The Love Letters of Abaelard and Heloise: Love in the Times of the Crusades
For over 200 years, Paris tourists with a penchant for great love stories have visited the tomb of Abaelard and Heloise. The heartbreaking love letters between the theologian and his pupil are a unique document of the Middle Ages. They tell of a tragic love story - which, as so often, should be questioned.
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2014
Why are we concerned with the past after all? One of the most attractive side effects is that studying a different world view puts our own ideas into perspective. For example, what about our demands on the life partner? Forever and ever? Great joy? Money is no object? Divorce statistics debunk all these rose-colored dreams that some Hollywood movies try to make us believe.
To the people of the Middle Ages and early modern times, the relationship between the two sexes was totally different. Marriage was considered a partnership of convenience with the sole purpose of preserving the welfare of the entire family. And so, the heads of the families arranged the marriages. The negotiations did not put the affection of the spouses first, but economic considerations.
But how does the love story of Abelard and Heloise fit into this world? This amor fou of one of the greatest scholars of his time: you remember: the brilliant theologian, who held lectures at university, agreed to teach Heloise, who was known for her beauty, for free board and lodging. She not only learned philosophy from him, but other things, too. When Heloise got pregnant, the lovers fled. Heloise gave birth to her son Paraclet in seclusion. It was only after an agreement with the uncle was reached that they returned to Paris. Fulbert insisted on a wedding, to restore the family’s honor. The marriage took place, but secretly, without the public noticing that the theologian Abelard had now become the father of a family.
The further events are difficult to reconstruct. Fulbert accused Abelard of influencing Heloise to conceal her position as a wife and withdraw into a cloister so that she would not become a threat to Abelard’s position at the Faculty of Theology at Paris University. Offended by this, the uncle took revenge. He castrated Abelard who then withdrew as a monk to the Abbey of Saint-Denis and gifted his beloved and her fellow nuns at the convent with a cloister. There he took care of them as their spiritual father.
This situation is believed to have served as background for the love letters of Abelard and Heloise. Generations of readers have considered them an expression of a deep affection that seems similar to our notions of love. But is that really true?
Recent research led by Georges Duby, who also wrote the commentary on this volume published by Manesse, emphasizes that we are probably imposing modern categories on medieval events here. He has a different interpretation and sees these loves letter not as private love letters, but as a literary game of deception authored by Abelard. He is also the presumed writer of Heloise’s letters in which he presented himself as a victim of female seduction. Heloise is the temptress, and thus corresponds to the concepts of their time. For unlike today, in the Middle Ages, women were considered the ones who tempted men into sexual activities. In his letters, Abelard proved his steadfastness by renouncing marriage, family and, of course, sexuality.
Duby’s interpretation has come under attack by researchers. We have become too fond of the idea of the loving couple. The joint resting place of Abelard and Heloise at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is still a tourist attraction up to the present day.
However, this tomb and the history of Abelard and Heloise are more a testimony to how we want to see history than to the protagonists’ actual experiences and emotions.