abelard: A Medieval Love Story

To the Middle Ages belongs the love story of Heloise and Abelard.  Abelard was well-known throughout Europe as a leading theologian of the day; Heloise had been raised as an orphan in a convent. She became known there as an exceptionally bright girl. When she was 16 she met the famous theologian. He must have been taken by her as much as she by him, for he was to write, “Thus, utterly aflame with passion for this maiden, I sought to discover means whereby I might have daily and familiar speech with her, thereby the more easily to win her consent. For this purpose I persuaded the girl’s uncle … to take me into his household …in return for the payment of a small sum.… The man’s simplicity was nothing short of astounding; I should not have been more surprised if he had entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf.…  Durant, The Age of Faith, Chapter 35, page 936.  Shortly afterward, she told Abelard that she was with child. Abelard proposed to the uncle that he marry Heloise on the condition that the uncle keep secret their marriage.  Heloise refused to marry him, believing that marriage would “rob the Church of so shining a light.” She offered to remain his mistress, however, as such a relationship would not be a bar to his advancement in the Church. Ultimately, they were married in secret, living separately for public appearance. Abelard returned to his teaching and Heloise to live with her uncle until Abelard took Heloise, much against her will, to a nunnery.  The story gets more complicated, if indeed it could, as Abelard continues to write, “they [her uncle and family] were convinced that now I had completely played them false, and had rid myself forever of Heloise by forcing her to become a nun. Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me; and one night, while… I 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 upon me with a most cruel and shameful punishment… For they cut off those parts of my body whereby I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.”  Ibid. at page 937.  Abelard finishes that part of the account by noting that two of them were captured, and suffered the same injury done to him, and in addition their eyes were taken.

Abelard sought refuge in the seclusion of a monk’s cell at a Benedictine priory, until a year later he responded to the urging of his students and his Abbot to return to lecturing.  Abelard spent the last eleven years of his life in seclusion because of the ecclesiastical rejection of him and his ideas, when he wrote two of his major works, Theologia Christiana  and Theologia.  Although the spirit of these works maintained consonance with orthodoxy, on the issue of the wideness of God’s love and mercy, he parted ways: he held that God’s love extended to all people of all time, including Jews and the heathen. As disconcerting to the Church, was Abelard’s assertion that all dogma be rationally supported; and, contrary to church doctrine and practice, he asserted that faith contains no mysteries when fully understood.  I note that, Pope Francis, shortly after pontificate in 2013, boldly proclaimed similar beliefs concerning God’s wide mercy to those who bear good fruits:

‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html.

As Durant describes it at page 938, “Truth cannot be contrary to truth, Abalard pleads; the truths of Scripture must agree with the findings of reason, else the God who gave us both would be deluding us with one or the other.”  At Ibid, at page 939,  Durant explains further,

Abelard did not question the authority of the Bible; but he argued that its language is meant for unlettered people, and must be interpreted by reason; that the sacred text had sometimes been corrupted by interpolation or careless copying; and that whereas scriptural or patristic passages contradicted one another, reason must attempt their reconciliation.

Abelard wrote his autobiography circa 1133.  Though Abelard retains in it his sharp wit, the description of his tryst with Heloise is passionless, except, perhaps for shame, and that possibly for his fall from grace. Perhaps because of its dispassion it is seen both as a confession and as a defense.  Tradition says that Heloise came upon a copy of it, to which she wrote a passionate and heart-rending reply and sent it to Abelard.  By that time, Heloise had achieved some significant fame in her own right in her convent and beyond.    Nonetheless, provided that her letter is authentic, it is clear that despite her advance in ecclesiastical circles, she never  got over her love for Abelard, despite his inability to maintain a similar spark for her . Heloise concludes her reply:  “I deserved more from thee, having done all things for thee. . .  I, who as a girl, was allured to the asperity of monastic conversion . . . not by religious devotion, but by thy command alone. . . .”  The Age of Faith at 943.  Being physically incapable of fervent reply in kind, Abelard’s return letter that followed, being far from comforting, asserted a hollow and stinging assurance that his love for her was only lust; he requested that upon his death she bury him in the grounds of the Paraclete and stated that he looked forward to their meeting in heaven. They exchanged more letters in which he struggles to express anything personal and she becomes more resigned to her plight – at least that is the Tradition that has grown about the thwarted lovers:  Heloise remained committed in love to Abelard to his death .  Upon his death in 1142, he was buried in the priory of St. Marcel near Chalons.   When Heloise learned of his death and burial, in obedience to Abelard’s request, she informed the Abbot, Peter The Venerable, that Abelard wished to be interred at the Paraclete. The Abbott, himself, brought the body to her and, as tradition also asserts, left her a letter of tenderness that her lover was incapable, himself, of giving. Upon her own death in 1164, Heloise was interred beside him. During a later time of revolution, the graves were desecrated. What were identified as their bones were moved to Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 1817.  People yet flock to their gravesite to honor these tragically ill-fated lovers.  Ibid. at 943-944.  That is a fact.

For an excellent site which addresses not only the architecture and building of the cathedrals, but also, the arts, religious reforms, and sculpture during that period up until 1400, see http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mona/hd_mona.htm

For an excellent humanities-based discussion of the Middle Ages, including Christianity and other religions, see http://www.becomingcloser.org/History/the_middle_ages.html.

Links to my site:

Introduction https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/introduction/

Graphic Arts https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/i-graphic-arts/

Architecture https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/ii-church-architecture-and-its-incorporation-of-art/

Music https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/iii-music/

Theology https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/iv-theology/

Home Page https://bibleartists.wordpress.com/

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