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Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge

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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

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, by Dava Sobel

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Galileo’s Daughter is a joint biography of Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun and the closest to him of his three children. Sobel gracefully recalls Galileo’s successes as a scientist and inventor; among them, the telescope, which aided him in support of the argument that the Earth moves around the Sun and is not, in fact, the center of the universe. Of course, she has no choice but to recall as well that for this conviction, Galileo was interrogated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for heresy despite the strength of his own religious beliefs. What’s particularly interesting about her telling of these events, which so greatly informed popular constructs of science and faith as opposing and mutually exclusive practices, is that the surviving letters that Galileo received from his daughter throughout the years are neatly incorporated throughout the book and shine light on a relationship that was central to both Galileo and his daughter, lending the tale personal and human appeal.

After reading Heloise and Abelard last spring, I developed somewhat of an interest in convents and the lives of nuns, which was nice to re-visit through the letters of Suor Maria Celeste. She wrote to her father frequently, sparing no detail of her daily life and activity. Unfortunately, without the same sort of analysis that was present in Heloise and Abelard, this became a bit tiresome. I was hoping their correspondence would more directly relate to the impact and implications of the astronomical discoveries that Galileo was making, but most of Suor Maria Celeste’s contributions to their dialogue were about purely domestic matters. She worried deeply about her father due to his chronic illnesses and this worry only increased, as one might imagine, with the political and religious tensions that lead to his interrogation by the Holy Office. She seemed to dote on him in a very sweet way that spoke to the depth of her love for him, but–and this is no fault of Sobel’s–it was strange to read her letters without also being able to read his letters to her (his were burned when they were found in her convent). It was clear that he loved and respected her for her intelligence and her character, yet the relationship could only appear painfully one-sided given the presentation.

What Sobel did well, I thought, was remind the reader of just how mind-blowing Galileo’s observations were at the time. It is difficult to imagine how unnerving it must have been, to have visual confirmation that our place in the universe was so drastically different from what had been assumed. Galileo’s work was completely disruptive of all existing patterns of thought and understanding, be they religious, political, or just every-day. Not only that, but these discoveries were taking place during a time of authoritative turnover in both politics and religion (which often amounted to the same) as well as the growing horror of a quickly-spreading plague. This context is crucial to understanding how and why Galileo came to be seen as THE figure at the center of a growing conceptual divide between science and faith, and Sobel connects those dots skillfully.

In the end, I got what I wanted from this book, which was only to reacquaint myself with some general history of science. I used to read a lot of pop-science books, which I’ve been thinking I might get back into, but it’s a subject (um, a super broad one, I realize) that I haven’t much touched since high school. I also got to learn a bit more about what it might have been like to live as a nun in Galileo’s time (1564-1642) and that was nice. But it wasn’t much more than that. It was a recap of things I’ve learned and forgotten, but nothing that struck me as particularly new and exciting. And while I was interested in the relationship between Galileo and Suor Maria Celeste, I didn’t feel that their correspondence actually gave me a real sense of either’s personality. It also sometimes felt like an unnecessary detour from the more compelling story of Galileo’s discoveries and their ramifications. However, I would be willing to read Sobel again. In fact, her book Longitude sounds pretty fascinating. I wouldn’t rush out to read this one if you don’t have a particular interest, is all.

Written by Emily Jane

December 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Books Read

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Here’s a list of all the books I’ve written about here at Booked All Week or other blogs at which I’m hosting projects or read-a-longs, alphabetized by author’s last name, with a link to the post in which they were featured or mentioned.


Abramsky, Sasha–American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment LINK

Ackerman, Diane–A Natural History of the Senses  LINK

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi–Half of a Yellow Sun LINK

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi–The Thing Around Your Neck  LINK

Ahmed, Leila–A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey  LINK

Alexie, Sherman–War Dances LINK

Anaya, Rudolfo–Bless Me, Ultima  LINK

Angier, Natalie–Woman: An Intimate Geography LINK

Antonio de Alarcon, Pedro–The Three-Cornered Hat  LINK

Atwood, Margaret–Cat’s Eye LINK

Atwood, Margaret–Alias Grace LINK

Atwood, Margaret–Wilderness Tips LINK

Austen, Jane–Pride and Prejudice LINK

Austen, Jane–Emma LINK

Austen, Jane–Persuasion  LINK


B., David–Epileptic  LINK

Ba, Mariama–So Long a Letter LINK

Baldwin, James–Go Tell it on The Mountain LINK

Barker, Pat–Regeneration LINK

de Beauvoir, Simone–The Second Sex  LINK

Bechdel, Alison–The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For LINK

Bell-Scott, Patricia, with Juanita Johnson-Bailey–Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives  LINK

Benatar, Stephen–Wish Her Safe at Home  LINK

Bergman, Megan Mayhew–Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories  LINK

Blackburn, Julia–Old Man Goya  LINK

Burge, James–Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography LINK


Cable, Mary–Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad  LINK

Castillo, Ana–So Far From God  LINK

Cather, Willa–Death Comes for the Archbishop LINK

de Cervantes, Miguel–Don Quixote LINK

Chabon, Michael–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay LINK

Chang, Iris–The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotton Holocaust of World War II  LINK

Christie, Agatha–Three Act Tragedy  LINK

Cisneros, Sandra–Caramelo  LINK

Coetzee, J.M.–Disgrace  LINK

Collins, Wilkie–The Woman in White LINK

Collins, Wilkie–The Moonstone  LINK

Crosley, Sloane–I Was Told There’d Be Cake LINK

Crummey, Michael–Galore  LINK


Daneshvar, Simin–A Persian Requiem  LINK

Darko, Amma–The Housemaid  LINK

Davies, Robertson–Fifth Business LINK

Davies, Robertson–The Manticore LINK

Davies, Robertson–World of Wonders  LINK

Dazai, Osamu–Schoolgirl  LINK

Dickens, Charles–A Tale of Two Cities LINK

Didion, Joan–The Year of Magical Thinking  LINK

Doctorow, E.L.–The Waterworks  LINK

Douglass, Frederick–Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave LINK

Duras, Marguerite–The Lover  LINK


Eisenberg, Robert–Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground LINK

Elkins, Caroline–Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya  LINK


Fessler, Ann–The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades  Before Roe v. Wade  LINK

Flaubert, Gustave–Madame Bovary LINK

Forster, E.M.–A Room With a View LINK


Gaskell, Elizabeth–North and South  LINK

Gibson, William–Neuromancer  LINK

Goldsmith, Barbara–Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull  LINK

Gregorio, Renee; Logghe, Joan; and Sagan, Miriam–Love and Death: Greatest Hits  LINK

Groneman, Carol–Nymphomania: A History  LINK


Hardy, Thomas–Jude the Obscure LINK

Hernandez, Jaime–Locas: A Love & Rockets Book: The Maggie and Hopey Stories LINK

hooks, bell–Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics  LINK

Horwtiz, Tony–Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War  LINK

Hulme, Keri–The Bone People  LINK


Ibsen, Henrik–A Doll’s House LINK, LINK, LINK

Ivey, Eowyn–The Snow Child  LINK


Jacobs, Harriet–Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl LINK

Jansson, Tove–The True Deceiver LINK

Joyce, James–Dubliners LINK


Katz, Jonathan Ned–The Invention of Heterosexuality  LINK

Kingston, Maxine Hong–The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts  LINK, LINK

Kosinski, Jerzy–The Painted Bird LINK


Lawrence, D.H.–Lady Chatterley’s Lover LINK

Levy, Andrea–Small Island LINK

Li, Yiyun–The Vagrants LINK

Lorde, Audre–Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches  LINK, LINK

Lovell, Mary S.–The Sisters: Saga of the Mitford Family LINK

Lovell, Mary S.–Amelia Earhart: The Sound of Wings  LINK


Maier-Katkin, Daniel–Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness LINK

Manguel, Alberto–The Library at Night LINK

Marcus, Sara–Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution LINK

Marcus, Sharon–Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England  LINK

Marshall, Paule–Brown Girl, Brownstones  LINK

du Maurier, Daphne–Rebecca  LINK

McCarthy, Mary–The Group  LINK

McFarland, Philip–Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a  New Century  LINK

Melville, Herman–Benito Cereno/Bartleby the Scrivener/The Encantadas/Billy Budd, Foretopman  LINK

Menchu, Rigoberta–I, Rigoberta: An Indian Woman in Guatemala LINK

Meriwether, Louise–Daddy Was a Number Runner LINK

Mill, John Stuart–The Subjection of Women LINK

Min, Anchee–Red Azalea LINK

Mistry, Rohinton–A Fine Balance  LINK

Momaday, M. Scott–House Made of Dawn  LINK

Morrison, Toni (ed. by)–Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality LINK

Morrison, Toni–Beloved  LINK

Murdoch, Iris–Under the Net  LINK


Naylor, Gloria–The Women of Brewster Place LINK


Ogola, Margaret–The River and the Source  LINK

Okri, Ben–The Famished Road  LINK

Oyono, Ferdinand–Houseboy LINK


de Pizan, Christine–The Book of the City of Ladies  LINK

Pollitt, Katha–Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture  LINK

Potok, Chaim–My Name is Asher Lev LINK

Potok, Chaim–Davita’s Harp  LINK



Robinson, Marilynne–Housekeeping LINK

Rose, Alex–The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales  LINK

Roy, Arundhati–Power Politics  LINK


el Saadawi, Nawal–God Dies By the Nile  LINK

Scahill, Jeremy–Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army LINK

Skloot, Rebecca–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks LINK

Smith, Patti–Just Kids LINK

Smith, Zadie–NW  LINK

Sobel, Dava–Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love  LINK

Spark, Muriel–The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie LINK

Staal, Stephanie–Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life LINK


Tea, Michelle (ed. by)–Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class  LINK

wa Thiong’o, Ngugi–Wizard of the Crow  LINK

Thomas, Dylan–Quite Early One Morning LINK

Tolstoy, Leo–The Death of Ivan Ilyich  LINK

Toole, John Kennedy–A Confederacy of Dunces LINK

Trollope, Anthony–The Warden  LINK

Turgenev, Ivan–Fathers and Sons LINK




Walbert, Kate–A Short History of Women LINK

Waters, Sarah–The Little Stranger  LINK

Waters, Sarah–Affinity  LINK

Weisberg, Barbara–Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism  LINK

Weller, Sheila–Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation  LINK

Wharton, Edith–Ethan Frome LINK

Wharton, Edith–The House of Mirth LINK

Wilder, Thornton–The Bridge of San Luis Rey LINK

Winchester, Simon–The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary  LINK

Wollstonecraft, Mary–A Vindication of the Rights of Woman LINK

Wood, Gaby–Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life  LINK

Woolf, Virginia–A Room of One’s Own LINK

Wright, William–Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals  LINK

Wyld, Evie–After the Fire, A Still Small Voice LINK


Xinran–The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices  LINK


Yoshimoto, Banana–Kitchen LINK


Zola, Emile–Germinal LINK

Written by Emily Jane

May 31, 2010 at 6:17 am

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