This collection contains not only the letters exchanged by Heloise and Abelard in later life, but also Abelard's autobiography (the 'Historia Calamitatum') in the form of a letter addressed to an anonymous friend. This is well worth reading because it is one of the earliest forms of autobiography ever written, and tells the story of Abelard's eventful and controversial life from his own point of view. It is a fascinating character study (Abelard even seems to change whilst writing it) and reveals a great deal of egomania and possibly a persecution complex. It is also amazing to see how he can be such a gifted philospher and theologian, yet fail to understand other people at all. Despite his sometimes colossal arrogance, Abelard's attitude to God is one of great humility and I find it quite moving. The narrative is centred around the disastrous event of his castration, which he accepts very humbly. On the other hand everything else that goes wrong is blamed on other people wholesale, with Abelard casting himself as the misunderstood and persecuted saint, and there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth on his part. I love his persecution complex, too - he claims that his monks tried to murder him by poisoning the chalice from which he was taking communion! The letters in the rest of the book date from after Abelard's autobiography was published, and if you read them closely you'll see just how clever Heloise really is. They're worth reading anyhow, because of the breathtaking passion they convey, but if you look you'll notice she manages to use his own philosophical doctrines to defeat him and rewrites the Historia Calamitatum for him from her own perspective. You get the feeling he fell in love with her for her mind, and she proves that even after ten years locked away in a convent her wits are as sharp as ever. However, Abelard's replies start off quite cool and unresponsive; he is irritated rather than impressed by her ability to outwit him and seems keen to terminate their correspondence. Yet she manages to change him as it progresses, from severe misogyny into acceptance of women's role in the world and particularly in the religious life. What a woman. And when he says "Heaven is like so many palaces..." the word he uses in Latin is 'Palatia'. It's an odd word in context, so why does he choose this particular one? 'Palatium' is also the name of his hometown, where he took Heloise to give birth to their child, and where they lived together for a short but happy time. So... he's secretly trying to say that Heaven is like the time they spent together before disaster tore them apart. This is the closest he gets to telling her he loved her.
This high-medieval love story, which the reader traces in an exchange of exquisitly written letters between two brilliant minds of the time, raises all sorts of issues. The medieval idea of the body and sexuality, what is right and wrong in terms of what is pleasing/unpleasing to God, but ubove all it is about the expression and the working out of the idea of love, both towards the divine and between man and woman. It also gives us an interesting take on medieval life of the intellectual class. What life was like in Paris at the time of the founding of its first University is mapped out in the historia calamitatum, but also the real historical threat of heresy accusation under which Abelard laboured for his philosophical and theological insights. Also the issue of the place of women must be considered. It is interesting that Heloise was one of the very few lettered women in her time - a lone voice in the otherwise silenced abyss of time - yet she certainly does her education justice!! Ubove all, this makes intense reading. History is brought to light on these pages in such an intimate and immediate way. For those who are interested, there is a book called "The Lost Letters of Abelard and Heloise", which is suspected to be their letters of exchange in the heat of their love affair (This book contains their letters from when they are cloistered up).
This contains the complete letters: the `personal' as well as letters of `instruction'. Whether they are authentic or not i.e. whether these really are letters written by Abelard and Heloise is still disputed academically, as they might be learned imitations, especially the letter of Heloise.
But whatever their status, they are a fine insight into C12th mores, not least the roles available to medieval woman, and the problematic relationship between sexuality and holiness.
This book is very accessible, given the age of the letters, and provides a fascinating insight into the attitudes of the time. An excellent and extremely readable translation tracing love through catastrophic tragedy and separation.
Was romantic love invented in the Middle Ages? If so, then the true story of Pierre Abelard and Heloise is a template. These letters have been interpreted as a scandal, a tragic romance, an edifying conversion story, a clever forgery and an example of either patriarchy or feminism in action. Many of us will have read Helen Waddell’s novel about these two.
At the start of the first letter, I warmed to him: I owe 'my volatile temperament to my native soil and ancestry and also my natural ability for learning. ……..I applied myself, until I was so carried away by my love of learning that I renounced the glory of a military life, made over my inheritance and rights of the eldest son to my `brothers, and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be tducated in the lap of Minerva.' I preferred the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war.
I started to dislike him when he wrote: and as my reputation grew, so other men's jealousy was aroused…… at that time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love.
For all that Heloise is ’fesity’, I can’t help noticing that Abelard’s lathers to her are longer and more bossy.
One gets a background of the worldliness of the church (or is it his judgemental arrogance?) As ever, the Church is often the enemy of the Christian. There’s a healthy anti-clericalism, combined with respect for women. Some scholars discuss the term ‘deaconess’ and claim that it means something quite different from that understood by proponents of the ordination of women. Yet Abelard is quite clear: Those whom we now call abbesses they called deaconesses in former times, as if they were servants rather than mothers. Later, he describes footwashing by an abbess as diaconal.
Some feminists claim Abelard as one who urges the ordination of women and reckon that the church has suppressed his views. More likely, he was so radical that they just wrote him off and didn’t even consider his ideas.
Music to my ears: No one must presume to read or sing without previous preparation
He claims that his castration didn’t hurt because he was asleep at the time. I find that hard to believe.
One thing that confuses me. Abelard is said to be the person who invented the exemplarist theory of atonement, yet his hymn for Good Friday at the back of the book uses language more akin to penal substitutionary atonement.