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Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography
Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography
James Burge
HarperOne, 2004
336 pp., 24.95

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Lauren F. Winner

Love Story

New light on Heloise and Abelard

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 Latin treatise on the art of letter writing. The treatise, which was full of examples of great epistolary style, featured a correspondence between two unnamed lovers. As Mews read on, he saw more and more similarities, both stylistic and substantive, between Heloise and Abelard's extant correspondence and that of these two anonymous epistlers. Mews studied the letters for almost 20 years before publishing a bilingual edition of them in 1999. By then he was confident that he had found, as his title indicated, The Lost Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Though discovered much later, these are actually among the lovers' early letters (and I use the term lovers advisedly, as the letters make an erotic, amorous read), from the period during whichby their own accountthey wrote to each other every day. They tell of the young Abelard and Heloise's great passion, their secret assignations, their yearning for one another. ("Have mercy on your beloved," wrote Abelard, "wasting away and almost fading away unless you come quickly to help me… . Ask the messenger what I did after I wrote this letter: there and then I threw myself on the bed out of impatience.")

This winter, two new books, drawing on the recently discovered letters, retell the story. Abelard and Heloise is by Mews himself. Heloise and Abelard was written by documentary producer James Burge. For those weary of the usual seasonal effusions, this pair of books offers alternative Valentine's Day reading.

Burge's account will have the greater appeal to popular audiences. He tells the story of the love affair with the flair of a novelist. His account is detailed and exciting but never tawdry, and he sprinkles the book with lots of luminous quotations from the letter-writers themselves. Mews, by contrast, offers a detailed reading of the letters he discovered in the 15th-century style-guide, arguing forcefully, if also with a light touch, that these are, indeed, letters between the young Heloise and Abelard. He then skims over the ending of their affair, to which Burge devotes four full chapters, in a few paragraphsHeloise's flight to Brittany, childbirth, the secret marriage; Heloise's entry, at the wishes of Abelard, into a convent; the vengeful middle-of-the-night castration of Abelard, ordered by Fulbert.

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 short, if you want the juicer version, pick up Burge's book. (Not that Mews is entirely fastidious; both writers report that Heloise and Abelard had sex during Holy Week in the refectory of Heloise's convent.) But if you want a fascinating and entirely accessible scholarly argument about not only the early letters, but also the poetic, theological, and liturgical projects on which Heloise and Abelard collaborated in later years, turn to Mews.

After Heloise took the veil at Argenteuil, Abelard became a Benedictine monk, and removed to the Abbey of St. Denis, where he wrote a controversial treatise on the Trinity (see the aforementioned book-burning). Retreating after this brouhaha to a parcel of land near Troyes, he founded an oratory and school that he named the Paraclete. He stayed there for some years before leaving to become abbot of St. Gildas-de-Ruys in Brittany. At the same time, the convent at Argenteuil was disbanded, and Abelard invited Heloise, who had become prioress, to bring her community to Paraclete.

And so Heloise and her sisters headed to Troyes. Initially, Heloise had little or no contact with Abelard; but then she received a copy of his 20,000-word autobiographical essay, which, inter alia, recounted their affair in unflinching detail. This lengthy account was ostensibly written to a friend in need. It exemplifies the medieval genre of the "letter of consolation," in which the writer recounts his own trials and travails so that the recipient might, by way of contrast, conclude that her own lot is not too bad. Scholars have disagreed about the identity of the original recipientwas there really a third party, a distressed friend, or was that friend merely a literary stand-in for Heloise herself?

Whatever the case, Abelard's letter eventually made its way to Heloise, and their correspondence resumed. Heloise freely expresses her own emotional turmoilshe was still very much in love with Abelardand both writers outline their understanding of and expectations for the religious life. It is this exchangefive letters from Abelard, and three from Heloisethat made the couple famous. (Heloise is perhaps best remembered for her claim that she would rather be Abelard's whore than Augustus' empress.) The first person to write about Heloise and Abelard was Jean de Meung, who immortalized them in his 1270 poem, Le Roman de la Rose. As Burge notes, "From then on the tale of Abelard and Heloise begins to diffuse into the consciousness of the Middle Ages." When Andre Duchesne and Francois d'Amboise published the couples' letters in 1616, readers heralded them as monastic humanists. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, layfolk enjoyed reading Heloise's reflections on romantic love. And on and on grew the reputation of the star-crossed lovers, one a brilliant philosopher, the other a woman ahead of her time.

Mews shows that Heloise and Abelard's literary partnership went far beyond love letters. By the mid-1130s, Heloise and Abelard had found a new grammar for their relationship. Whether they still spoke ofindeed, whether Abelard still felterotic ardor is hard to know. What we do know is that Abelard began to contribute quite actively to the liturgical life at the Paraclete. Heloise was a trenchant critic of many of the existing hymns; she wondered, in Mews's words, why so many hymns "speak of 'rising at night' or 'the dawn ris[ing],' even though they are sung at the wrong time, effectively forcing the singer to engage in a lie." And she worried that many people at prayer proclaimed psalms of repentance, even when they were stubbornly unrepentant. In response to her urgings, Abelard composed new hymns and chants for the nuns. He also wrote evocative Easter musings about Mary Magdalene, and a series of sermons to take the nuns through the liturgical year. In his examination of their creative collaboration, Mews asks whether certain hymns or liturgies were, in fact, written by Heloise, and attributed to Abelard. "Whatever the case, it is clear that the liturgy … constituted a collaborative effort." The creative collaboration continued in a series of laments that Abelard wrote for Heloise and her community in the 1130s. Focusing on biblical figures like Dinah and David, these laments are somber but encouraging meditations on long-suffering heroism. And in the Problemata Heloissae, Abelard addressed 42 questions about Scripture many of them dealing with sinthat Heloise had put to him.

Over the last few decades, feminist scholars and liturgists have heralded Heloise as a foremother who trenchantly criticized the patriarchal strictures of her church and society, and who subversively reveled in the erotic. Mews avoids this polemical quagmire, but his Heloise is, it seems to me, much more satisfying (not to mention plausible) then Heloise-the-proto-feminist-slut. Mews has done us a great service in examining Heloise not just as a lover but as a writer, liturgical collaborator, and theological thinker in her own right.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Algonquin). Her new book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Brazos) will be out in April.

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