Peter Abelard and Heloise

Peter Abelard and Heloise

Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was an abbot in the monastery of Saint-Gildas in the province of Brittany, France. He was born in Nantes, moved to Paris at the age of 15, and attended the University of Paris. He became a prolific writer, composing philosophical essays, letters, an autobiography, hymns, and poetry. He is best known for his intellectual work in the area of nominalism, the antithesis of realism and basis of modern empiricism.

His book Sic et Non posed a number of theological and philosophical questions to its readers. In Ethics, he began two works: “Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian” and “Know Yourself.” Neither work was completed. His rebellious nature frequently angered people, particularly those in positions of authority.

Often his independent thinking gave rise to conflicts, especially when he demonstrated mastery of a subject being taught by a mentor. On one occasion he challenged his former teacher, William of Champeaux, regarding realism and logically proved that nominalism, also known as conceptualism, explained what realism could not prove.

At a time when education was not yet public, professors had no permanent place to teach. They would post an announcement that advertised where and when they would teach a particular subject and wait for students to arrive. In this way they established a following. Abelard was quite brilliant at age 25 and set up his own school despite limited teaching experience.

He founded his school uncomfortably close to his former teachers’, provoking their anger. He lived a life of extremes, gaining the admiration, respect, and awe of those who studied under him, but often receiving the wrath of those whom he defied. He was accused of heresy on many occasions and at one point was forced to leave his monastery because he aggravated his peers so intensely. On two occasions he was excommunicated from the church.

Heloise (1101–64) was the highly intelligent, beautiful, and charming niece of Fulbert, a prominent canon of Notre-Dame. Fulbert doted on her and demanded that she have only the best education, which took her to Paris near the monastery. Abelard heard of Heloise and requested that he be allowed to tutor her in her home. Permission was granted, and he moved in.

There he found an eager pupil, 22 years his junior, and they soon became involved in a physical as well as scholarly relationship. When Heloise became pregnant, they rejoiced in their child (whom they later named Astrolabe) and made plans to marry. Heloise was fiercely independent and would not be forced into a marriage where she had no rights.

But in her collected letters she mentions that she did not want to bring shame on Abelard by being a burden to him. In order to hide their relationship, and Heloise’s imminent delivery, Abelard took her to his sister’s house, where she stayed until she gave birth to their son. They secretly married in Paris, with only Heloise’s uncle and a few of their friends in attendance. Right after the marriage, Heloise took refuge in the Argenteuil convent to allay any gossip regarding her relationship with Abelard.

Unaware that both Heloise and Abelard had planned this provisional measure, Fulbert thought that Abelard had abandoned Heloise and forced her into a nunnery. He planned to ambush and restrain him and cut off Abelard’s genitalia. In a series of maneuvers he arranged to pay one person to put a sleeping powder in Abelard’s evening meal and his servant to allow a gate to remain open.

Fulbert sent word that he was looking for a Jewish physician to perform the sordid mutilation. After he had assembled his kinsmen and associates, they sought out Abelard and performed the horrible act. After the surgical alteration, Abelard took vows to become a monk at the monastery of Saint-Denis and persuaded Heloise to take vows to become a nun in a convent in Argenteuil.

Although their physical relationship could not continue, they remained in contact throughout their lives. Ironically, Abelard, who had previously considered himself a ravening wolf to whom a tender lamb had been entrusted, wrote that the alteration had been a positive rather than a harmful event.

He wrote, “... divine grace cleansed me rather than deprived me ...” and that it circumcised him in mind as in body to make him more fit to approach the holy altar and that “no contagion of carnal pollutions might ever again call me thence.”

Abelard and Heloise have been resurrected in a variety of artistic genres since their plight was first told in the 12th century. Although never completed, in 1606 William Shakespeare wrote the play Abélard and Elois, a Tragedie. Josephine Bonaparte, upon hearing the tragic story, made arrangements for the two to be buried together in Père LaChaise Cemetery in Paris.

Their modest sepulcher can be found on the map at the entrance to the cemetery. In 1819 Jean Vignaud (1775– 1826) painted Abélard and Heloïse Surprised by the Abbot Fulbert (Les Amours d’Héloïse et d’Abeilard), which is now at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The extent to which artists have chosen Abelard and Heloise to create operas, plays, and movies is testament to the universality and poignancy of their story.