By Courtney Suciu
When we think about timeless tales of forbidden love, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet might be the first that comes to mind. But long before the tortured romance between the offspring of the feuding Capulets and Montagues there was the hugely influential, true(ish) tale of a brilliant female scholar, her charismatic and accomplished tutor, and their doomed affair.
It’s the story of Heloise and Abelard, which has for more than nine centuries captivated the intellectual curiosity and imaginations of numerous copyists, translators, historians, literary scholars, poets and novelists who each had a hand – however indirectly – in creating an enduring mythology.
Why and how does this cultural obsession with Heloise and Abelard persist, and how does it blur the lines between fact and fiction, history and literature?
These are the bare bones of the story: in 12th century France, an unconventional, intellectually-gifted woman lives as the ward of her uncle in Paris. An accomplished and charismatic philosopher becomes her tutor and takes up residence in the household. A torrid affair ensues, resulting in the birth of a child and a secret marriage.
The uncle, disapproving of the entire situation and furious over the damage to his reputation, arranges for his henchmen to castrate the groom. Afterward, upon her lover’s insistence and against her will, the young woman becomes a nun, while he takes religious vows as a monk in a separate monastery.
We know all of this based on Peter Abelard’s letter Story of Calamities1 (also known as Historia calamitatum), an account of his life throughout the early 1130s, from emerging as the preeminent European philosopher of the 12th-century, to this devastating affair with his student, Heloise. Written about 15 years after they parted ways, the letter fell into the hands of Heloise who wrote in response to Abelard, spurring an impassioned and provocative correspondence between the long-separated lovers.
For more than nine centuries, this small collection of documents consisting of Abelard’s Calamities, four letters to him from Heloise, and three letters from Heloise to him, were enough to enchant generations of scholars, copyists and writers who left their mark in comments and additions which have become enmeshed in the common text, inviting debates about authenticity and inspiring a breathtaking body of literature.
“For most of their printed history, the letters of Abelard and Heloise have been known chiefly through a series of impostures, freewheeling and highly colored fantasias on their writings pretending to be faithful translations,” William Levitan, translator of Abelard and Heloise: The Letters and Other Writings2, wrote in his book’s introduction.
By end of the 17th century, he explained, a proliferation of “imposter texts” began circulating and bore “a decisive role in how Abelard and Heloise were understood for well over a hundred years.” He elaborated:
The scene for this vogue was set in 1675 when Jacques Alluis, a lawyer from Grenoble, published a fictionalized account of Les amours d’Abailard et d’ Héloïse set in the form of a bourgeois romance, including many long passages of sentimental dialogue and such narrative innovations as romantic rendezvous set in gardens, a rival for Heloise’s affections named Alberic (identified as “a native of Rheims”), and scenes of scandalous misbehavior among the nuns at Argenteuil.
A 1695 volume of Alluis’s novel was bound with copies of the letters exchanged between the lovers, loosely translated from Latin to French3. According to the website of bookseller James Cummins4 (who has a copy of this book available for $2500), these letters “have little to do with the original Latin from which they purportedly derive,” but it was these letters that were then translated into English and “became the standard in the English-speaking world,” informing numerous works such as Alexander Pope’s renowned 1736 poem “Eloisa to Abelard.”5
The story of Heloise and Abelard continued to be re-imagined on the stage, screen and printed page in more recent decades. These include a 1989 film adaptation of Marion Meade’s lusty 1979 novel Stealing Heaven6 which “has everything a grand, passionate film could want – sex, religion, intellect, violence and elaborate costumes,” [yes, please!] according to a New York Times review7.
In 2004, former French publishing executive-turned-author Antoine Audouard released Farewell, My Only One: A Novel of Abelard and Heloise8, turning the relationship into a love triangle involving the fictional narrator. It was hailed by Booklist9 as “a lyrical, beautiful meditation on an all-consuming passion.”
Then, earlier this year, the Christian Science Monitor10 picked The Cloister by James Carroll as one of its top books of March 2018, noting that the novel, which puts a twist on the familiar tale by weaving it into a post-WWII story involving a Roman Catholic priest who becomes acquainted with a Jewish Holocaust survivor, “vibrates with deep compassion and religious intensity.”
Regarding these numerous re-imaginings, Levitan argued, “To any version of the story, the writings of Abelard and Heloise must be central, and in particular their famous correspondence.” He explained:
More than raw data for the story, these writings are part of the story themselves. Abelard and Heloise were both renowned as creatures of the written word well before they ever met, Abelard as a teacher and philosopher, Heloise as the most learned woman in the France of her time, versed in Hebrew and Greek as well as the Latin classics. The habits of high literacy were woven into the fabric of their lives.
For scholars who are interested in delving more deeply into Abelard and Heloise’s “habits of high literacy,” there is a trove of “new” primary source material to consider. Fragments of 113 anonymous letters that many scholars believe may have been written by the lovers early in their affair (then copied in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria) were discovered in the 1980s by historian Constant J. Mews.
Translations of these fragments were included in his 1999 book The Lost Love Letters of Héloïse and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France11. While some investigators suggest the letters were fabricated or relate to another romance, Mews, who has written three books on Abelard and Heloise, pooh-poohs such cynics. He told the Jane Sullivan of Sydney Morning Herald12 that’s “like arguing Shakespeare's plays were invented by someone else. It would have to be a brilliant forgery."
Mews, who became aware of the letters 25 years earlier, told Sullivan that "[i]t was like finding a remarkable picture in an attic that's been neglected for centuries.” According to the newspaper, Mews suggested doubts of their authenticity stem from embarrassment on the part of French scholars because “the letters had existed in manuscript form in France, right under their noses, but no one had paid them any attention.”
In The Lost Letters, Mews examines the entire body of correspondence between Heloise and Abelard within the cultural and political climate in which they were composed, particularly in terms of authority, gender and the relationships between educated men and women.
“By looking at the wider phenomenon in the 12th century of men and women communicating with each other through the written word, always through the filter of the manuscript record,” Mews wrote that he hoped “to show how the relationship of Abelard and Heloise brings to a head many central tensions within French society in the 12th century.”
The Lost Love Letters also traces Mews’ careful consideration of language patterns throughout these conversations. By comparing them with works from other writers of the era, he attempts to affirm the uniquely individual voices of the letters’ authors, leading him to conclude “that these textual and stylistic parallels are so complex that it stretches plausibility to argue that the letters were written by anyone other than Abelard and Heloise.”
Mews wrote that the translations included in The Lost Letters are “not intended to be definitive but rather is provided to waken interest in a remarkable set of texts form the 12th century.”
Regardless of whether he makes a convincing case for the authenticity of the “lost” letters (some naysayers still aren’t buying it), Mews succeeds in making a case for the value of blurring the boundaries between historical and literary studies to inspire more complete and compelling scholarship of Heloise and Abelard:
By training, I am a historian rather than a philologist or literary critic. In the course of this study, I have inevitably trespassed into a variety of disciplinary traditions that are not my own. I believe, however, that it is imperative for historical and literary disciplines to learn from each other and transcend the factionalism by which they have sometimes been divided.
From this perspective, we can start to understand our enduring fascination with the multi-faceted story of Heloise and Abelard. The tale glistens like a prism with insight on the politics, philosophy and culture of the 12th century, as well as centuries of evolving notions of religion, love and gender. It stokes our appreciation for the stirring ways words can articulate the most complex thoughts and emotions. And, perhaps above all, researching, re-imagining and reading stories of Heloise and Abelard appeals to our apparently timeless desire for forbidden romance.
For further research
Learn more and request trials via the heading links below.
Explore this extensive range of items focused on literature, poetry and drama from the early modern period, including Les amours d'Abailard & d'Heloïse, a 1695 Amsterdam edition printed by Pierre Chayer which brings Jacques Allius’ (d.1688) original 1675 fictionalized text together with embroidered French translations of the first discovered letters exchanged between the ill-fated lovers.
Items in this collection the holdings of four prestigious library partners — the Wellcome Library in London, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague — to comprise a rich assembly of content from numerous countries and from different epochs and eras, documenting the early development of national and vernacular literatures.
This award-winning database includes more than 500,000 primary works from the 8th century to the present day – the largest, most inclusive library of texts assembled online. Explore dozens of poems that have become a part of the mythology of Heloise and Abelard, including Alexander Pope’s influential work, as well as Elizabeth Hands’ lyrical 1789 response, “On Reading Pope’s Eloiza to Abelard”; as well as related criticism, journal articles, reference works and more.
From Ebook Central
Abélard, P. (2012). Letters of Peter Abelard, Beyond the Personal.
Arenberg, N. M. (2014). Textual Transvestism: (Re)visions of Heloise (17th-18th-centuries).
Hellemans, Babette S. Rethinking Abelard: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Marenbon, J. (1997). Philosophy of Peter Abelard.
Mews, C. J. (2005). Abelard and Heloise.
Chua, S. J. G. (2009). Negotiations and Love Songs: Heloise and the Question of Religious Authenticity (Order No. 1467641).
Ciscel, C. P. (20100. Inseparable Companion: The Consolation of Heloise (Order No. 3448245
Deeney, J. J. (1961). A Critical Study of Alexander Pope's “Eloisa to Abelard” (Order No. 6201022).
Ernst, T. (2011). Quidam homo est asinus: The Orginality and Influence of Peter Abelard Upon Medieval Thought (Order No. 1507980).
Panych, P. (2008). La conception de l'amour chez Héloïse et Abélard (Order No. MR36891).
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu