Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Letters of Abelard and Heloise
(Peter Abelard and Heloise)
(ca. 1135)
   Among the most admired texts documenting a real-life medieval love affair are the letters between Peter ABELARD, the renowned philosopher and cleric, and his one-time pupil HELOISE, abbess of the Benedictine convent of the Paraclete in Champagne at the time of the composition of the letters. The scandalous affair between the two had led to Abelard’s castration at the hands of Heloise’s family and to her ultimate taking of the veil. It became, however, the stuff of legend, and when JEAN DE MEUN alluded to their affair in his ROMAN DE LA ROSE in about 1280, Abelard and Heloise were immortalized. The three pairs of letters that have survived intact as part of their legacy are extant in nine manuscripts (one of which was owned by PETRARCH). But none of the surviving manuscripts predates 1350, a fact that has led many scholars to question their authenticity over the years. One theory is that the letters are the product of the literary imagination of some anonymous 14th-century author (or authors). Another holds that Abelard himself wrote all of the letters, attributing some of them to Heloise. But a growing number of scholars, epitomized by Barbara Newman (1995), now concur that the letters as we have them are the genuine epistles of the two 12th-century lovers.
   The exchange of letters was provoked, apparently, by the publication of Abelard’s Historia calamitatum (History of my calamities, ca. 1132), in which (among other things) he gives his own self-vindicating version of his affair with Heloise. It is she who initiates the correspondence, having read Abelard’s version. She sends him a letter denouncing the treachery that befell him, and requesting that Abelard be with her again, if not physically then at least intellectually, through written correspondence. She challenges Abelard’s portrayal of their affair as a private matter by claiming that everyone in Paris sang the love songs he wrote to her, and she accuses him of feeling only lust, not love for her.Yet she reminds him of his obligations to her, calling herself his wife, mistress, and whore, and says he became a nun only at his urging. She begs for “grace” from him in the form of a letter. To this alternatingly accusatory and cajoling letter, Abelard responds formally and in the official capacity of a monk, transforming their passion into a holy friendship. He addresses the Abbess Heloise as his superior, but gives her a catalogue of “wifely virtues,” mentioning as well his desire to be buried at Heloise’s Paraclete—though only, he says, so that the nuns may pray at his tomb. Heloise’s reply is a model of spiritual anguish, in which she describes what she calls her hypocrisy, how she imagines even during the Mass the physical love for Abelard that she cannot expunge from her mind and heart. She recalls Abelard’s castration and now feels herself wounded for their love, blaming God himself for her sorrow, but in the end applies to Abelard to be her healer, her spiritual guide.Abelard warns her to overcome her passions and to rely on reason. He reminds her that she is the bride of Christ, that she must turn her love into a spiritual love, and urges her to resist the temptation to blame God, an act that will lose her salvation. He also regrets his betrayal of Heloise’s uncle (the canon Fulbert), and his sexual violence against Heloise herself when she had retreated to a convent to avoid him. Heloise sends one more letter to Abelard, and he sends her two replies. In her final letter, Heloise requests that Abelard set out a formal Rule specifically for the nuns of her convent. It appears, at least, that Heloise has followed Abelard’s direction, and sublimated her desire to her spiritual life—unless, of course, she is merely repressing what she has been forbidden to express explicitly. He answers with a Rule that focuses on the study of Scripture. The final letter in the collection contains Heloise’s warm but official address to Abelard, followed by 42 questions from the nuns concerning specific biblical readings, and includes Abelard’s answers to each of the questions. While Abelard is certainly the only great medieval philosopher and theologian that has left such an intimate collection of correspondence, it is chiefly Heloise who becomes the focal point of any reading of the letters.What they reveal about her intelligence and rhetorical skill, her independence and outspoken views, make these letters a unique window into the personality of one of the most remarkable women of medieval Europe.
   ■ Baswell, Christopher. “Heloise.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, edited by Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace, 161–171. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
   ■ Dronke, Peter. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies, Glasgow. The University of Glasgow Press, 1976.
   ■ The Letters of Abélard and Heloïse. Rev. ed. Translated with an introduction by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin, 2004.
   ■ Newman, Barbara. “Authority, Authenticity, and the Repression of Heloise,” in From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995, 46–75.
   ■ Radice, Betty.“The French Scholar-Lover: Héloïse,” in Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson.Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 90–108.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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