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Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography
336 pp., $24.95
Lauren F. Winner
A torrid affair, resulting in an illegitimate child and a clandestine wedding, followed by banishment and the occasional book-burning: no, it's not an episode of The Days of Our Lives, but the story of the 12th-century monastics Heloise and Abelard.
The pair met in Paris, where Abelard, one of the greatest medieval logicians, was teaching. Heloise, a prize pupil, was living with her uncle Fulbert, a canon at Notre-Dame. Heloise and Abelard quickly began a passionate love affair, which, despite their moony ardor, they managed to keep secret from the uncle. When Heloise got pregnant, Abelard whisked her away (disguised as a nun) to his relatives in Brittany. Upon return to Paris, Abelard knew he had to pay the piper. He approached Heloise's uncle, and they determined that the young couple should marry. Initially, Heloise was opposed to matrimony, which she feared would ruin Abelard's career. But Abelard and Fulbert were adamant, and the couple was wed, albeit in secret, shortly after the birth of their son.
Still, scandal continued to rumble, and eventually, at Abelard's insistence, Heloise entered a convent at Argenteuil. Whether her initial intention was simply to rest and find a bit of solitude or actually take orders is unclear. What is known is that Heloise did not herself desire to become a nun; she did so simply out of deference to Abelard's wishes. She wept while taking her vows, and, in the middle of the solemn ceremony, she recited a snippet from the poet Lucan: "O noble husband, too great for me to wed, was it my fate to bed that lofty head? Why did I marry you and bring about your fall? Now accept the penalty and see me gladly pay."
Until 20 years ago, the story of Heloise and Abelard rested almost entirely on a lengthy autobiographical letter by Abelard and the brief ensuing correspondence between the two, all written more than a decade after Heloise entered the convent. In 1980, scholar Constant Mews made a path-breaking discovery while studying a 15th-century ...