Lovers Abelard and Heloise
Some historians maintain that the Middle Ages gave birth to the idea of romantic love. Historical figures and lovers Abelard and Heloise serve as icons of medieval romantic love. Theirs was not the distant infatuation of knight for unattainable lady, however, or dewy- eyed heroine for valiant hero. Rather, their love story contained brilliant and inquisitive minds, mutual respect and admiration, unbridled passion, heights of ecstasy, consummated eros, violence, tragedy, separation, salvation through love and service, and a lifelong bond.
Of a 12th century French noble family, Abelard disavowed knighthood in favor of a life of learning and letters. He became famous for his knowledge, scholarship, and facility of discourse. We also sense his charisma and compelling physical presence. Of lesser blood, Heloise was widely renowned in France for her abilities of reading and writing, as well as her disdain of marriage and traditional feminine roles. Abelard later maintained he was drawn to the accomplished young woman and persuaded her uncle, an ecclesiastic, to allow him to move into his house, offering to tutor her in exchange. Heloise could have been as young as seventeen or as old as her mid-twenties. Regardless, the unusual and lively pair experienced a mutual attraction and soon fell into passionate love.
When Heloise became pregnant, Abelard sent her to his sister, where she gave birth to a boy, Astrolabe. Heloise’s uncle insisted the couple be married. Heloise objected but finally relented, and Abelard also agreed. To protect his career, however, he insisted the marriage remain secret. The spread of gossip, fueled by her uncle, led Abelard to place Heloise in the convent where she had been raised. Consequently, a band of her uncle’s friends attacked Abelard and castrated him. Following that, he became a monk, and Heloise, at his urging, took a nun’s vows and eventually became an abbess.Abelard’s writings place the guilt for the affair and subsequent tragedy on his unbridled lust and desire to seduce Heloise. Whether or not in taking the total blame he was being protective of Heloise, being truthful, or atoning for his guilt is a matter of contention. Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Creative Mythology says Abelard’s relegation of his feelings to mere lust is a failure of love. Campbell says Heloise, however, in her undying and unswerving devotion reached a level of transformative true love:
“She shows us that the womanly, purely human experience of love for a specific living being and the courage to burn for that love were to be the kingdom and the glory of properly human life.”
Abelard’s legacy in history is assured as that of a philosopher, logician, and theologian. Heloise’s legacy lives on, too, as the highly competent head of an abbey and skilled physician in that role. Most of all, however, we remember their great love. We know it through the letters they wrote to each other years later as abbot and abbess and through the descriptions of numerous poets and writers since.
Heloise wrote to him: “Remember (for nothing is forgot by lovers) the time and place in which you first declared your passion and swore you would love me till death. Your words, your oaths, are deeply graven in my heart.”
Here are some of his words to her: “This, unhappy Heloise, is the miserable condition of Abelard. The world, which is generally wrong in its notions, thinks I am at peace, and imagining that I loved you only for the gratification of the senses, have now forgot you. What a mistake is this!”
I love the line from Alexander Pope’s poem about them where Heloise implores Abelard: “Suck my last breath, and catch my flying soul,”
What do you think of of lovers Abelard and Heloise? Author Linda Sienkiewicz is as enamored of their story as I am and has some wonderful pictures of their tomb on her website.