Abelard's Love

Abelard's Love

by Luise Rinser

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Abelard’s Love is an inspired retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise—the French medieval theologian and his brilliant student—whose love affair led to a scandal that has echoed through the centuries. In the affair’s aftermath, Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. Forgotten to history was their unwanted son.

Luise Rinser


Abelard’s Love is an inspired retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise—the French medieval theologian and his brilliant student—whose love affair led to a scandal that has echoed through the centuries. In the affair’s aftermath, Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. Forgotten to history was their unwanted son.

Luise Rinser sets at center stage that son and his unique perspective on his legendary parents. The novel is cast in the form of a long letter written by the son, Astrolabe. Addressed to Heloise in the weeks after Abelard’s death, the letter brings the story of this tragic family vividly to life. Rinser offers insights into each of the three participants in this family drama, yet it is the perspective of the aggrieved son that lies at the book’s core. As the distinguished critic and translator Harry Zohn has remarked, “the young man’s melancholy musings . . . add up to an anguished ‘J’accuse’ of epic dimensions.”

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Who hasn't heard of the star-crossed lovers Heloise and Abelard? In this novel Rinser, a prominent German author who was the Green Party's presidential candidate in 1984, presents a very subjective view of the pair via their son, Astrolabe, who was lost to history. Raised in Brittany, Astrolabe always wondered about his fancy Latin name. He finally discovers that it refers not to a saint but to an astronomical instrument used to determine the position of the stars. Astrolabe must make some determinations of his own after his father's death. Like most children who delve into their parentage, Astrolabe discovers both good and bad. Why, since his parents had married, did they choose not to live together and raise him? Why had his father insisted that his mother become a nun? Was his mother as submissive to Abelard as she seemed, or did she decide Astrolabe's fate by refusing to live with Abelard because it would ruin his career as a canon and teacher? Astrolabe becomes a canon, too, one forbidden to marry. Can anyone in his position understand the demands of the flesh? Although set in medieval Europe, this story has many modern parallels. To Astrolabe, the admonition "Know thyself" means to "delv[e] into one's own depths," and his journey toward the truth is well rendered here. Recommended for academic libraries.Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN

Product Details

UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date:
European Women Writers Series
Product dimensions:
5.97(w) x 7.86(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The package that I delivered unrecognized at the entrance of your conventcontains the story of my relations with Peter Abelard, formerly your husbandand my procreator, and only now, after his death, really my father. It is thestory of the two of you, but more the story of my suffering because of the twoof you who brought me into the world in the mad excess of your love, butthen pushed me off on an aunt in Brittany, who was considered my motherand who behaved toward me in a more motherly fashion than have you, myreal mother. I didn't count in your lives. Overshadowed by you two greatfigures and your important tasks, I disappeared into nothingness. And yet inthe days when you knew you were pregnant by Abelard, you were jubilant,not thinking of the consequences for your child. Even then, in your womb,I was only evidence of Abelard's love to you, not a person in his own right. Iwas never anyone on my own.

    I have tried desperately to free myself from the two of you. In vain:everywhere I went I came upon the deeply engraved trail of Peter Abelard,and next to his ran yours. I've hated you, worshipped you, admired you,despised you, cursed you, envied you, loved you, and all in wild alternation.All my strength was consumed in the effort to get things sorted out with thetwo of you. The word father burned on my tongue and didn't cross my lips.I can speak it now, but it still tastes bitter.

    When I heard of the serious illness of Peter Abelard, that is, of my father,I rode immediately to Cluny. Too late. He had died theprevious day. AbbotPeter the Venerable, his friend, your friend, and my friend, led me to himand uncovered his face. Admittedly, age, illness, and all the sorrows andpassions of his life had left deep lines, but his face was beautiful — in deatheven more beautiful than in life. It was the face of my grandfather, his father:the face of an austere knight. I burst into tears. I cried for hours and was soshaken that Peter feared for my health. Peter said I didn't stop repeating theword father through my tears. I knew I had lost something irretrievable. Ididn't think of what you lost, Mother. That wasn't my business at the time.I am certain that you, too, thought only of your own loss. When I calmeddown somewhat, Peter told me, in order to comfort me who cannot becomforted, what a model life my father had led: how he, the most seniorperson next to the abbot, bore the respect accorded him by all the monkswith deepest modesty, almost unwillingly (which of course could also be anexpression of his weariness of life, and also of his indifference toward theopinion of those who couldn't appreciate his intellectual significance andwere therefore "nobody" to him), how unassuming he was in what he ate,what he drank, and what he wore (as he always had been; these ordinarythings had never interested him, he was basically an ascetic and trainedin poverty), how he still worked even when he was seriously ill (what elsedoes someone do who has done creative, intellectual work all his life?), howdevout he was, how penitently he made his confession. Penitently? But whatdid he confess? His arrogance about his knowledge? His proud contemptfor humanity? His ruthless ambition? His unbridled quarrelsomeness? Hisbetrayal of Fulbert, whose house he dishonored when he seduced the younggirl who lived there and with her in blind passion fathered a child wholater was in his way? That he then forced (yes: forced!) that girl he hadseduced to enter a convent? She was so young, beautiful, and highly gifted,and without calling to the convent life. Did he do it so that she wouldalways be exclusively his? Not the bride of God, no, rather his bride, hisalone. Peter says he had a beautiful death, a death in peace, "absolved of allhis sins...." That may be. Of what help is it to me, the living witness tohis sins? Who is absolving him of the sin against you, Mother, and me?Should I not be happy about the picture that Peter painted of him, formy sake, on a gilded ground? That "Confession of Faith" that my fatherwrote not long before his death reads like a justification forced out of himby an ecclesiastical court. One could almost take it as a recantation of histeachings, in any case as a clever concession, as if he had finally regardedhis lifelong spirited attempt to reconcile belief and thought, St. Paul andAristotle (in which he subscribed much more to Aristotle than to St. Paul)as fallacious.

    One can say that when he wrote it, he was an old, sick, broken man whodesired nothing more than his peace. I don't believe all that. I suspect that heconcealed his true opinion behind smooth words of orthodoxy. Should he,whose sharp dialectics had been feared all his life, now be let down by them?Should he not have been successful in deceiving everyone with great cunningwhile remaining true to himself? But perhaps it's the other way around:he is retracting none of his ideas, just making things clear, brushing asidemisunderstandings. He writes that people were always prejudiced againsthim for bringing new ideas to philosophy and theology. For the last time heexplains his teaching on the Trinity that made so many enemies for him. Hecites St. Augustine as an authority, seems conservatively orthodox, and stillsmuggles in his own teaching.

    Is that how a broken, repentant man writes? That is how someone writeswho in all bitterness remains true to himself and is sure of what he saysbecause it is in accord with his own system of logical thought. Whoever hasears to hear hears from this document the language of the proud, wily rebelwho, albeit with due caution, champions his cause right up to the end anddoesn't pretend to be penitent, not even in the face of death. He repentednothing. Not his teaching, not his life. How could he have regretted preachingthe truth? It was the task given him by the Paradete, the Holy Ghost. Heobeyed and, for the sake of this task, took all the conservatives' enmity andhumiliation upon himself.

    If I may permit myself to judge the academic quality of my father's work:What he achieved belongs to the future. With his dialectics he introduced anew epoch of thought and teaching. Whether the content of his contributionwas as significant as Peter the Venerable thinks, I do not know. However,my father himself was significant. He was great in goodness and in ... No,I can't speak of evil or of goodness. He was neither good nor evil. He wassimply himself and not to be measured by normal standards.

    I doubt whether my father really ended his days in such deep peace. Peterthe Venerable let me guess that this peace, if it ever really did exist, waspreceded by agonizing fear that, quite some time before his death, led himto write:

    After a lifetime of being driven around like a wretch, I find death really is a gentletransition, and all those who are troubled by the suffering of others can only wishthat there would be an end to all the misery.

    A strange sentence, when I think that he never once showed remorse forthe suffering that he inflicted on you, Mother. Or did he put into Heloise'smouth the words of the poem he once gave me? "Sunt quos oblectent adeopeccata peracta, / ut nunquam vere poeniteant super his ..."; "There arepeople who take too much delight in the sins they have committed to everreally feel remorse for them; indeed, the sweetness of this memory of carnaldesire is so great that no thought of punishment can suppress it." Althoughthese and the following lines are written in Abelard's handwriting, it seemsvery strange to me that they are his thoughts; surely he is quoting Heloise:

Often our Heloise laments
To me, and to herself:
If I could not be saved
Except by regretting having done what I did earlier,
There would be no hope for me.
But what was done lives on so strongly in joyous
Sweetness that the depth of our desire still
Enfolds me in memory.

Isn't he also speaking for himself? How can that be reconciled with the moralstrictness that he required of himself and his monks? It can and it cannot.He would call this, too, "dialectics" and would take upon himself the task,with the help of dialectics, of reconciling the incompatible and of resolvingantitheses into harmony on the highest plane.

    Thus he also managed in his last letter to profess piously his faith in Christ(and he certainly meant that seriously) and yet not to renounce his love — thelove of both of you — for the unchristian Greek antiquity, but rather to placeit at the end of his orthodox "Confession of Faith" as an idea essential forhim. He didn't speak of heaven and hell, or of demons, devils, and angels. Tothe disciple of Aristotle, the Greek myths suggested themselves more readily,so that he wrote:

    My certainty of salvation is based on this firm (Christian) foundation of faith,so I don't fear Scylla's barking, I laugh at Charybdis's gorge, I don't shudder at thedeath-dealing sirens' songs. May the waters' whirling waves come raging in, I won'tbudge....

    The image of Odysseus wandering about the seas may have been beforehis eyes. I am surprised, Mother, that he didn't remember you as a faithfulPenelope. But of course that image would be incorrect; he would sooner havecalled you Penthesilea.

    Mother, the thoughts I am writing down here came to me in the nights Ikept vigil by my father's bier in Cluny and as I rode, days later, behind thewagon that brought my father's body to your convent. You had asked foryour dead lover, and Peter the Venerable granted your wish.

    It was a wonderful April day. The countryside was inundated with blossoms.From a distance, I saw the dead man being carried into your graveyard.There he lies, and there you will lie, at his side. The perfect pair. There is noplace there for me. Nevertheless, I still have that poem in one of my father'sletters with the line: "Heloisa, who is so dear to us." For this word, I forgivehim much.

    I don't know if it happened with your consent or only according to myfather's will that Peter the Venerable handed over to me your correspondenceand Father's "Confession of Faith." Was I just to preserve the package (butfor whom?) or to read the pages? Peter placed them in my hands with silentsolemnity the day my father died.

    I decided I should read them. I read. I read while I kept vigil beside hisbier, hidden behind the backs of the praying monks, by the light of a candlethat was burning down.

    And I decided to give your letters and Abelard's confessio back to AbbotPeter for his safekeeping. I want to be certain that they don't get lost or fallinto the wrong hands. They aren't safe with me. I might burn them in one ofmy fits of rage (which I still get now and then), in order thereby to destroymy own past. So you should know: Your documents are locked away safelyin Cluny.

    What I am sending you and asking you to read, you yourself can destroy,if you wish. I'm not certain if you have enough strength to experience yourpast once again in the mirror of the memories of your and Abelard's son.They are hard words from hard times. From different times. I've tried toorganize the pages. Impossible. There can't be written order when only wilddisorder is described. You'll find some of the pages illegible. I myself can nolonger decipher much of it. Some things are only fleeting notes that werelater corrected and completed. Some of it I've lost, or I've torn it up and letthe scraps drift down the Seine. Some seems to be repetition but is reallya later interpretation of earlier thoughts. The facts, unfortunately, are notinvented, you know that, but I saw much of it through the distorting mirrorof a tormented young person who doesn't yet understand the nature of fate.

    What I wrote was not intended for others' eyes. To be sure, I did address youand also Abelard as if I were writing for the two of you. But they were merelyconversations with myself. To put it more precisely, they were substitutes forconversations that you never granted me and that Abelard granted me toolate.

    I wrote down much of it immediately, without thinking it over. I insertedmuch of it later, from memory.

    Some of it will bore you, because it is only the repetition of Abelard'slectures and opinions, which you know. But perhaps it will interest younevertheless to find out what Abelard's pupil thought about his teacher andhis teachings before he knew that his teacher was his father and what hethought when he knew it.

    What you hold in your hands as a thick bundle was begun very early;the boy from Brittany had always liked to write, having inherited the loveof language from his parents. It was intended as a simple account of myjourney. But even this harmless beginning is overlaid with the shadows ofearly suspicions and fears. The ghosts were always there. In the course of theyears, the account turned into an indictment, or rather a desperate attemptto understand fate and to give meaning to my life. I did not succeed in that.

    Now, with the death of my father, my life too has passed. With him I liveda short, intense, and, in its own way, magnificent part of my life. It is over.Before me lie empty years. I am sinking into nothingness. Until my deathI'll be nothing but a nondescript, unknown canon by the grace of Peter theVenerable, whom you (I know it and thank you for it) asked to get this jobfor me. I'll fill it with my shadow. No one will wonder about me.

    As far as my account is concerned, consider that a young person wrote it,torn and shaken by suffering so intense he was no match for it. Forgive me ifI wrong you in some way. But what is that in comparison to the agonies thatyou and Abelard have imposed on me, your son.

Excerpted from Abelard's Love by LUISE RINSER. Copyright © 1991 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH.
Translation copyright © 1998 University of Nebraska Press.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Luise Rinser is the best-selling author of dozens of novels and autobiographical works that have been translated into more than twenty languages. A prominent figure in German intellectual and political life, she was the German Green Party’s presidential candidate in 1984. Jean M. Snook is an associate professor of German at Memorial University of Newfoundland and translator of Else Lasker-Schüler’s Concert (Nebraska 1994).

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