Heloise (c. 1100–1163)
Heloise (c. 1100–1163)
Highly educated French abbess of the 12th century who was the mistress and wife of the medieval philosopher Peter Abelard. Born around 1100; died on May 16, 1163 (some sources cite 1164); educated at convent of Argenteuil; tutored by Peter Abelard, around 1117, in Paris; married Peter Abelard, around 1118 (died 1142); children: Astrolabe.
Gave birth to her only child Astrolabe and subsequently married Peter Abelard (c. 1118); became a nun at Argenteuil (1118); installed as abbess of the Paraclete (1129); corresponded with Peter Abelard (early 1130s).
Educated women in the 12th century were so rare as to stand out as an anomaly, but this alone does not account for the widespread fame of Heloise. Her affair with one of the great teachers of her day increased public awareness of her status as an unusually talented woman. This great French abbess attracted the attention of her contemporaries in three periods of her life: as a young girl (when her reputation for learning was known to many 12th-century scholars and clergy), as a young woman (when her passionate affair with the towering intellectual Peter Abelard resulted in love songs immortalizing the relationship), and as a maturing woman (when she went on to become the abbess of her own convent). Heloise's spiritual grace and effective administration of church properties won her the praise of popes and abbots alike.
Though abbesses of medieval convents were certainly important women, Heloise's enduring interest to scholars and the general public stems from her relationship with a charismatic teacher in 12th-century Paris, Peter Abelard. Long after their affair, marriage, and tragic separation, the pair wrote letters to each other which give an unusually valuable window into medieval hearts and minds. In fact, these letters, written in the early 1130s, constitute our most important source of information about the life of Heloise; thus it is important to examine briefly the quality of this source.
The letters number seven in all, and their authenticity has been a subject of enormous concern to scholars. Opinions have ranged from the assertion that Abelard himself wrote all of the letters; to the view that a third, later source wrote the collection; to the belief that the letters are actually what they purport to be, a genuine correspondence. Even this latter view, however, is problematic. Some believe that the collection was subject to editing by Heloise, or Abelard, or later church personnel into whose hands the manuscripts fell. Recent scholarship has generally affirmed the view that the correspondence is genuine, though editing by Heloise is a strong possibility.
Little is known of Heloise's childhood. Born around 1100, she may have been the daughter of a minor noble; another possibility proffered by scholars is that she was illegitimate. Direct evidence does not exist, however, to support either position. She was placed under the care of her uncle Fulbert, who was a canon at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and her early education took place at the convent of Argenteuil, near Paris. Apparently, Heloise made outstanding progress in her pursuit of secular learning at Argenteuil, for by the time she rejoined Fulbert in Paris around 1116 or 1117, she was widely acknowledged as a highly intelligent and learned young woman. Her reputation soon attracted the attention of the man who was to dominate her life, the charismatic teacher of philosophy, Peter Abelard.
Our knowledge of Heloise's early relationship with Abelard comes from the latter's own hand. In his Historia calamitatum, purportedly a letter of consolation which Abelard wrote to an unnamed friend around 1130, he admitted that his initial interest in Heloise was less than pure:
There lived in Paris a maiden named Heloise, the niece of a canon named Fulbert, who from his deep love for her was eager to have her advanced in all literary pursuits possible. She was a lady of no mean appearance while in literary excellence she was the first…. I … decided she was just the one for me to join in love.
At this time, Heloise was around 17 and Abelard was some 20 years her senior. His pursuit of this young woman was fueled by his enormous ego: "I then enjoyed such renown and was so outstanding for my charms of youth that I feared no repulse by any woman whom I should deign to favor with my love."
Fulbert was anxious for his niece to continue her study of philosophy and classical literature. Although such scholarship would not have led to a career in the modern sense, it was a sign of Fulbert's great affection for Heloise that he enabled her to pursue her scholarly inclinations. Abelard called Fulbert "a very avaricious man," who could not refuse Peter's offer to live with Fulbert in exchange for tutoring Heloise. Indeed, Fulbert encouraged the pair to spend hours together in intellectual collaboration. Very soon, Abelard's goal was achieved:
What was the result? We were first together in one house and then one in mind. Under the pretext of work we made ourselves entirely free for love and the pursuit of her studies provided the secret privacy which love desired. We opened our books but more words of love than of reason asserted themselves. There was more kissing than teaching; my hands found themselves at her breasts more often than on the book.
As the affair progressed, Abelard composed love songs praising Heloise. These popular songs contributed both to public awareness of the relationship and to the enhancement of Heloise's reputation as an outstandingly literate woman who was worthy of the love of such a great man.
The affair continued for some months. Fulbert finally discovered the pair in bed together and demanded that they stop seeing each other. Still, clandestine meetings were achieved. When Heloise discovered that she was pregnant, Abelard arranged for her to travel to his sister in Brittany. There, she gave birth to their son, whom she named Astrolabe. Abelard's sister raised the child.
Abelard remained in Paris and, to placate Fulbert, offered to marry Heloise—with the condition that their marriage remain a secret, in order to protect his credibility as a teacher. In 12th-century Paris, teachers normally were unmarried clerics; although, conceivably, a cleric in lower orders could wed without relinquishing his teaching position, it would have been difficult for such a man to be considered credible by his students, as the moral ideals of the day required a celibate clergy. By this standard, marriage was merely a public admission that one was unable to remain chaste.
At a time when nearly the whole world is indifferent and deplorably apathetic towards [secular learning] … you have surpassed all women in carrying out your purpose and have gone further than almost every man.
—Letter of Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, to Heloise
The wedding took place in 1117 or 1118, though the bridegroom had found it difficult to persuade Heloise to agree to the marriage. Her objections to the union were made out of concern for Abelard's scholarly status and future prospects: first, she stated that a "secret" marriage would not appease Fulbert in the long run; his pride would ultimately lead him to demand public acknowledgement of the marriage. Second, Heloise objected to the marriage on the grounds that Peter was too great an intellectual treasure to waste on one mere woman. In Abelard's account of Heloise's objections to the idea of marriage, he noted:
What punishment would the world demand of her if she deprived it of such a shining light? What curses, what loss to the Church, what weeping among philosophers would ensue from our marriage; how disgraceful, how lamentable would it be if I, whom nature had produced for all, should devote myself to a woman and submit to such baseness!
Heloise's objections to the marriage were supported by classical and Christian authorities—a clear indication of the extent of her scholarly learning. For example, in warning Abelard of the myriad obligations a married man has to his household, she noted that Socrates was severely hindered in his pursuit of wisdom by his wife Xanthippe 's perpetual complaints. Overall, Heloise's position was that she loved Abelard far too much to place him under similar constraints. Her arguments appear not only in Abelard's Historia calamitatum, but also in her own first letter to Abelard:
God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.
In short, Heloise's position reflected both a Christian viewpoint grounded in such writers as St. Paul and St. Jerome, as well as a classical viewpoint. She clearly demonstrated her impressive familiarity with secular learning.
Her prediction that Fulbert would not be content with a secret marriage proved all too true. Abelard's visits to his wife were often marred by violent quarrels with her uncle, who wished to make the marriage publicly known despite his initial agreement to abide by Peter's terms of secrecy. To avoid confrontations with Fulbert, Abelard sent Heloise to the convent of Argenteuil. He continued his clandestine visits with her. But Fulbert assumed that Abelard wished to dissolve the marriage by making Heloise a nun. The offended canon hatched a plan to avenge his wounded honor, and he had Abelard castrated. According to Peter, Fulbert's attackers "cut off the organs" by which he had "committed the deed which they deplored."
His castration was a public humiliation, fully described in Abelard's Historia calamitatum, which drove husband and wife into cloistered religious life. After recovering from the wounds, he entered the monastery of St. Denis. At Argenteuil, Heloise took the veil which signified her submission to a life of conformity with the monastic rule. The brief, passionate affair between the great scholar Abelard and the most learned young woman in France had been brought to a dramatic end—yet their relationship continued.
Heloise's entry into the convent was not a voluntary choice; she became a nun in deference to the wishes of her beloved husband. "It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone," she wrote in her first letter to him.
Abelard's life as a monk of St. Denis was filled with stress and personal danger: the monks
found him overbearing and too zealous in his efforts to reform their religious life. Conflict resulted, and eventually Abelard feared for his personal safety. When his theological views were condemned by a council at Soissons in 1121, he sought refuge in another monastery, St. Ayoul in Provins. Here, he fared no better: his irritating personality caused him to clash with the monks once again, and only his friendship with the prior made his situation tolerable. Finally, by appealing to the French king Louis VI, Abelard received permission to leave St. Ayoul and live a monastic life in solitude. But as he wrote in his Historia calamitatum: "When my former students discovered my whereabouts, they began to leave the cities and towns and to flock there to dwell with me in my solitude." His oratory was first called the Holy Trinity, which engendered yet another conflict with church authorities who found it an unsuitable name for a church. Soon the oratory was renamed the Paraclete (the Comforter, i.e., the Holy Spirit); the conflict with church authorities continued, as the latter found it sacrilegious to stress only one element of the Trinity.
Meanwhile, Heloise was quietly living at the convent of Argenteuil. By 1125, she became prioress of her community, but in 1129 she and her nuns were expelled from their convent by the abbot of St. Denis, who claimed the property of Argenteuil for his own monastery. By then, Abelard had abandoned the Paraclete in order to become the abbot of a monastery in Brittany. When word of Heloise's homeless wanderings with her sisters reached him, he granted her the property of the Paraclete. There, with his help, Heloise established her religious community. Abelard noted that Heloise's community prospered despite early hardships and deprivations.
As a woman is the weaker sex, so her dire need more readily arouses human sympathy and her life of virtue is the more pleasing to God and man. God granted such favor in the eyes of all to my sister who was over the other nuns that bishops loved her as a daughter, the laity as a mother, and all alike admired her spirit of religion.
In 1129, Heloise became the abbess of her community of the Paraclete and remained in this position for the rest of her life.
Abelard, as founder of the convent of the Paraclete, assisted Heloise's community in its earliest days. But his frequent presence there outraged his enemies, who questioned whether his motives were spiritual or carnal: "As a result, gossip engendered by envy arose … my calumniators with their usual perverseness … [charged] that I was still in the power of a lingering delight in carnal lust and could scarcely endure … the absence of my old lover."
Heloise and Abelard's correspondence reflects their activities during the early 1130s. Her first letter to Abelard (1132 or 1133) expressed concern for her beloved's safety, as the monks of St. Gildas were making attempts on his life. She also reproached him for writing a long comforting letter to a friend (the Historia calamitatum), yet failing to attend to her own great need for consolation:
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?… While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words … some sweet semblance of yourself.
Abelard's response was a mild apology. He claimed that Heloise's exemplary life was so widely admired that he assumed she had no need of consolation at all. On the contrary, he requested her prayers.
Heloise's second letter clarified her position to Abelard: "Of all wretched women I am the most wretched, and amongst the unhappy I am the unhappiest." She wanted Abelard to understand unequivocally that her entire life was lived in devotion to him, not God; the compliments of church officials were empty praise. Only Abelard's written communications could satisfy her. In his lengthy response, Abelard criticized Heloise for her "old perpetual complaint against God concerning the manner of our entry into religious life and the cruelty of the act of treachery performed on me." He asked her to be content with the spiritual daughters she was so successfully nurturing and contrasted her success with his own inability to get along with the monks under his care.
Heloise's third and last letter to Abelard acknowledged her acceptance of his command to stop bringing up old wounds:
I would not want to give you cause for finding me disobedient in anything, so I have set the bridle of your injunction on the words which issue from my unbounded grief.
True to her promise, Heloise never again upbraided Abelard for his insensitivity to her love; she turned her focus on a series of practical questions regarding the lifestyle of women under monastic rule. Abelard obviously felt more comfortable dealing with his wife on this spiritual level, for he wrote two very long letters giving spiritual direction to her community and composed liturgical verses for them as well.
When Abelard died in 1142, his body was taken to the Paraclete for burial. Heloise's great loss elicited a warm letter from Abbot Peter of Cluny, one of the most respected ecclesiastics of his day. He assured Heloise that her beloved husband had experienced a peaceful and holy death at one of Cluny's affiliated monasteries. From Heloise's response to this letter, we know that her son Astrolabe was pursuing an ecclesiastical career, for she asked Abbot Peter to attempt to secure a prebend from the archbishop of Paris for her son.
Heloise lived on for another 21 years. In the death list of the Paraclete, her demise is noted on May 16 of either 1163 or 1164. Her years without Abelard were successful ones. Under her guidance, the Paraclete became one of France's most flourishing religious establishments, and several daughter houses were founded by it. The woman who was praised for her devotion to learning, whose intelligence attracted the leading scholar of Paris, used her extraordinary education to enhance female religious life. Unable to remain Abelard's physical wife, she became his spiritual wife and sister. Heloise was buried in her husband's tomb, and the grave is still visited and honored by many.
Muckle, J.T., trans. The Story of Abelard's Adversities: A Translation with notes of the Historia Calamitatum. Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1964.
Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. NY: Penguin Books, 1974.
Dronke, Peter. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies. W.P. Ker Lecture no. 26, University of Glasgow Press, 1976.
——. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Gilson, Etienne. Heloise and Abelard. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1960.
Shahar, Shulamith. The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1983.
Southern, R.W. Medieval Humanism and Other Studies. NY: Harper Torchbacks, 1970.
Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre , Professor of History, Copper Mountain College (College of the Desert), Joshua Tree, California