An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
We do not typically think of wife and nun as words that can apply to the same woman at the same time. The wife of Abelard, however, was not a typical nun.
❧ Full name: Héloïse d’Argenteuil [hĕ-lō-ēz där-zhô-tĕ-wēł] by birth, Héloïse du Paraclet [dû pä-rä-klā] (“of the Holy Ghost”) as a nun [see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: ca. 1100–1164
❧ Area active: Kingdom of France, mainly in and around Paris
❧ Original language of writing: Latin
❧ Exemplary or important works: Problemata Heloissæ (“The Questions of Héloïse”)
The flowering of the romantic tradition in high medieval Europe was primarily literary; yet right at its beginning—and in Paris, no less—splashed across the pages of the history of the twelfth century, we find one of the most infamous love-affairs in history: Héloïse and Abelard, a pair who had the audacity to get married and, later, retire to religious life. Especially since we are talking about the High Middle Ages, a period known for passionately tolerating both marriage and monasticism, these may not seem remarkable; those of our readers who have already read our profile of Héloïse’s husband may recollect that the story is, as usual, a bit more complicated than that.
Then, as in much of history, opportunities did not abound for women. And then, as always, there was a certain small but spirited contingent of ladies to whom phrases like “is impossible” mean “will take longer”; the eleventh and twelfth century seem disproportionately armed with such women (including Empress Matilda, Anna Komnene, and Eleanor of Aquitaine). Héloïse, whose ancestry is unknown, was taken to live with her Uncle Fulbert, one of the canons of the church of Notre Dame*; she swiftly became one of the most illustrious scholars—of either sex—of her day. Not only did she master Latin (the normal language of both the academy and the Church) and the other six liberal arts; she also knew Greek, then a comparatively rare study, and even Hebrew, a language renowned to this day for its peculiarly difficult phonetics, script, and grammar.† She was so famous that abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny, two hundred miles to the southeast, wrote later that he had heard of her erudition even as a young man.
Abelard originally came into her life as a tutor, probably when she was around sixteen years old. A line from the film The Lion in Winter (written about Eleanor of Aquitaine first meeting Henry II) sounds as if it could have been based on this other famous pair of star-crossed lovers in France: “He came down from the north to Paris with a mind like Aristotle’s and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot.” Héloïse fell in love with Abelard, and he with her; it was not long before she bore him a son. Each of the pair claimed primary responsibility for both the affair itself and its consequences, which were ruinous.
For either to marry would be a serious impediment to their scholarship. This was especially true of Abelard’s, since the academy and the Church were increasingly identified at this point and clerical celibacy was increasingly being enforced; Héloïse quite simply refused to hear of a marriage for quite some time, despite bearing Abelard’s child, partly because of the difficulty she feared it would cause him professionally. Her incensed uncle, on the other hand, would hear of nothing less, and Abelard persuaded her to accept it (on the conditions that it be kept a private matter, which also meant that she must continue to live with Fulbert rather than Abelard). Said uncle went on to make the mistake of his life: he not only betrayed his niece’s secret, but sent hired thugs to break into Abelard’s house while he slept, seize him, and castrate him. Abelard was thereafter the victim of very cruel, very public scorn; yet wrath came down harder on Fulbert. Somehow, it seems, it had not occurred to him that other people might not interpret “having a baby with your wife” (even your shotgun wife) as a crime worthy of mutilation, and he was forced out of the city for several years.
Abelard became a monk at St. Denis near Paris. By some accounts still wanting to shield Héloïse from the fallout, by others out of jealousy, he ordered her to become a nun at the convent where she had been in hiding, which she did.‡ This took place at the Oratory of the Paraclete (a name for the Holy Ghost); Abelard had founded the place, but was ultimately required to remove from it, and it had since been rededicated as a nunnery. She and her husband eventually exchanged a few letters, but, both being cloistered, they likely never saw each other in person again.
At first, Héloïse wrestled with her position, which was both painful and ridiculous—not least because, despite all motives to the contrary, she plainly felt the gravity of the vows she had taken. Anyone who has made some serious effort at practicing the moral precepts of any form of Christianity, or indeed of most religions, will probably recognize her sentiments:
Among those who are wedded to God I am wedded to a man; among the heroic supporters of the Cross I am the slave of a human desire; at the head of a religious community I am devoted to Abelard alone. … I reproach myself for my own faults, I accuse you for yours, and to what purpose? Veiled as I am, behold in what a disorder you have plunged me! How difficult it is to fight for duty against inclination. … Sometimes I am swayed by the sentiment of piety which arises within me, and then the next moment I yield up my imagination to all that is amorous and tender.
Yet, whatever the secret reasons of the heart, she seems finally to have reconciled herself to the life of a nun. One of her subsequent letters to Abelard is titled the Problemata Heloissæ, and lays forth a series of questions raised among the nuns of her convent, prompted by a variety of inconsistent or cryptic statements in Scripture.§ To each, Abelard offers solutions, many of which show the imprint of something that (judging both from his letters and hers) Héloïse herself taught him—namely, the importance of intent in ethics. We mostly take this for granted today, but our ancestors were not so explicit about it.
Her husband died in 1142. Héloïse lived on for just over twenty years, eventually dying at the same age (sixty-three). Her role in the Church was marked by great success; as an abbess, she eventually attained an administrative rank equivalent to that of a bishop. She died within a year of the foundation being laid for the glorious gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame that is, at the time of this writing, being renovated; its re-opening is expected in December of next year, which will be the eight hundred and sixtieth year since she was laid beside her husband in the Oratory of the Paraclete.
*Canons were a type of clergy, usually attached to a cathedral, who lived according to a common rule (Greek κανών [kanōn]). The Notre Dame of which Fulbert was a canon was not the gothic cathedral, but one of a pair of older, smaller churches occupying approximately the same location (the other being the previous cathedral, St. Étienne); both were torn down in the 1160s, to make way for the Notre Dame we are familiar with.
†I.e., Hebrew is difficult for native speakers of most European languages. Native speakers of tongues like Arabic or Aramaic, which are closely related to Hebrew and employ a similar range of sounds, will find it far easier.
‡Even today, many lovers can attest the strength and naturalness of the impulse to do something the beloved wants just because they want it, though we rarely call this obedience. At that time, marriage was understood to include a duty (sometimes expressed in a vow) on the wife’s part to obey her husband. But all this aside, if Héloïse wanted a long-term scholarly “career” as a woman, it would have been exceedingly difficult to pursue it without becoming a nun, regardless of Abelard’s role in her life.
§The word inconsistent here is easily misunderstood, since it is often treated like a synonym for contradiction, which is in truth a specific subtype of inconsistency. A good example is the accounts of the Resurrection provided in the canonical Gospels, which are among the puzzles Héloïse asked about: all name Mary Magdalene as going to the tomb, but John only mentions her, while the Synoptics make her part of a group. This is inconsistent (i.e., differing information is given), but not necessarily contradictory (though John mentions only her, he does not say positively that she went alone). It is quite possible to maintain either a credulous or a skeptical stance toward the evangelists in light of such inconsistencies.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
Published on 21st August, 2023.