Booked All Week

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Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge

with 11 comments

First off, apologies for being a bit absent lately. I’ve been busy with midterms, family visits, and internship applications. I’m on spring break now, though, and things are settling down, so I plan to do a LOT of catching up this week!

My first encounter with Heloise and Abelard took place about a year ago when I came across a brief mention of their story in A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom. By the time I stumbled across Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography by James Burge, I remembered very little about them; only that they were considered iconic lovers of medieval Europe and that their lives were fraught with scandal. I didn’t know anything about medieval Europe (and still don’t, really) so I thought Burge’s book might be an interesting way to ease myself into a new historical context. Luckily, it was.

Peter Abelard was already a famous and controversial philosopher, lecturer, and teacher by the time he entered his twenties in early 12th century Paris. His early success was a rare achievement in any time period–also rare was the high level of education afforded his star pupil and young lover, Heloise. Formal education was rare for men, and practically non-existent for women. Heloise, however, was well known in her own right for her impressive knowledge of multiple languages and her erudite writing. Abelard served as Heloise’s tutor until Heloise’s guardian uncle discovered their affair and had Abelard beaten and castrated in the night. By this time, Heloise was pregnant and she and Abelard both found themselves with few “respectable” options. They married secretly so as not to damage Abelard’s career, but soon were separated as Abelard joined a monastery and Heloise became head nun of a convent. Though they were physically separated, Heloise and Abelard remained incredibly close, even when Abelard was later condemned for philosophical works that his contemporaries considered heretical.

What we know of them has been pieced together from what remains of their life-long correspondence through letter-writing. But their story is not only interesting because it is “one of history’s greatest love stories,” as the cover of the book proclaims, but because of what it might tell us about medieval European philosophy, politics, religion, and gender ideology. Burge argues that, despite common belief that the Middle Ages were relatively static and unchanging, the early 12th century would have seemed entirely different from the late 11th to those who lived through both. One significant cultural change, for example, was the expanded public role for women enabled by the proliferation of a new kind of convent, through which they were encouraged to act as religious business managers of sorts. As head abbess, Heloise was able to wield power and influence undreamed of my many of her female contemporaries. This was one of many roles filled by Heloise throughout her life, and Burge never loses sight of her strong personality and incredibly agency, even while examining letters in which she declares complete submission to Abelard in all things material and spiritual. Burge continually emphasizes the ways in which their partnership was unusually egalitarian, which makes their intellectual and romantic partnership especially attractive to the modern reader.

I found Heloise to be a very compelling figure, and was pretty wrapped up in the story of her relationship with Abelard. Burge does a pretty good job of relaying the salacious drama of the story while providing appropriate historical context, which fit my expectations and satisfied me. Though not necessarily an all-time favorite, it was an interesting introduction to a time and place I know close to nothing about and a story of love and friendship I’m unlikely to forget. It has survived close to one thousand years in the public consciousness already, after all, and for good reason.

Written by Emily Jane

March 14, 2011 at 6:10 am

11 Responses

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  1. That sounds rather fascinating! I really only know about them as a great love story and haven’t read anything about them, but you make me want to read about the 12th century! (all those historical romances and such set in the medieval age have scared me off the period a bit, they are just everywhere at the bookstore)

    Quick question, have you started research for that women and advertisement paper yet? I found a reference to Richards’ The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Adevertising and Spectacle, 1851-1941, and was wondering if you can recommend it. Writing papers is so bad for the tbr list 🙂


    March 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    • It really is! I know what you mean, about those historical romances…I avoid them too. Luckily this book is nothing like what I imagine THOSE to be like.

      I’m only in the very beginning stages of my research, and have not come across that book, so I’m sorry that I can’t recommend or warn against it. It sounds perfect, though! Thank you for making me aware of it!

      Emily Jane

      March 17, 2011 at 3:58 am

      • Hope it’ll help with your research and if you do use it, you can still warn me off (or not, as the case may be) 🙂


        April 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm

  2. I’ve been wanting to read a bio of this one-time, famous “couple” for years now, so your post comes at a good time as a reminder. Have you read their letters themselves? Fascinating stuff for all the things you mention but also depressing when you consider what an extreme ass Abelard comes off as and what a borderline codependent/celebrity stalker Heloise comes off as. And they were the “good people” when you compare them to Bernard of Clairvaux and his intolerant ilk!


    March 15, 2011 at 3:01 am

    • Excerpts from their letters are reproduced throughout the text. It’s true, Abelard does seem like a jerk and Heloise as overly dependent, but Burge asserts that their dynamic was really more complicated than that and that Heloise, in particular, may have been playing a romantic role in her letters that wasn’t entirely representative of her role in their relationship. Of course, it’s all speculative! I know nothing about Bernard of Clairvaux and his “intolerant ilk”, but you’ve certainly made me curious!

      Emily Jane

      March 17, 2011 at 4:06 am

  3. This sounds fascinating – and certainly not just for the love story aspect! The insight into Medieval life and philosophy really appeals to me. To the wishlist it goes.


    March 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm

  4. I also plan to know more about women in Medieval Europe this year, but I’ll focus on Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is such an interesting topic, especially because information is scarce.


    March 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    • It’s true, Alex. I’d like to learn more about Eleanor of Aquitaine as well!

      Emily Jane

      March 17, 2011 at 4:07 am

  5. I read some letters of Heloise and Abelard for a college class as a freshman, and I was shocked to learn that poor old Abelard got castrated by Heloise’s uncle. I’d always heard of them for years and years as this incredibly romantic couple, but damn, that’s a pretty grim love story. :p Their letters were interesting though.


    March 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm

  6. Interesting. A time period and two people I know nothing about, so might be worth picking up some time. Sounds really interesting.


    March 21, 2011 at 7:25 pm

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