Heloise and Abelard's Tumultuous Affair
The story of Heloise and Abelard sheds light on medieval society and the church in a way that few other stories do. Their drama captures not only deep emotion, but also the spirit of the times.
The first scene opens with Abelard, one of the most celebrated teachers and philosophers of the medieval world, pursuing his innocent teenage pupil. From there it chronicles a relationship pierced intermittently with lust, intrigue, and violence—all filtered through the curtain of the medieval church. In the words of Henry Adams, “The twelfth century, with all its sparkle, would be dull without Abelard and Heloise.”
Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was a brilliant young man who, by age 21 (before Heloise was even born), had gained such a reputation for scholarship and debate that he was able to set up his own school. In the years that followed, his teaching career expanded, as did his writing—but always in the midst of controversy.
His book Sic et Non (Yes and No) created an uproar. Here Abelard demonstrated his basic philosophical method: “The first key to wisdom is the constant and frequent questioning.… For by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.” Churchmen of the traditionalist mode were not ready for such skepticism.
But for all the criticism—and acclaim—that accompanied his brilliant career, Abelard is probably most remembered for his relationship with Heloise. Heloise was the niece of Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. She was probably only 14 or 15 (some scholars have suggested Heloise was 17 or older), more than twenty years younger than Abelard, when she first met him at her uncle’s home in Paris.
Act I, Scene 1—Seduction
Abelard was not a gentleman. Indeed, he admits in his autobiography that when he heard about the bright young Heloise, he began setting the snare to seduce her: “I … decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at that time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me. … Knowing the girl’s knowledge and love of letters, I thought she would be all the more ready to consent.”
Abelard made arrangements with Fulbert, uncle and guardian of Heloise, to move into the home and serve as her tutor. As he had anticipated, she esteemed him as a scholar and teacher, and he quickly took advantage of her age and position. By his own testimony, there was “more kissing than teaching.”
Abelard was careful to maintain his stature as a teacher: “To avert suspicion I sometimes struck her, but these blows were prompted by love and tender feeling rather than anger and irritation.” The cover worked well, and Abelard realized what he set out to achieve: “Our desires left no stage of love making untried.”
How did Heloise feel about this relationship? No doubt she was confused and overwhelmed by the attention paid her by such a prestigious scholar. Did she welcome his advances? She must have had mixed emotions, as do most youngsters in such instances. Some historians have argued that she was willingly seduced, but in a letter written years later, Abelard reminded her of his abusive behavior: “Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and tried to dissuade, as yours was the weaker nature, I often forced you to consent with threats and blows.”
Act I, Scene 2—Revenge
Scene 2 opens with Fulbert furious when he discovers Abelard’s duplicity. Soon after, Heloise realizes she is pregnant.
Abelard apologizes to Fulbert, but the ring of sincerity is absent: “I protested that I had done nothing unusual in the eyes of anyone who had known the power of love, and recalled how since the beginning of the human race women had brought the noblest men to ruin.” But he quickly sensed that his “apology” was not enough to appease his accuser: “To conciliate him further, I offered him satisfaction in the form he could never have hoped for: I would marry the girl I had wronged. All I stipulated was that the marriage should be kept secret so as not to damage my reputation.”
Fulbert agreed outwardly to a secret marriage, but uncontrolled anger seethed within. Heloise was sent to live with in-laws until her son was born. Then Abelard placed his young wife in the convent near Paris where she had been educated as a small girl. His sister would raise their son, a drudgery he insisted was not suited to him: “Who intent upon sacred and philosophical reflection could endure the squalling … and constant dirt of little children?”
But if he thought he had resolved his problem, he was wrong. What happened next is best described in his own words: “At this news her uncle and his friends and relatives imagined that I had tricked them, and had found an easy way of ridding myself of Heloise by making her a nun. Wild with indignation they plotted against me, and one night as I slept peacefully in an inner room in my lodging, they bribed one of my servants to admit them and there took cruel vengeance on me of such appalling barbarity as to shock the whole world; they cut off the parts of my body whereby I had committed the wrong of which they complained.”
Act II, Scene 1—Tormented Love
Act I ends with the reader almost convinced that the despicable Abelard got what he deserved. Act II opens with Abelard in agreement.
His physical pain is over, and he is convinced that as deplorable as his castration was, it was, in disguise, a blessing to set him free to serve God fully. Never again would he lust for a woman. He entered the monastery of St. Denis to devote himself to the monastic life.
For Heloise, however, her nightmare had only begun. To Abelard she wrote: “Of all wretched women I am the most wretched, and amongst the unhappy I am unhappiest.” At this point the reader senses the emotional damage she had suffered. Indeed, for all the light this story sheds on medieval society, it has a modern ring. Heloise loved too much.
She blamed herself for what had happened and confessed to Abelard, “It is the general lot of women to bring total ruin on great men.” She had objected to marrying Abelard, fearing the marriage would be discovered and that Abelard’s reputation as a cleric would be scarred. In fact, she went so far as to offer herself to be his lifelong mistress. “God is my witness,” she wrote to Abelard, “that 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 be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress but your whore.”
Heloise loathed the prospect of becoming a nun, but to please Abelard, she did just that. “I can expect no reward for this from God,” she lamented, “for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him.… I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of hell.”
She pleaded for his attention and painfully acknowledged that “I have been so neglected and forgotten by you.” Her insecurity spilled over when she finally admitted he never really loved her: “It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it is everyone’s.… I wish I could think of some explanation which would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you hold me cheap.”
Act II, Scene 2—Repentance
Abelard readily acknowledged to Heloise, his “dearly beloved sister in Christ,” that he never really loved her. “My love, which involved us both in sin, let us not call it love but concupiscence. In you I cloyed a wretched appetite, which was all I really loved.”
But that was past. Abelard came to terms with his station in life. Indeed, he embraced it and desperately sought to bring Heloise to that same frame of mind. “It may relieve the bitterness of your grief if I prove that this came upon us justly.… My beloved, see how with the dragnets of his mercy the Lord has fished us up from the depth of his dangerous sea.… Consider the magnanimous design of God’s mercy for us … whereby he made use of evil itself and mercifully set aside our impiety, so that by a wholly justified wound in a single part of my body he might heal two souls.”
Abelard sympathized with her struggles, but he implored her not to be angry with God: “I beg you then, sister, do not be aggrieved, do not vex the Father who corrects us in fatherly wise.” He likewise pleaded with her not to focus on himself but rather to “have compassion on Him who suffered willingly for your redemption, and look with remorse on Him who was crucified for you.”
Act III—Twist of Fate
In the final act, Abelard is confronted with the ultimate punishment for a medieval theologian—the charge of heresy. A man who has accepted God’s judgment and turned his life around is accused by fellow clerics.
In 1121, Abelard was charged by the Council of Soissons with promoting Sabellianism (a heretical concept of the Trinity), and his book on the subject was ordered burned without opportunity to defend it.
Abelard did not forget Heloise. After she and her nuns were forced to leave their convent due to religious rivalry, Abelard donated land for a new convent, the Paraclete. He established Heloise as the abbess and helped formulate the rule by which they lived in community.
But Abelard’s problems with the church continued, not so much because he was a heretic, but because he challenged his students to think, and he was convinced that faith and reason are compatible. In 1141, at the urging of Bernard of Clairvaux, his writings were condemned at the Council of Sens. This was the ultimate rejection. He was determined to appeal to the pope, but he died before he reached Rome. Heloise arranged for his burial in a plot at her convent, where she could watch over his grave.
Heloise outlived Abelard by more than twenty years and gained a reputation as one of the greatest abbesses of medieval monasticism. During her lifetime, the Paraclete became one of the most famous convents in France, with six well-established daughter houses. In a letter to her, Peter the Venerable, who himself ruled over more than two thousand Cluniac houses in Europe, enthusiastically praised her ministry: “You have surpassed all women in carrying out your purpose, and have gone further than almost every man.”
Whether Heloise ever came to terms with her tormented love and fully submitted to God will never be known. Her surviving letters give no indication of that. So it was that Abelard, whose heart was right with God, died a condemned man, while the dejected Heloise was celebrated for her faithful ministry.
Legend tells us that when Heloise died, Abelard’s grave was opened so she could be buried with him, and as they lowered her body, he opened his arms to draw her into his bosom. It is a touching climax, but not one that fits. For Heloise and Abelard, life was real. There was no place for sentimental legends.
Dr. Ruth A. Tucker is visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. She is author of eight books, including Daughters of the Church (with Walter Liefeld; Zondervan, 1987) and Stories of Faith (Zondervan, 1990).
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.