|Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century. Among his works is "Sic et Non," a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions. His teachings were controversial, and he was repeatedly charged with heresy. Even with the controversy that surrounded him at times, nothing probably prepared him for the consequences of his love affair with Heloise, a relationship destined to change his life in dramatic ways. Abelard started his own school in St. Genevieve, on the left bank of the Seine, amidst a mass of vineyards. A few years later he was named to fill the post at Notre Dame, which had been vacated by William. He was extraordinarily successful as a teacher. He was the "idol of Paris"; he was vivacious and eloquent, and he attracted students from as far away as Sweden. His students included John of Salisbury, who became a noted scholar in his own right as well as Bishop of Chartres. Another one of his students was Guido of Castello, who later became Pope Celestine II. But his most famous student was his only female student, Heloise, who lived with her uncle near the cathedral church of Notre Dame.|
Heloise d'Argenteuil (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert. Heloise was nearly as well known in Paris as Abelard was. She was renowned for her learning, which was exceptional in a woman in twelfth-century France. Abelard later writes in his "Historica Calamitatum": "Her uncle's love for her was equaled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters."
In twelfth century Paris, the intellectually gifted young Heloise, the niece of Notre Dame’s Canon Fulbert, strives for knowledge, truth and the answer to the question of human existence. It soon becomes apparent that only one teacher in Paris can provide the education that she seeks. She was only sixteen when she met Abelard, but she had already mastered the traditional liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geography and astronomy, as well as theology. Though he was over twenty years her senior, Abelard quickly becomes intrigued by Heloise’s uncommon wit and intelligence, for Heloise is on par intellectually with Abelard. Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach Heloise. Before long, Peter Abelard finally fell in love with something besides dialectic. Using the pretext that his own house was a "handicap" to his studies, Abelard further moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle. Heloise was thrilled; his learning and talent entranced her, and before long, she, too, was in love. In the meantime, a most unlucky thing happened. Fulbert caught the lovers by night, and was enraged beyond reason. News of the scandal spread all over Paris. Fulbert kicked Abelard out of the house, and the grieving scholar moved to another house near the church. Shortly after this, Heloise discovered that she was pregnant. She sent the news to Abelard by letter, and they began to wonder where the birth should take place. Fulbert left Paris for awhile. While he was away, Abelard took Heloise, disguised as a nun, to his ancestral home in Brittany, where she gave birth to a boy named Astrolabe, after the scientific instrument. This further angered Fulbert; his blood boiled when he discovered that Heloise had escaped. At this point, Abelard made Fulbert an offer: he would marry Heloise on condition that the marriage be kept a secret.
Much to Abelard’s surprise, Heloise refused the offer. She claimed that he was unfit for matrimony; how, she asked, could a scholar stand to be bothered by running a household that included not just a desk but also a cradle? What about the cries of the baby and other distracting noises of an ordinary household? To Heloise, this would take the quality she most admired in Abelard away. To her, he was not an ordinary man, he was a genius. She did not want him to become ordinary. In fact, she wondered if she herself might become a burden to him. Most of all, she knew there was no way their marriage could be kept secret. Her love for Abelard was intensely spiritual and unconditional. She was willing to give her life to him, but not at the cost of his reputation. Abelard and Fulbert both insisted that they marry, and so they were. After an all-night vigil in Notre-Dame, they were married at daybreak. Secretly married, the couple left Astrolabe with Abelard's sister. To keep the marriage secret, Abelard went back to his solitary lodgings, and Heloise stayed with Fulbert. Unfortunately, Fulbert broke his promise and divulged the marriage to the public. Heloise denied that she and Abelard were married, and she and her uncle clashed in a series of particularly ugly disputes. At this point Abelard took her again, this time to a convent at Argenteuil. She wore the clothing of a nun, but did not take vows. Fulbert, believing that Abélard wanted to be rid of Héloïse and cast her off, was so angry that he was resolved to exact the ultimate penance from Abelard. Such was his frame of mind when he and some kinsmen bribed two of Abelard's servants to help them break into his dwelling one night and they castrated him. This meant the end of any hopes of ecclesiastical advancement, even though this deed turned public opinion against Fulbert. The Church condemned the deed as well. Heloise firmly believed that the disaster was her fault, and she took the vows of a nun.
Abelard, now age 40 and desiring solitude after this humiliating transgression, took vows in the abbey of St. Denis, the most prestigious religious institution in France. Abelard did not take well to monastic life, moving from abbey to abbey, still lecturing, and writing great philosophical works. During this time Héloïse had lived respectably and grown in stature within the religious community, where she would eventually become abbess at the Oratory at the Paraclete. The most interesting part of the story is the relationship that grew out of the tragedy. Both Peter Abelard and Heloise continued to go on living, to write, to love, to contribute to our literary history. They didn't kill themselves, or marry anyone else (unless you count the fact that both married the church). About this time, correspondence began between the two former lovers. After Abélard left the Paraclete, fleeing persecution, he wrote his Historia Calamitatum, explaining his tribulations both in his youth as a philosopher only and subsequently as a monk. Héloïse responded, both on the behalf of the Paraclete and herself. In letters which followed, Héloïse expressed dismay at problems Abélard faced, but scolded him for years of silence following the attack upon him, since Abélard was still wed to Héloïse.
Thus began a correspondence both passionate and erudite. Héloïse encouraged Abélard in his philosophical work and he dedicated his profession of faith to her. At one point, she tells him to share every detail of his life and not to shield her from unpleasantness. Ultimately, after telling Héloïse of instances where he had abused her and forced sex, Abélard insisted he had never truly loved her, but only lusted after her, and their relationship was a sin against God. He then recommended her to turn her attention toward the only one who ever truly loved her, Jesus-Christ, and to consecrate herself fully from then on to her religious vocation. Some scholars consider Abélard was attempting to spare her feelings (or his feelings, altered from disrupted hormones) and others point to the damage of his hormones and psyche, but from this point on, their correspondence focused on professional subjects rather than their romantic history. Though their bodies could no longer be united, their souls continued to share an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey.
Upon his death Abelard's body was brought to the Paraclete, where Heloise was later buried beside him. They lie together still.