The one-sided letters of love (1)

As part of my university program, I am keeping a reading journal to document my thoughts on the material we are required to read. I expect there will be more than one post on each assigned reading – a first impressions post, and a second post to follow classroom discussion wherein I tie more themes together. Hence the numbering. These posts will all go under the category Required Readings for which I will make a special page at some point.

As a starting point on the text let me say: I think Heloise is a marvelous emotional and intellectual being, but that Abelard is a bit of a prig. Nevertheless, their letters to each other offer an insight into the monastic life of the early 1100s, and the social mores and violence which separated these two lovers while still in their fertile youth. (For those who are not familiar with these famed lovers – Please see their biographies on wikipedia: Heloise D’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard or this synopsis of their love affair).

Written long after their affair had ended, the eight letters which comprise the main correspondence of the pair contrast the two individuals and their continuing interest in each other. In the simplest terms, though both were taken with desire for each other in their initial relationship – in these letters Heloise is clearly the one still marked by the passion while Abelard (preoccuppied with people trying to murder him and ecclesiastical debates) is the side of reason. Which makes for some frustrating reading for the romantic in me! Not to mention, it makes an excellent example of the “woman in love, man aloof” paradigm – which is a tad depressing (particularly to recognize that 900 years later, very little has changed in the emotional relations of the sexes).

What comes out in the letters is that Heloise feels ripped off by the fact that their great love affair and marriage was truncated by violence and she was permanently shipped off to a convent after being forced to give her son away for raising. And although she makes the best of it, using her intellectual resources and maternal instincts towards becoming the abbess of an order of nuns, she feels desparately cheated by God and spends her days in sorrow. For his part, Abelard basically acknowledges that even though they had a great thing, Heloise just needs to get on with it and stop sorrowing. He comes across as somewhat peevish in the letters where he refers to “you old, perpetual complaint” and then threatens to get angry and stop corresponding if Heloise doesn’t smarten up. Indeed, he even acknowledges beating her during arguments in their younger days as just a matter of course as her master – which I suppose was just part and parcel of the times, even for middle-class born people.

For his part, Abelard writes that his castration and separation was an intervention from God, exposing his true purpose on earth – not to be the lover and husband of Heloise, but a man entirely focused on monastic and philosophical life. A great logician (apparently the greatest of the 12th century) Abelard made enemies far and wide in his dialectical and theological interpretations – not only for the directness with which he pursued his points, but for his arrogance – which comes through strongly in the letters. But he must also have wielded a store of charisma through his weak points, as he evidently attracted a large number of student-followers who came to him in the wilderness and built a school for him to teach them in.

Of the letters themselves, there are really on two that can be considered “love letters” and these are the first two sent by Heloise. Otherwise the letters contain discussion about monastic/religious life and entreaties from Heloise to Abelard that he write rules for her order of nuns to follow. I wonder how much she looked to him for these rules of lifestyle practice – or if this request was a way to keep the communication between them open when he threatened to close it due to her romantic entreaties. Her early letters are certainly heartbreaking to read, and it’s clear the Abelard does not want to descend into these matters of love when he feels the calling for both of them much greater. They are both relatively open about their sexual knowledge of each other, which I found somewhat surprising given the public nature of letters at this time. I also found the discussion about women’s role in receiving divine instruction fascinating from both sides – with Abelard quite forcefully arguing the role of women in the divine and their rights to education and place in the church.

The letters from both sides are beautifully written and obviously from minds that would be considered fine and educated in any era. Heloise is unusual in that she is so educated in her time, something that excites the younger Abelard because he imagines that they will never be separated since she can read and write letters. The fact this doesn’t happen is a testament to the full and demanding lives that they lead after their separation, not to mention the deep humiliation that Abelard felt both from the point of castration as well as the burning of his works in front of a papal court. It is a testament to both individuals that their letters call out over nine hundred years, studied for their literary and theological value, even after so much time has passed.

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