Abelard And Heloise
Many a woman, amid the transports of passionate and languishing love,
has cried out in a sort of ecstasy:
"I love you as no woman ever loved a man before!"
When she says this she believes it. Her whole soul is aflame with the
ardor of emotion. It really seems to her that no one ever could have
loved so much as she.
This cry--spontaneous, untaught, sincere--has become almost one
conventionalities of amorous expression which belong to the vocabulary
of self-abandonment. Every woman who utters it, when torn by the almost
terrible extravagance of a great love, believes that no one before her
has ever said it, and that in her own case it is absolutely true.
Yet, how many women are really faithful to the end? Very many, indeed,
if circumstances admit of easy faithfulness. A high-souled, generous,
ardent nature will endure an infinity of disillusionment, of misfortune,
of neglect, and even of ill treatment. Even so, the flame, though it
may sink low, can be revived again to burn as brightly as before. But
in order that this may be so it is necessary that the object of such a
wonderful devotion be alive, that he be present and visible; or, if
he be absent, that there should still exist some hope of renewing the
exquisite intimacy of the past.
A man who is sincerely loved may be compelled to take long journeys
which will separate him for an indefinite time from the woman who
has given her heart to him, and she will still be constant. He may
be imprisoned, perhaps for life, yet there is always the hope of his
release or of his escape; and some women will be faithful to him and
will watch for his return. But, given a situation which absolutely bars
out hope, which sunders two souls in such a way that they can never be
united in this world, and there we have a test so terribly severe that
few even of the most loyal and intensely clinging lovers can endure it.
Not that such a situation would lead a woman to turn to any other man
than the one to whom she had given her very life; but we might expect
that at least her strong desire would cool and weaken. She might cherish
his memory among the precious souvenirs of her love life; but that she
should still pour out the same rapturous, unstinted passion as before
seems almost too much to believe. The annals of emotion record only one
such instance; and so this instance has become known to all, and has
been cherished for nearly a thousand years. It involves the story of a
woman who did love, perhaps, as no one ever loved before or since; for
she was subjected to this cruel test, and she met the test not alone
completely, but triumphantly and almost fiercely.
The story is, of course, the story of Abelard and Heloise. It has many
times been falsely told. Portions of it have been omitted, and other
portions of it have been garbled. A whole literature has grown up
around the subject. It may well be worth our while to clear away the
ambiguities and the doubtful points, and once more to tell it simply,
without bias, and with a strict adherence to what seems to be the truth
attested by authentic records.
There is one circumstance connected with the story which we must
specially note. The narrative does something more than set forth the one
quite unimpeachable instance of unconquered constancy. It shows how, in
the last analysis, that which touches the human heart has more vitality
and more enduring interest than what concerns the intellect or those
achievements of the human mind which are external to our emotional
Pierre Abelard was undoubtedly the boldest and most creative reasoner
of his time. As a wandering teacher he drew after him thousands of
enthusiastic students. He gave a strong impetus to learning. He was a
marvelous logician and an accomplished orator. Among his pupils were men
who afterward became prelates of the church and distinguished scholars.
In the Dark Age, when the dictates of reason were almost wholly
disregarded, he fought fearlessly for intellectual freedom. He was
practically the founder of the University of Paris, which in turn became
the mother of medieval and modern universities.
He was, therefore, a great and striking figure in the history of
civilization. Nevertheless he would to-day be remembered only by
scholars and students of the Middle Ages were it not for the fact that
he inspired the most enduring love that history records. If Heloise
had never loved him, and if their story had not been so tragic and so
poignant, he would be to-day only a name known to but a few. His final
resting-place, in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, in Paris, would not
be sought out by thousands every year and kept bright with flowers, the
gift of those who have themselves both loved and suffered.
Pierre Abelard--or, more fully, Pierre Abelard de Palais--was a native
of Brittany, born in the year 1079. His father was a knight, the lord of
the manor; but Abelard cared little for the life of a petty noble; and
so he gave up his seigniorial rights to his brothers and went forth to
become, first of all a student, and then a public lecturer and teacher.
His student days ended abruptly in Paris, where he had enrolled himself
as the pupil of a distinguished philosopher, Guillaume de Champeaux; but
one day Abelard engaged in a disputation with his master. His wonderful
combination of eloquence, logic, and originality utterly routed
Champeaux, who was thus humiliated in the presence of his disciples. He
was the first of many enemies that Abelard was destined to make in his
long and stormy career. From that moment the young Breton himself set
up as a teacher of philosophy, and the brilliancy of his discourses soon
drew to him throngs of students from all over Europe.
Before proceeding with the story of Abelard it is well to reconstruct,
however slightly, a picture of the times in which he lived. It was an
age when Western Europe was but partly civilized. Pedantry and learning
of the most minute sort existed side by side with the most violent
excesses of medieval barbarism. The Church had undertaken the gigantic
task of subduing and enlightening the semi-pagan peoples of France and
Germany and England.
When we look back at that period some will unjustly censure Rome for not
controlling more completely the savagery of the medievals. More fairly
should we wonder at the great measure of success which had already
been achieved. The leaven of a true Christianity was working in the
half-pagan populations. It had not yet completely reached the nobles and
the knights, or even all the ecclesiastics who served it and who were
consecrated to its mission. Thus, amid a sort of political chaos
were seen the glaring evils of feudalism. Kings and princes and their
followers lived the lives of swine. Private blood-feuds were regarded
lightly. There was as yet no single central power. Every man carried his
life in his hand, trusting to sword and dagger for protection.
The cities were still mere hamlets clustered around great castles or
fortified cathedrals. In Paris itself the network of dark lanes,
ill lighted and unguarded, was the scene of midnight murder and
assassination. In the winter-time wolves infested the town by night.
Men-at-arms, with torches and spears, often had to march out from their
barracks to assail the snarling, yelping packs of savage animals that
hunger drove from the surrounding forests.
Paris of the twelfth century was typical of France itself, which was
harried by human wolves intent on rapine and wanton plunder. There were
great schools of theology, but the students who attended them fought and
slashed one another. If a man's life was threatened he must protect it
by his own strength or by gathering about him a band of friends. No
one was safe. No one was tolerant. Very few were free from the grosser
vices. Even in some of the religious houses the brothers would meet
at night for unseemly revels, splashing the stone floors with wine and
shrieking in a delirium of drunkenness. The rules of the Church enjoined
temperance, continence, and celibacy; but the decrees of Leo IX. and
Nicholas II. and Alexander II. and Gregory were only partially observed.
In fact, Europe was in a state of chaos--political and moral and social.
Only very slowly was order emerging from sheer anarchy. We must remember
this when we recall some facts which meet us in the story of Abelard and
The jealousy of Champeaux drove Abelard for a time from Paris. He taught
and lectured at several other centers of learning, always admired, and
yet at the same time denounced by many for his advocacy of reason as
against blind faith. During the years of his wandering he came to have
a wide knowledge of the world and of human nature. If we try to imagine
him as he was in his thirty-fifth year we shall find in him a remarkable
combination of attractive qualities.
It must be remembered that though, in a sense, he was an ecclesiastic,
he had not yet been ordained to the priesthood, but was rather a
canon--a person who did not belong to any religious order, though he was
supposed to live according to a definite set of religious rules and as a
member of a religious community. Abelard, however, made rather light
of his churchly associations. He was at once an accomplished man of the
world and a profound scholar. There was nothing of the recluse about
him. He mingled with his fellow men, whom he dominated by the charm of
his personality. He was eloquent, ardent, and persuasive. He could turn
a delicate compliment as skilfully as he could elaborate a syllogism.
His rich voice had in it a seductive quality which was never without its
Handsome and well formed, he possessed as much vigor of body as of mind.
Nor were his accomplishments entirely those of the scholar. He wrote
dainty verses, which he also set to music, and which he sang himself
with a rare skill. Some have called him "the first of the troubadours,"
and many who cared nothing for his skill in logic admired him for
his gifts as a musician and a poet. Altogether, he was one to attract
attention wherever he went, for none could fail to recognize his power.
It was soon after his thirty-fifth year that he returned to Paris, where
he was welcomed by thousands. With much tact he reconciled himself to
his enemies, so that his life now seemed to be full of promise and of
It was at this time that he became acquainted with a very beautiful
young girl named Heloise. She was only eighteen years of age, yet
already she possessed not only beauty, but many accomplishments which
were then quite rare in women, since she both wrote and spoke a number
of languages, and, like Abelard, was a lover of music and poetry.
Heloise was the illegitimate daughter of a canon of patrician blood; so
that she is said to have been a worthy representative of the noble house
of the Montmorencys--famous throughout French history for chivalry and
Up to this time we do not know precisely what sort of life Abelard
had lived in private. His enemies declared that he had squandered his
substance in vicious ways. His friends denied this, and represented
him as strict and chaste. The truth probably lies between these two
assertions. He was naturally a pleasure-loving man of the world, who may
very possibly have relieved his severer studies by occasional revelry
and light love. It is not at all likely that he was addicted to gross
passions and low practices.
But such as he was, when he first saw Heloise he conceived for her
a violent attachment. Carefully guarded in the house of her uncle,
Fulbert, it was difficult at first for Abelard to meet her save in the
most casual way; yet every time that he heard her exquisite voice and
watched her graceful manners he became more and more infatuated. His
studies suddenly seemed tame and colorless beside the fierce scarlet
flame which blazed up in his heart.
Nevertheless, it was because of these studies and of his great
reputation as a scholar that he managed to obtain access to Heloise. He
flattered her uncle and made a chance proposal that he should himself
become an inmate of Fulbert's household in order that he might teach
this girl of so much promise. Such an offer coming from so brilliant a
man was joyfully accepted.
From that time Abelard could visit Heloise without restraint. He was
her teacher, and the two spent hours together, nominally in the study of
Greek and Hebrew; but doubtless very little was said between them
upon such unattractive subjects. On the contrary, with all his wide
experience of life, his eloquence, his perfect manners, and his
fascination, Abelard put forth his power to captivate the senses of
a girl still in her teens and quite ignorant of the world. As Remusat
says, he employed to win her the genius which had overwhelmed all the
great centers of learning in the Western world.
It was then that the pleasures of knowledge, the joys of thought, the
emotions of eloquence, were all called into play to charm and move and
plunge into a profound and strange intoxication this noble and tender
heart which had never known either love or sorrow.... One can imagine
that everything helped on the inevitable end. Their studies gave them
opportunities to see each other freely, and also permitted them to be
alone together. Then their books lay open between them; but either long
periods of silence stilled their reading, or else words of deepening
intimacy made them forget their studies altogether. The eyes of the two
lovers turned from the book to mingle their glances, and then to turn
away in a confusion that was conscious.
Hand would touch hand, apparently by accident; and when conversation
ceased, Abelard would often hear the long, quivering sigh which showed
the strange, half-frightened, and yet exquisite joy which Heloise
It was not long before the girl's heart had been wholly won. Transported
by her emotion, she met the caresses of her lover with those as
unrestrained as his. Her very innocence deprived her of the protection
which older women would have had. All was given freely, and even
wildly, by Heloise; and all was taken by Abelard, who afterward himself
"The pleasure of teaching her to love surpassed the delightful fragrance
of all the perfumes in the world."
Yet these two could not always live in a paradise which was entirely
their own. The world of Paris took notice of their close association.
Some poems written to Heloise by Abelard, as if in letters of fire, were
found and shown to Fulbert, who, until this time, had suspected nothing.
Angrily he ordered Abelard to leave his house. He forbade his niece to
see her lover any more.
But the two could not be separated; and, indeed, there was good reason
why they should still cling together. Secretly Heloise left her uncle's
house and fled through the narrow lanes of Paris to the dwelling of
Abelard's sister, Denyse, where Abelard himself was living. There,
presently, the young girl gave birth to a son, who was named Astrolabe,
after an instrument used by astronomers, since both the father and
the mother felt that the offspring of so great a love should have no
Fulbert was furious, and rightly so. His hospitality had been outraged
and his niece dishonored. He insisted that the pair should at once
be married. Here was revealed a certain weakness in the character of
Abelard. He consented to the marriage, but insisted that it should be
kept an utter secret.
Oddly enough, it was Heloise herself who objected to becoming the wife
of the man she loved. Unselfishness could go no farther. She saw that,
were he to marry her, his advancement in the Church would be almost
impossible; for, while the very minor clergy sometimes married in spite
of the papal bulls, matrimony was becoming a fatal bar to ecclesiastical
promotion. And so Heloise pleaded pitifully, both with her uncle and
with Abelard, that there should be no marriage. She would rather bear
all manner of disgrace than stand in the way of Abelard's advancement.
He has himself given some of the words in which she pleaded with him:
What glory shall I win from you, when I have made you quite inglorious
and have humbled both of us? What vengeance will the world inflict on
me if I deprive it of one so brilliant? What curses will follow such a
marriage? How outrageous would it be that you, whom nature created for
the universal good, should be devoted to one woman and plunged into such
disgrace? I loathe the thought of a marriage which would humiliate you.
Indeed, every possible effort which another woman in her place would
employ to make him marry her she used in order to dissuade him. Finally,
her sweet face streaming with tears, she uttered that tremendous
sentence which makes one really think that she loved him as no other
woman ever loved a man. She cried out, in an agony of self-sacrifice:
"I would rather be your mistress than the wife even of an emperor!"
Nevertheless, the two were married, and Abelard returned to his
lecture-room and to his studies. For months they met but seldom.
Meanwhile, however, the taunts and innuendos directed against Heloise
so irritated Fulbert that he broke his promise of secrecy, and told his
friends that Abelard and Heloise were man and wife. They went to Heloise
for confirmation. Once more she showed in an extraordinary way the depth
of her devotion.
"I am no wife," she said. "It is not true that Abelard has married me.
My uncle merely tells you this to save my reputation."
They asked her whether she would swear to this; and, without a moment's
hesitation, this pure and noble woman took an oath upon the Scriptures
that there had been no marriage.
Fulbert was enraged by this. He ill-treated Heloise, and, furthermore,
he forbade Abelard to visit her. The girl, therefore, again left her
uncle's house and betook herself to a convent just outside of Paris,
where she assumed the habit of a nun as a disguise. There Abelard
continued from time to time to meet her.
When Fulbert heard of this he put his own interpretation on it. He
believed that Abelard intended to ignore the marriage altogether, and
that possibly he might even marry some other woman. In any case, he now
hated Abelard with all his heart; and he resolved to take a fearful and
unnatural vengeance which would at once prevent his enemy from making
any other marriage, while at the same time it would debar him from
To carry out his plot Fulbert first bribed a man who was the
body-servant of Abelard, watching at the door of his room each night.
Then he hired the services of four ruffians. After Abelard had retired
and was deep in slumber the treacherous valet unbarred the door. The
hirelings of Fulbert entered and fell upon the sleeping man. Three of
them bound him fast, while the fourth, with a razor, inflicted on him
the most shameful mutilation that is possible. Then, extinguishing
the lights, the wretches slunk away and were lost in darkness, leaving
behind their victim bound to his couch, uttering cries of torment and
bathed in his own blood.
It is a shocking story, and yet it is intensely characteristic of the
lawless and barbarous era in which it happened. Early the next morning
the news flew rapidly through Paris. The city hummed like a bee-hive.
Citizens and students and ecclesiastics poured into the street and
surrounded the house of Abelard.
"Almost the entire city," says Fulques, as quoted by McCabe, "went
clamoring toward his house. Women wept as if each one had lost her
Unmanned though he was, Abelard still retained enough of the spirit of
his time to seek vengeance. He, in his turn, employed ruffians whom he
set upon the track of those who had assaulted him. The treacherous valet
and one of Fulbert's hirelings were run down, seized, and mutilated
precisely as Abelard had been; and their eyes were blinded. A third was
lodged in prison. Fulbert himself was accused before one of the Church
courts, which alone had power to punish an ecclesiastic, and all his
goods were confiscated.
But, meantime, how did it fare with Heloise? Her grief was greater than
his own, while her love and her devotion were absolutely undiminished.
But Abelard now showed a selfishness--and indeed, a meanness--far beyond
any that he had before exhibited. Heloise could no more be his wife.
He made it plain that he put no trust in her fidelity. He was unwilling
that she should live in the world while he could not; and so he told
her sternly that she must take the veil and bury herself for ever in a
The pain and shame which she experienced at this came wholly from the
fact that evidently Abelard did not trust her. Long afterward she wrote:
God knows I should not have hesitated, at your command, to precede or to
follow you to hell itself!
It was his distrust that cut her to the heart. Still, her love for him
was so intense that she obeyed his order. Soon after she took the vows;
and in the convent chapel, shaken with sobs, she knelt before the altar
and assumed the veil of a cloistered nun. Abelard himself put on the
black tunic of a Benedictine monk and entered the Abbey of St. Denis.
It is unnecessary here to follow out all the details of the lives of
Abelard and Heloise after this heart-rendering scene. Abelard
passed through many years of strife and disappointment, and even of
humiliation; for on one occasion, just as he had silenced Guillaume
de Champeaux, so he himself was silenced and put to rout by Bernard of
Clairvaux--"a frail, tense, absorbed, dominant little man, whose face
was white and worn with suffering," but in whose eyes there was a
light of supreme strength. Bernard represented pure faith, as Abelard
represented pure reason; and the two men met before a great council to
match their respective powers.
Bernard, with fiery eloquence, brought a charge of heresy against
Abelard in an oration which was like a charge of cavalry. When he had
concluded Abelard rose with an ashen face, stammered out a few words,
and sat down. He was condemned by the council, and his works were
ordered to be burned.
All his later life was one of misfortune, of humiliation, and even of
personal danger. The reckless monks whom he tried to rule rose fiercely
against him. His life was threatened. He betook himself to a desolate
and lonely place, where he built for himself a hut of reeds and rushes,
hoping to spend his final years in meditation. But there were many who
had not forgotten his ability as a teacher. These flocked by hundreds
to the desert place where he abode. His hut was surrounded by tents and
rude hovels, built by his scholars for their shelter.
Thus Abelard resumed his teaching, though in a very different frame of
mind. In time he built a structure of wood and stone, which he called
the Paraclete, some remains of which can still be seen.
All this time no word had passed between him and Heloise. But presently
Abelard wrote and gave to the world a curious and exceedingly frank
book, which he called The Story of My Misfortunes. A copy of it reached
the hands of Heloise, and she at once sent to Abelard the first of a
series of letters which have remained unique in the literature of love.
Ten years had passed, and yet the woman's heart was as faithful and as
full of yearning as on the day when the two had parted. It has been
said that the letters are not genuine, and they must be read with this
assertion in mind; yet it is difficult to believe that any one save
Heloise herself could have flung a human soul into such frankly
passionate utterances, or that any imitator could have done the work.
In her first letter, which was sent to Abelard written upon parchment,
At thy command I would change, not merely my costume, but my very soul,
so entirely art thou the sole possessor of my body and my spirit. Never,
God is my witness, never have I sought anything in thee but thyself;
I have sought thee, and not thy gifts. I have not looked to the
marriage-bond or dowry.
She begged him to write to her, and to lead her to God, as once he had
led her into the mysteries of pleasure. Abelard answered in a letter,
friendly to be sure, but formal--the letter of a priest to a cloistered
nun. The opening words of it are characteristic of the whole:
To Heloise, his sister in Christ, from Abelard, her brother in Him.
The letter was a long one, but throughout the whole of it the writer's
tone was cold and prudent. Its very coldness roused her soul to a
passionate revolt. Her second letter bursts forth in a sort of anguish:
How hast thou been able to frame such thoughts, dearest? How hast thou
found words to convey them? Oh, if I dared but call God cruel to me!
Oh, most wretched of all creatures that I am! So sweet did I find the
pleasures of our loving days that I cannot bring myself to reject
them or to banish them from my memory. Wheresoever I go, they thrust
themselves upon my vision, and rekindle the old desire.
But Abelard knew only too well that not in this life could there be
anything save spiritual love between himself and Heloise. He wrote to
her again and again, always in the same remote and unimpassioned way.
He tells her about the history of monasticism, and discusses with her
matters of theology and ethics; but he never writes one word to feed
the flame that is consuming her. The woman understood at last; and by
degrees her letters became as calm as his--suffused, however, with a
tenderness and feeling which showed that in her heart of hearts she was
still entirely given to him.
After some years Abelard left his dwelling at the Paraclete, and there
was founded there a religious house of which Heloise became the abbess.
All the world respected her for her sweetness, her wisdom, and the
purity of her character. She made friends as easily as Abelard made
enemies. Even Bernard, who had overthrown her husband, sought out
Heloise to ask for her advice and counsel.
Abelard died while on his way to Rome, whither he was journeying
in order to undergo a penalty; and his body was brought back to the
Paraclete, where it was entombed. Over it for twenty-two years Heloise
watched with tender care; and when she died, her body was laid beside
that of her lover.
To-day their bones are mingled as she would have desired them to be
mingled. The stones of their tomb in the great cemetery of Pere Lachaise
were brought from the ruins of the Paraclete, and above the sarcophagus
are two recumbent figures, the whole being the work of the artist
Alexandra Lenoir, who died in 1836. The figure representing Heloise
is not, however, an authentic likeness. The model for it was a lady
belonging to a noble family of France, and the figure itself was brought
to Pere Lachaise from the ancient College de Beauvais.
The letters of Heloise have been read and imitated throughout the whole
of the last nine centuries. Some have found in them the utterances of
a woman whose love of love was greater than her love of God and whose
intensity of passion nothing could subdue; and so these have condemned
her. But others, like Chateaubriand, have more truly seen in them a pure
and noble spirit to whom fate had been very cruel; and who was, after
all, writing to the man who had been her lawful husband.
Some of the most famous imitations of her letters are those in the
ancient poem entitled, "The Romance of the Rose," written by Jean de
Meung, in the thirteenth century; and in modern times her first letter
was paraphrased by Alexander Pope, and in French by Colardeau. There
exist in English half a dozen translations of them, with Abelard's
replies. It is interesting to remember that practically all the other
writings of Abelard remained unpublished and unedited until a very
recent period. He was a remarkable figure as a philosopher and scholar;
but the world cares for him only because he was loved by Heloise.