Heloise and Abelard

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Heloise and Abelard

Although Heloise (c. 1101–1163) and Peter Abelard (1079–c. 1143) had distinguished careers in the medieval Church, they are best known for their intense and dramatic love affair. The events of that affair are recorded in a series of letters they wrote between 1130 and 1134 in which they recount the course of a relationship that occurred more than a decade earlier. Those letters, which were composed in Latin prose, offer a remarkable account of their affair between 1116 and 1119, and in them Heloise employs the rhetorical practices of medieval letter writing to express masochistic forms of desire.

THE LOVE AFFAIR: 1116–1119

In a letter written to a friend in 1130 that came to be known as the History of His Misfortunes, Abelard describes how he became disenchanted with the celibate life of a cleric that he had led up that point and set out in 1116 to make Heloise his lover. At that point Heloise was approximately fifteen years old and lived in the home of her uncle, Fulbert of Chartres, a canon. Part of Heloise's attraction for Abelard was her reputation—even at that age—for learning, an unusual achievement for women in the twelfth century. Abelard notes that because Heloise, unlike most women, knew how to read and write Latin, their love affair would be facilitated through the exchange of letters; as Abelard puts it: "[W]hen apart, we would be allowed to be present through written mediators, and to write many things more audaciously than we could speak them." Abelard proposes that they can express and enact desire more boldly in writing than in person; he does not consider their textual relationship—enacted through the exchange of letters—to be secondary to their physical relationship.

Abelard persuaded Fulbert to appoint him to be Heloise's tutor; in that position Abelard would enjoy proximity to Heloise and be empowered to give her private lessons and punish her physically if he deemed it necessary. As Abelard tells it he and Heloise quickly became sexually involved. Part of their relationship involved a level of physical violence under the cover of pedagogical violence. Abelard states: "[I]ndeed, to attract less suspicion, I sometimes gave her blows, but out of love, not fury, out of kindness, not anger—blows that surpassed the sweetness of all ointment." Both Abelard and Heloise suggest that erotic violence was a significant component of their passionate affair.

Abelard and Heloise managed to keep their relationship a secret from Fulbert until Heloise became pregnant, at which time Abelard sent her to Brittany to be cared for by his sister until their son was born. To placate Fulbert, who felt strongly that Abelard had wronged him, Abelard offered to marry Heloise as long as the marriage was kept secret. Fulbert agreed, and although Heloise was reluctant to marry and thus compromise Abelard's career in the Church, they secretly married. Their clandestine marriage failed to satisfy Fulbert, and in revenge for the wrong Abelard had done to him in seducing his niece, he had Abelard castrated. Abelard and Heloise both entered religious orders at that point. Though Heloise thrived as a nun and eventually became a highly respected and influential abbess, she never ceased to love or desire Abelard.


Although Abelard and Heloise refer to letters they composed during their love affair, the letters that definitely can be attributed to them all date from a later period after they had entered religious life. Those letters enact the form of textual desire that may have supplemented their physical performance of sexuality at the beginning of the affair and that became the sole means for them to enact their erotic desires after Abelard's castration had caused their separation.

Both Abelard and Heloise consider verbal abuse more painful than physical abuse, and the letters they exchange repeat the erotic violence of their affair. Heloise's letters verbally perform masochistic desires in the face of Abelard's indifference toward her after his castration. For Heloise, Abelard's History of His Misfortunes situates her as an abject lover, and in her first letter to him she exquisitely describes her suffering. Like the physical violence she experienced from Abelard as his student lover, the rhetorical violence of his letters allows her to create an identity as a lover who experiences Abelard's indifference as a form of pleasure. In response to the implicit violence of Abelard's rhetorical indifference, Heloise develops a language of suffering and pain that is self-consciously aware of its status as performance. Abelard responds to Heloise by sending her a letter in which he addresses her as a religious authority and ignores her emotional and erotic investment in him.

Although Heloise's first letter was shaped by her insistent pleas for a response from Abelard that would recognize her, as she puts it, as his slave, her second letter expands on her erotic desires: She sees herself as the cause of Abelard's sufferings and states a desire to be the one who suffers. She reiterates her need for recognition as the submissive partner in their relationship and insists that Abelard not praise her. This letter dwells on pain and pleasure as well as her memories of pleasure: "[S]o sweet were the pleasures of lovers to me that they cannot displease me nor be loosened from memory. To whatever place I turn, always they put themselves before my eyes with their desires nor do they spare me their illusions in sleep … so that I do all things in those places with you." Although this passage often is interpreted as an example of Heloise's repression, Heloise here describes an auto-erotic experience, not a repressed form of desire.

Heloise's letters perform a sexuality shaped by the submissive and even masochistic role she played in the affair: The letters Abelard and Heloise exchange textually enact forms of dominance and submission. Heloise's extraordinary skill in Latin prose and brilliant reputation in Latin scholarship enabled her to use letters as an erotic performance through which she could take pleasure in her subjection to Abelard.

see also Canon, Revising the; Castration; Domination; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Manliness; Middle Ages; Monasticism.


Desmond, Marilynn. 1998. "Dominus/Ancilla: Rhetorical Subjectivity and Sexual Violence in the Letters of Heloise." In The Tongue of the Fathers: Gender and Ideology in Twelfth-Century Latin, ed. David Townsend and Andrew Taylor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

McLaughlin, Mary Martin. 2000. "Heloise the Abbess: The Expansion of the Paraclete." In Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman, ed. Bonnie Wheeler. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Mews, Constant J., ed. 1999. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Radice, Betty, trans. and intro, with revisions by M. T. Clanchy. 2004. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. London: Penguin.

                                           Marilynn Desmond