Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. Mother Teresa
By: Proserpina, 6:30 PM GMT on June 26, 2013
HELOISE AND ABELARD, THE FIRE OF PASSION AND ETERNAL LOVE
“God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.”
― Heloise, The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse
I am currently reading a book by Edward Rutherfurd titled ‘Paris’. Rutherfurd’s books are well researched historical fictions. Each book specifically deals with a city such as Paris, London, New York, etc. Usually the historical background of his books starts centuries ago and works up to the present. One of the literary techniques is to feature alternating chapters that jump from the present to the past, and back to the present.
In one of the early chapters of the ‘Paris’ book, the author features the story of the lovers Abelard and Heloise. I had not thought of this story for some time, actually since my retirement. While I worked however, the story was quite alive because one of my colleagues constantly referred to her favorite lovers of all times! Well, since hubby and I just reached our 50th year of our marriage, I decided to dedicate the new blog to Heloise and Abelard and to all lovers everywhere.
The ‘tragic love story ever’ of Heloise and Abelard is not fiction but a true story which took place in Paris during the 12th century.
Heloise lived at a time when women rarely were educated but she was an exception. Her uncle Fulbert,a secular canon at Notre Dame, recognized the fact that Heloise was intellectually gifted, intelligent, insightful, a seeker of knowledge. Luckily for Heloise, her uncle decided to educate his niece and as a result she became a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Eventually she earned the title of ‘nominattissima’, ‘most renowed’, for her gift in reading and writing.
Pierre Abelard, son of seigneur du Pallet, was a celebrated Philosopher and Theologian, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. When the story began, he was a teacher at Notre Dame, the perfect teacher for Heloise according to her uncle Fulbert. Soon the beautiful seventeen year old and the celebrated thirty seven year old teacher fell in love, or as Abelard later confessed, he set out to seduce her. When the uncle found out that the two were spiritually and physically involved, he threw Abelard out of his house and forbade his niece to ever see him again. It was a useless and impossible request, the two just could not stay away from each other. Their passion was so intense that they kept seeing each other despite the uncle’s orders and the sure consequences.
Heloise became pregnant and to keep Heloise safe from the wrath of her family, the two fled to Brittany where Abelard’s family resided. Soon after, in order to prevent gossip and keep Heloise’s dignity, uncle Fulbert married them in a secret ceremony. A son was born to the couple and was named Astrolabius. The son was placed in the care of Abelard’s sister and was never seen again by the parents.
Abelard realized that the ‘disgraced’ Heloise was in danger due to her family’s reaction to the situation and decided to send his wife to a convent in Argenteuil. Unfortunately uncle Fulbert, and probably also the rest of her family, came to the conclusion that Abelard had abandoned Heloise. What is an uncle to do? The answer is simple, seek vengeance with a most cruel and most shameful punishment! Abelard was castrated while he slept! Yes, the great lover was castrated. He too sought ‘solace’ in an Abbey and became a monk. Heloise, at Abelard’s request, became a nun and eventually the Prioress of the convent at Argenteuil.
Out of the tragedy began a new and interesting part of their love story.
The next fifteen years were a time of great suffering for Heloise. She was still passionately in love with her only lover/husband, but Abelard never contacted her. Not a letter, not a visit, just deafening silence. Abelard on the other hand kept on with his philosophical and spiritual writings. And it was his celebrated “Historia calamitatum” (History Of My Calamities) that brought them back together. A nun had given Heloise a copy of the Historia and Heloise recognized it as the writings or her lover. She wrote him a letter complaining about his silence: “Why, after our entry into religion which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you?” she demanded. He could have spared her the agony of the memories of their love and their pleasure which haunted her all those years of silence!
The Letter is considered an unsurpassed utterance of human passion and devotion.
"But if I lose you, what have I left to hope for? Why continue on life's pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you, and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?”
“[A]s though mindful of the wife of Lot, who looked back from behind him, thou deliveredst me first to the sacred garments and monastic profession before thou gavest thyself to God. And for that in this one thing thou shouldst have had little trust in me I vehemently grieved and was ashamed. For I (God [knows]) would without hesitation precede or follow thee to the Vulcanian fires according to thy word. For not with me was my heart, but with thee. But now, more than ever, if it be not with thee, it is nowhere. For without thee it cannot anywhere exist.”
Quoted from The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse
Heloise asks for his words, saying: “I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my only love.” Thus begins a ‘relationship’ through which their love continues to flourish, in spite of their separation. The relationship, conducted only through their letters, lasts for twenty years.
In a chance meeting, the lovers were reunited at a ceremony in Paris. Though they had been physically apart for many years, the lovers promised each other to remain ‘forever one’. They never saw each other again but their love endured through their letters.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery claims that in 1817 both lovers’ remains were transferred from the Oratory of the Paraclete to Lachaise. The Oratory of the Paraclete (Heloise was abbess of this Benedictine Oratory at the time that the letters were written) claims that Eloise and Abelard are buried there. Others believe that Abelard rests in the tomb at Pere Lachaise but that Eloisa’s remains are elsewhere. Romantics like me, choose to believe that they are buried together in the tomb dedicated to them at Pere Lachaise.
An illustration from Roman De La Rose
The love affair between Abelard and Heloise became famous in 1280 when Jean De Meun alluded to the affair in his “Roman De La Rose”. From then on the letters were ‘immortalized’. Three of the letters have survived as extants in nine manuscripts, but none of the manuscripts predate 1350. Are the letters authentic or did they spring from the imagination of a 14th Century author? Once again one needs to choose one’s conclusion.
Updated: 2:56 PM GMT on July 12, 2013