Héloïse d'Argenteuil

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Héloïse imagined in a mid-19th-century engraving

Héloïse d'Argenteuil (/ˈɛl.z/ or /ˈhɛl.z/; French: [elɔˈiz]; 1090?[1]/1100? – 16 May 1164) was a French nun, writer, scholar, and abbess, best known for her love affair and correspondence with Peter Abélard.

Background[edit]

Héloïse (variously spelled Helöise, Héloyse, Hélose, Heloisa, Helouisa, Eloise, and Aloysia, among other variations) was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew,[2] and had a reputation for intelligence and insight. Abélard writes that she was nominatissima, "most renowned" for her gift in reading and writing. Not a great deal is known of her immediate family except that in her letters she implies she is of a lower social standing (probably the Garlande family, who had money and several members in strong positions) than was Abélard, who was originally from the nobility, though he had rejected knighthood to be a philosopher.[3]

What is known is that she was the ward of an uncle, a canon in Paris named Fulbert.[4] By some point in her life she was renowned throughout Western Europe for her scholarship, and she became the student of Pierre Abélard (Peter Abelard), who was one of the most popular teachers and philosophers in Paris.[5][6]

Tragic events[edit]

Abaelardus and Héloïse in the manuscript Roman de la Rose (14th century)

In his Historia Calamitatum, an autobiographical piece written around 1132, Abélard tells the story of his seduction of Héloïse, whom he met when in 1115 he himself, like Fulbert, became a canon in Paris.

It is unclear how old Heloise was at this time. She is described as an adolescentula (young girl), and so it is often assumed that she was about seventeen at the time, having been born in 1100-1.[7] More recently, however, Constant Mews (and subsequently David Constant) have suggested that the age of seventeen is a seventeenth-century fabrication with no supporting contemporary evidence, and that she was probably as old as 27 at the time.[8] The main piece of evidence for this is that in a later letter, Peter the Venerable writes to Heloise that he remembers her when he was a young man and she was a woman; this, they suggest, implies that Heloise was at least as old and possibly older than Peter. Given that Peter was born in 1092, it would mean that Heloise would have been nearer 27 at the time of the affair. They suggest that this makes more sense of Abelard's later comment that he sought to seduce Heloise because she was the most famous woman in France for her studies – because, as they suggest, she would have been unlikely to have acquired this reputation by the age of 17. More tentatively, the extent of Heloise's accomplishment in Greek and Hebrew, and her mature response to the relationship, might indicate someone slightly older than 17.

Abelard tells how he convinced Fulbert to let him move into his house, telling Fulbert that he could not afford to live in his current house while studying, and offering to tutor Heloise in return.[9] Abelard tells of their subsequent illicit relationship, which they continued until Héloïse fell pregnant. Abelard moved Heloise away from Fulbert and sent her to his own sister in Brittany, where Heloise gave birth to a boy, whom she called Astrolabe.[10] It is almost unknown what happened to Astrolabe in later life. He is never mentioned by Heloise in her letters to Abelard, and Abelard's only reference to him outside the Historia Calamitatum is in the verses of advice addressed to him, and thought to have been written about 1135. His death-day is recorded in the necrology of the Paraclete as 29 or 30 October, but no year is given. He is mentioned only once in a later letter, when Peter the Venerable writes to Heloise: "I will gladly do my best to obtain a prebend in one of the great churches for your Astrolabe, who is also ours for your sake".[11]

Abelard agreed to marry Heloise to conciliate Fulbert, although on the condition that the marriage should be kept secret so as not to damage Abélard's career; Heloise was initially reticent to agree to the secret marriage, but was eventually persuaded by Abelard.[12] Heloise returned from Brittany, and the couple were secretly married in Paris.

Fulbert, however, began to spread news of the marriage, in order to punish Abelard for the damage done to his reputation. Heloise attempted to deny this, but this ongoing situation eventually caused Abélard to place Heloise for her own safety in the convent of Argenteuil, where Heloise had been brought up. Fulbert and his friends, however, believed that Abelard had simply found a way of getting rid of Heloise, by making her a nun. So, to punish Abelard, a group of Fulbert's friends broke into Abelard's room one night and castrated him.[13]

After castration,[14] filled with shame at his situation, Abélard became a monk in the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. At the convent in Argenteuil, Héloïse took the habit. She eventually became prioress there, but she and the other nuns were turned out in 1129 when the convent was taken over by the Abbey of St Denis. At this point Abélard arranged for them to enter the Oratory of the Paraclete, a deserted building near Nogent-sur-Seine in Champagne which had been established by Abelard himself in 1122 (though he had subsequently moved to become Abbot of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Lower Brittany). Héloïse became abbess of the new community of nuns there.[15]

Correspondence[edit]

About this time, correspondence began between the two former lovers. What exists today consists of seven letters (numbered Epistolae 2–8 in Latin volumes, since the Historia Calamitatum precedes them as Epistola 1). Four of the letters (Epistolae 2–5) are known as the 'Personal Letters', and contain personal correspondence. The remaining three (Epistolae 6–8) are known as the 'Letters of Direction'.


Héloïse responded, both on the behalf of the Paraclete and herself. In letters which followed, Héloïse expressed dismay at problems that Abélard faced, but scolded him for years of silence following the attack upon him, since Abélard was still wed to Héloïse.

Thus began a correspondence both passionate and erudite. Héloïse encouraged Abélard in his philosophical work, and he dedicated his profession of faith to her.

Ultimately, after telling Héloïse of instances where he had abused her and forced sex,[16] Abélard insisted that he had never truly loved her, but only lusted after her, and their relationship was a sin against God. He then recommended her to turn her attention toward the only one who ever truly loved her, Jesus Christ, and to consecrate herself fully from then on to her religious vocation.

Some scholars consider that Abélard was attempting to spare her feelings (or his feelings, altered from disrupted hormones), and others point to the damage of his hormones and psyche, but from this point on, their correspondence focused on professional subjects rather than their romantic history.

In the 'Letters of Direction', Heloise writes the fifth letter. The sixth is a long letter by Abelard in response to Heloise's first question in the fifth letter about the origin of nuns. In the long final, seventh letter, Abelard provides a Rule for the nuns at the Oratory of the Paraclete, again as requested by Heloise at the outset of the fifth letter.

The Problemata Heloissae (Héloïse's Problems) is a letter from Héloïse to Abélard containing 42 questions about difficult passages in Scripture, interspersed with Abelard's answers to the questions, probably written at the time when she was abbess at the Paraclete.

Héloïse and Abélard, circa 1882

Burial[edit]

Heloise's place of burial is uncertain. Abelard's bones were moved to the Oratory of the Paraclete after his death, and after Heloise's death in 1163 her bones were placed alongside his. The bones of the pair were moved more than once afterwards, but they were preserved even through the vicissitudes of the French Revolution, and now are presumed to lie in the well-known tomb in  Père Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris.The transfer of their remains there in 1817 is considered to have considerably contributed to the popularity of that cemetery, at the time still far outside the built-up area of Paris. By tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt, in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love.

This remains, however, disputed. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims Abélard and Héloïse are buried there and that what exists in Père-Lachaise is merely a monument[17] or cenotaph. Others believe that while Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père-Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.

Cultural references[edit]

In literature[edit]

In music[edit]

In poetry[edit]

Onstage and onscreen[edit]

Other[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Clanchy, Michael (1997). Abelard: A Medieval Life. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell. pp. 173–74. 
  2. ^ Smith, Bonnie G. (2008). The Oxford encyclopedia of women in world history, Volume 1. Heloise: Oxford University Press. p. 445. ISBN 0-19-514890-8. 
  3. ^ Matheson, Lister M (2011). Icons of the Middle Ages: Rulers, Writers, Rebels, and Saints. Abelard's Early life and Education. p. 2. 
  4. ^ Shaffer, Andrew (2011). Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love. Harper Perennial. p. 8. ISBN 0-06-196981-8. 
  5. ^ Shaffer 2011, pp. 8–9
  6. ^ Smith 2008, p. 445
  7. ^ Historia Calamitatum, in Betty Radice, trans, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (Penguin, 1974), p66
  8. ^ Constant J Mews, Abelard and Heloise, (Oxford, 2005), p59
  9. ^ Historia Calamitatum, in Betty Radice, trans, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (Penguin, 1974), p67
  10. ^ Historia Calamitatum, in Betty Radice, trans, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (Penguin, 1974), p69
  11. ^ Betty Radice (trans.), The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 287
  12. ^ Historia Calamitatum, in Betty Radice, trans, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (Penguin, 1974), pp70-4. The reason for wanting the marriage to remain secret is not entirely clear. The most likely explanation is that Abelard must have been in Orders (something on which scholarly opinion is divided), and given that the church was just beginning to forbid marriage to priests and the higher orders of clergy, public marriage would have been a bar to Abelard's advancement in the church.
  13. ^ Historia Calamitatum, in Betty Radice,trans, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (Penguin, 1974), p75
  14. ^ Abelard, Peter (2007). The letters and other writings. Hackett Pub Co. ISBN 0-87220-875-3. 
  15. ^ Rosser, Sue Vilhauer (2008). Women, science, and myth: gender beliefs from antiquity to the present. ABC-CLIO. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-59884-095-7. 
  16. ^ Warren, Karen (2009). An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversations Between Men and Women Philosophers. Views on Love: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 153. ISBN 0-7425-5924-6. 
  17. ^ Clannish, M. T. (1999). Abelard: A Medieval Life. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 328. ISBN 0-631-21444-5. 

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