Heloise: hell raiser, harlot or holier than thou?

 Barbara Newman, London Review of Books

Heloise judged her exemplary religious life worthless in the eyes of God because she had done everything for Abelard’s sake, nothing for God’s. On the other hand, she held her love affair morally blameless because she had loved Abelard purely for himself, without regard to material advantage: ‘if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would seem to me dearer and more honourable to be called not his empress but your whore.’

Among medievalists, few figures have been more deeply contested. The epistolary tale of Abelard and Heloise has been read as a scandal, a tragic romance, an edifying conversion story, a clever forgery and an exemplum of either patriarchy or feminism in action.

The backstory

In 12th century France, a celebrity philosopher fell in love with his star student and seduced her. Passionate letters flew between the two, and the Parisian gossip mill went into overdrive – until pregnancy, as so often, betrayed the secret. Much against Heloise’s will, Abelard insisted on marriage to soothe her enraged uncle Fulbert, and spirited their child off to his sister’s farm in Brittany. The pair married secretly at dawn, then went their separate ways.

A resentful Heloise denied all rumours of the marriage, so Abelard, to protect her from Fulbert’s wrath, clothed her in a nun’s habit and hid her away at Argenteuil, the convent where she had been raised. This proved to be the last straw for Fulbert, whose hired thugs surprised Abelard in his sleep and ‘cut off the parts of [his] body whereby [he] had committed the wrong’. For want of a better option, the eunuch philosopher turned monk, while Heloise became a nun in earnest, prefacing her vows with a public lament.

Myth-making about the pair began almost immediately. The poet Jean de Meun, on discovering the letters they had exchanged in religious life, translated them into French and popularised their story in his Roman de la Rose. One of his characters praises Heloise as peerless among women, but uses their tale all the same to warn men against marriage.

Read the full essay at the London Review of Books