story of Abelard and Heloise is a tragic love affair out of
early 12th-century France, and one of the best-known records of
romantic love in the Middle Ages.
Peter Abelard was born around 1079 C.E. He was the eldest son of
a minor family of the Breton nobility, and although he was set
to inherit, he renounced his hereditary rights to pursue his
education. He became a renowned Scholastic philosopher, and the
twelfth century's greatest logician. He debated and taught
mostly in Paris, where he laid the foundations for the
University of Paris, and where he drew students from all over
Little is known about Heloise's childhood, but she is thought to
have been born around 1100. When she met Abelard, she was around
15 years old and living with her uncle Fulbert (who some
historians believe may have actually been her father). Although
few women were educated at all during the Middle Ages, Heloise
received early instruction from the nuns at Argenteuil, and had
the encouragement of her uncle to pursue her remarkable
gifts into adulthood.
In this way, she met Abelard, who began to tutor her.
Abelard and Heloise met around 1115, when Abelard took up
lodgings in her uncle's home in Paris. In his autobiography,
Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes), Abelard
claims to have sought lodging with Fulbert as part of a
calculated seduction, stating that he had his eye on Heloise
even before taking her as his pupil.
But Abelard was soon seduced himself, as well. Betty Radice, a
translator and historian of the letters of Abelard and Heloise,
notes that although Abelard tries to detach himself from his
youthful exuberence in later writing, at the time of their
romance, both he and Heloise "were passionately in love, their
lovemaking was uninhibited and ecstatic, and Abelard was
completely carried away and consequently quite reckless in his
In these early days, Abelard neglected his teaching duties,
ignored all the gossip and rumors about him, and even allowed
the songs he wrote for Heloise, which mentioned her by name, to
be sung in public. Heloise herself was as beguiled by Abelard,
and wholly returned his affections. When her uncle finally
accepted the rumors about them for truths and tried to separate
them, they took even greater risks to be together.
Pregnancy and Secret Marriage
Heloise soon became pregnant, and Abelard took her back to his
family in Brittany. Abelard then tried to make things right with
her uncle, agreeing to marry Heloise, but asking that their
marriage remain secret so that Abelard's reputation would not
suffer. Fulbert agreed to these conditions.
Heloise, though initially reluctant, eventually agreed to the
marriage as well, and in 1118 gave birth to Abelard's son. They
then returned to and were married in Paris. When Fulbert reneged
on his deal and tried to make the marriage public, Abelard
decided to remove Heloise from her uncle's house, and sent her
to the convent at Argenteuil.
Although Abelard continued to visit Heloise at the convent, the
decision to take her away from Fulbert ultimately ended their
romance. Believing that Abelard was trying to get out of the
marriage by sending Heloise to the convent to become a nun,
Fulbert sent his kinsmen after him. They snuck into Abelard's
room at night and exacted their revenge by castrating him.
Though in later letters Abelard wrote that, in hindsight, his
castration was an act of God's mercy -- allowing him to
devote himself without distraction to God and to philosophy --
his initial reaction was much more human. Radice notes that in
his autobiography, what he most vividly recalls "is the pain and
horror, his urge to escape and hide from the noisy sympathy of
[friends and pupils ... and] his humiliation and disgust at
being a eunuch."
He was ultimately driven to seek shelter in the monastery of St.
Denis, where he became a monk. Heloise, unwilling to repudiate
their marriage, became a nun.
We know of the romance of Abelard and Heloise through the
letters they wrote to one another after they had taken their
Holy Orders. Although both went on to become successful figures
in the medieval Church, Heloise pined for their lost romance,
complaining in her letters of her sexual frustration, her
loneliness, and her desire for his company.
Eventually, their letters lose this one-sided passion
altogether, after Abelard requests Heloise stop bringing it up,
but they continue, both erudite and loving in their content, for
Death and Burial
Abelard died in 1142, and Heloise followed him in 1163. They
buried together at the Oratory of the Paraclete, where they
are said to remain together to this day. The Père Lachaise
Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, claims that they were
reinterred there during the early 19th century, however, and
have built a tomb to them as well.