Astonishing Heloise

Barbara Newman

  • BuyThe Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise edited by David Luscombe
    Oxford, 654 pp, £165.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 822248 4

Nine hundred years ago, a celebrity philosopher fell in love with his star student and seduced her. Peter Abelard’s once brilliant lectures grew tepid, while his love songs placed the name of Heloise on every tongue. Passionate letters flew, and the Parisian gossip mill went into overdrive – until pregnancy, as so often, betrayed the secret. Much against Heloise’s will, Abelard insisted on marriage to soothe her enraged uncle Fulbert, and spirited their child off to his sister’s farm in Brittany. The pair married secretly at dawn, then went their separate ways. A resentful Heloise denied all rumours of the marriage, so Abelard, to protect her from Fulbert’s wrath, clothed her in a nun’s habit and hid her away at Argenteuil, the convent where she had been raised. This proved to be the last straw for Fulbert, whose hired thugs surprised Abelard in his sleep and ‘cut off the parts of [his] body whereby [he] had committed the wrong’. For want of a better option, the eunuch philosopher turned monk, while Heloise became a nun in earnest, prefacing her vows with a public lament.

Myth-making about the pair began almost immediately. The poet Jean de Meun, on discovering the letters they had exchanged in religious life, translated them into French and popularised their story in his Roman de la Rose. One of his characters praises Heloise as peerless among women, but uses their tale all the same to warn men against marriage. A gothic legend recounts that when Heloise was buried beside Abelard, already 21 years dead, his skeleton opened its arms to embrace her. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory turned ‘Hellawes’ into a sorceress with necrophiliac designs on Sir Launcelot. An 18th-century vogue for fictionalised versions of the correspondence transformed the pair into icons of romantic love, prompting Josephine Bonaparte to have them reburied at Père Lachaise.

Among medievalists, few figures have been more deeply contested. Their epistolary tale has been read as a scandal, a tragic romance, an edifying conversion story, a clever forgery and an exemplum of either patriarchy or feminism in action. Along with countless paintings, poems, plays, novels and operas, the letters have generated more than their share of scholarly debate. This has focused not only on their interpretation but, more fundamentally, on their authorship. Abelard’s autobiography, entitled The Story of His Calamities, recounts his ill-fated love affair along with many other ‘calamities’, supposedly in an effort to console an unnamed friend by proving that Abelard’s troubles were worse than his own. The philosopher’s misfortunes included a condemnation for heresy, the burning of his book on the Trinity, feuds with envious foes, and his appointment as abbot of Saint-Gildas, a Breton abbey so corrupt that its monks tried to murder him at Mass with a poisoned chalice. While painting a vivid portrait of its charismatic, if vain and irascible author, the text also sheds tantalising light on 12th-century France. Most of its details can be corroborated by other sources, so its veracity is hard to challenge.

Heloise, despite her avowed lack of vocation, soon became abbess of her own monastery. Abelard has nothing but praise for his former wife (mutual monastic vows automatically nullified a marriage): ‘bishops loved her as a daughter, abbots as a sister, lay people as a mother; while all alike admired her piety and prudence and her unequalled gentleness and patience in every situation.’ Therein lies the rub, for as soon as this paragon of virtue got her hands on Abelard’s autobiography, she forcefully defied its image of the perfect abbess. Heloise instead berates her ex for neglecting her during their first decade of monastic life, complains that it was ‘the flame of lust rather than love’ that attracted him, and urgently begs him to pay the ‘debt’ of attention he owes her. When he fails to satisfy this demand, she launches into a torrent of invective against God, confessing that her religious life is pure hypocrisy because, even at Mass, ‘lewd visions’ still possess her soul. Instead of grieving for what she has done, she can only sigh for what she has lost.

A number of modern historians, reacting against the lovers’ romantic myth, found it hard to believe that a real 12th-century abbess could have written such things. It didn’t help that the documentary evidence of Heloise’s career tends more to confirm Abelard’s praise than her own recriminations. Her Abbey of the Paraclete flourished, attracting numerous vocations, raising funds from well-placed donors, and even founding daughter houses to create its own mini-order. It also became a centre for women’s religious scholarship. From the gap between tragic romance and monastic fervour arose the First Authenticity Debate, which began in the early 19th century but blazed most ardently in the 1970s and 1980s, a period when women’s authorship everywhere came under feminist scrutiny. Some medievalists defended the letters’ authenticity; a few assigned them to various forgers; but others, notably John Benton and D.W. Robertson, held their sole author to be Abelard, who they said had channelled or even invented the passionate, unrepentant Heloise to point up his success in converting her. As the later epistles demonstrate, she was indeed converted, or at any rate agreed to ‘set the bridle of [his] injunction’ on her unrestrained laments. So what romantics saw as the lovers’ tragic ending became instead the beginning of their fruitful collaboration.

Though Abelard would not respond to Heloise’s emotional blackmail, he proved more than willing to co-operate with his ‘dearly beloved sister in Christ’. The dossier of writings he produced for his former wife and her nuns would include a discourse on the origin of women’s religious life (Letter 7), which is an extraordinary document of Christian feminism; a monastic rule; a complete hymnal for the liturgical year; a sermon cycle; a Genesis commentary; and a treatise on women’s biblical scholarship (Letter 9), which remarkably commends Heloise for her knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. Whatever her private thoughts, the abbess who commissioned such works must have been an energetic, intellectually capable partner. This collaboration does not, however, prove that she could not have written the earlier letters of passion on which her fame, for better or worse, chiefly rests.

By 1999, the dust of the First Authenticity Debate had begun to settle, with most scholars conceding that Heloise had in fact written the letters that bear her name. But in that year Constant Mews, a medievalist in Melbourne, ignited the Second Authenticity Debate when he published a book daringly entitled The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Both lovers refer in their canonical letters to earlier ones, which they had exchanged ‘thick and fast’ during their affair. In 1974, Ewald Könsgen published a newly discovered collection of medieval Latin letters, cautiously suggesting that they might embody this long-lost exchange. Mews made a more forceful case that Könsgen’s manuscript indeed contained the writings of Abelard and Heloise. But these ‘lost love letters’, unlike the canonical set, are unsigned and fragmentary, coming down to us in a single manuscript from 1471. Seeking examples of eloquent Latin style, a humanist scribe at Clairvaux began to copy purple passages from an old manuscript. As he wrote, however, he became more and more engrossed in the nameless lovers’ affair until, by the end, he was transcribing rich and evocative letters in their entirety. Their language is that of the early 12th century, their setting Paris. These letters plainly describe a real relationship, its romantic idealism tempered by inevitable disappointments and quarrels. Yet the woman hails her lover as a great teacher ‘to whom native French stubbornness rightly yields, and whom the arrogance of the whole world rises as one to honour’. The point about ‘native French stubbornness’ makes sense only if the teacher were not himself French; Abelard came from Brittany, which wasn’t part of medieval France. The teacher in turn calls his beloved ‘the only disciple of philosophy among all the girls of our age’.

Heloise? Abelard? David Luscombe, in his magisterial new edition of the canonical letters, is inclined to say no. Teachers of this era, he notes, commonly exchanged flirtatious letters with their female students; it was an accepted way of teaching Latin rhetoric. Yet the tone of such exchanges normally veered between playful banter and courtly compliments – a crush on a beloved teacher, sweetened with innocent blushes. These young women were all in convents, as the woman of the Lost Love Letters is not, and in the midst of flirting they stress their chastity, not their frank erotic passion. Very different is the theatrical but utterly serious commitment of the anonymous woman: ‘in all Latinity, I have found no word that can plainly say how intent is my mind upon you, for with God as my witness, I love you with a sublime and exceptional love. Hence there neither is nor shall be anything or any fate that may separate me from your love, save death alone.’ The rhetoric of these letters is far from conventional, as some have too hastily claimed. Exuberantly stylised, they are obsessed with the philosophical essence of love. Defining love was a preoccupation of the age; troubadours and monks alike strove to anatomise the dispositions they called caritas (charity) and fin’amors (refined love). For the philosopher of the Lost Love Letters, love is ‘a certain power of the soul, neither existing through itself nor self-contained, but always pouring itself into another with a kind of appetite and desire, willing to become one with the other so that, from two different wills, one single thing may be produced without difference.’ This sounds like the sort of definition Abelard might have written, and in fact the term ‘without difference’ (indifferenter) loomed large in his solution to the problem of universals, which exercised the best minds of early 12th-century France.

Passions have always swirled around Heloise. Before Abelard even met her, he knew her by reputation: ‘in looks she did not rank least, while in the abundance of her learning she was supreme.’ He describes her, still in her early twenties, as ‘famous throughout the realm’. Other testimonies concur. Educated by the nuns of Argenteuil – no mean teachers, it would seem – Heloise became one of the supreme stylists of the Golden Age of medieval Latin. One correspondent, Hugh Métel, specifies that her gifts lay in ‘composing, writing poetry, creating neologisms and using known words in new senses’. So great was her literary skill that she had even ‘surpassed feminine softness and hardened into virile strength’. (This was a standard compliment for a woman in a brutally misogynist age.) In light of Métel’s praise, it is fascinating to discover that the Lost Love Letters, or at least the woman’s, are rich in neologisms and rare words, as well as familiar words used in unfamiliar ways; and they confidently mingle verse and prose. Abelard confessed that he had chosen Heloise for his bed especially because he anticipated the pleasure of exchanging letters, ‘in which we could write many things more boldly than we could say them’. Such things, perhaps, as the arresting salutation that begins the Lost Love Letters: ‘To her heart’s beloved, fragrant above all spices, from her who is his in heart and body: when the bloom of your youth has faded, may you know the freshness of eternal bliss.’

For all her success as an abbess, Heloise was undeniably a rebel. She and Abelard shared what philosophers call the ethics of pure intention: it is not the real or even the foreseeable consequences of an act that make it good or evil, but solely the intent of the agent. Since only God can discern intentions, however, that position complicates any attempt to render moral judgments. While many thinkers have adopted mitigated versions of the premise, Heloise was ruthless in its principled application. Thus she judged her exemplary religious life worthless in the eyes of God because she had done everything for Abelard’s sake, nothing for God’s. On the other hand, she held her love affair morally blameless because she had loved Abelard purely for himself, without regard to material advantage. Every inch the stylist, she shocks and thrills readers with the deliciously hyperbolic way she conveys that boast: ‘if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would seem to me dearer and more honourable to be called not his empress but your whore.’ Not mistress or girlfriend, but whore – Heloise used the coarsest Latin words she could find (meretrix, scortum) to make her point. What is more, she went on to argue that the real prostitution is marriage itself, since women enter it for property and money rather than love. Such sentiments would have been radical even in the 18th century, let alone the 12th.

Since Heloise went to some lengths to prove that she meant what she said, one cannot help asking what future she envisioned when she tried to talk Abelard out of marriage. Careers for women circa 1115 were not thick on the ground: wife, nun and prostitute nearly exhausted the options. It would be three hundred years before Christine de Pizan managed to become the first woman to support herself with her pen. There is, however, a small but intriguing hint that Heloise had already conceived of such a role. In The Story of His Calamities, Abelard reproduces her diatribe against marriage in detail, presumably copying from yet another lost letter. Classical writers had perfected the genre of the anti-matrimonial tract, a dissuasio that draws on misogynist arguments to prove that a philosopher should not marry. Remarkably, Heloise chose to confront her lover with that same logic, quoting St Jerome’s distasteful image of family life with just one significant revision: ‘What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children, the nursery rhymes of nannies trying to calm them, the bustling throng of male and female servants in the household? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?’ Jerome twice wrote ‘what man’ (‘quis … quis?’), whereas Heloise quietly changed the second ‘quis’ to a ‘que’: ‘What woman?’ In short, we hear an educated woman asking disdainfully, in the early 12th century, how she could be expected to bear the filth and squalor of babies. This boggles even 20th and 21st-century minds. Betty Radice, in her classic translation of 1974 (reprinted here with slight revisions), simply overlooked that unthinkable ‘que’ and translated ‘Who?’ With less excuse, Luscombe suppresses the ‘que’ itself in his Latin text.

Faced with a diversity of manuscript readings, editors are guided by several principles. Early manuscripts are generally preferred to later ones, and a consensus reading found in many takes priority over one or two outlying variants – unless there is a compelling reason to override these rules. One such reason might be a difficilior lectio. Faced with anomalies in their copy-texts, ancient and medieval scribes were more likely to ‘correct’ an unusual or unexpected reading to produce a conventional one than vice versa. So an old editorial rule decrees that, when two readings compete, the more difficult one is more likely to be authentic. In the case of Heloise’s ‘que’, however, Luscombe violates all three rules. The lectio difficilior is ‘que’ (what woman), which is found in the eight earliest manuscripts of Abelard’s text. Conversely, the more predictable ‘quis’ (what man) occurs only in two late manuscripts and an early print edition. Nevertheless, Luscombe prints ‘quis’, following the passage from St Jerome and relegating ‘que’ to the footnotes. Thus the counterfactual Heloise – the would-have-been independent scholar, defiantly unmarried, exulting in free love – vanishes before we glimpse her. Yet Jean de Meun, writing in the 1260s, did catch a glimpse, for in the Roman de la Rose he interpreted her diatribe correctly. Heloise rejected marriage, he wrote, ‘so that [Abelard] could give himself to study,/Wholly hers, wholly free, without tying himself down,/And she too could resume her studies,/For she had no lack of learning.’ Heloise, in short, had thought the unthinkable and tried to act on her conviction.

All quibbles aside, Luscombe’s facing-page edition is a daunting achievement that, for the first time, lets readers compare all the available manuscripts and read the canonical letters from beginning to end, including the unabridged text of Abelard’s rule – which Abbess Heloise, for all her vaunted obedience, never actually followed. After nine hundred years, this astonishing woman is still full of surprises. The Second Authenticity Debate is very far from over, and when the dust settles once more (I’m not holding my breath), we may need a yet longer edition that traces the couple’s tangled relationship from the first stirrings of passion through their parting, tragedy and re-engagement to a spiritual partnership as exceptional as their love.