Héloïse and Abélard: A Story of Passion and Sorrow

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Héloïse and Abélard: A Story of Passion and Sorrow
“To one flowing with milk and honey… I send the flood of delight and the increase of joy…. I give you the most precious thing I have, myself, firm in faith and love, steady in desire.” These words were written in 12th-century Paris by the young Héloïse to her tutor Abélard, with whom she’d fallen truly, madly, deeply in love. Their story is recalled especially around Valentine’s Day, but in fact there is much more to it than a simple tale of passion and romance. Peter Abélard was in his early 30s when he arrived in Paris and began to make his mark as a popular teacher with brand new ideas. In the early 12th century, his habit of encouraging students to debate, rather than just accept ideas from on high, was radical, but students loved it and flocked to be taught by him. Before long, he had set up his own school at the Abbey of Mont-Sainte-Geneviève on the Left Bank and was attracting attention all over the city.  Héloise was the orphaned niece of Canon Fulbert at Notre Dame. She’d been well educated at a convent in Argenteuil, just outside Paris, and in 1115, when she was about 15, her uncle brought her to Paris to live with him and continue her studies. She was formidably well-read, understanding both Latin and Greek and interested in ideas, philosophy and debate. She was also very beautiful. Abélard recalled many years later, when writing about first meeting her, that she was “of no mean beauty, and she stood out by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters.”  19th-century representation of Héloïse, chosen to appear in a list of noted women writers. Public domain So besotted was he that, as he put, he “sought to discover means whereby I might have daily and familiar speech with her.” Claiming that his lodgings were expensive and noisy, Abélard persuaded Héloïse’s uncle to let him live with them. Abélard later remembered the uncle begging him to give his niece instruction “whensoever I might be free from the duties of my school” and expressed his surprise at this in very frank terms: “the man’s simplicity was nothing short of astounding to me; I should not have been more smitten with wonder if he had entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf.”  And so it all began. The fullest description of the love which grew between the two comes from a long letter, Historia Calamitatum Mearum (A History of my Misfortunes) written by Abélard long after their separation. “Under the pretext of study,” he wrote, “we spent our hours in the happiness of love.” They talked more of love, he explained, than of “the books which lay open before us,” and he wrote candidly about the pleasure they took in each other. “No degree in love’s progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched.”  “Abélard and his pupil Héloïse”, painted by E. B. Leighton in 1882. Public domain
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Lead photo credit : Painting of Héloïse and Abélard. Musée d’arts de Nantes

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.