Top positive review
8 people found this helpful
Astonishingly good and entertaining.
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.