Heloise & Abelard

On this day in 1164, Heloise was buried alongside Abelard in the cemetery at Le Paraclet, the nunnery which he had founded for her and at which she was abbess for over thirty years. The Heloise and Abelard relationship was a legend even in their own lifetimes, and those who offered it as either a tale of inspiration or forewarning were building from facts chronicled by Abelard himself and from his popular love songs, which “put your Heloise on everyone’s lips, so that every street and house echoed with my name.”

When hired to tutor the brilliant, twenty-year-old Heloise, Abelard was a renowned logician and theological philosopher, as well as a middle-aged celibate. Overcome by love, he contrived to live in her guardian uncle’s household, where “Our hands sought less the book than each other’s bosoms”; she became pregnant and gave birth (viewing their union as celestial, she named the boy Astrolabe). They married in an attempt to appease the uncle and kept it secret in an attempt to protect his reputation. When neither the uncle nor the reputation seemed to cooperate, Abelard had Heloise removed to a convent; in revenge, or believing that Abelard was reneging on his vows, the uncle had him castrated. Abelard retired to a monastery, and Heloise, at his insistence, became a nun.

These events took place over a year; twelve years later, Heloise read Abelard’s published description of them and wrote to him. Her letters show her grateful for his provision of her nunnery and still in love: “God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.” They also show that she still had a few, timeless issues:

Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence?’ Tell me, I say, if you can — or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.