Archive for June, 2009

To Abelard; Love, Heloise

June 2, 2009

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (12th c.)
(Penguin Classics, 1974)
309 p.  First reading.

Heloise and Abelard (1938)
Etienne Gilson (Ann Arbor, 1960)
207 p.  First reading.

It is the oldest story in the world, celebrated in countless songs and poems, and recounted each day on pop radio: boy meets girl, boy marries girl in secret, girl’s family castrates boy, boy and girl retire severally to the cloister.  We’ve heard it all before.

Yet this story of Abelard and Heloise deserves our special attention anyway.  This is partly on account of the extraordinary qualities of the two protagonists — she one of the best educated and most eloquent women in Europe, he perhaps the greatest intellect of his age, and both possessed of personal depth and seriousness —  but also because of the extensive first-person accounts they have left for us: Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum is an autobiographical account of his many trials and tribulations in life, including those connected with Heloise; then there is this series of intimate letters written some years after their separation; and finally we have the correspondence between Heloise and Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, about the final days of Abelard.  Taken together they provide a remarkably well-rounded portrait of this iconic romance.

Their story makes a good case-study in conversion.  Abelard was a young, talented scholar, and he knew it.  He was cited more than once for heresy, and he had about him that brash, iconoclastic spirit of one whose desire to make a name for himself outstrips his desire to serve truth.   In certain passages of his autobiography his arrogance is insufferable.  His early relations with Heloise were coldly calculated and self-serving, yet genuine love for her did finally blossom in his heart, and despite the disadvantages to himself, and over the objections of her family, he insisted on marrying her.  Then calamity befell him, and they were separated for good.  Years later, in the letters the two wrote to one another, he was quite transformed.  In his eyes, his suffering had served to bring him back to God.  He offered spiritual counsel of real substance to Heloise, and he ended his life as a priest and a monk of Cluny, giving every indication of being a faithful and devoted son of the Church.

Heloise, on the other hand, chafed against the religious life she had adopted.  Years after entering the cloister she complained to Abelard that she had no vocation, and no love for God in her heart.  All that she had done was for Abelard; he was her one true and abiding love, and the purity of that love was her one solace in life, her self-defining quality that she clung to in spite of everything.  In her eyes, Abelard was rightly her lover, and she seems to have been unable to accept that their relationship altered with the course of time.  (Her first letter carries this introduction: “To her lord, or rather, father; to her husband, or rather, brother; from his servant, or rather daughter; his wife, or rather, sister: to Abelard from Heloise.”)  When Abelard, after several years without contact with her, began receiving these letters from her, and realized that she was spiritually immobilized, consuming herself with frustration and anger, he was horrified.  His response to her first letter, to be sure, is rather formal, expounding at length the merits of the prayers of holy women — almost as though he was writing to a stranger — but when she responds with tears and bitterness his second letter is one of concern and tender solicitude, and he tries to argue her out of her stasis.  We do not know whether he succeeded, for the letters do not see the matter through to its conclusion.

Etienne Gilson’s book is a valuable companion to the letters themselves.  He traces the development of the complex relationship of these two very complex people, describing where necessary the historical and cultural background — he explains, for instance, why Heloise resisted marriage to Abelard, eventually consenting only to a secret marriage: the medieval ideal of the philosopher was of one wholly devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, and such a vocation was considered incompatible with married life; she did not want to be the cause of his professional downfall.  In a closing chapter, Gilson asks what the lives of Abelard and Heloise, and especially this extraordinary, passionate correspondence, can teach us about the medieval era.  He has a special complaint against those historians of culture — he takes Jacob Burckhardt as a particular example — whose theories of the Middle Ages prevent their seeing it clearly:

There is nothing quite comparable to the passion of the historians of the Renaissance for its individualism, its independence of mind, its rebellion against the principle of authority, unless perchance it is the docility with which those same historians copy one another in dogmatizing about the Middle Ages of which they know so little.

Gilson’s point is that, to those with eyes to see, the lives of Abelard and Heloise demonstrate that psychology did not begin with modernity, that personality and self-awareness did not begin with the Renaissance, and that the people of the Middle Ages were just as alive as you or me.

The suggestion to read these letters came from a friend who regularly peers into these posts, and I thank her for it.  True, the suggestion was made six or seven years ago, but patience is a virtue.