Friday, April 21, 2006

Heloise and Abelard

The forbidden love affair of Heloise and famed theologian Peter Abelard has inspired writers for centuries: Jean de Meun, Francois Villon and Alexander Pope, among others, kept the legend alive for future generations, as did the novelist George Moore with his popular novel Heloise and Abelard (1921); and meanwhile, the jilted, the lovesick and the romantic at heart have been making pilgrimage to the tomb of Heloise and Abelard at Pere Lachaise in Paris for years. As Mark Twain cynically observed, "Go when you will, you will find someone snuffling over that tomb."

Born to noble parents in Brittany in 1079, the handsome, proud young Peter Abelard steadily won fame as a teacher throughout France as he roamed in academic circles like some kind of a scholastic gunslinger, knocking off the local champion with his superior logical and rhetorical skills. Stimulated by controversy and bored by lectures, Abelard helped to foster the rebirth of the Socratic dialogue as a teaching method in medieval France, shedding light on complex issues by assaulting his students with probing questions.

He was at the top of his game as head of the Cloister School in Paris when, in his 40s, he met the 18-year old Heloise, a niece of one of the local canons, and herself a renowned scholar -- not leastly for the fact that a woman who could read and write was a complete anomaly at the time. He consented to become her teacher, but soon found himself seducing her. She fell in love with him completely, and soon the two scholars were living recklessly and making love without inhibitions. Abelard abandoned his other pupils and allowed his love songs to Heloise to be sung in public. Angered by the gossip, Heloise's uncle Fulbert tried to separate them, but they took even greater chances to be together, and soon Heloise found she was pregnant with Abelard's child. Abelard whisked her off to Brittany to stay with his family, where she gave birth to their son, whom she named Astralabe; Abelard's sister took the child at their request and raised it as her own.

Abelard returned to Paris. With an outward veneer of invincibility, he had always aspired to the chastity of St. Jerome -- an element of character that he believed to be essential to his own fame as a scholar. Nevertheless, Abelard made an offer to Fulbert to marry Heloise to quell his anger, as long as the marriage could be kept a secret -- thus preserving at least publicly his reputation as a peer of Jerome. Fulbert accepted Abelard's offer, but Heloise protested to Abelard, realizing the futility of the gesture. Abelard prevailed: the two passed a night of secret vigil in a Paris church and at daybreak received the nuptial blessing, witnessed by Fulbert and a few friends.

If Abelard thought he could save his reputation in this way, he misjudged Fulbert, who spread the news of the marriage in order to save his own face. Abelard and Heloise denied the marriage, and as if to prove that it never happened, Abelard sent Heloise to live at Argenteuil to her old convent school, where she masked her connection with Abelard by entering religious life as a nun. Now Fulbert thought himself to be deceived by Abelard, that Abelard went through the charade of a sham marriage just to be rid of Heloise. In his anger, Fulbert and several allies crept into Abelard's Paris quarters one night and violently castrated him.

Abelard's guilt over giving in to his fleshly desires and over ruining Heloise's life, was unbearable, shattering all aspirations he had to be a great philosopher. In his shame, he became a monk at the Abbey of St. Denis near Paris in 1119, where he earned a reputation as an exacting theologian, criticizing the other monks for their disingenuous lifestyles. Making no friends at St. Denis and finding his major work of theology, Theologia, condemned and burned at the Council of Soissons in 1121, Abelard briefly and unsuccessfully served as abbot at the remote monastery of St. Gildas, and finally went off to live on some land donated to him by a sympathetic friend called the Paraclete, where he established a modest religious community. He donated to community to Heloise in 1129 for the foundation of a convent, of which she became the prioress.

While outwardly, Heloise was a model nun, widely admired for her commitment to prayer, inside she was in agony, still deeply in love with Abelard. In a series of letters to Abelard written during the 1130s, she curses God and yearns for their reunion. In one letter, Heloise writes: "I am still young and full of life; I love you more than ever and suffer bitterly from living a life for which I have no vocation . . . I who should tremble at what I have done, sigh after what I have lost." In his half of the correspondence, Abelard also shows himself to be devoted to Heloise, but does his best to seek her forgiveness and attempt to convince her to accept God as her master in place of him.

Meanwhile, in 1135, Abelard moved to Mont-Sainte-Genevieve outside Paris and again became a celebrated teacher and philosopher. During this period, he wrote furiously: he completed a second edition of his controversial Theologia; composed his Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian; and in his Ethica, he espoused the revolutionary idea that human actions do not make a person better or worse in the sight of God, but rather that it is the intentions behind the actions, the consent of the mind, that makes a sin. He attracted many pupils, including John of Salisbury and future Popes Celestine II and Celestine III, but he also attracted the hostility of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who criticized Abelard's exercises in logic as revisions of basic Christian dogma. Leading the Council at Sens in 1140, Bernard condemned Abelard and his work, a decision upheld by Pope Innocent II.

Devastated, Abelard withdrew to Cluny, where the abbot Peter the Venerable succeeded in mediating his conflict with St. Bernard. Sick and old but finally at peace, Abelard died at Cluny(on this day in 1142) as a most modest and unassuming monk. His body was transported to the Paraclete, and when Heloise died 21 years later her last wish to be buried with him was honored, first at the Paraclete and eventually at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

It is not known whether Heloise ever found peace with the God whom she had cursed; however, she may have felt some comfort at the words of Peter the Venerable: "Venerable Sister, he to whom you were joined first in the flesh and then by the stronger and more perfect bond of divine charity, he with whom and under whom you too have served the Saviour, is now sheltered in the bosom of Christ. Christ now protects him in your place, indeed as a second you, and will restore him to you on the day when He returns from the heavens between the voice of the archangel and the sounding trumpet." Or perhaps not.

Abelard's passion for classical antiquity, and the anguished, personal analyses he revealed in his writing have led some critics to identify Abelard as an intensely bright precursor of the Renaissance -- two centuries before it came to pass. However, it has been the status of these lovers as characters in a legend of reckless and forbidden love, the kind of love that makes you want to rip your own head off -- if you will, a kind of medieval 'Sid-and-Nancy' tale, inside-outsky, where instead of heroin and the punk sub-culture, the drug of choice was pride and their milieu the impossible purity of the Academy -- that keeps Abelard and Heloise alive for us today.

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