26 February 2014

For Love's Sake: The Tragedy of Abelard & Heloise

By Lisa J. Yarde

Sometimes a sacrifice is the greatest display of love, specifically the act of giving up a chance at happiness for the well-being or safety of another person. The relationship between the philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard, and the abbess Heloise d'Argenteuil in the 12th century illustrates this idea. An illicit love affair brought them together, and cruelty forced them apart. In the end, Abelard chose to dedicate himself to God and begged Heloise to do the same. Still, the former lovers never forgot about each other. Their subsequent exchange of letters remains as a testament to their deep love and respect for each other.

Peter Abelard hailed from the village of Le Pallet, born in 1079 of a noble family in northwestern Brittany, part of modern-day France. As the eldest son of the lord of Le Pallet, his father Berengar and Berengar's wife Lucia, Abelard had the prospect of a bright future ahead of him. He could have aspired to a knighthood, a common choice among noble sons, but instead he devoted himself to philosophy. He left his father's castle and spent most of the next years in Paris, learning from the philosopher and theologian William of Champeaux. A rivalry developed between the men. When William retired in 1108 to the abbey of St. Victor, Abelard sought but failed to gain William's former position as chair at the Cathedral School of Paris. Five years later, Abelard accomplished this goal, but he had also established his own schools of study at Melun and Corbeil. In addition, he became a canon of Paris and enjoyed a preeminent position teaching theology. 

In 1115, he met Heloise, whose uncle Fulbert was also a canon of Paris at the church of Notre-Dame. Heloise has been presumed by some to have been a teenager born around 1100, perhaps the age of 17. Given the subjects she studied under Abelard's instruction, including medicine and her reputation as an outstanding scholar when they met, it's likely she was older, born possibly as early as 1090. With the possible intention of getting closer to Heloise, Abelard convinced his fellow canon Fulbert that Abelard should move into Fulbert’s house where he might tutor Heloise. As he relates, All men, I believe, are under a necessity of paying tribute at some time or other to Love, and it is vain to strive to avoid it. I was a philosopher, yet this tyrant of the mind triumphed over all my wisdom; his darts were of greater force than all my reasonings, and with a sweet constraint he led me wherever he pleased.”

The affair began and change overcame Abelard. He explains, “Love is incapable of being concealed; a word, a look, nay, silence, speaks it. My scholars discovered it first; they saw I had no longer that vivacity of thought to which all things are easy; I could now do nothing but write verses to soothe my passion. I quitted Aristotle and his dry maxims to practise the precepts of the more ingenious Ovid. No day passed in which I did not compose amorous verses; love was my inspiring Apollo.”

Fulbert discovered the affair a time when Heloise conceived Abelard's son born in 1118, who would be named Astrolabus. To save Heloise from her uncle Fulbert's wrath, Abelard sent his lover to his sister Lucilla in Brittany. Abelard resolved to marry Heloise with Fulbert's permission, on the condition that the union remained a secret. There might have been some impact on his career if the scandal became widely known. Heloise surprisingly objected to the marriage at first. As she would write to Abelard, “The name of mistress would be dearer and more honorable for me, only love given freely, rather than the constriction of the marriage tie, is of significance to an ideal relationship,” but she eventually agreed to marry him in Paris after the birth of their son. Abelard's sister raised her nephew in Le Pallet.

In her youth, Heloise had lived among the nuns at Argenteuil. She went to visit them for an extended stay at the insistence of Abelard, keen to hide his marriage. Fulbert became incensed, thinking Abelard had abandoned his niece. One night, he had two servants break into Abelard's house. They castrated him. Fulbert's men were blinded, and Fulbert lost his property and power for a year. Abelard found comfort in his profession. Heloise resigned herself to life as a nun, in a Benedictine abbey Abelard founded at the Oratory of the Paraclete. The letters began around that time.   

The words are passionate, speaking of lost but not forgotten love, at first. Heloise's frustration, bitterness and sorrow at their separation is clear. “Alas! my memory is perpetually filled with bitter remembrances of passed evils; and are there more to be feared still? Shall my Abelard never be mentioned without tears? Shall the dear name never be spoken but with sighs? Observe, I beseech you, to what a wretched condition you have reduced me; sad, afflicted, without any possible comfort unless it proceed from you. Be not then unkind, nor deny me, I beg of you, that little relief which you only can give..” 

Abelard’s initial answer reflected the struggle he faced and some self-blame for the calamities that had befallen them both. “Piety and duty are not always the fruits of retirement; even in deserts, when the dew of heaven falls not on us, we love what we ought no longer to love. The passions, stirred up by solitude, fill these regions of death and silence; it is very seldom that what ought to be is truly followed here and that God only is loved and served. Had I known this before I had instructed you better. You call me your master; it is true you were entrusted to my care. I saw you, I was earnest to teach you vain sciences; it cost you your innocence and me my liberty. 

Whether for the advancement of his career or some genuine regret at his behavior with the younger Heloise, Abelard advised his wife to accept her life as a nun, which she did. If Abelard judged their love to have been wrong, Heloise’s beliefs indicate no regrets about the time they were together. “But I am no longer ashamed that my passion had no bounds for you, for I have done more than all this. I have hated myself that I might love you; I came hither to ruin myself in a perpetual imprisonment that I might make you live quietly and at ease. Nothing but virtue, joined to a love perfectly disengaged from the senses, could have produced such effects. Vice never inspires anything like this, it is too much enslaved to the body.  When we love pleasures we love the living and not the dead. We leave off burning with desire for those who can no longer burn for us. This was my cruel Uncle's notion; he measured my virtue by the frailty of my sex, and thought it was the man and not the person I loved. But he has been guilty to no purpose. I love you more than ever; and so revenge myself on him. I will still love you with all the tenderness of my soul till the last moment of my life.”

Even after the tragedy of their separation, Abelard could not avoid controversy, as he faced continual charges of heresy. When he died in 1142, his body came to rest at the Paraclete, where Heloise finally joined him in 1163.

Source: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise and Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Kindle Edition

Images: Edmund Blair Leighton's 1882 painting of Abelard and Heloise, and the plaque on the wall at Le Pallet's donjon, dedicated to Abelard with a mention of his wife Heloise, both public domain.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s LegacySultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.