Friday Hoyden: Héloïse d’Argenteuil

The second in my set of Three Wise H’s. See here for Hrotsvit von Gandersheim. Hidegard von Bingen to follow.

Poor, tragic Heloise was one of the great minds of the twelfth century. Eventually Abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete, she was not a nun by vocation, but through the medieval systems of sexual repression and ultra-strict gender role enforcement, along with a good sized dollop of bad luck.

Although she first became known independently for the quality of her scholarship and philosophical writing, she is best remembered as half of one of history’s most earth-shatteringly sad love stories. After falling in love with her tutor, Peter Abélard, running off with him, having a baby, and secretly marrying, fearing the disapproval of her uncle, who was her guardian, Heloise returned to the convent in which she grew up. Her uncle, believing Abélard had abandoned his ward, had his cousins find Abélard and castrate him. Made so wretched by the  attack, Abélard became a monk, and never reunited with his wife. However, the two continued to correspond throughout their lives. The absoluteness of their passion is preserved in a famous series of letters, that are wonderful to the modern reader for Heloise’s embracing of both the spiritual an physical aspects of love and desire. Abélard disavowed their love, and urged Heloise to turn her emotions solely towards God, but Heloise earned her hoyden status by refusing to deny the reality and value of the temporal, personal, and intensely physical love she maintained for her erstwhile husband.

The Wikipedia article includes an interesting diversion in the discussion of Heloise’s age. It was long assumed she was a teenager, and Abelard twenty years her senior, but there is evidence to suggest she was more like 27, and already an admired philosopher.

Howard Brenton wrote a play about them called In Extremis.

This is the story that John Cusak is telling with his puppet show at the beginning of Being John Malkovich.

The London Review of Books is usually subscription-only, but sometimes offers a free article. At present you can read Barbara Newman’s review of The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise, edited by David Luscombe. This gives some fascinating information about controversies surrounding the authenticity of the letters.

Lovers still leave letters at their tomb in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where the romantic like to think they now lie together.

Heloise called their son Astrolabe.

Tomb of Abelard and Heloise.

The tomb of Abelard and Heloise can still be visited, in Paris.

Categories: gender & feminism, history, religion

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4 replies

  1. Marion Meade’s book, Stealing Heaven, first introduced me to Heloise’s story. Published, I believe, in 1979, it may be difficult to find, but worth the search.

  2. Ooh, how did we miss THIS, on our trip to Paris??!!
    (Oh wait – I think this was the cemetary we had all of fifteen minutes in before closing time, and we met that nice Australian woman and her French lover… I failed at researching for that trip. :/)
    Thanks for these medieval historical hoydens, Orlando. So much I had forgotten, or not had a chance to go in-depth with, at Uni.

  3. Also a movie, which I presume is based on the book: and which is far better than the cover on IMDB would have you believe.
    And the earlier love letters, not mentioned in the Wikipedia article, possibly because their authenticity has long been a matter for debate, are translated and discussed at length by Professor Constant Mews in a book reviewed here:

  4. I’ve finally caught up with Newman’s LRB article, Orlando. Thanks for the link!

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