Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge
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.