Abélard and Héloïse are one of the most celebrated couples of all time, known for their love affair and for the tragedy that separated them.
In a letter to Abélard, Héloïse wrote: “You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you.”
WHO WERE ABÉLARD AND HÉLOÏSE?
Peter Abélard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century.
Héloïse (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert. She was well educated by her uncle in Paris. Abélard later writes in his autobiographical “Historica Calamitatum”: “Her uncle’s love for her was equalled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters.”
ABÉLARD AND HÉLOÏSE’S COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP
Héloïse was one of the most well educated women of her time, as well as a great beauty. Wishing to become acquainted with Héloïse, Abélard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach Héloïse.
Using the pretext that his own house was a “handicap” to his studies, Abélard moved in to the house of Héloïse and her uncle. Soon enough, despite their age difference, Abélard and Héloïse became lovers.
But when Fulbert discovered their love, he separated them. As Abélard would later write: “Oh, how great was the uncle’s grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!”
Their separation didn’t end the affair, and they soon discovered Héloïse was pregnant. She left her uncle’s house when he was not at home, and she stayed with Abélard’s sister until Astrolabe was born.
Abélard asked for Fulbert’s forgiveness and permission to secretly marry Héloïse, to protect his career. Fulbert agreed, but Abélard struggled to persuade Héloïse to marry him under such conditions. In Chapter 7 of “Historia Calamitatum,” Abélard wrote: “She, however, most violently disapproved of this, and for two chief reasons: the danger thereof, and the disgrace which it would bring upon me… What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light!”
When she finally agreed to become Abélard’s wife, Héloïse told him, “Then there is no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known.” In regard to that statement, Abélard later wrote, in his “Historica,” “Nor in this, as now the whole world knows, did she lack the spirit of prophecy.”
Secretly married, the couple left Astrolabe with Abélard’s sister. When Heloise went to stay with the nuns at Argenteuil, her uncle and kinsmen believe Abélard had cast her off, forcing her to become a nun.
Fulbert responded by ordering men to castrate him. Abélard wrote about the attack:
Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.
THE LEGACY OF ABÉLARD AND HÉLOÏSE
Following the castration, Abélard became a monk and persuaded Héloïse to become a nun, which she didn’t want to do. They began to correspond, leaving what are known as the four “Personal Letters” and the three “Letters of Direction.”
While the two write of their love for each other, their relationship is decidedly complicated. Furthermore, Héloïse writes of her dislike of marriage, going so far as to call it prostitution. Many academics refer to her writings as one of the earliest contributions to feminist philosophies.