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Issue Date:  January 28, 2005

By James Burge
HarperSanFrancisco, 319 pages, $24.95
The philosophy of love

Medieval pair traded endearments, ideas in their famous letters

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

The 12th-century lovers Abelard and Heloise have been famous for 900 years. Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography quotes liberally from the eight elegant Latin letters between them that have been the main source of knowledge about the couple and their affair since the letters were discovered a century after their deaths. What makes Heloise & Abelard “new” is that it references 113 short letters that many now think were written back and forth between the couple during the course of their liaison.

No biography has made use of these 113 “early letters” before, though researchers have known about them since at least 1980. They were first uncovered by New Zealand scholar Constance Mews when he was reading a 15th-century volume of letters intended to teach people how to write well. Mr. Mews soon found that details in the sample letters “from two lovers” matched the story and the writing style of the famous French couple. After consulting with other scholars, Mr. Mews published them as The Lost Letters of Abelard and Heloise in 1999. Scholars are still debating whether the letters are genuine.

With this biography, British author James Burge has produced a fascinating, funny and thoroughly engaging study of two people who lived during a period that scholars credit with the “birth of the individual.” Mr. Burge, a producer and director of documentaries for the BBC and the Discovery Channel, tells us that his is not supposed to be a “scholarly” biography; he does not include critical opinion from researchers who would discredit the legitimacy of the “lost letters.” Heavily edited at the time they were compiled, they contain endearments and occasional glimpses into lovers’ arguments, but they don’t add much significant to the known story. For the most part, Heloise & Abelard relies on previously established sources, which include the eight letters between the couple; Abelard’s books; heresy trial transcripts and other documents and letters of the time.

As Heloise & Abelard opens, it’s 15 years after the couple’s affair ended. Peter Abelard has been castrated by thugs acting on the orders of Heloise’s uncle. Their son lives with relatives in Brittany. They have both entered Benedictine monasteries, and they haven’t talked much since. Heloise is now abbess of a monastery outside of Paris. She has just read a letter known as his “Autobiography,” or “The Story of My Misfortunes,” which Abelard sent to a now unknown monk and which has somehow fallen into her hands. Abelard, who has found a measure of peace in his celibate life, seems to think that Heloise is content in her place as abbess. She intends to make it clear that she’s just as in love with him as before. “I know I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost,” she writes back to him. Heloise begs him for the comfort of his words, and thus begins their famous correspondence.

The rest of the book is structured along the chronological lines laid out in Abelard’s 20,000-word “Autobiography.” Peter of Pallet, who invented the name “Abelard” for himself, had something of the showman in him; he was a popular teacher, clever and funny in the classroom. (Heloise, who also had a flair for dramatic moments, would later name their son, rather bizarrely, “Astralabe,” which was the name of a medieval scientific instrument.)

The book traces Abelard’s life, beginning with his departure at age 21 from Brittany for Paris. There he studied with William of Champeaux, the master of the cathedral school at Notre Dame in Paris. Brilliant and supremely confident, he soon wearied of his teacher, whom he easily bested in argument. Within a year, he founded his own school to the southeast of Paris.

Around 1115, when he was about 36 and she presumably in her early 20s, Abelard became the tutor of Heloise, niece of the Canon Fulbert. She was his best pupil, already famous for her facility with Latin and her command of letters. Soon they became lovers and spiritual companions. In Abelard’s account, he seduced her, but Mr. Burge, bolstered partly by the endearments contained in the early letters, speculates that Heloise had her eye on Abelard since he walked through the door. Heloise addressed at least two letters “From an equal to an equal.”

In Abelard’s day, professors of philosophy were expected to be celibate. The two carried on their affair in secret until Heloise became pregnant. She went off to stay with Abelard’s relatives in Brittany for several months where she gave birth their son. In an attempt to smooth things over with Fulbert, Abelard tried to persuade Heloise to marry him, but Heloise said no. She had several objections: A public marriage would damage his career; a secret marriage would not satisfy Fulbert, who would still be worried about his family’s public honor; and, finally, their love did not have to be legitimized by a formal arrangement.

In her first letter to her “only love,” Heloise wrote: “A woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale. … The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress.”

Heloise & Abelard is a witty and finely written page-turner. Mr. Burge has a deft grasp of the time period and provides plenty of side explanations about the growth of commerce, the schedules of medieval monasteries and the details of theological controversies of the day. The author cautions that “Middle Ages” is an imprecise moniker for a complex 1,000-year period: “Abelard and Heloise saw the age in which they lived as almost bewilderingly modern, a time when new ideas and new things were changing the world at a dizzying speed. They were at the beginning of something, not the middle.”

Mr. Burge brings out the conflicts and the ideas of the age with humor and detail. Nowhere do we see this more than through the two protagonists, whose personalities emerge clearly across 900 years of history. The cantankerous Abelard. The dramatic Heloise.

Mr. Burge is respectful of the Christian belief that drove Abelard and Heloise and all the people of their age. Abelard never intended to weaken the power of God. Near the end of his life, he wrote to Heloise, “I do not wish to be a philosopher if it means conflicting with Paul, nor to be an Aristotle if it cuts me off from Christ.” He spent much of the space in their famous letters trying to get Heloise to turn her love to God, not to him. Heloise had learned from her beloved teacher that the intention of a thing was what truly mattered, and she did not feel that their love had been wrong.

Mr. Burge writes, “A 21st-century Westerner, mentally putting herself in Heloise’s situation, might be tempted to find another way to resolve the inner conflict. She might feel that it was medieval society that was at fault, that its emphasis on religion was an intolerable fettering of the human spirit. … This is not the story of a woman who considered herself repressed by an authoritarian church. Heloise was, like all those around her, a believer.”

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005

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