Sunday, February 28, 2010

Abelard and Heloise

"In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet - they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep." Heloise to Abelard, letter 4

Most of what we know about the romance between Heloise and Peter Abelard comes from a letter that Abelard wrote to a 'friend' called Historia Calamitatum, or the History of my Troubles. It was probably written to be circulated as letters often were copied and circulated around. Letter writing was a serious business in the Middle Ages. One copy was given to Heloise and this is when she wrote to him.
One gets the impression at first that when she took the veil, she did not hear anything from him or see him for 10 years when this letter was handed to her but this is not correct. He gave her and her nuns the building and lands of Le Paraclet, when the Bishop Suger took the Abbey of St. Denis and threw the nuns out. But I am getting ahead of myself.
We don't know who Heloise's parents were or why she was being raised by her uncle Fulbert. He was the canon of Notre Dame in Paris and had a house near the cathedral. Heloise spent some of her early years being educated at a convent in Argenteuil, after which she came to Paris to be further educated by her uncle and what ever tutors he could find for her. She became famous as a scholar and by this came to the attention of Abelard. Peter was looking for lodgings and so Fulbert invited him to live at his house in exchange for him tutoring his niece. A passionate affair began between the student and her teacher.
Fulbert caught them in the act one day and tossed Abelard out of his house but by then Heloise was pregnant. Abelard snuck her out of Paris and brought her to his family home in Le Pallet and went back to Paris to resume teaching. Fulbert of course was angry and wanted Abelard to marry Heloise but that would have meant giving up teaching. At the cathedral schools, the teachers were not in 'orders' but they had to behave as though they were, i.e. live chastely, never marry. It would have been the end of Abelard's career. Heloise refused to marry him until he convinced her that they could marry to satisfy Fulbert but keep it a secret. Heloise had some serious misgivings about this but allowed herself to be guided by Abelard. They returned to Paris together, leaving their new born son Astralabe with his sister.
Fulbert, as would be natural, told people that Heloise was married. Heloise denied it and Fulbert got angry with her and treated her roughly so that she appealed to Peter for help again. Abelard took her to a convent outside of Paris for safety. To Fulbert, this looked like he was setting his wife aside and resolved to avenge his family honour. He hired some men to assist him and broke into Abelard's apartment and cut off the parts that had offended. Most likely, he was simply castrated. Paris was rocked by the scandal. Fulbert was banished. Abelard, ashamed, resolved to become a monk and asked Heloise to take the veil. She felt no calling to be a nun but because he asked her to she did. In spite of the pleas of friends and quoting some lines from the Pharsalia by Pompey's wife about having caused the death of Pompey, she took up the veil. And they parted. It all happened very quickly before anyone had a chance to think about what they were doing.
But they did see each other. They both were in separate buildings of the Abbey of St. Denis and could have had opportunities to see each other. They certainly saw each other when Abelard set Heloise up at Le Paraclete because, as their patron, he had to visit occasionally. Then the letter came and all the emotions that Heloise kept bottled up came flooding out in these letters to him. It is likely that she kept a copy of all their correspondance and that the letters come from the archives of Le Paraclete.
Abelard went on teaching and faced two charges of heresy. It was Heloise who asked Peter the Venerable to give him absolution and when Abelard died, Peter sent his body to her saying that he belonged to her more than anybody. She lived for another 20 years after he died and then she was laid to rest in the tomb with him. Their bones were moved a few times and whatever remains are left are in Pere-Lachaise cemetary in Paris.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Story of Peter Abelard.

Pierre Le Pallet was born around 1079 in, what was then, Brittany, the oldest son of a minor Breton nobleman. He renounced all of his rights as elder brother and went off to Paris to study 'dialectics' like a man going off to war. Abelard was a nickname he picked up in his youth. It is unknown how he acquired the name and what it means.
He was brilliant and a ferocious debater and very quickly made a reputation for himself. This is in the days before universities. The very first university established in Europe in was likely to be in Bologna followed by Paris in about 1150. Up until that point, when the university in Paris had been formally given a charter by Philip Augustus, students travelled to where ever a famous teacher, that they wanted to study under, lived. This is what Abelard did and this is what other people did for him when his reputation grew.
Like Cicero and Socrates, Abelard was a brilliant man and a brilliant debater who oftentimes scored points against his opponents, while not intending to be cruel, without realizing the effect he had on those he defeated. He was a knight and philosophy was his battlefield; he made enemies. Abelard also had powerful protectors like the king's counsellor Stephen de Garlande.
Eventually around 1114, Abelard became master of the cathedral school at Notre Dame in Paris. He obtained lodgings at the home of a cleric named Fulbert, who was hoping that he would tutor his niece Heloise. Heloise has been given far more education than most women would have had at this time and her reputation went far and wide. Peter the Venerable wrote a letter to her that he had heard of her in his youth. Heloise and Abelard began an affair. She became pregnant. At this time, teachers at the cathedral schools, while not clerics, were expected to behave as though they were, i.e. chaste, no marriage. This pregnancy seriously threatened Abelard's career. Through a series of events, Fulbert thought Abelard was abandoning his niece and hired some men to break into Abelard's room one night and castrate him. The crime rocked Paris.
When chastity became a big deal in the church, some men sought to improve their reputation as holy men or make chastity simpler to uphold if they mutilated themselves. The church, to prevent these horrors, made it mandatory for anyone who held a position in the church as a cleric or a monk must be intact.
When Abelard was mutilated, he viewed it as just punishment by God upon himself and he resolved to make amends by becoming a monk. He also asked Heloise to enter a convent. Normally after such a disaster, the Church would ask people to take some time before taking such an irrevocable step but somehow the way was smoothed for both of them very quickly. Abelard went on teaching and people came from all over Europe to be instructed by him. He also wrote a couple of books, one of which he was forced to burn as heresy because the enemies he made were starting to go after him. Bernard de Clairvaux, who was later canonized and also helped found the Templar Knights, was his bitterest enemy. So much so, that biographers of St. Bernard cannot discuss him without saying Abelard's name in the next breath. If there is an afterlife, somewhere Bernard is gnashing his teeth over this. At least we hope so.
After Abelard was forced to burn one of his books, he was persecuted again by St. Bernard. This time he was not able to defend himself properly, partly because he was ill, partly because the judges were all allies of Bernard's. So Peter invoked the privilege of appealing to the Pope, another useless gesture because the Pope was a disciple of Bernard's. He was sentenced to perpetual silence without even seeing the Pope. Abelard was about sixty years of age at this point and very ill, too ill to walk all the way from Paris to Rome but this is what he set out to do. He had to pass by the great monastery at Cluny on his way and was invited by the Abbot Peter the Venerable to stay and rest.
The Abbot of Cluny was second only to the Pope in power within the church, so Abelard was fortunate to have found himself another powerful protector at a time when he desperately needed one. Peter was able to reconcile Bernard to Abelard and have the sentence against Abelard lifted, provided he stay at Cluny. Shortly after this, he died and Peter the Venerable allowed his body to be sent to the Paraclete, where Heloise was living, so that she may bury him. He later provided an absolution of sins for Abelard as well.
Next week, I will provide a more detailed history of the affair with Heloise but I thought it was important to know who Abelard was and to do both at the same time would make for a long article. If you are someone stumbling upon this blog looking for info for an essay, do check dates and facts because I am going on memory for most of this.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine's Day

Back in the Middle Ages, or at least for most of it or in most countries, February 14 was nothing. There is some suggestion that Valentine's Day may have been an invention of Chaucer's in the 14th century. Since we are not living in the Middle Ages, I can post something about love and lovers and I choose a famous paragraph from Heloise's letter to Abelard,
"God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend [amica], or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains. God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."
This letter was written some time after 1132 C.E. in France. Heloise is amazingly modern in her attitude to love.
I used the Penguin Classic "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise" , Betty Radice trans. I highly recommend it as it has everything you want to know about these two. It includes a history of their romance, other writings, a couple of letters between Peter the Venerable and Heloise, a brief history of France at the time that they were living, current scholarship on the letters, etc..

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

John Gower

John Gower is an author from the 14th century who has been largely forgotten by modern readers. I doubt there are any books, that he wrote currently in print, but Google Books carries a few of them to read online. He was a friend to Geoffrey Chaucer. The Man of Law is thought to be modeled on him since he refers to Gower's story of Apollonius of Tyre in the prologue and the Man of Law's tale is based on one of Gower's stories from Confessio Amantis, Book III. Gower is thought to have been a lawyer.
Gower lived through the arrival of bubonic plague to England in 1348 and the Hundred Years War. He witnessed the Peasants' Revolt, the turmoil of Richard II's reign and his subsequent deposal by Henry IV. Gower wrote Cronica Tripertita about the turbulence of Richard's reign and justifying Henry's usurption of the throne.
If it sounds a little like Milton's Eikonoklastes, you would not wrong to compare the two. Gower has quite a bit in common with Milton: he went blind, he wrote about Biblical themes in English and in Latin (although Gower also wrote in French), they both are unique in writing about Sin being the daughter of Lucifer and Death being the child they created together. Gower precedes Milton by 300 years.
His works include, Speculum Hominis or Mirour de 'omme, Vox Clamantis, Confessio Amantis, Traitie, Cikante Balades, Cronica Tripertita, In Praise of Peace. When I get a chance to do some recreational reading, I will try to post more about him since he truly is an interesting fellow.