Heloise and Abelard, A New Biography

reviewed by Phil Johnson

Heloise and Abelard, A New Biography, James Burge, HarperSan Francisco, 2003, 319 pp., $13, paperback.

Heloise and Abelard is about two great historical persons. Heloise (1095-1163), a person of integrity and intelligence, loved Peter Abelard deeply and was unwavering in her faithfulness as a wife and a lover. She was 20 when she fell in love with the great scholar Peter, the 46-year-old master of the school of Notre Dame in 1115. She loved Abelard both physically and intellectually the rest of her life.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a brilliant teacher of theology and logic; he was a bold thinker who wrote music as well. He wrote, sang, and played ballads, love songs, and hymns. He entertained in the pubs of Paris to the delight of many and also wrote the words and music of 133 hymns for the Convent of the Paraclete’s liturgical year (232).

Because we have letters they wrote to one another as well as Peter’s autobiography, Historia Calamitas (The Story of My Misfortunes), this love affair of 900 years ago is one of the most renowned in human history. A set of eight letters, five from Abelard and three from Heloise, were used by Jean de Meung in 1275 to tell the couple’s story (Burge, p. 1). The letters probably came from a manuscript in the library of the convent of the Paraclete where Heloise was Prioress. This correspondence, now known as the “later letters,” began about 14 years after their days of love and delight in Paris. Abelard wrote the first of these, Historia Calamitas, in 1132 when he was the beleaguered Abbot of St. Gildas in Brittany. It was written to cheer an unnamed monk who was facing troubles. Peter told his tale so the monk could see that his lot was not that bad. A copy of the letter reached Heloise and she wrote Peter renewing their correspondence.

Burge reports the recent discovery of another set of letters written much earlier—during the period of their courtship in Paris (1115-16). Burge calls the recently discovered letters the “Early Letters” (p. 8). The early letters come to us by way of a “rather obscure Latin book from the fifteenth century. It was a collection of examples of how to write letters: correct forms of address, good style, etc.” Johannes de Vepria compiled it and added a section “that he headed ‘From the Letters of Two Lovers.’” Constant Mews, a scholar in New Zealand came across de Vepria’s collection in 1980. Historical analysis supports the conclusion that these are letters written by Heloise and Peter.

The “letters of two lovers” included fragments of various sizes from 113 letters (p. 4). For example, from Peter: “To his heart, her most faithful. I wish you an unclouded night. Would that it were spent with me. Farewell my soul and my rest;” “To his inexhaustible vessel of all sweetness from her most beloved. May I gaze endlessly at you alone, ignoring the light of day” (298); and “How fertile with delight is your breast, how you shine with utter beauty, body so full of moisture, that indescribable scent of yours” (p. 4).

And from Heloise:

From an equal to an equal, a reddening rose under the spotless whiteness of lilies. I send you whatever a lover gives a lover.
>Although it is winter my breast blazes with the fervor of love. What else shall I say? I would write more things to you but a few words instruct a wise man. Farewell, my heart and body and my total love. (299)

Burge describes how Heloise and Abelard exchanged letters. They wrote them on wax tablets. After reading the letter, the recipient erased it, wrote a response on the tablet, and sent it back with a courier, maybe the same person who brought it.

But if these letters were written in wax and erased, how do we have a written record? Burge tells us that Heloise first copied Abelard’s letter on parchment, drafted her response, and then copied her response onto the wax tablet before sending it to Abelard. Thus she created a running record of their correspondence.

The love affair of Heloise and Abelard became widely known at the time—except, it appears, to Heloise’s Uncle Fulbert. Fulbert was paying Abelard to tutor his niece Heloise. When Heloise became pregnant the couple married in spite of the objections of Heloise who cited famous examples in which a wife and child had hampered the work of great philosophers. Uncle Fulbert was not satisfied by the marriage and hired some men to castrate Abelard. From a time shortly thereafter, Heloise and Peter lived separately as monk and nun until their deaths. Heloise loved Abelard’s mind and the way he stimulated her own learning and creativity as much as she loved Abelard’s body. She cherished their love and the ecstasy of their time together more than her eternal soul. When she was Prioress of the Paraclete, she wrote to Abelard: “In my case the pleasures of lovers that we shared have been too sweet—they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts” (Heloise, Second Letter, Burge, 21).

Peter Abelard was famous independent of his relationship with Heloise. Some say he was the most famous person in Europe. Students came from all over the continent to study under him. He wrote books on theology and logic. His most well known writing after his autobiography is Sic et Non—yes and no—which he wrote to set his students thinking. It contains 158 contradictions concerning faith found in scripture and in the church fathers. Though established after Peter’s death, he is credited as the founder of the University of Paris and as a major impetus behind the founding of a number of universities within the next half century.

Burge has given us a very useful book. The Appendix contains a number of the earlier letters. I recommend this book to anyone interested in these people and in the history of the twelfth century. At times I thought Burge’s interpretations and speculations were off the mark and his account of Abelard’s school on Mount St. Genevieve in the late 1130s is sketchy. Arnold of Brescia teamed up with Abelard at the school in 1139 and along with Abelard was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Sens (1140). Arnold was of much greater significance than reflected in these pages.

The twelfth century was a great time of creativity and intellectual ferment. For the a taste of the richness of this period, see Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages.

Pietisten note: Peter Abelard’s theory of the atonement differed from the classic substitutionary theory. It is known as the moral influence theory. The incarnation was not, for Abelard, the sacrifice of Jesus to satisfy the justice of God. Rather, the life of Jesus shows us the way to God and draws us to God. Paul Peter Waldenström believed that God was always the same loving Father and did not need change. Rather, Jesus showed humans the heart of the loving Father and through Jesus brings us into the salvation of God’s love. Waldenström is in the Abelard tradition as are many warm-hearted pietists.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson