Peter Abelard was a famous teacher in 12th-Century France. He and Heloise, a younger woman whom he tutored, began an affair while they lived in the same house. It's a tragic tale, involving a compelling mix of sex, deception, pregnancy, monasticism and castration! Read on…
Abelard1, an extremely well-regarded scholar and teacher was a canon2 of Notre Dame de Paris. He lived with a fellow canon, Fulbert, in exchange for tutoring Fulbert's niece, Heloise3. At the time, Abelard was in his mid-30s and Heloise was probably considerably younger, perhaps as much as ten to twenty years. She was, however, held to be the most educated woman in France.
At some point during this period, the two fell in love. They began a sexual relationship, which they kept hidden from Fulbert (who was also Heloise's guardian) for fear of his reaction. At the time, the church was undergoing reforms aiming to enforce celibacy on canons and other officials of the Church. This and the fact that they were unmarried combined to make the relationship a scandal in its time.
Abelard described their relationship:
Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts.
People began to notice the relationship between the two lovers and some tried to warn Fulbert. At first, he did not believe them. When he realised the truth, he forced the two to separate, but they continued seeing each other behind his back. Soon, Heloise became pregnant and Abelard took her to his family's house in Brittany, where she gave birth to their son, Astralabe4. Abelard wanted marriage, but she didn't, as she disliked the idea that they would be bound together by the law rather than by their love.
To protect the family honour, Fulbert insisted that the couple return and be married. Heloise eventually gave in. However, Fulbert started to tell people of the marriage. Forced into a corner, outright denial was the only way she could see to protect Abelard's reputation, as recent religious reforms meant that such a prominent cleric could not marry. Fulbert's spreading the news of the marriage and Heloise's denial caused a rift between uncle and niece. The situation became so volatile that Abelard sent her to stay at the convent of Argenteuil, where she had been educated as a child. Argenteuil was not far from Paris and it may have been easier for the couple to spend time together5 while Heloise lived there than it had been earlier in their marriage, when Heloise was in Fulbert's house and Abelard – for the sake of propriety – had been moved to lodgings elsewhere. Their letters even show that at some point during this period, the couple managed to have sex in the corner of the refectory!
Fulbert was not impressed. He viewed Abelard as having compromised his niece under his roof and then tossed her away. The family punished Abelard by sending thugs to enter his room at night while he slept and castrate him. Unfortunately, the mission was successful.
The perpetrators, however, were no better off. Two of them, one a disloyal servant of Abelard, the other a relative of Fulbert, were punished according to the principle 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' and were castrated in their turn, as well as being blinded for the severity of their crime. Fulbert himself was expelled from Notre Dame for several years and had his possessions impounded.
The End of the Affair
Understandably fearful of Heloise's angry relatives, Abelard became a monk at the monastery of St Denis6 for his own protection. At the same time, Heloise took the veil to become a nun at Argenteuil7. She did not want to do so, and only agreed because Abelard asked her - she was so devoted to him that she viewed his wishes as more important than her own desires.
She explained this devotion in one of her letters to him years later:
At every stage of my life up to now, as God knows, I have feared to offend you rather than God, and tried to please you more than him. It was your command, not love of God which made me take the veil.
While at St Denis, Abelard turned his energy and intellectual mind to study, writing, and, of course, religion. He quarrelled with various monasteries, moving from one to another, before returning to Paris to teach once more. Later, he established a new convent, called the Paraclete, and himself became abbot of the monastery of St Gildas.
In 1129, about ten years after she had been forced into the convent, Heloise and some other nuns were cast out of Argenteuil on charges of immorality. Abelard stepped in to help her, letting them continue their monastic life as nuns at the Paraclete and even making Heloise the abbess.
Abelard came to see his castration as divine and appropriate punishment, freeing him from lust. Heloise, on the other hand, blamed God for all that had happened to them – ironic, given her religious position. Abelard visited the Paraclete occasionally to provide guidance, which led to rumours that he still experienced lust for Heloise, and that their relationship may have continued. He considered this a ridiculous belief because of his castration. The former lovers also exchanged letters, from which it is clear that Abelard had adapted to his religious position while Heloise still longed for her earlier life and, unlike Abelard, still experienced powerful lust:
In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet - they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of these pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what we have lost.
Lost Love Letters?
In addition to the letters mentioned above, which are generally held to be genuine, other letters which may have been written by Abelard and Heloise have emerged. Neither the man nor the woman are identified in the letters, but the man is referred to as a teacher and the woman as the only female philosophy student of her day. Abelard and Heloise were known to have written to each other during their relationship, and these factors have led some to believe that these letters, too, were written by Abelard and Heloise. Unfortunately, it cannot be proven.
The Story Lives On
The tale of Abelard and Heloise has been kept alive through plays and even a musical.
Abelard died in 1142 and was buried in the Paraclete as he had requested. Heloise lived for more than twenty years after her husband's death. When she died in 1163, her body was placed next to his.
In the years since their deaths, the couple's bodies have been moved several times. The final move was in 1817 to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, probably as part of a campaign to encourage Parisians to use the cemetery, which was still rather empty. A less pedestrian story is that Josephine Bonaparte was so moved by their tragic story that she had their bodies moved there. Either way, they still lie there together as befits the love that they shared.