So, we read a bit of Abélard’s theology last fall in “History of Christianity” (which I teach every year) and a few of Abélard and Héloïse’s letters. The students did not like Abélard – his personality, that is. It does shine through, or rather, it doesn’t shine. He was a brilliant, aggressive, rather obnoxious character. I told the students to think of him as the really smart arrogant guy who was captain of the debate team at Yale. It turns out many people agree (and agreed back in the day) about Abélard’s personality. Writes one reviewer (rather informally as you will see by his language – this was not for the New York Times but for something called curledup.com, and he misspelled Canon as “Cannon,” confusing the church position with the weapon): Abelard…comes across as something of a schnook. A brilliant schnook, but nonetheless a schnook.
Meanwhile, Héloïse was a much more attractive personality. Their affair, of course, is compelling, and it does take two to make an affair, but if I had to pick a conversation partner, it wouldn’t be Abélard.
Two recent-ish books got me really hooked on those two, though my old friend (now deceased, he was of my parents’ generation and was their friend first) Joe Barry had earlier written a popular essay on them as lovers in his book French Lovers: From Heloise and Abelard to Beauvoir and Sartre. (Note: That book also included Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau -- unusual for a book back then to include a gay couple as models of love.)
The first of the two books was so interesting I actually paid big money for the hardback shortly after it came out. It looked pretty solid when I read it, but afterwards I was worried since I am not a medievalist and I asked one of the most reliable scholars I know in the field and she said yup, trustworthy. So it’s not like The Da Vinci Code even though the first part of the title sounds like it. The Lost Letters of Héloïse and Abélard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth Century France, by Constant Mews (with translations by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant J. Mews) came out in 1999 from St. Martin's Press.
Mews is an Australian scholar, and in the book he examines a cache of letters preserved in a 15th century manuscript and edited in the 1970s by another scholar as The Letters of Two Lovers. Mews’s hypothesis, which holds up well, is that the letters are from Héloïse and Abélard during their affair – this is hot stuff of course, since the other letters we have are from after the affair ended due to Abélard’s unfortunate encounter with sharp metal and Abélard and Héloïse’s separation and entrance into monastic life. This is not fluff and it has the Latin and English texts side by side. It shows not only Héloïse’s erudition (she was a well-educated young woman, quoting the Latin poets and using their turns of phrase) but the dynamics of the relationship itself. Great stuff. History and religion nerds out there, check it out.
A more recent book, not by a university type, but making use of Mews and of a number of other scholarly sources, is Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge (2003). It’s a little sensational on the cover (typical HarperSanFrancisco). Burge is a documentary maker for the BBC and the Discovery Channel. Not exactly Harvard or Oxford, but he’s a student of medieval philosophy and culture from way back and dramatized the writings of Roger Bacon. I haven’t finished the book –teaching interrupted my reading, funny the way that works— but I just brought it back from the office in honor of Abélard’s feast day and of my promise to write about Héloïse here, so it’s going on the home reading pile.
Bernard of Clairvaux figures prominently in this whole story, by the way.
It is a story for the ages: philosophy, romance, sex, pregnancy, violence, distance, monasticism (always fascinating to the non-monastic), intellectual controversies, politics, culture, religion, public and private lives, and more.
And do you remember Abélard and Héloïse had a son? They named him Astralabe. He lived to adulthood. It is not certain, writes Mews, what happened to Astralabe. According to a mid-12th century document from Brittany (the province from which Abélard hailed and where he still had plenty of family) there was a canon named Astralabe at Nantes, and (this is me talking, not Mews) how many church people are likely to have that name? But we don’t know for sure.
(More medieval fiddle music, grave and slow.)
Here are some of Constant Mews’s perspectives on Héloïse, based on all possible sources including the stash of 113 letters, duly analyzed:
Initially thrilled by the eloquence of [Abelard’s] letters, [Heloise] gradually begins to define their relationship in a way quite distinct from her teacher. Heloise’s ideal of love integrated three normally distinct concepts; amor, the passion or subjective experience of love; dilectio, an act of choice by which one consciously decided to love another person; and amicitia, or friendship. She develops ideas similar to those formulated by Baudri of Bourgueil in poems exchanged with various friends, including nuns at Le Ronceray, Angers. Heloise does not see any inconsistency between her love for Abelard and their shared study of philosophy. The quality which he so admired in her was that her words were matched by her behavior. Other people’s words seemed to him to be empty by comparison. [Mews, p. 147]
Heloise emerges in both her early and later letters as a writer profoundly familiar with classical literature, but preoccupied from the outset by ethical concerns. She combines classical rhetoric, such as found in the letters of Peter the Venerable, with an intensely personal interest in self-knowledge, much more reminiscent of the meditative writing o Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard himself was profoundly aware that his contemporaries were fascinated by the literature of love. Heloise shares these concerns, but was not afraid to draw on pagan literature to purse these themes. [Mews, 170]
As an abbess, Héloïse also shines. Not only intellectually and spiritually, but strategically. Unlike Abelard, Mews writes, Heloise was able to establish good connections to individuals from a number of different ecclesiastical networks. [Mews, 157.] (Diplomacy and the art of networking were not Abélard’s strengths. On the other hand, he could beat anyone at rational discourse, hands down.)
Of course I have the students read (and listen to music by) Héloïse’s contemporary, Hildegard von Bingen, but I believe in giving attention to Héloïse as much as to Hildegard, about whom there is an ongoing fascinating (I almost said “craze” – there, I said it). Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Hildegard, Renaissance woman before the Renaissance. But despite the smaller number of sources (we have whole books written by Hildegard), the study of Héloïse is well worth it especially because of the stories of love and friendship along with the focus on God, philosophy, virtue, poetry and church politics.
At the end of the book, Mews makes a final argument for taking the letters seriously:
Their language is so close to that of other writings of Abelard and Heloise that there seems to be no reason to doubt their authorship. These letters help confirm the authenticity of the famous correspondence of Abelard and Heloise. They also suggest that the historia calamitatum [“The History of My Misfortunes” by Abélard] cannot be relied upon as the final word on Abelard’s early relationship with Heloise. Much more than Heloise, Abelard distances himself from his past to save his reputation. She, by contrast, was rigorously hostile to hypocrisy both in love and in the religious life. Heloise belonged to one of the last generations of educated women for whom writing Latin prose and verse was a natural facility. By the second half of the twelfth century, French was beginning to rival Latin as the language in which to speak about love. Even in Heloise’s own lifetime, it was becoming increasingly difficult for women brought up in old-established monastic houses to maintain close literary contact with male friends, at least in France. The expanding influence of Parisian schools effectively marginalized women from benefiting from the education which Heloise had once enjoyed at Notre-Dame. The love letters copied at Clairvaux in the late fifteenth century offer a glimpse into a relationship from which Abelard wanted to distance himself. In transcribing those letters, Johannes de Vepria discovered the power of voices all too easily lost.
**************[Mews, 176-177]. [The annotated text to the letters in Latin and in English translation follows and takes up about half the book.]
That last chapter of Mews’s is called “The Voice of Heloise.”
Anselm doesn’t need me to talk about him, he has enough fans (and detractors) out there.
Abélard gets talked about and talked plenty himself. Rhetoric was his thing.