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Abelard and Heloise - passionate love between scholars.

Updated on February 14, 2014

Abelard and Heloise - a tragic love.

Many ancient love stories from medieval times, such as Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere, have passed into the realm of myth and legend and it is now unlikely that we will ever know their true stories, or even if the protagonists really existed.

Abelard and Heloise are different; the story of their tragic love affair is well documented and, because of this, it is undeniable. Despite this record, however, we can never be really sure as to why they made the choices they did, choices that led to lives of unbelievable poignancy and sadness. Unless it was Abelard's own hubris.

The lovers are discovered by her uncle.
The lovers are discovered by her uncle. | Source
Abelard about to abuse his position of trust.
Abelard about to abuse his position of trust. | Source
The lovers tomb in the Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise in Paris.
The lovers tomb in the Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise in Paris. | Source

Abelard - philosopher and logician.

Peter Abelard was born in Brittany in 1079 and so, like that other star-crossed lover, Tristan, was of Celtic origin. It's tempting to believe that the flamboyant and creative Celts were of such a romantic nature that they risked all in pursuit of their desires. It is certainly true that Peter Abelard unwittingly risked that most precious of all male possessions for his love.

As the son of a minor nobleman he received a good education. In fact he was such a clever scholar that he chose to become an academic, specialising in philosophy and theology, rather than following the traditional career of the time as a soldier.

He was still only a teenager when, after travelling throughout France honing his debating skills, he eventually came to live in Paris. It was here that he stayed, teaching for a while at the school of the Notre Dame before setting up his own school just outside Paris when he was just twenty-two.

Such was his intellectual brilliance that he eventually confounded his own tutors with the formidable logic of his arguments. It hardly made him popular but it seems that he cared little about that. Despite this he was obviously a young man of great presence and students came from all over to follow and learn from him.

For many years Abelard was content with his growing reputation for logic and scientific discussion and apparently revelled in his fame as one of the foremost thinkers of the age. His career left him little time for the dark art of love until Fate intervened and sent him a woman worthy of his own towering intellect, Heloise.

Abelard was thirty-eight when he was hired by Canon Fulbert to be tutor to his niece, Heloise. She was around eighteen years old at the time and was already a classical scholar. Presumably finding a woman who was intellectually on a level with himself was the ultimate aphrodisiac for Abelard and he fell hopelessly in love with Heloise.

Heloise appears to have been somewhat of a rarity for the Middle Ages, an educated woman, not just a marriageable pawn in someone else's game. Despite the valuable commodity of virginity her uncle had taken time and trouble to educate her to such a high standard that only Abelard would do to finish her tutoring.

Abelard however abused his position and seduced Heloise and maybe it is a clear indication of his higher social standing that he felt he could get away with this. He is reputed to have even openly bragged about his conquest. But then it could hardly have been much of a conquest as, by all accounts, Heloise was just as much in love with Abelard as he was with her, so he may not so much have seduced as been seduced.

A reluctant marriage.

It is hard to gauge at this distance in time whether Abelard found the love affair a hindrance to his glittering career or whether the social mores of the time forbade some sort of open liaison. Whatever the case, when Heloise predictably became pregnant Abelard sent her to Brittany to have their child in secret.

A son, strangely christened Astrolabe, was born to them and we can only guess at how his life unfolds as he plays little part in the rest of their love story.

Canon Fulbert, Heloise's uncle, can hardly have been best pleased about the love affair and insisted that Abelard marries Heloise, which he does, but only in secrecy, perhaps in case it damaged his career prospects. Heloise seems to have been the nobler of the two as she, at first, refuses to marry him to save that prized career.

Even in one of the famous love letters that passed between them in later years and which has come down to us through the ages, she still states she would have preferred to have remained his mistress. It is possible that to such an educated woman marriage, at that time, meant little more than being some man's chattel.

The high price of the love affair.

Canon Fulbert appears to have been so relieved about the marriage that he spoke about it openly despite Heloise's denials in an attempt to keep the fact hidden. Abelard, presumably displeased about such publicity, urged Heloise to go into a convent.

We will never be completely sure as to why he did this. Did he think to keep her safe? Did he want to hide his new wife from the world? Whatever his motives were it was a decision that was to have disastrous consequences for him.

The good canon, appalled and believing that having shamed Heloise Abelard now wanted her hidden away in a nunnery, was so incensed that he hired thugs to attack Abelard and castrate him so that he would be forever unable to bring shame on any other woman. Thus was the mighty Abelard brought low.

The end of the affair?

In anybody's language that single, barbaric event would seem to be enough to finish off any relationship but this was not the case. Although they separated and Abelard became a monk, he still insisted that Heloise live in a convent and become une religieuse, a position which she knew was wrong for her and which she seems to have resented for a long time.

However, as a dutiful wife she obeyed her husband, although he now exhorted her to think of their relationship as that of brother and sister. In time she accepted a religious way of life and eventually became an abbess.

It is unknown why Abelard should seek to restrict Heloise's future so completely. He could still have wanted to keep her hidden for the sake of his own scholastic career which still continued between self-inflicted bouts of hiding away in monasteries and even once becoming a hermit for a while. He may have wanted to keep her away from other men, in a sort of dog in a manger sort of way. Or, given his own experience of life, he may simply have wanted to keep her safe in a savage and unforgiving age.

The testament of an enduring love.

As always in these stories there was to be no happy ending. It seems that tragedy and poignancy are necessary prerequisites for ensuring that a love story endures the passage of time.There are conflicting theories as to whether they even saw each other again.

Abelard seems to have been continually on the move, still making enemies of the clergy by antagonising them with his controversial views. Heloise stayed immured in her convent, lost to the outside world. It is said that he and Heloise did meet once, by chance, and found that their love was as strong as ever. On parting once more, they wrote to each other for the next twenty years, still declaring their mutual love. Fortunately for us, some of these letters have survived and have been translated from their original Latin.

But time was running out for Abelard and his religious enemies, in particular Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian Order, were marshalling their forces in the face of his perceived heresies. They now challenged him to answer their charges but there was to be no trial. On his way to Rome to plead his case with the Pope, Abelard died at the Priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone. It is rumoured that his last words were 'I don't know'.

The year was 1142 and the man who had spent a lifetime knowing practically more than anyone else was dead at the age of 63. Heloise was now condemned to live on, alone in the world, for another twenty one years.

Reunited in death.

Since Heloise's death there have been many rumours surrounding the whereabouts of their bones. One story is that they were interred together at the Oratory of the Paraclete, an religious institution Abelard had founded and over which Heloise presided. Other theories state their bones were laid to rest separately.

But there is yet another twist to this tale. It is said that the Empress Josephine, moved by the story of the lovers, ordered the recovery of their bones, and in 1817 had them reinterred in a tomb in the Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise in Paris.

They are believed to be still there, resting peacefully together in death as they never could in life.

The parting of Abelard and Heloise


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