In the cobblestone streets of 12th century France, Catholicism is king. Piety is a way of life, and as strong sentiment as the altar incense, in the hearts of philosophers Peter Abelard and–paradoxically–his infamous lover, Heloise. And amidst this staunch world of religion and piety, an all-consuming love affair, the ultimate “sin”, finds Heloise and Peter.
I heard about the tumultuous story of Heloise and Abelard when I read Sherry Jones’ 2014 The Sharp Hook of Love. The novel is a fictional account of the affair from Heloise’s point of view. But when I learned that the story was anything but fiction, I was intrigued. Not only because Abelard was a clergyman, and that their affair ended in gruesome tragedy, but because of how liberated Heloise seemed to be in a restrictive world.
Heloise was born in Paris, France, the date of her birth being widely unknown. According to historians, she was aged 15 or 17 when she met Peter Abelard, whilst living with her uncle Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. Abelard was already a celebrity in the scholarly and clerical circles of Notre Dame, but the young Heloise (who was highly well versed in theology, literature, poetry, and art) was close on his coattails. Abelard was impressed by her talents (which were usually reserved for men at the time) and wrote that she was nominatissima, “most renowned”, and thus set her in his sights. He rented a room in Fulbert’s home and in exchange, agreed to tutor Heloise (how convenient).
I’ve been rereading the letters of Abelard and Heloise lately in preparation for teaching them today, and I am struck once again by Heloise’s brilliance and profound education. She was really one of the foremost intellectuals of the Middle Ages. pic.twitter.com/fFBys3L45J
— Erik "Mr. Bloodaxe" Wade (@erik_kaars) June 4, 2019
And so a passionate, intense, and fiery, albeit brief affair, ensued. Although there has been debate about the line of consent in the relationship considering Heloise’s tender age, there is no doubt about the intensity of emotion Heloise felt for Abelard in her letters, most of which are blatantly erotic. In one letter she told him she was perfectly content to be his “concubine or whore”.
It wasn’t long before Heloise got pregnant. Her uncle Fulbert forced her and Abelard to marry in secret considering Abelard’s clerical vows of celibacy. Abelard sent Heloise away to bear the child and then sent her to a convent. Fulbert, however, revealed their “secret marriage” to the Parisian public. Heloise was reluctant both about the wedding and about becoming a nun, agreeing to take her vows only because it was what Abelard wanted.
“Dearer to me and of greater dignity would it seem to be called thy concubine”
It is Heloise’s opinions on marriage and love itself that bears noting and made her a proto-feminist, the first of her kind during a time when marriage was a sacred vow, women were widely uneducated, and their only prospects rested on the man they chose to marry or were betrothed to. Once, Heloise compared marriage to chains: “I tried to dissuade thee from our marriage, from an ill-starred bed…I preferred love to wedlock, freedom to chains.”
Not only do these words show us how fiercely independent Heloise was, but we can see just how much she embraced her sexuality and freedom. What’s more is that she wanted to be his whore instead of wife, a position that society deemed dishonorable.
This fascinates me, because the virgin bed was especially sacred, both within the Church and in medieval society. If a bride didn’t “bleed” on her wedding night and her virginity was questionable, her reputation (and that of her family) would be destroyed. This is why a forced marriage and sending Heloise to a convent were not enough for Uncle Fulbert. Infuriated that Abelard stole his niece again, Fulbert hired a group of brigands to break into Abelard’s room and castrate him. Humiliated, Abelard retreated from public life and became a monk at the Paris Abbey of St Denis, never to see Heloise or their son again.
Not only do these letters show us how fiercely indepdent Heloise was, but we can see just how much she embraced her sexuality.
Heloise is both a proto-feminist and a product of her time. After Abelard’s castration, she blamed herself, writing, “You endeavored by severities to force me to forget you, nor do I blame you; but now you have nothing to fear.”
Heloise did not revel in the shackles of marriage or the suppressive life of the convent; she was a woman of literature, art, philosophy, and culture. Yet she embodies the medieval woman in her submission…which is what paradoxically brings us back to her relationship with feminism. She submitted to Abelard for her; embracing her lust for him, even if it meant doing what she did not want, was her choice.
Getting inspired by great loves. Abelard and Heloise. pic.twitter.com/NylpyIqYCm
— Paola (@Oisseauvert3) July 4, 2018
The cloistered halls of the Argenteuil convent, which represented her shackles, were not the end for Heloise. She became a high-ranking abbess and eventually the nun equivalent to a bishop (meaning she was once again well respected). If Heloise was born in the 21st century, there’s no doubt that she would have achieved great things. It wouldn’t be fair to her many accomplishments to call her a victim of her time, but the misogyny and abuse of power dominating the middle ages undoubtedly played a role in controlling her fate.
We’ll never know how she could have contributed to early feminism had she not devoted her life to the Church after losing her Abelard. For now, we can appreciate what she symbolized for feminism before it was even a word and remember that the will of a woman’s independent mind is a force of nature, whether or not it is shadowed by societal oppressors.
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