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on 12 July 2004
James Burge's carefully thought out account covers so much: the politics of church and state, who's in who's out; the prevailing sentiment around love and marriage and appropriate standards of behaviour; the personalities of the key figures as expressed by their actions. Best of all he takes huge pleasure from Heloise's writing and her profound humanity, and analyses and expounds her viewpoint very well. He puts a very moving story into a clearly drawn historical context, if only all history was written with such charm. The only thing missing is the complete text of Heloise's letters which I must now rush out and buy.
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on 2 March 2006
James Burge's uptodate examination of the lives and letters of the twelfth century tragic lovers, Heloise and Abelard, is a superb piece of scholarship. With an examination of both the original attributed letters and the excerpts now identified as from their original love letters collated by Johannes de Vepria and first revealed by Constant Mews in 1999, Burge takes us through the known lives of the two ill-fated lovers whilst continually instructing the reader on twelfth century european monastic life and the firm secular power that the Church weilded through its canonical law.
The story of Abelard and Heloise (he the greatest logiical philosopher of his age, she a brilliant classical scholar some ten years his junior) who fall in love whilst she studies under him in Paris, their subsequent hasty and secretive marriage, the birth of their child Astralabe, Aberlard's subsequent castration by Heloise envious uncle, Fulbert and their enforced separation to the Orders and literary reconciliation, has echoed down the ages.
The Romeo and Juliet of its time, the erudite, first hand accounts of an altogether human love between two great intellectuals opens up the world of twelfth century europe to us in a way that is priceless. As Burge correctly comments fairly early in the text, the concept of the period being part of the medieval ages and pre-renaissance is farcical in the evidence of the Parisian centres of learning that Abelard founded and taught at.
Drawing heavily on the texts, Burge gives us an insight into the personalities of both, showing Abelard as that brilliant, yet socially aggressive, scholar, Heloise as his intellectually equal, yet through what modern terms would denote as `true love', utterly under his charming spell right to the end.
The primary source material consists of eight letters, opening with a letter from Aberlard to an unknown correspondent in response to several meetings he has had, putting down what is almost an autobiography. The letter (or a copy) makes its way to Heloise who writes a reply, thus reopening communication between the two. Whilst the opening 200 pages refer heavily to the first letter of each, as Burge's biography catches up with Aberlard's abscondment from St Denis and sojourn near St Troyes at Paraclete then the remaining six letters come into force. Ableard's papal-acknowledged bestowal on Paraclete to Heloise to found her abbey means that the two came into contact and through the letters we are able to see Heloise 'force' Abelard to acknowledge that he is her first true love and her taking the veil was enforced by him upon her.
Burge now continues to move through the later stages of Abelard's life, continuing to note his cyclic fortunes, waxing and waning with Stephen de Garlande until the latter finally fell from grace as Bernard de Clairvaux rose to European political pre-eminence and the former finally returned to Paris. In a change of style Burge spends several pages discussing the themes within the hymns of Abelard, a literary examination amongst the historical investigation before reverting to discussions of Abelard's fighting with Clairvaux and the famous Council of Sens where the latter's brilliant rhetoric won the minds of the 'jurors' rendering Abelard speechless. Abelard ended his days condemned for heretical discouse, eventually dying whilst under the hospitality of Abbot Peter and with his death so the story peters out quite quickly, a few pages remaining to briefly cover what little we know of the remaining third of Heloise's life, and some of the known actions of their son before even more quickly covering their escalation within the French national identity and final resting place in Paris together.
Burge's work excels in bringing the story, the period and the nature of the philosophy to the reader in a manner that is both readable, informative and deeply stimulating. It is the kind of secondary text that would inspire a reader to go out and purchase the original texts of these brilliant twelfth cenutry lovers and read even further around the entires scope of twelfth century european religion, politics and philosophy. At the same time it does not lose its emotive discussion, humanising both of these people and making their tragic love story rise fresh to a new century of people. This book is highly recommended.
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on 25 February 2014
I knew nothing about mediaeval Europe- my interest were more in the 19th and 20th centuries, the centuries that formed my world. But I'd visited the Cistercian churches as a child, was conscious that there had been a human side to the distant past, and had heard of Heloise and Abelard. So I gave it a crack. I'm so glad I did. This book is about so much more than a love story- although it's certainly about that too. But the depiction of religion in the 12th century as being the major industry of the time, like coal and steel at the start of the 20th, was a splendid eye opener; in that context, the disputatious Abelard, absolutely brilliant in philosophy and debate but probably one of the most inept managers and schemers of his time, and Heloise, the brilliant pupil and irresistible lover who became, against her will, a nun and successful abbess, are splendidly depicted in terms that made sense to me, as a 'modern' reader, but also places them firmly in their time, reflecting their values. And it's very hard not to feel that you get to know them; both would be interesting to meet. Heloise, impossible not to fancy her. Jim Burge quotes nicely from their letters- Heloise especially has a lilting, poetic way with Latin that comes through directly, with no need for translation to show how spirited and charming she must have been. I don't know about Abelard, but I feel that I could easily have fallen for her.
The people around them, their values, their thirst for power and simultaneously their piety- the one being the way to the other- form a frieze of the time against which the love story is both set in context, and at the same time is used to illuminate a world that was completely new to me. And it made me want to know about it.
I say I knew nothing about the mediaeval world before I started; I now know just a tiny bit about it having read this book, but it has opened up a whole aspect of European history of which I hadn't been aware. Just taking the Metro in Paris and changing at 'Chatelet' is a richer experience for having read the book. A current TV series on the search for authenticity in the Bible stories is suddenly much more understandable; instead of a despairing facepalm and a feeling of the utter ridiculousness of the whole business, I now feel that I've been introduced to a way of thought where these things matter and are interesting. In that sense, reading this book has been an enriching experience.
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on 25 June 2011
James Burge's study very successfully combines the inevitable and appropriate romantic and sexual relationship involved with a readable and reliable assessment of the medieval intellectual and social background. Excellent use is made of the relevant and remarkable primary source material, although the precise significance of the more recently discovered letters could perhaps have been made more effectively.

Abelard and Heloise's relationship with St. Bernard and Peter the Venerable, the greatest monastic leaders of this period, could also have been more firmly delineated, as the Benedictine background can hardly be overestimated

It does not, and probably should not have the dramatic effect of Helen Waddell's great novel, and inevitably lacks the authority of Etienne Gilson's study, which is somewhat bizarrely omitted from the Bibliography in this edition.

Nonetheless this must be the best penny I have ever spent on a book, and will be a permanent component of that focal part of my library with Waddell, Gilson, the Penguin edition of the Letters and the CD of Abelard' suriviving sacred music.
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on 28 February 2014
I found this an involving read, with just the right amount of historical context, skilful gap-filling and human interest to get me going. In spite of my considerable interest in history, medieval religion and things French, the details and significance of this iconic couple's relationship had somehow passed me by. Thank you also, Mr Burge, for treating this subject with a real empathy so often lacking in historical narratives. Even so, I can't help thinking that Heloise was perhaps a bit of a 'love addict' in spite of her admirable intellect. There was never going to be a good outcome for her, given Abelard's character and the times, both of which are brought to life so vividly here.
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This is a thoroughly enjoyable biography of those two great lovers whose story has reverberated down the centuries, admirably chronicled here in this readable and accessible, yet always scholarly, account. Burge has done his research and manages to incorporate it all seamlessly into the main narrative, addressing the social and religious history and background in a way that makes it all seem very modern and relevant. He’s done full justice to the love story and romance whilst never becoming sentimental. A story that started in 1115 comes alive again in the author’s capable hands.
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on 5 March 2014
A truly absorbing account of the legendary 12th century lovers, with insights into the lifestyles of the era and the philosophy which brought them together. It's written in a breezy style by Burge which makes both the history and the philosophy very accessible indeed.
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on 24 February 2014
This excellent book by James Burge chronicles the lives of two of the best known characters of the twelfth century in Europe. The brief period of their love together and their separation after Abelard's castration are central to the book. Yet there are so many other strands for the reader to follow. There is the early history of Paris, its sacking, its rebirth and its growth as an intellectual centre. There are the debates among the great logicians and clerics of the day. There is the excitement of uncovering precious documents that tell of the intimate shared moments of Abelard and Heloise.
Abelard was regarded as perhaps the greatest exponent of logic of his time, but he was unlucky to have been born too soon for the full range of Aristotle's works to reach Christendom. His intellectual influence waned while his notoriety as a victim of a savage crime persisted long after his death.
Heloise was a complex person, passionate, resentful of the circumstances that prevented her from enjoying her life as lover, wife and mother, separated totally from Abelard for some fifteen years.
This work by James Burge has all the qualities of a fine piece of research – and it is a thoroughly gripping story in its own right.
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on 6 March 2014
I read this book years ago and it counts as one of the books I remember very clearly for some of the haunting and long lived messages it imparts

I was delighted to see it available for kindle reader
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on 7 May 2014
Obviously very well researched and insightful, and the analysis of Heloise is very fascinating. However, I am finding it hard to follow - we seem to go backwards and forwards in time and from one letter to another and then back again. It doesn't read like a great love story though it clearly is and I can see that Jim Burge means it to be. If I hadn't known the outlines of the story already I think I qwould have been pretty confused.
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