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Love and its Critics

 | 
Michael Bryson
, 
Arpi Movsesian

5. Fin’amor Castrated: Abelard, Heloise, and the Critics who Deny

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  • 1 Jean Hagstrum observes that the story of Abelard and Heloise is “an invaluable guide to what lies b (...)

1The brief flowering of the troubadours helps us to understand the love story, in twelfth-century Paris, of Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, who lived the passions and the dangers often spoken of in the poetry of the age. The letters between Abelard and Heloise are among the world’s most vibrant embodiments of fin’amor,1 as well as its most tragic testaments to the violence and determination of those who would prevent men and women from living and loving as they choose. Written around 1128, this Latin correspondence tells a story of love that is both of the body and the mind. It is a painful account of what Shakespeare would one day call the “marriage of true minds”, as the lovers are separated by difficult circumstances including a jealous uncle, castration, character assassination, shame, inner conflict, and religion.

2Abelard was an esteemed teacher and philosopher in Paris whose lectures drew students from all over Europe:

  • 2 Roger E. Olson. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Gr (...)

[Abelard’s] fame as a teacher and great reputation as a scholar helped establish the University of Paris as students arrived from all over Europe to study with him […]. In Paris, Abelard was regarded as a young [star] among the schoolmen of the monastic orders, whose theological lectures were considered dusty and boring as they commented endlessly on the traditions of the church fathers and earlier medieval thinkers. Abelard’s lectures challenged revered traditions, and his students were often rowdy and disrespectful to the accepted traditions of the church.2

  • 3 “Quae cum per faciem non esset infirma, per abundantium litterarum erat suprema” (Peter Abelard and (...)
  • 4 Betty Radice. “Introduction”. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. by Betty Radice (London: P (...)
  • 5 Heloise seems to have had an even lower opinion of marriage than did Abelard (practiced, as it was, (...)
  • 6 In 1031, the Council of Bourges declared that “[p]riests, deacons and subdeacons were to refrain fr (...)

3During his time in the schools of Paris, Abelard was hired to tutor Heloise, the niece of one of the city’s most influential citizens, a secular canon named Fulbert. According to Abelard, this new pupil Heloise, “in her outward appearance, was not the lowest; but for her wealth in letters, she was supreme”.3 Abelard tells the story of how they met in Historia calamitatum or A Story of His Misfortunes, which he addresses to a “Friend”. Who exactly this piece was meant for is unknown, but it has long served to give readers an intimate and painful portrait of the significant details of Abelard’s love for Heloise and the price both he and she paid for that love. In the Letters, Heloise remembers the secret and passionate love-making in the convents and in her uncle’s house, clandestine meetings which resulted in Heloise getting pregnant. After “being found in bed together”,4 Abelard and Heloise secretly married, in a failed attempt to satisfy Fulbert, even though neither had a high opinion of the institution.5 The Church disapproved of Abelard’s marriage (during this period, clerical celibacy was slowly being imposed on the Western Church6), and his once-promising career ground to a halt (something we will see again centuries later in the story of John and Anne Donne).

  • 7 Joseph R. Strayer. Western Europe in the Middle Ages: A Short History (New York: Appleton-Century-C (...)
  • 8 “Otto of Freising described Bernard of Clairvaux as rather too ready to pounce upon hints of heresy (...)
  • 9 “Henry led a popular anti-clerical uprising, proclaiming a reform of marriage and elimination of de (...)
  • 10 Constant J. Mews. “Accusations of Heresy and Error in the Twelfth Century Schools: The Witness of G (...)
  • 11 John Marenbon. Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: Routledge (...)

4In his later years, Abelard was accused of heresy by the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux.7 Bernard (the heresy-hunter8 whose preaching against Henry the Monk9 was part of the long ideological buildup to the Albigensian Crusade) “considered that Abelard did not so much invent a new heresy, as reassert old heresies, whether that of Arius, Pelagius, or Nestorius, all of which had been condemned by the Fathers of the Church”.10 Abelard’s acute and competitive interest in combining philosophical and theological questions got him into trouble: “his first theological work, on the Trinity”, was “condemned as heretical”.11 During the course of his academic career, Abelard made enemies by being too willing to mock current teaching methods, while others were more reliably orthodox:

  • 12 Strayer, 130.

Other men used methods which were essentially like his, and even borrowed directly from his work, without losing their reputation for orthodoxy. […] They were less shocking than Abelard because they were not innovators and because they were careful not to claim too much for their methods. They admitted that some articles of the faith were beyond rational analysis and they were careful to find orthodox solution to problems in which they had cited conflicting authorities.12

  • 13 Ames, 199.

5In all likelihood, however, it was not primarily his innovative thinking and lecturing that got him into so much trouble, but rather his complicated, and impolitic personality: “[a]rrogant and abrasive—he could not find a teacher smarter than he, and made this blazingly clear”.13

  • 14 Jacques Le Goff, ed. The Medieval World. Trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane (London: Collins & Brown, 1990 (...)
  • 15 Jan M. Ziolowski, editor and translator. Letters of Peter Abelard, Beyond the Personal (Washington: (...)

6Abelard was a proudly independent thinker, who reveled in controversy, and “was not blindly submissive to his authorities […]; he knew how to compare them, criticize them, and combine them”, while letting reason have “the last word”.14 Abelard emphasized intellectual independence in his teaching, and his students were “enthralled by the novelty of his pedagogy, which challenged them not just to absorb the definitive statements (auctoritates) in revered authors (auctores), but also to interrogate the texts and passages with the strength of their own logic”.15 Abelard’s students, seemingly willing to follow him anywhere in order to learn from him, were often notably loyal, though none were finally more loyal than Heloise.

  • 16 Denis de Rougemont differs, positing a first meeting in 1118. L’Amour et l’Occident (Paris: Plon, 1 (...)
  • 17 The ages of Abelard and Heloise in 1115 are dated from a birthdate for Abelard of 1079, and for Hel (...)
  • 18 “Nam quo bonum hoc, litteratorie scilicet scientiae, in mulieres es rarius: eo amplius puellam comm (...)
  • 19 “cum iam me solum in mundo superesse philosophum aestimarem, nec ullam ulterius inquietationem form (...)
  • 20 “dormientem in secreta hospicii mei camera” (ibid., 11, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba (...)

7Abelard writes frankly of Heloise in his Historia calamitatum, revealing his fascination with her intelligence and determination. They are now thought to have met sometime in 1115,16 at a time when Heloise was still fairly young.17 Very few women of the time, much less women so young, knew how to read and write, especially in formal Latin, or were educated in the classics: “this gift of the science of letters, which is rare in women, highly recommended the young girl, and made her highly praised throughout the entire realm”,18 writes Abelard, describing Heloise’s intelligence, the shared quality that aroused their passion and led to their perilous choice. “I began to hold an estimate of myself as the only philosopher in the world, with no reason to fear anyone, and so I relaxed and gave in to my lustful desires”.19 The negative emphasis he puts on his recollections, reducing his love for Heloise to “lustful desires”, is understandable, given the mutilated state of his body while writing these lines. It is impossible fully to imagine the horror he must have experienced the night when, “sleeping in my private lodging”,20 hired thugs took Fulbert’s revenge on him:

  • 21 eis videlicet corporis mei partibus amputatis, quibus id quod plangebant commiseram, […] Mane autem (...)

They cut off those parts of my body with which I had committed the act about which they mourned. […] First thing the next morning, the entire city gathered before my house, and the crying out stunned with wonder, the prostrated lamentations, the upsetting and exasperating moaning and weeping is difficult, even impossible to describe. Honestly, it was primarily the clerks and my students who crucified me with their intolerable grieving and lamenting, and I suffered more from their sympathy than from the pain of the wound, and I felt the shame more than the dismemberment. […] From then on, I applied myself principally to the study of the sacred lessons, which to my present state was more convenient.21

8What we see here is not the extinguishing or renouncing of Abelard’s once-passionate love, but the words of a man who has built a protective wall behind which he can hide so that he will not be further harmed. Historia calamitatum reflects the guarded inner world that its author creates as a direct response to his mutilation and humiliation. In a way, it also reflects a painful internalization of the judgment rendered on him, and his love, by the world. A letter from his former teacher, Roscelin of Compiègne, provides powerful testimony to that judgment:

  • 22 Vidi siquidem Parisius, quod quidam clericus nomine Fulbertus te ut hospitem in domo sua recepit, t (...)

I saw in Paris, in the house of a stranger, a certain clerk by the name of Fulbert received you and fed you with honor at his table, treating you as a member of his household and as an intimate friend. He also introduced you to his niece, a young girl of great abilities, and great prudence, engaging you to be her teacher. You were not unmindful, but contemptuous, in the way you treated that man of noble birth, your host and Lord, a clergyman, the canon of the church of Paris, who hosted you free of charge and with honor. Not sparing the virgin, whom you should have preserved and taught as a disciple, instead, with your spirit tossed about by unbridled lust, you taught her not to argue, but to commit fornication. In this one fact you are guilty of many crimes: of treason, and fornication, and the filthiest violation of virginal modesty. But the Lord God, to whom vengeance belongs, has freely acted, depriving you of that part by which you sinned.22

9Of his later escape to Troyes, Abelard describes himself as one hiding away from condemnation: “Here, hidden alone, except for one of our clerks, I could truly sing out to the Lord: ‘Lo! I’ve become a fugitive from the world, and have found refuge in solitude’”.23 But even the solitude does not lessen his sense of shame or relieve his anguish. At some point he considers joining the “gentes” or “heathens” and “passing the boundaries of Christendom”.24

10Having been forcibly separated from Abelard for years, Heloise, now abbess of the Paraclete in Ferreux-Quincey, reads his Historia calamitatum only after it is brought to her by chance.25 The letters Heloise writes in response reveal a passionate woman who agonizes over Abelard’s misfortunes and “his life’s continual persecutions”.26 Heloise, unlike Abelard, rejects the derision of society,27 voicing that rejection in the words of two intensely passionate letters, and then a third, more philosophical and intellectual in its approach. In each case, what she appears to be seeking is not absolution, but a restored connection to Abelard, a return of words for words. As Barbara Newman describes the correspondence, it moves from passion to intellectual exchange:

  • 28 Barbara Newman. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Univ (...)

In the early 1130s Peter Abelard received three letters from Heloise, once his mistress and wife, now his sister and daughter in religion. The first two made such painful reading that he must have thought twice before scanning the third, in which Heloise resolutely turned from the subject of tragic love to the minutiae of monastic observance. For romantic readers, the correspondence lapses from titillation into tedium with this epistle. But Abelard was no doubt immensely relieved. Laying aside her griefs, Heloise now wrote to him as abbess to abbot, asking for only two things: a treatise explaining “how the order of nuns began”, and a rule for her daughters at the Paraclete.28

11And yet, one can imagine why Heloise asks for these things in her third letter—she had been, and was still, in love with Abelard’s mind, and such a request would elicit more words, more thoughts, more of Abelard’s voice to which Heloise could return in the most intimate of unions, hearing her long-absent husband in the quiet hours of night and morning as she scanned the words he would send her. They needn’t be words of love—his words alone would sustain her.

12But in her first two letters, Heloise’s words overflow with passion and the bittersweet memories of the sensual and emotional delights she had shared with Abelard. She often reveals her sexual frustrations and longing, writing of her desire to be with the man she loves, despite the disapproval of the world. But only her memories will allow her that luxury:

  • 29 “Hos autem in me stimulos carnis, haec incentiva libidinis ipse iuvenilis fervor aetatis, et iocund (...)

But those stimuli of the flesh, these instigators of sensuality, the very passions of youth, with the experience of longing and delight and pleasure, all greatly inflame [me]. […] They praise me as chaste, when they do not see that I am a hypocrite. They think of the cleanness of the flesh as virtue, but virtue is not of the body, but of the soul.29

13Nothing could sublimate or redirect Heloise’s love, not even being a nun, for she says she feels “immoderate love”—“immoderato amore”,30 not for God, but for Abelard. She makes her preference for Abelard above all others on Earth or in Heaven clear when she tells him that “only you have the power to make me sad, or to bring me delight or comfort”.31 If her words were put to music, one could hear the troubadours and their songs of fin’amor. Bernart de Ventadorn’s poem, Tant ai mo cor ple de joya (My heart is full of joy), in its treatment of love and comfort, echoes Heloise’s paradoxical sense of naked exposure and warm reassurance in her confessions of love to Abelard:

Anar posc ses vestidura,
nutz en ma chamiza,
car fin’amors m’asegura
de la freja biza.
32

I walk undressed,
naked in my shirt,
for love secures me
from the coldest winds.

14Sometimes, Heloise’s tone becomes more urgent, even demanding, as she desires to love and be loved despite Fulbert, the Church, or the jealous God himself. However, Abelard cannot respond in the way that Heloise yearns for. After his intial diffidence, Heloise’s words become even more intensely heartfelt, revealing the passionate and courageous person she has always been, determined to love fully, and on her own terms, despite a world that disdains her love for Abelard:

  • 33 Nihil unquam, deus scit, in te nisi requisiui; te pure, non tua concupiscens. […] Et si uxoris nome (...)

God knows I have never required anything from you except for yourself; I only wanted you, not anything that belonged to you. […] And if the name of wife appears more sacred and honorable, for me the word friend will always be sweeter, or—though you might be indignant—concubine or whore. […] I preferred love to marriage, freedom to fetters. I call God as witness, if Augustus, the whole world’s ruler, had deemed me worthy of marriage, and raised me to preside with him over the earth forever, it would have been dearer to me to be called your whore than his Empress.33

15Heloise refuses the idea that she may only love Abelard for the sake of God, and in that way, she is more akin to the troubadours than to the later Italian poets who see love as a ladder by which to reach the divine: “[w]hen Heloise protested that she desired him for himself, [she] echoed the Ciceronium dictum that one should love a friend, for that person’s sake—without reference to loving someone for the sake of God”.34 Heloise is unwilling to believe that such love is a sin: “I am innocent”—“sum innocens”,35 for she views love as something greater than anything the world can oppose it with:

  • 36 Hagstrum, 204.

She wants freedom from compulsion in loving her paragon, who had every grace of mind and body, making her the envy of queens and great ladies. She wants him for herself alone, without the restraints or sanctions of marriage—her love is single, obsessive, possessive, eternal, extramarital. And nothing can overcome her passion, not his castration, not his unavailability, not his theological arguments, not her administrative duties in a convent, and certainly not her vows, which were far from freely or religiously taken.36

16She makes it painfully clear that she never chose the religious life, and that had she been free to make her own choices, both their lives would have been very different:

  • 37 quam quidem iuvenculam ad monastice conversationis asperitatem non religionis devotio sed tua tantu (...)

Truthfully, the young girl had no calling for the monastic profession, nor any religious devotion, but I did this to obey you. And if, in that, I deserve nothing from you, be the judge yourself of how vain all my hardships are. I expect no reward from God, for certainly I have never done anything for the love of him. You hurried to God, and I followed in the habit; indeed, I went first. […] I have never had the slightest hesitation, were it to run into the Vulcanian flames of Hell, to follow you or precede you at your bidding. My heart was not with me, but with you. Even now, if it is not wholly with you, it is nowhere. In fact, without you, it does not exist at all.37

  • 38 “Domino suo, immo patri; coniugi suo, immo fratri; ancilla sua, immo filia, ipsius uxor, immo soror (...)
  • 39 “Heloissae, dilectissimae sorori suae in Christo, Abaelardus, frater eius in ipso” (ibid., 35, http (...)
  • 40 “Vale unice” (ibid.).
  • 41 “Vivite, sed Christo quaeso mei memores” (ibid., 39, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00a (...)
  • 42 Newman, 56.

17Heloise’s love for Abelard, after many years of separation, shows no signs of having diminished. This is painfully clear in the way she begins and ends her letters. She addresses her first letter, “To her lord, or rather her father, to her husband, or rather her brother; his servant, or rather his daughter, his wife, or rather his sister; to Abelard, Heloise”.38 Abelard, in contrast, distances himself from Heloise by opening the letters with “To Heloise, his dearly beloved sister in Christ, Abelard her brother in the same”.39 The ending of the letters play almost the same notes: “Farewell, my only”,40 versus “Live, but in Christ I pray, remember me”.41 As Newman notes, “Abelard’s Historia is a quasipublic document […]. But Heloise’s letters are relentlessly private […]. While Heloise, like an Ovidian heroine, gestures toward the whole world as witness to her woes, she addresses her appeal to Abelard alone”.42

  • 43 Radice, 27.

18There is, perhaps, a physical as well as emotional explanation for Abelard’s detached style: “Disgust with his mutilated person may have made him want to shut the past out of his mind; he was changed, and […] he may have been all too ready to believe that she was changed too”.43 Abelard’s stiffness can easily be seen as selfishness on his part, and yet, his attempts at formality may well lie in his desire to shut out what he feels cannot be restored, passions he can remember but no longer feel physically, insisting, despite the pain of loss, on what he thinks is best for both of them. Perhaps he believed that if he kept holding on to the past, his suffering, and hers, would never diminish. However, in Historia calamitatum, when he is not yet corresponding with Heloise, and allows himself room for honesty, Abelard shows the true colors of his love; it is fleshly, sensual, and romantic:

  • 44 Primum domo una coniungimur, postmodum animo. Sub occasione itaque disciplinae amori penitus vacaba (...)

First we were joined together in one house, soon we joined by mind and spirit. Using her instruction as an occasion for privacy, we gave all our time to love, and the secret recesses that love chose, and that her studies afforded us. With our books open, we spent more words on love than on our readings; we shared more kisses than sentences. My hands found their way to her bosom more often than to our books. […] No stage of love is skipped by cupid-struck people such as we. […] It was incredibly irritating for me to have to go to the School, and equally irritating when I had to maintain nightly vigils to love, and then turn around and study all the next day.44

  • 45 Alice V. Clark. “From Abbey to Cathedral and Court: Music Under the Merovingian, Carolingian and Ca (...)
  • 46 Ibid., 13.

19Here, his passions are uninhibited, and his words belong to the pages that tell the story of fin’amor. Similar words and passions can be found in his songs. One notable development in Latin song, from about 1100 (thus co-existent with the songs of the troubadours and Minnesingers), is what are called “planctus or laments”.45 Abelard “wrote six planctus”,46 including one based on the laments of David over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. But in the scriptural story, a reader can still hear Abelard’s passion:

  • 47 Latin text from Lorenz Weinrich. “‘Dolorum solatium’: Text und Musik von Abaelards Planctus”. Mitte (...)

Heu! cur consilio
acquievi pessimo,
ut tibi praesidio
non essem in praelio?
Vel confossus pariter
morerer feliciter
cum, quid amor faciat
majus hoc non habeat,
Et me post te vivere
mori sit assidue
nec ad vitam anima
satis sit dimidia.47

Alas! Why did I plan,
acquiescing to debasement,
that you would protect yourself
and I would not be in the battle?
Even pierced alike
we would die happily
when love would fashion it so.
Greater than this we cannot have.
And to live after you
would be to die continually
For with only half a soul
Life is not enough.

  • 48 W. G. East. “This Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life”. In Peter Biller and Alas (...)
  • 49 “quocunque casu viam universae carnis absens a vobis ingrediar, cadaver obsecro nostrum, ubicunque (...)
  • 50 Charles J. Reid. Power Over the Body, Equality in the Family: Rights and Domestic Relations in Medi (...)

20His “letters of direction”, as the latter highly didactic letters are called, might bear the mask of indifference, but as a result of Heloise’s letters, Abelard throws himself into a frenzy of literary activity on her behalf: in addition to the famous, if painfully diffident letters, Abelard wrote “a hundred hymns, thirty-five sermons, […] a substantial series of solutions of Heloise’s theological problems [and a] half-dozen Planctus […] which touch very closely on the state of mind of Heloise and himself”. Through these works, “Abelard had found an acceptable medium in which to express his love for Heloise”.48 On top of all of this, it is evident that Abelard’s heart remained with Heloise when he asked if she would bury him: “by whatever cause I go the way of all flesh, proceeding absent from you, I pray you to bring my body, whether it lie buried or exposed, to your cemetary”.49 Years later, “Peter the Venerable […] made sure to return the body to Heloise” and when Heloise herself died, she “was laid to rest next to Abelard”.50 Her jealous uncle, his hired thugs, and the society in which they lived, may have separated the lovers physically, but they could not extinguish their love. Their words and cries of desire and suffering echo yet another poem by Bernart de Ventadorn, Can vei la lauzeta mover (When I see the lark move):

Ai, las! Tan cuidava saber
d’amor, e tan petit en sai,
car eu d’amor no∙m posc tener
celeis don ja pro non aurai.
Tout m’a mo cor, e tout m’ a me
e se mezeis e tot lo mon;
e can se. m tolc, no∙m laisset re
mas desirer e cor volon.
51

Alas! So much, I believed I knew
about love, and how little I really know
because I cannot hold back from loving
her, the lady I will not ever have.
All my heart, and all of me,
myself and the whole world,
she has taken, and left behind nothing
except desire and a yearning heart.

  • 52 Newman, 47.

21And yet, in a now-familiar pattern, literary critics devoted to a “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” authoritarian style of interpretation have long insisted that these letters are not about love, with some going to the extent of arguing that the letters are not even genuine. Barbara Newman argues strenuously against those critics who deny the authenticity of Heloise’s letters, identifying their aim as “not only the repression of Heloise’s desire, but the complete obliteration of her voice”, locating the urge to obliterate that voice “in a priori notions of what a medieval abbess could write, frank disapproval of what Heloise did write, and at times outright misogyny”.52 Newman takes D. W. Robertson as her prime example:

  • 53 Ibid., 49.

Robertson’s condescension toward Heloise is blatant. He refers to her twice as “poor Heloise” and once even as “little Heloise”; at least a half dozen times, he calls her discourse on marriage in the Historia calamitatum a “little sermon”. In a display of stunning inconsistency, he manages to deny that “little Heloise actually said anything like” what Abelard records, and at the same time to ridicule her for saying it. Embodying all the negative stereotypes of the feminine, Robertson’s Heloise is both minx and shrew.53

  • 54 Ibid., 50.
  • 55 Longxi, 205.
  • 56 Newman, 52.

22As Newman observes, “Robertson himself would read these letters, like all medieval texts that purport to celebrate erotic love, as witty and ironic; they form part of an exemplary conversion narrative authored by Abelard”.54 Robertson is a wonderful example of the kind of authoritarian reader Longxi refers to when he observes that critics attempt to transform literature into “a model of propriety and good conduct, something that carries a peculiar ethico-political import”.55 In pointing out that the works of Marie de France, “one of the most celebrated erotic writers of the twelfth century”, enjoyed widespread popularity in their day, Newman remarks that “some twelfth-century audiences were less fastidious in these matters than their modern interpreters”.56

  • 57 Ignas Fessler. Abälard und Heloise, Vol. II (Berlin, 1806), 352.
  • 58 John Marenbon. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997), 83.

23The tradition of scholars and critics arguing that the love story of Abelard and Heloise is not what it seems to be has been active since Ignaz Fessler in 1806, who first suggested that the letters between Abelard and Heloise were a fraud.57 In 1972, John Benton argued that the letters were the result of a collaborative forgery between two men, a “‘twelfth-century epistolary ‘novelist’ and a ‘thirteenth-century institutional scoundrel’”.58 Though Benton later abandoned this theory, Hubert Silvestre persisted, arguing in 1985 that:

  • 59 Ibid.

The Historia and the correspondence are […] the work of a late thirteenth-century forger, working on the basis of some authentic material, who wished to uphold the right of clerics to have a concubine, and who found a powerful way of doing so by putting the arguments for clerical concubinage not into the mouth of a man, as might be expected, but of an outstanding woman. This forger was none other than the famous poet Jean de Meun, whose vast completion of Guillaume de Lorris’ Roman de la Rose, one of the most widely read French works of the later Middle Ages, contains a passage recounting the romance of Abelard and Heloise, and who translated the Historia and the correspondence into French.59

24But as John Marenbon notes, this theory is simply illogical:

  • 60 Ibid., 83–84.

There are […] a number of instances in the Old French translation, not explicable by variants in the Latin text or defects in the manuscript of the French, where Jean de Meun, failing to grasp the meaning of a phrase in the correspondence, mistranslates it. How could Jean de Meun misunderstand a text which he himself had forged?60

  • 61 Ibid., 93.
  • 62 Ibid., 90.

25The compulsion that many critics have to “channel, reformulate, and control” texts that describe human love is enabled by “the wish, among some literary theorists, to treat texts as if they were not the products of their authors, but independent signifiers, awaiting the reader to interpret them in one of the unlimited ways in which they can be understood”.61 That this wish drives the Bentons and Silvestres of the world to spin elaborate (and ultimately unsupportable) theories of fraud and conspiracy is at once sad and instructive. But such an impulse needn’t drive us. Those who contend that the letters are a fraud because they were composed by Abelard himself, make claims that are entirely free of any actual evidence: “[t]here is nothing intrinsically impossible about the suggestion, but it requires strong evidence. This its supporters signally fail to provide”.62

Abelard and Eloise confessing their love to his brother monks and her sister nuns. Coloured stipple engraving by Miss Martin after Perolia.63

  • 64 Newman, 47.
  • 65 Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, 89.
  • 66 Radice, 49.

26The passionate love of Abelard and Heloise, with all its struggles and complications, is not a fraud perpetrated by “novelists”, “scoundrels” or by Abelard himself. The sheer energy that has gone into constructing and defending such arguments (primarily by male critics) speaks eloquently of the determination to achieve “not only the repression of Heloise’s desire, but the complete obliteration of her voice”.64 What is it about the idea of a powerfully intellectual and passionately eros-driven Heloise that so disturbs such critics? It is “neither improbable nor anachronistic to attribute to Heloise the sentiments expressed in her letters”,65 despite the urge of moralizing critics to explain them away. Nor does the love of Abelard and Heloise fit the bloodless and library-bound scholarly idea of “courtly love”, a passionless construct that reveals its adherents’ disdain: “Abelard and Heloise speak a different language of sensuous frankness […]. Their relationship found physical expression, and Heloise is neither cold nor remote but loving and generous, eager to give service and not to demand it”.66

  • 67 Newman, 50.
  • 68 Longxi, 215. The response to this position is predictable. As David Dawson argues, although the “li (...)

27Far from being something so bloodless as Robertson’s “exemplary conversion narrative authored by Abelard”,67 the story of Abelard and Heloise is defined by passion, desire, and loss. Their love cannot be confined to an academic’s tale, a somnolent morality play that fits comfortably within the paradigm of “courtly love”, with its emphasis on love as a flawed if necessary path to Heaven. Theirs is a tale of the delights and dangers of fin’amor in a world determined to control love and sexuality—a world in which too many seem determined to write such a story out of existence by insisting that it does not really mean what it says. But as Zang Longxi reminds us, in response to those critics who would torture texts into “saying” what they do not say, while vigorously denying what they do say: “the plain literal sense of the text must always act as a restraint to keep interpretation from going wild, […] bringing the letter into harmony with the spirit, rather than into opposition to it”.68

  • 69 Newman, 70.

28The history of Abelard and Heloise is one of delight and suffering—real suffering, not the stylized variety of the courtly stories—and just perhaps, it is also a story of a new joy at being reunited, through words on a page (one can only imagine how many times Abelard read and read again those words Heloise had given him, and as for Heloise, she leaves us in no doubt). For beside the sensual delight each took in the other, what else more than their words, their intellects, their thoughts, brought Abelard and Heloise together as two sighted lovers amidst the eyeless crowds? Those who would condemn Heloise’s passions, argue that her words were really not her own, or adopt any other tactic that might serve to explain her away, will always be with us. But they need no longer have any claim on our attention, much less our readerly obedience to their insistent demands that we read as they do. Abelard and Heloise loved as few ever will, and Heloise in particular stands above the mean and base denunciations of the passionless, and sanctimonious critics who would silence or shame her across the centuries. Heloise was a woman of strength, substance, and character who would merely laugh at her modern detractors, for her focus was always on love: “[m]ore than any ancient Roman, perhaps, Heloise fulfilled to perfection the classical ideal of the univim, the woman who belonged solely and wholly to a single man. Whatever the role she played, Abelard was always her solus, her unicus, he alone could grieve her, comfort her, instruct her, command her, destroy her, or save her”.69

29In the end, love found a way to thrive, through the lovers’ passionate and painful lines, and through our own open and honest reading of those lines nearly a thousand years later. The love of Abelard and Heloise was neither ironic, nor faked—such claims say more about the critics than about the words of two twelfth-century lovers who, even now, face the condemnation of the moral scolds among us who never miss a chance to drain the joy out of life, love, and poetry.

Notes

1 Jean Hagstrum observes that the story of Abelard and Heloise is “an invaluable guide to what lies behind the imaginative literatures of love” (Hagstrum 203).

2 Roger E. Olson. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 326.

3 “Quae cum per faciem non esset infirma, per abundantium litterarum erat suprema” (Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil. Magistri Petri Abaelardi epistola quae est Historia calamitatum: Heloissae et Abaelardi epistolae, ed. by Johann Caspar von Orelli [Turici: Officina Ulrichiana, 1841], 6, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/6).

4 Betty Radice. “Introduction”. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. by Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1974), 16.

5 Heloise seems to have had an even lower opinion of marriage than did Abelard (practiced, as it was, primarily for economic reasons):
This one is not better because he is richer or more powerful; the latter depends on fortune, the former on virtue. Nor should she be estimated as less than venal, who freely marries the rich man rather than the poor one, and desires what her husband
has more than what he is. To such a one, certainly, pay is due rather than gratitude. Certainly it is true that she thinks more of his property than of him, and she, if she could, would prostitute herself to a richer man.
[N]on enim quo quisque ditior sive potentior, ideo et melior; fortunae illud est, hoc virtutis. Nec se minime venalem aestimet esse, quae libentius ditiori quam pauperi nubit, et plus in marito sua quam ipsum concupiscit. Certe quamcunque ad nuptias haec concupiscentia ducit, merces ei potius quam gratia debetur. Certum quippe est eam res ipsas, non hominem sequi, et se, si posset, velle prostituere ditiori.
Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 33, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n40

6 In 1031, the Council of Bourges declared that “[p]riests, deacons and subdeacons were to refrain from taking wives and concubines, and those already married were to separate from their wives, or face the threat of degradation” (Helen Parish. Clerical Celibacy in the West: C.1100–1700 [Farnham: Ashgate, 2010], 96). By 1059, instructions were given that “the laity should refuse the sacraments of married priests” (97). In 1095, the Council of Clermont demanded that “any priest, deacon, or subdeacon who was married must refrain from the celebration of the Mass” (103), and by 1119, “Pope Calixtus II made further attempts to enforce the prohibitions on clerical marriage at the Council of Rheims […], at which it was determined that all married clergy were to be expelled from their benefices, and threatened with the penalty of excommunication if they did not separate from their wives” (103). Abelard and Heloise’s relationship takes place in a context in which the primary employer of intellectuals (the Church) is in the process of forbidding them to have anything like a “normal” sexual and emotional life. It is this same institution that will soon establish the Inquisition and come to dominate the university:
Gregory IX, in 1231, endowed the University [of Paris] with the great Papal privilege that completed its organization. It was the self-same Pope, who in 1233 entrusted the Dominicans with the office of the Inquisition. The Church, that under the great Innocent III (1198–1216) had reached the peak of its power, regarded this as a necessary defense against the heretical movements of the twelfth century. But the Church also saw a danger in the laity’s culture at the end of the twelfth century, so it felt it had to subject education to its control. Thus, there is a close internal link between the introduction of the Inquisition and the enforcement of papal supervision of the universities.
[S]tattete Gregor IX. im Jahre 1231 die Universität mit dem großen päpstlichen Privileg aus, das ihre Organisation abschloß. Es was derselbe Papst, der 1233 den Dominikanern das Amt der Inquisition übertrug. Gegen die ketzerischen Bewegungen des 12. Jahrhunderts schien der Kirche, die unter dem großen Innozenz III (1198–1216) den Höhenpunkt ihrer Machstellung erreicht hatte, diese Gegenwehr geboten. Sie durfte aber auch in der stark von Alterum befruchteten Laienkultur des ausgehenden 12. Jahrhunderts eine Gefahr sehen, mußte also das Bildungswesen ihrer Kontrolle unterwerfen. So hängt die Einfürung der Inquisition und die Durchsetzung der päpistlichen Oberaufsicht über die Universitäten innerlich zusammen.
Ernst Robert Curtius
. Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter. Berlin: A. Francke, 1948, 63. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the methods of academic and theological critics of poetry can so often seem identical.

7 Joseph R. Strayer. Western Europe in the Middle Ages: A Short History (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955), 130.

8 “Otto of Freising described Bernard of Clairvaux as rather too ready to pounce upon hints of heresy, and Bernard was instrumental in branding innovative philosophy as dangerous heresy” (Christine Caldwell Ames. Medieval Heresies: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015], 199).

9 “Henry led a popular anti-clerical uprising, proclaiming a reform of marriage and elimination of degrees of consanguinity” (Ryan P. Freeburn. Hugh of Amiens and the Twelfth-Century Renaissance [Farnham: Ashgate, 2011], 150–51).

10 Constant J. Mews. “Accusations of Heresy and Error in the Twelfth Century Schools: The Witness of Gerhoh of Reichersberg and Otto of Freising”. In Heresy in Transition: Transforming Ideas of Heresy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 2005), 44.

11 John Marenbon. Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2007), 136.

12 Strayer, 130.

13 Ames, 199.

14 Jacques Le Goff, ed. The Medieval World. Trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane (London: Collins & Brown, 1990), 21.

15 Jan M. Ziolowski, editor and translator. Letters of Peter Abelard, Beyond the Personal (Washington: The Catholic University Press of America, 2008), xxii.

16 Denis de Rougemont differs, positing a first meeting in 1118. L’Amour et l’Occident (Paris: Plon, 1939), n. 12, 289.

17 The ages of Abelard and Heloise in 1115 are dated from a birthdate for Abelard of 1079, and for Heloise of 1100, making Abelard thirty six and Heloise fifteen. However, Constant Mews has recently argued that “[t]he tradition that she was born in 1100, and thus only a teenager when she met Abelard, is a pious fabrication from the seventeenth century, without any firm foundation. In 1115, she is more likely to have been around twenty-one years old” (Constant J. Mews, Abelard and Heloise [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], 59).

18 “Nam quo bonum hoc, litteratorie scilicet scientiae, in mulieres es rarius: eo amplius puellam commendabat, et in toto regno nominatissimam fecerat” (Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 6, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/6).

19 “cum iam me solum in mundo superesse philosophum aestimarem, nec ullam ulterius inquietationem formidarem, frena libidini coepi laxare” (ibid., 5–6, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/5).

20 “dormientem in secreta hospicii mei camera” (ibid., 11, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/11).

21 eis videlicet corporis mei partibus amputatis, quibus id quod plangebant commiseram, […] Mane autem facto, tota ad me civitas congregata, quanta stuperet admiratione, quanta se affligeret lamentatione, quanto me clamore vexarent, quanto planctu perturbarent: difficile, immo impossibile est exprimi. Maxime vero clerici ac precipue scolares nostri intolerabilibus me lamentis et eiulatibus cruciabant, ut multo amplius ex eorum compassione quam ex vulneris lederer passione, et plus erubescentiam quam plagam sentirem. […] quod professioni meae convenientius erat, sacre plurimum lectioni studium intendens.
Ibid., 11–12, 13, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/12

22 Vidi siquidem Parisius, quod quidam clericus nomine Fulbertus te ut hospitem in domo sua recepit, te in mensa sua ut amicum familiarem et domesticum honorifice pavit, neptim etiam suam, puellam prudentissimam et indolis egregiae, ad docendum commisit. Tu vero viri illius nobilis et clerici, Parisiensis etiam ecclesiae canonici, hospitis insuper tui ac domini, et gratis et honorifice te procurantis non immemor, sed contemptor, commissae tibi virgini non parcens, quam conservare ut commissam, docere ut discipulam debueras, effreno luxuriae spiritu agitatus non argumentari, sed eam fornicari docuisti, in uno facto multorum criminum, proditionis scilicet et fornicationis, reus et virginei pudoris violator spurcissimus. Sed Deus ultionum, Dominus Deus ultionum, libere egit, qui ea qua tantum parte peccaveras te privavit.
Roscelin of Compiègne. “Epistola XV: Quae est Roscelini ad P. Abaelardum”.
Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Vol. 178, ed. by Jacques Paul Migne (Paris: Apud Garnier Fratres, 1885), col. 369, https://archive.org/stream/patrologiaecurs53unkngoog#page/n189

23 “ubi cum quodam clerico nostro latitans, illud vere Domino poteram decantare: ‘Ecce elongavi fugiens et mansi in solitudine’” (Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 19, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/19).

24 “ut Christianorum finibus excessis” (ibid., 23, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n31).

25 “Missam ad amicum pro consolatione epistolam, dilectissime, vestram ad me forte quidam nuper attulit” [Recently it chanced, most beloved, that the letter of consolation you sent to a friend was brought to me] (ibid., 30, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n37).

26 “continuas vitae persecutiones” (ibid., 30, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n37).

27 What made Peter Abelard so unusual in the eyes of Heloise was his gift for combining his skill in philosophy with a gift for composing and singing songs of love. When she read the Historia calamitum, she reminded him of these public declarations of love and of the incessant letters he had showered on her in the past. From her perspective, a true relationship was not an illicit sexual encounter but a mutual profession of true love.
Constant J. Mews.
The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999), 82.

28 Barbara Newman. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 19.

29 “Hos autem in me stimulos carnis, haec incentiva libidinis ipse iuvenilis fervor aetatis, et iocundissimarum experientia volputatum, plurimum accendunt. […] Castam me raedicant, qui non deprehenderunt hypocritum. Munditiam carnis conferunt in virtutem, cum non sit corporis, sed animi virtus” (Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 43–44, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/43).

30 Ibid., 32, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n39

31 “Solus quippe es, qui me contristare, qui me laetificare seu consolari valeas” (ibid.)

32 Bernart de Ventadorn, 260–63, ll. 13–16, https://archive.org/stream/bernartvonventad00bern#page/260

33 Nihil unquam, deus scit, in te nisi requisiui; te pure, non tua concupiscens. […] Et si uxoris nomen sanctius ac validius videtur, dulcius mihi semper exstitit amicae ocabulum, aut, si non indigneris, concubinae vel scorti. […] sed plerisque tacitis, quibus amorem coniugio, libertatem vinculo praeferebam. Deum leslcm invoco, si me Augustus universo praesidens mundo matrimonii honore dignaretur totumque mihi orbem confirmaret in perpetuo praesidendum, carius mihi et dignius videretur tua dici meretrix, quam illius imperatrix.
Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 32–33, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n40

34 Constant J. Mews. “Abelard, Heloise, and Discussion of Love in the Twelfth-Century Schools”. In Babette S. Hellemans, eds. Rethinking Abelard: A Collection of Critical Essays (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 26.

35 Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 34, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n41

36 Hagstrum, 204.

37 quam quidem iuvenculam ad monastice conversationis asperitatem non religionis devotio sed tua tantum pertraxit iussio. Ubi si nihil a te promerear, quam frustra laborem, diiudica. Nulla mihi super hoc merces exspectanda est a deo, cuius adhuc amore nihil me constat egisse. Properantem te ad deum secuta sum habitu, immo praecessi. […] Ege autem (deus scit) ad Vulcania loca te properantem praecedere vel sequi pro iussu tuo minime dubitarem. Non enim mecum animus meus sed tecum erat. Sed et nunc maxime si tecum non est, nusquam est: esse vero sine te nequaquam potest.
Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 34, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n41

38 “Domino suo, immo patri; coniugi suo, immo fratri; ancilla sua, immo filia, ipsius uxor, immo soror” (ibid., 30, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n37).

39 “Heloissae, dilectissimae sorori suae in Christo, Abaelardus, frater eius in ipso” (ibid., 35, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/n42).

40 “Vale unice” (ibid.).

41 “Vivite, sed Christo quaeso mei memores” (ibid., 39, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/39)

42 Newman, 56.

43 Radice, 27.

44 Primum domo una coniungimur, postmodum animo. Sub occasione itaque disciplinae amori penitus vacabamus, et secretos regressus, quos amor optabat, studium lectionis offerebat. Apertis itaque libris, plura de amore, quam de lectione verba se ingerebant, plura erant oscula, quam sententiae. Saepius ad sinus quam ad libros educebantur manus. […] nullus a cupidis intermissus est gradus amoris. […] Taediosum mihi vehementer erat ad scholas procedere, vel in eis morari; pariter et laboriosum, cum nocturnas amori vigilias et diurnas studio conservarem.
Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 7, https://archive.org/stream/magistripetriaba00abel#page/7

45 Alice V. Clark. “From Abbey to Cathedral and Court: Music Under the Merovingian, Carolingian and Capetian Kings in France until Louis IX”. The Cambridge Companion to French Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 12.

46 Ibid., 13.

47 Latin text from Lorenz Weinrich. “‘Dolorum solatium’: Text und Musik von Abaelards Planctus”. Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch, 5 (1968), 72, ll. 69–80.

48 W. G. East. “This Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life”. In Peter Biller and Alastair J. Minnis, eds. Medieval Theology and the Natural Body (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1997), 51.

49 “quocunque casu viam universae carnis absens a vobis ingrediar, cadaver obsecro nostrum, ubicunque vel sepultum vel expositum iacuerit, ad cimiterium vestrum deferri faciatis” (Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil, 39).

50 Charles J. Reid. Power Over the Body, Equality in the Family: Rights and Domestic Relations in Medieval Canon Law (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 130.

51 Bernart de Ventadorn, 250–54, ll. 9–16, https://archive.org/stream/bernartvonventad00bern#page/250

52 Newman, 47.

53 Ibid., 49.

54 Ibid., 50.

55 Longxi, 205.

56 Newman, 52.

57 Ignas Fessler. Abälard und Heloise, Vol. II (Berlin, 1806), 352.

58 John Marenbon. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997), 83.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 83–84.

61 Ibid., 93.

62 Ibid., 90.

63 Wellcome Images, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abelard_and_Eloise_confessing_their_love_to_his_brother_monk_Wellcome_V0033159.jpg

64 Newman, 47.

65 Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, 89.

66 Radice, 49.

67 Newman, 50.

68 Longxi, 215. The response to this position is predictable. As David Dawson argues, although the “literal sense” has often been thought of as an inherent quality of a literary text that gives it a specific and invariant character (often, a “realistic” character), the phrase is simply an honorific title given to a kind of meaning that is culturally expected and automatically recognized by readers. It is the “normal”, “commonsensical” meaning, the product of a conventional, customary reading. The “literal sense” thus stems from a community’s generally unself-conscious decision to adopt and promote a certain kind of meaning, rather than from its recognition of a text’s inherent and self-evident sense.
Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 7–8. Note how often the critic resorts to condescending language that insists on the naïveté and “conventional” quality of readings that attempt to recover a literal sense of a text. Such readings are “unselfconscious”, “conventional”, “customary”, and otherwise to be revealed, unmasked, and debunked by the clear-eyed, self-conscious, and most definitely unconventional critic. Who benefits from such relentless and widely-shared (in some sense also “conventional” and “customary”) interpretive stances by critics? Other, that is, than the critics themselves?

69 Newman, 70.

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Légende Abelard and Eloise confessing their love to his brother monks and her sister nuns. Coloured stipple engraving by Miss Martin after Perolia.63
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