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.

12 comments:

Tracy said...

It was probably written to be circulated as letters often were copied and circulated around.

So Abelard wrote very personal letters, ones presumably almost as intimate as Heloise' reply - But meant them to be circulated to whoever was literate enough to read them? It's worse than the internet!

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...Fulbert, as would be natural, told people that Heloise was married. Heloise denied it

So were they married, or not? Or they were married but didn't want Fulbert spreading it around because Abelard would have to give up his scholarly career?

The Red Witch said...

They married to satisfy Fulbert but he was supposed to keep it a secret so Abelard would not have to quit teaching. I have to wonder though, since he had such a tremendous reputation as a scholar, if he could not have set up a private school which he had done in the past and carried on teaching.
Heloise's letters were not meant to be circulated and were not in their lifetime. The first one that Abelard wrote was a public one.

Tracy said...

So Heloise was the very passionate private correspondent, and Abelard kept his remarks pretty tame, for public consumption only?

Yes, you'd think Abelard would have been able to carry on teaching somehow even if he was married - otherwise it's not really a good advert for being a scholar, is it, not being allowed to marry?

Tracy said...

I've just found a copy of The Letters of Abelard and Heloise in one of my local charity shops - but it'll be a while before I get around to reading it.

The Red Witch said...

LOL If you are like me, you have a to read list as long as your arm or longer. Who is the translator or editor?

Tracy said...

It's the Penguin Classics edition 1974, translated by Betty Radice. Cost me all of £1! In a vain effort to limit the book pile I try to only buy books from charity shops which are on my vague 'to read' list, rather than on impulse - so was really pleased to stumble across this one yesterday,

The Red Witch said...

That is the one that I have. Good choice!

Tracy said...

My copy has a detail from an illumination from a fourteenth century manuscript of 'Le Roman de la Rose' - Abelard has his legs crossed! (Which is how most men react on reading what happened to him!)

You'll be pleased to know I've just started reading The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer - it's fascinating - and it starts off describing a city I am familiar with, Exeter, having lived there for a year (though it's changed a little since medieval times :) ).

The Red Witch said...

I assume you will post some comments on your blog. I started it as well. It is a bit dry. I wonder if it would be better if he focused on one person, time and place because his scope is a bit wide. I wonder also how this one compares with "Who Killed Chaucer?' by Terry Jones which has a similar theme but a narrower focus. I am tempted to get the Jones book but I am not sure I will have time this summer to get to that with all the latin I should be reading.

Tracy said...

I haven't gotten very far with it yet - still pretty busy at work - but so far I don't find it 'dry'. I will definitely be writing it up on my blog when I've finished.

Tracy said...

I'm halfway through the Letters of Abelard and Heloise and two things strike me. First, Abelard describes Heloise's reaction to the whole business of him being castrated even though they were actually legally married as 'her old perpetual complaint' (or Stop whingeing, woman!) and describes it as 'two were guilty, one pays th penalty' ie. he only considers himself to have suffered, not her -for a man who claims to have such a logical brain, he really isn't thinking straight. Because in the same letter he practically exults that sex is no longer an option for him, because he can leave all of that 'sinfulness' behind, as though the only suffering for him was the purely physical one of pain on being forcibly castrated.

Yet it's clear from her letters that Heloise is climbing the walls in sexual frustration, and she only went into a convent on his insistence. His motives were far from honourable - he eventually admits that he couldn't bear the idea of another man touching her! So long term, she has suffered far more than he has. Yes, one paid the penalty, but it wasn't him.

But what strikes me even more about the personal letters is that neither of them mention their son, poor little mite. Heloise, for all of her passionate outpourings for her husband, seems to have no maternal feelings at all. As for Abelard, since he shows no real personal feelings for Heloise in those letters, I can't imagine him feeling anything for his son. If he did care about his son, he wouldn't have forced Heloise into a convent but would have been happy for her to live free and to raise their little boy.
How did all of this affect Astrolabe? His parents were surely famous in their day? So he must have known they'd both effectively abandoned him?

The Red Witch said...

@'her old perpetual complaint'

Really he should be pleased that she misses it so much. It shows that he was really good at it.

@he really isn't thinking straight.

Like a lot of bright people, interpersonal relationships are not his forte.

@Yet it's clear from her letters that Heloise is climbing the walls in sexual frustration.

And really, one wonders if it needed to be this way if only Abelard had a bit of imagination in this area.

@neither of them mention their son.

But they do mention him in other writings, just not this series of letters. Remember, they did have quite a bit of contact outside of this series of letters where they sometimes met in person and could have discussed him.

@How did all of this affect Astrolabe?

Who knows. He went into the church as a vocation too and Heloise took advantage of Peter the Venerable's admiration of herself and Abelard to get him a job. He was also mentioned in the death records of the Paraclete.