The letters of Abelard and Heloise

The letters of Abelard and Heloise

The letters of Abelard and Heloise

by ken-mckellar , June 24, 2019

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Thank you Ken for yet another generous contribution into my blog. I have had the luxury of watching The Letters of Abelard and Heloise on stage… I thought it was harsh to see how love hurts. I am not sure how it would feel when one reads it. 

As I promised you, I will promise subscribers with more “artistic” reviews. I will next review Tristan and Isolde (Iseult for the francophone) – the influential love story factoring in thoughts around Wagner related Prelude

Stay tuned!

When studying the foundation of the Cistercian monastic order in early 12th century France at university, I was encouraged to read The Letters of Abelard and Heloise to help me better understand the religious and social climate of the time.

Written in medieval Latin, the letters have since been translated into many languages in the millennium which followed. Their story is one of the finest true romances I have read, perfectly defining unrequited love or “la douleur exquise” (the delicious pain of wanting someone you can never have).

And so it was with Abelard and Heloise. Peter Abelard, a French philosopher, was one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Heloise was the brilliant, beautiful and beloved niece of Notre Dame de Paris’ Canon Fulbert who wanted the best possible education for his protégée that Paris could provide.  It soon became apparent that only one teacher in Paris could provide the quality of education that he wanted for her.

Though twenty years older than Heloise, Abelard, as her new teacher, soon became entranced by Heloise’s fierce intelligence which equalled his own. They soon found that they could not resist each other spiritually or physically, fully aware that the type of relationship they wanted was strictly forbidden by the laws and customs of their time.

When Fulbert discovered their love, he separated them, but they soon discovered that Heloise was pregnant. Abelard asked Fulbert’s forgiveness and permission to secretly marry Heloise, to protect his own reputation. Fulbert agreed, but Abelard initially struggled to persuade Heloise to marry him in secret.

When she finally agreed to the marriage, Heloise prophesied that the sorrow yet to come would be no less than the love they had already known. She was proved right. They discovered Fulbert’s true intention: to ruin Abelard and keep Heloise for himself.

For her safety, Heloise escaped to a convent.  Abelard was not so lucky. Fulbert persuaded himself and others that Abelard had forced Heloise to become a nun. Fulbert then ordered some men to attack and castrate Abelard in Paris.

Traumatized by his castration, Abelard chose became a monk and persuaded Heloise to become a nun, which she initially refused to do. Eventually, having decided to take Holy Orders, she also had to give up their child Astrolabe, whom she never saw again.

As monk and nun, Abelard and Heloise began to write to each other over the next 20 years, leaving what is known as the four “Personal Letters” and the three “Letters of Direction.” These are better known as The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.

From their correspondence, it is clear that their love continued to flourish, despite their separation. After many years, they were briefly reunited at a ceremony in Paris. When they met, they realized that their love was the reason for their human existence. The story ends with the couple promising to remain forever one.

In the years that have passed since their letters were written, scholars have analyzed them from various perspectives. Some see Heloise as one of the first ever feminist writers, with views on marriage and other institutions of the day that appear quite modern. Others see in the story the growing  corruption of the church which the foundation of various ascetic monastic orders at the time was designed to prevent.

When reading The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, I simply see two human beings, caught up in the onerous religious and social conventions of the day, who could not live happily thereafter, much as they wanted to. It is a heart-wrenching story, “une vraie douleur exquise” as they would say in Paris.

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