Some have it that romantic love was an invention of the Middle Ages. If so, then the true story of Pierre Abelard and Heloise is one of the templates of this narrative. Both Abelard and Heloise were prominent intellectuals of twelfth century France. Abelard, of noble birth and eighteen years the senior of Heloise, was a prominent lecturer in philosophy. Abelard was an adventurous thinker, and was constantly at odds with the Church. On several occasions he was forced to recant and burn his writings.
Heloise was a strong-willed and gifted woman who was fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and came from a lower social standing than Abelard. At age 19, and living under her uncle Fulbert’s roof, Heloise fell in love with Abelard, who she was studying under. Not only did they have a clandestine affair of a sexual nature, they had a child, Astrolabe, out of wedlock. It is real life tragedy because they were discovered the Fulbert (who was a Church official), Abelard was assaulted by a hired thug and castrated, and Heloise entered a convent. Abelard was exiled to Brittany, where he lived as monk. Eventually Heloise became abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete, an abbey which Abelard had founded. The following is a couple of excerpts from their famous love letters.
Heloise to Abelard
If there is anything that may properly be called happiness here below, I am persuaded it is the union of two persons who love each other with perfect liberty, who are united by a secret inclination, and satisfied with each other’s merits. Their hearts are full and leave no vacancy for any other passion; they enjoy perpetual tranquillity because they enjoy content.—————–
Can you believe me if I tell you, that notwithstanding my sex, I thought myself peculiarly happy in having a lover to whom I was obliged for my charms; and took a secret pleasure in being admired by a man who, when he pleased, could raise his mistress (Being the writer) to the character of a goddess. Pleased with your glory only, I read with delight all those praises you offered me, and without reflecting how little I deserved, I believed myself such as you described, that I might be more certain that I pleased you.