Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Sunday 25th June 2017 | Manchester, UK

Heloïse and Abélard


The tale of the two lovers, Heloise and Abelard, and their scandalous affair has incited an exodus of literature, music and art.

Hailing from 12th century Paris, both Heloise and Abelard were highly gifted intellectuals, well versed in philosophy and theology. Heloise was a pupil of Abelard who was twenty years her senior, she is known to have striven for knowledge, truth and equality. For Abelard, such a woman was intriguing and he soon fell for her. Despite their illicit love being forbidden their yearnings for each other could not be repressed and their physical bodies soon joined their emotions in passionate entanglement.
Unfortunately for the couple, their passion was made public when Heloise fell pregnant out of wedlock. To avoid the bastardisation of their child and scandal, they moved to Brittany, where Canon Fulbert –Heloise’s uncle- performed a secret marriage ceremony, not unlike Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. However, Fulbert’s actions were misguided, as he attempts to ruin Abelard’s reputation and keep Heloise for himself. Heloise escapes, fleeing to a convent in Argenteuil, but for Abelard the story is more brutal. Abelard is viciously attacked in Paris and castrated, the humiliation of which meant he could no longer teach at Notre Dame. To avoid further attacks, Heloise and Abelard gave up their child and joined the Holy Orders.

Despite separation, the two lovers kept in correspondence for twenty years, their love continued to flourish. They met briefly at a ceremony in Paris, the last time they would meet, and decreed the love they share is the reason for human existence. The two lovers would never meet again, yet through their letters, their love lives on; inspiring literary romantic tales for centuries.

The story of Heloise and Abelard, their courage and passion, is used by romantics to enlighten contemporary thought. Questioning our own understanding of religious intolerance, and intellectual freedom.In the era of courtly love or fin’amor, the story of Heloise and Abelard would seem most apt. Courtly love poses itself, as historian Newman states, ‘a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent.’ This story would seem to fit the mould, perhaps all too well.

Revision of the story of Heloise and Abelard proves to shed more light on their transcendent love. Mary Ellen Waithe proposes, with much evidence, that Abelard raped Heloise when she refused consent. From Abelard’s fifth letter to Heloise he states: ‘When you objected to [sex] yourself and resisted with all your might, and tried to dissuade me from it, I frequently forced your consent (for after all you were the weaker) by threats and blows.’

Moreover, Heloise’s radical feminist philosophies would too seem to jilt this love story. She states: ‘Assuredly, whomsoever this concupiscence leads into marriage deserves payment rather than affection; for it is evident that she goes after his wealth and not the man, and is willing to prostitute herself, if she can, to a richer.’ Her obvious view of marriage as contractual prostitution may well fit into her story. For Heloise is essentially forced to marry Abelard for fear of shame and punishment. Their love is interfered with by religious doctrine and parenthood, of which marriage is the apotheosis.

Despite sexual abuse being cited in Abelard’s letters, Heloise’s letters still propose she is greatly in love with Abelard and do not fortify Abelard’s claim of rape. Wulstan states that guilt led Abelard to make such a claim. It is also imperative that we do not place our understanding of rape culture upon a twelfth century society, for our understanding will be vastly different to theirs.

In spite of this, as a hopeless romantic first and historian second, I will choose to view this as an embellished true story who’s relevance and delight spans centuries.

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