Héloïse (c. 1098–1163) was a French religious figure whose romance with a prominent theologian scandalized twelfth-century Paris. She and Peter Abélard fell passionately in love, but were forced to keep their relationship a secret, and it ended in a shocking act of violence. The torrid declarations in their correspondence with one another, however, provide one of the earliest written examples of romantic love in Western civilization.
Héloïse's exact birth date and family background are details that have been lost to time. Most scholars place the year of her birth around 1098. She may have been the daughter of a woman named Hersint—
Peter Abélard was, by most accounts, at least 15 years older than Héloïse. He came from a wealthy titled family in Brittany, where he was born around 1079. After several years as an itinerant student, he arrived in Paris around 1100 and within a few years had founded his own school. Such academies, often associated with a cathedral or other church body, were the main sources of higher education at the time, for the first universities in Western Europe would not officially come into being until later that century. Abélard was a student of logic, the branch of classical philosophy concerned with the evaluation of arguments, and at a rather young age he emerged as one of the more brilliant masters in the field. Logicians deconstructed declarative statements to discern whether one's opponent was presenting a flawed line of reasoning or a valid one. In an era before the printing press, such battles were verbal, even a form of entertainment for eager audiences of fellow scholars and students, and the combination of Abélard's good looks, arrogance, theatricality, and debating prowess earned him fame as well as a few enemies. He soon moved on to theology, despite his lack of official credentials, and became even more renowned throughout Paris.
Héloïse received an excellent education at Argenteuil, becoming fluent in Latin—the universal language of the Christian church and of all scholarship in Europe and the Western world at the time—as well as Greek and Hebrew, and achieved some renown on her own in the fields of grammar and rhetoric, the two other branches of classical philosophy. She eventually settled into the house of her uncle, Fulbert, who was the canon of Notre Dame Cathedral; a canon held an ecclesiastical position but also an administrative and executive one as well, and cathedral canons were men of influence and power in their parish neighborhood. Héloïse had probably heard of Abélard before they met, for he was already well known by this point and serving as master of the cathedral school attached to Notre Dame.
The ill-fated duo is thought to have met around 1114 or 1115, and by Abélard's account he saw Héloïse and became intent on seducing her. He approached her uncle, whom he knew to be quite proud of his niece's intellectual achievements, and offered to tutor her if he could live in the canon's house, too; he explained that his own lodgings were proving too expensive as well as a drain on his time, and because Abélard even offered to pay rent, Fulbert agreed to the arrangement with enthusiasm. As Abélard later wrote in a memoir, in a short time "more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching," according to James Burge's Héloïse & Abélard: A New Biography .
As noted, Abélard possessed a mastery of language, both spoken and written, but Héloïse showed early evidence of a literary talent as well. They exchanged many letters during the period of their romance, likely using wax tablets that hinged like a book and were carried from sender to recipient by a servant; after the letter was read, the wax could be smoothed by a candle and used again. Héloïse may have written drafts of some of her letters on parchment, and it is these that survived in fragments over the centuries. The scraps of writing, in Latin, recount an intensely passionate relationship between a pair whose intellect and temperament were well-matched. On his end, Abélard penned love poems to her, and some of these were reportedly copied and passed around among Abélard's already-devoted following of students and other young Parisians. Eventually the rumors of a clandestine romance between Fulbert's niece and her tutor reached the canon, who then confronted Abélard and ordered him to leave.
The timeline of Héloïse and Abélard's story is imprecise, but scholars believe their romance lasted about two years before Fulbert put an end to it; around this same time Héloïse became pregnant, and informed Abélard. He arranged for her to flee Paris and stay at the home of one of his siblings in Brittany, probably a brother named Dagobert; she reportedly wore a nun's habit to disguise herself when he helped her leave the city. They named their son Astralabe, a distinctly unconventional choice in the era, for it was the name of a scientific instrument used to determine the positions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets.
Astralabe was raised by Abélard's family in Brittany, who were affluent landowners and already rich in offspring. Back in Paris, Abélard approached Fulbert and offered to rectify the scandalous situation by marrying Héloïse. Fulbert consented to this, but Héloïse refused, asserting that it would ruin Abélard's distinguished career as master of the cathedral school, and that in the larger sense, family life was incompatible with the work of a philosopher. At the same time, she noted her own objections to making their union legitimate, writing that marriage struck her as a purely economic arrangement. "The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding," she ventured in her reply, according to the Burge book, "but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore."
Abélard seemed to have insisted—perhaps fearful of Fulbert's anger—and the two were secretly wed in Paris, with only the uncle and a few friends in attendance. Héloïse returned to live at her uncle's home, and Abélard in his own lodgings; the secrecy of the union seems to have been part of the agreement between Fulbert and Abélard, and was likely kept quiet in the event that either man changed his mind. But rumors spread once again, and Héloïse publicly denied that she was a bride, which angered Fulbert and probably resulted in a household situation that became increasingly untenable for her. After this, Abélard once again helped her escape, again in a nun's habit. The nuns at Argenteuil took her in, and Abélard wrote of at least one assignation that took place in the convent's empty dining hall. Fulbert's fury toward the pair intensified, but in the laws and customs of the time, a wife was essentially the property of her husband once they were wed, and when Abélard took Héloïse from her uncle's home, he was acting within his spousal rights.
Fulbert's reaction was linked to the idea that his family had been dishonored by Abélard, and his eventual decision to take revenge would serve to enshrine the ill-fated couple in history and literature for the next millennium. Abélard wrote, "One night as I slept peacefully in an inner room in my lodgings, they bribed one of the servants to admit them and there took cruel vengeance on me of such an appalling barbarity as to shock the whole world." Associates of Fulbert "cut off the parts of my body whereby I had committed the wrong of which they complained." Historians believe that Abélard was not fully castrated, but only his testicles removed. The method would have been similar to that used on farm animals, using a rope wound around the sac and then a sharp knife to extract the glands. The cord is left tied in order to staunch the bleeding.
By the next morning Parisians had heard of what happened to Abélard, and he wrote in his memoir that a crowd assembled at the home where he was staying—probably that of a well-connected noble family, the de Garlandes. Though most were appalled by what had happened to him, and he won many prominent supporters, he lost his position as master of the cathedral school by decree of the bishop of Paris. To punish Fulbert, the same bishop ordered all his possessions and assets to be seized, and Fulbert lost his position as well—but for less than two years, for his signature began reappearing on official documents related to Notre Dame in April of 1119.
What happened to Héloïse during this period remains unclear. Some historians believe that Abélard may have already grown tired of her and convinced her to take full religious vows, which meant that he was, in effect, divorcing her; upon learning of this, one theory holds, Fulbert's rage took the form that it did in order to avenge his niece's honor. Another hypothesis holds that only after the crime did Abélard convince Héloïse to "take the veil" of a nun, this time in earnest, which she did at Argenteuil.
A life free from sexual temptation was the ideal one for a monk, and Abélard himself entered a monastery, the Abbey of St. Denis, soon after his recovery. There he wrote a treatise on the Holy Trinity, which was condemned as heretical by church authorities, and left St. Denis and settled in the area of Nogent-sur-Seine, in what is now the Aube district in northeast France. Around 1122 he founded his own religious community, which he called the Oratory of the Paraclete. A few years later he was elected abbot of Abbey of St. Gildas in Brittany in 1125, and arranged for Héloïse to take over the Paraclete, for he had learned that she and some of the other women had been evicted from Argenteuil. By that time Héloïse had advanced to the position of prioress, or second in command to the abbess. A local bishop took possession of the Argenteuil property through suspicious means, and the nuns had nowhere to go. Some stayed with their abbess, but a few loyal to Héloïse were homeless and gladly followed her to Nogentsur-Seine.
Héloïse and Abélard never lived together again, and had no contact for nearly twelve years. Only when Héloïse learned that Abélard had written a lengthy account of their story, Historia Calamitatum (Story of My Misfortunes), did she send word. In subsequent letters she professed her still-ardent devotion to him, and confessed that the hours of prayer her religious life demanded were often disrupted by thoughts of the carnal pleasures they had once shared. Their correspondence continued for several more years, until Abelard's death in 1142. Héloïse remained abbess of the Paraclete until her own death on May 19, 1163. Several daughter houses were founded in France during her lifetime, but they were all destroyed in the wave of antireligious sentiment during the French Revolution. Legend claims the pair were finally laid to rest together at the Nogent-sur-Seine property, but their remains were moved during the Revolution. At the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris there is a monument, but it is unclear whether both, or perhaps just Abélard, rests there. Their son, Astralabe, also entered religious life, and served as abbot of a monastery in what later became Switzerland.
Burge, James, Héloïse & Abélard: A New Biography , Harper-SanFrancisco, 2003.
Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion , Serinity Young, editor, Macmillan Reference USA, 1999.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), September 10, 2006.
New York Times Book Review , February 13, 2005.
Star Tribune , (Minneapolis, MN), February 12, 2001.
"The Love Letters of Abélard and Heloise," The Internet Sacred Text Archive, http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aah/index.htm (December 7, 2006).