Abelard and Heloise

The 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 Europe.

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 intellectual gifts into adulthood.

In this way, she met Abelard, who began to tutor her.

The Romance

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 general behavior."

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.

The Castration

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.

The Letters

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 many years.

Death and Burial

Abelard died in 1142, and Heloise followed him in 1163. They were 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.