I was familiar with the general outline of this 12th century tragic love story, but it was our painter friend Jean who brought to my attention the truly extraordinary nature of these two characters.
Abelard is one of the most important intellectuals of the Middle Ages, a true giant of Medieval thought. A philosopher and theologian, the father of scholasticism and the inventor of conceptualism, both author and composer of songs, as a professor he introduced Aristotle and other pagans and writers of antiquity into the curriculum of cathedral schools. He founded the first schools outside the authority of the church, laying the foundation of the modern university system. His treaties prefigured and influenced the development of modern legal thought. He was a staunch feminist, and created the first convent ordered by exclusively feminine rules. He was an object of glory and scandal. He was handsome, a ladies’ man, and knew many successes and conquests. His contemporaries compared him to a wild rhinoceros.
At 34 years old, he heard talk of a woman much younger than him. Heloise was the illegitimate daughter of a great lord. She was raised by her uncle, Fulbert, a canon. She too was one of the great minds of the Middle Ages, and probably the first female intellectual and writer. She studied Greek, Hebrew, and other subjects reserved exclusively for men. She knew Latin with perfection and was intimately familiar with the works of antiquity. She too wrote songs.
Abelard took a room in the home of her uncle Fulbert with the intention of adding Heloise to his list of conquests. And so began a liaison between master and student as intellectual as it was sexual. Their letters bear witness to the blending of thought, sentiment, and a raw eroticism that is extraordinarily modern.
Heloise soon became pregnant. Abelard practically kidnapped her to keep her safe from her uncle. He sent her to live with his family in Rhys, in Bretagne. She had already entered the religious orders, just as Abelard had done many years earlier, when the two were secretly married at dawn. Fulbert learned of the marriage. In fear, Abelard moved Heloise out of harm’s way, but he could not do the same for himself. The uncle sent men who, with the assistance of Abelard’s valet, broke into his home and castrated him. The scandal was immense; Abelard was a national celebrity. The attackers were not only castrated themselves, but blinded as well. As for the uncle, he lost his property and fell into disgrace.
Abelard turned his misfortune into adventure. He traveled and wrote, taking more and more audacious positions along the way. He was condemned by the Church and idolized by others. He was chased from one place and welcomed with open arms in another. He was pursued by one power and protected by another. He founded an abbey but had to flee when the monks plotted to kill him. He built a hermitage, and sought to plead his case before the pope in Rome. Unfortunately, he died before he got the chance. He lived to 62, an astonishing feat for the time. He had considered abandoning Christianity, which had been so cruel to him, and seeking refuge a more tolerant Moorish Spain. Even his body would struggle to find peace, being carted around from one tomb to another before finally being reunited with his beloved Heloise in Père Lachaise.
He penned the first known autobiography, “The History of My Misfortunes”, in which he held nothing back. His correspondence with Heloise were also published. Their relationship set a standard for courteous love, a Medieval model that survives until our days, in which ideas, sentiments, and eroticism find harmony.
Heloise too moved from one place to another. Pursued, protected, condemned, praised, taking refuge here and there, she too wrote it all down. She hardly had time to know the son she had with Abelard, who they gave the strange and pagan name Astrolabe. She died as an abbess, full of honors, and finally at peace. As for Astrolabe, the product of this exceptional love, he entered religious life and became a canon, but lived a much more tranquil life than either of his parents.