Heloise & AbelardA New Biography
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 James Burge
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060816139
Not long ago, my beloved, by chance someone brought me
the letter of consolation you had sent to a friend.
Heloise, First Letter
Heloise (we do not know her second name, or even whether she had one) begins the series of love letters through which she has gathered admirers and devotees for over twenty generations with a line that at first sight is remarkable only for its ordinariness.
The circumstances seem straightforward enough: she is confirming that she has read a letter that the recipient had previously sent to someone else. Only the words "my beloved" — delectissime in Latin — indicate that anything more passionate than acquaintance may be involved in the relationship between the two correspondents. Even that is muted: a schoolmaster might translate it as "oh most beloved one" but it is more likely to be something nearly equivalent to the conventional "darling" that well-established couples use in public. Later on her preferred form of address will be "my only one."
The unseen folds of emotion and history that surround this opening line can be unpacked only slowly and carefully but the facts behind it can be easily stated. The writer is the 31-year-old abbess in charge of a convent called the Paraclete, near the town of Troyes in the Champagne region of northeastern France. The year is 1132, the early Middle Ages — thirty-six years after the first crusade, fifteen years before the second. The person whom she addresses as "darling" is her husband, Peter Abelard. He is a famous man, by common consent the brightest philosopher of his generation. He was once the master of the prestigious cathedral school in Paris, and has continued ever since to make his mark on the ideas of the age. She has not had any close contact with him now for fifteen years. The letter to which she refers is really more of an autobiography, Abelard's concise (20,000 words) and almost naively frank account of the first part of his life.
In this autobiographical letter, which he has apparently addressed to a third party without any reference to her, Heloise has just read his account of their meeting and falling in love, which also includes a full account of their lovemaking and far-ranging sexual experimentation. She has also read of their hasty marriage, the birth of their son, and the subsequent story of jealousy and horrific revenge that led to Abelard's castration, to the couple taking holy orders and ultimately to Heloise finding herself where she is as she writes her reply.
If, in the summer of 1132, the Abbess Heloise had been asked to read aloud the first sentence of her letter, what might we have detected in the tone of voice of this intelligent and perceptive woman? Love? Pain? Desire? Fury at being ignored for so long and then finding her intimate story related to an unnamed stranger? Her reply to Abelard eventually communicates all those feelings eloquently, always in the stylish Latin that has endeared her to scholars through succeeding centuries. But it is very unlikely that she read the letter aloud to anyone in the convent, because it soon becomes clear that the content is so personal and so potentially shocking that it could never have been revealed to the nuns in her charge.
As she sat in whatever place of privacy she was able to find in the little convent of the Paraclete, the Abbess Heloise could probably not even have risked letting her emotion show. She took her job seriously; she had built the community up from nothing, braving physical deprivation and political conspiracy. To achieve and sustain that success the person in charge must maintain her authority. For the abbess's devout subordinates to have known what was in the letter and heard about her erotic fantasies, let alone her doubts about her vocation, would have been dangerously undermining.
Heloise begins her reply to Abelard — as one must always do with writers, especially if one is married to them — by congratulating him on the quality of the work she has just read. Abelard had started his letter by offering his own story as a consolation to his unnamed correspondent, promising that, "in comparison with my trials you will see that your own are nothing, or only slight, and you will find them easier to bear." She assures him that this strategy has undoubtedly worked:
You did indeed carry out your promise that you made your friend at the beginning that he would think his own troubles insignificant in comparison with your own ... No one, I think, could read it dry eyed; my own sorrows are renewed by the detail in which you have told it. (Heloise, First Letter)
The catalogue of misfortunes in Abelard's autobiography, which Heloise calls "the unending suffering which you, my only love, continue to endure," is certainly relentless. Heloise says that it must have been effective, and even today we cannot help but agree: no matter how miserable the original recipient might have been it is scarcely conceivable that, having read it, he or anyone would have wanted to swap places with Abelard.
We never do find out who this third person was, or the nature of his misfortunes that necessitated hearing all of Abelard's in order to feel better. At the end of the letter he is referred to as "dearly beloved brother in Christ, close friend and long-standing companion." Abelard says that he is "following up the words of consolation that I gave you in person" with his own story, so we can imagine this letter is the culmination of a series of discussions.
Some people have suggested that the recipient did not really exist, that he is just a literary device introduced by Abelard to help the narrative drive of his book. This seems very unlikely: first, Abelard's story needs no literary device to make it work, and second, it would be out of character for the couple to communicate by using any sort of pretense ...