What survives of us is love: the tragic story of Abelard and Heloise

Even at the very beginning, their affair was barely private. He joked about it in his lectures and wrote love songs about her that were sung far and wide. But they were both, in their own way, already famous.

By the 1110s, Peter Abelard was in his thirties, with a fast-growing reputation as a philosopher of logic, nourished by a blazing talent for disputation that had seen him repeatedly best rivals in debate. Heloise, often thought to be still in her teens but likely older, was renowned across France for her expertise as a literary scholar, writer and composer. Educated by the convent at Argenteuil she now sought to further her learning while living with her doting uncle Fulbert, a canon of the then-Romanesque cathedral of Nôtre-Dame in Paris, where Abelard headed the school.

Infatuated by Heloise’s intelligence and beauty, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to let him teach Heloise one-to-one. Trusting to Abelard’s celibacy and Heloise’s good judgement, Fulbert agreed.

Love between the two quickly erupted; everyone saw it except Fulbert. Eventually they were caught in the act and separated. Whatever steps Fulbert then took, they were insufficient. Heloise became pregnant; Abelard spirited her away in the night to his sister’s in Brittany, where she gave birth.

Abelard offered to marry Heloise – but in secret; a public marriage might jeopardise his career. Fulbert agreed. Riding to Brittany with what he imagined was good news, Abelard was stunned to find that Heloise did not. She preferred love to marriage and freedom to chains, she said. It would dishonour her and humiliate them both.

Eventually, to please him, she submitted. Fulbert did not keep the marriage secret, and Abelard persuaded Heloise to stay in the convent at Argenteuil, in a nun’s habit without taking the veil, for her safety. Fulbert interpreted this as an attempt by Abelard to wash his hands of Heloise. He ordered his men to find Abelard and castrate him.

Heloise took holy orders, again at Abelard’s insistence; she went to the high altar to receive the veil sobbing. Later, he followed suit. There was a reconciliation of sorts in the 1130s: Abelard established a monastery for Heloise, now an abbess, and her nuns. They met and corresponded; it is through these letters, kept by Heloise, that their story became known. Hers are still startling in their directness, in their frank acknowledgement of how erotic reverie – deep, sensual memories charged with an irredeemable loss that can only be endured, not assuaged – still dominates her thoughts day and night.

Abelard died on 21 April 1142. Heloise lived for two decades more. It is her love, both in the writing and the desire to preserve that writing, which has made them immortal.

This piece first appeared in the April 2021 issue of History Today.

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