Heloïse


Heloïse
(1101–1164)
   Heloïse is best known as one half of the Middle Ages’ most celebrated couple. The romantic correspondence she shared with Pierre Abélard makes up what is, perhaps, the most legendary account of passionate, romantic love. Having been orphaned at a young age,Heloïse was the ward of her uncle Fulbert, a cleric and canon of Notre Dame in Paris. She was the pride and joy of her uncle, who acknowledged Heloïse’s intellectual capabilities and ensured she received a proper education; Heloïse quickly became known as one of the most learned young ladies of the day. Fulbert happened to move in the same circle as Peter ABÉLARD, a brilliant French philosopher who was a master at the school of Notre Dame and known as one of the most intelligent men of his time. Having heard of Heloïse’s reputation,Abélard persuaded Fulbert to trust him with Heloïse’s education, and, moreover, to let him move in with the unsuspecting Fulbert and his beautiful niece. In The Letters of Abélard and Heloise, Abélard schemingly comments,“I was amazed by his simplicity—if he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf it would not have surprised me more” (Abélard 2004, 11). During this time,when Abélard was 40 and Heloïse was 18, the pair fell in love and engaged in a passionate affair, which soon rendered Heloïse pregnant.
   When Abélard found out Heloïse was expecting a child, he abducted her and carried her away to live at his sister’s home, and there she gave birth to their child, Astrolabe, in 1118. When Heloïse’s Uncle Fulbert found out about the pregnancy and about the abduction of his niece, he was furious. To appease Fulbert, Abélard offered to marry Heloïse, although he wished to keep the marriage a secret in order to retain his status as a cleric, canon, and theology teacher, and, although Heloïse opposed the marriage because she preferred to be known as Abélard’s lover rather than his wife, the couple wed in a secret ceremony.Uncle Fulbert was infuriated—because of the secrecy of the wedding, he was suspicious that the couple did not actually marry and that Abélard was plotting to abandon Heloïse to a convent. Thus, in 1118, he had Abélard castrated. The public shame Abélard experienced led him to join the Benedictine monastery St. Denis. At this time, at Abélard’s request, Heloïse joined the convent Argenteuil, just outside of Paris. As a nun and a monk, the lovers developed their own separate lives and did not communicate for some time. During this period Abélard recorded his misfortunes in a letter written to console a troubled friend, and this letter became known as his Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes). By chance (according to tradition), Heloïse saw Abélard’s account, which centered on their life together, and responded to him in a letter explaining that although she was a nun, she lived an unsatisfied life of longing over her past with Abélard. Abélard, however, felt that the religious life had saved the pair from an affair that would have inevitably turned catastrophic. Through the ongoing correspondence,Heloïse was eventually convinced monastic life was, indeed, the answer to her and Abélard’s problems. In 1129, when the Abbot Suger of St. Denis established his abbey’s ownership of Argenteuil and expelled all the nuns, Heloïse and her nuns joined Abélard at Le Paraclet, where Abélard acted as magister (master) of the house and Heloïse served as prioress and later abbess of the spiritual community.
   While Heloïse is distinguished for her education and knowledge, she is also known, perhaps better, as a monastic administrator who was honored by popes and other religious figures, such as Peter the Venerable. She published no other work besides her correspondence to Abélard, and the authenticity of even this work has been questioned— many believe the letters were all written by Abélard, while others think they were all written by an outsider (particularly since no known manuscripts date before 1350)—although today most scholars believe that they are, certainly, genuine. Abélard and Heloïse were both 63 years of age when they died. Abélard was buried at Le Paraclet after his death in 1142, and in accordance with his wishes, Heloïse was buried next to him after she died in 1164. Legend has it that when she was buried there,Abélard reached out from his grave to embrace her. Their remains were reinterred at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1817, where there is a monument celebrating the couple. This legendary relationship of passion, revenge, steadfastness, spirituality, and even obsession has become a prominent theme in European literature. Their romance been immortalized by JEAN DE MEUN in the ROMAN DE LA ROSE, Francis PETRARCH, Alexander Pope, François VILLON, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others.
   Bibliography
   ■ Abélard, Pierre. The Letters of Abélard and Heloïse. Rev. ed. Translated with an introduction by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin, 2004.
   ■ Radice, Betty.“The French Scholar-Lover: Héloïse.” In Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, 90–108. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1984.
   ■ Townsend, David, and Andrew Taylor, eds. The Tongue of the Fathers: Gender and Ideology in Twelfth-Century Latin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
   Leslie Johnston

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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