A Love Story – Heloise and Abelard

When my mother was in Paris, like many visitors, she placed a rose on the grave of the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise at the Cemetery of Père Lachaise. I did not know the story of this couple until this week when Mum took me, and a group of us, to see a play about their lives at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

It was a beautiful experience. The evening, the story, and the setting all made an impression. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is set on Bankside by the River Thames. It is a round in shape with oak beams and seating which circles around the stage and a central “yard” where the audience stands for the whole length of the play. If you are seated, you are protected by thatched roof, if you stand in the central yard, you stand under the stars and are at the mercy of the elements – the play goes on regardless. It is such a lovely atmospheric kind of setting.

And so the play began. It is based on love letters that have survived from the 12th century of two medieval intellectuals who were deeply in love, but could never be together. Peter Abelard was a controversial and brilliant philosopher and theologian. He was a skilled debater and notorious for questioning philosophical assumptions of his day, as well as the authority of figures within the church. Around 1115 he came to know the niece of the canon of the cathedral in Paris called Fulbert. Her name was Heloise. She was a literary genius and beautiful; Abelard became her tutor and the two fell deeply in love. One of Abelard’s letters evidently reads, “Books were open before us, but we spoke oftener of love than philosophy, and kisses came more readily from our lips than words.”

Their relationship was scandalous in that era. The two eventually married “secretly” in an attempt to appease Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, but they refused to publicly acknowledge it though, because marriage would prevent Abelard from advancing in the church at that time. Fulbert was furious and took revenge on Abelard by having him castrated. Filled with shame, and then genuine remorse and repentance, Abelard became a monk and filled his life with study. In the same way, Heloise took her vows and became a nun, devoting herself to the study of literature and poetry. She was approximately twenty-two, and he, forty. In the years that follow letters would pass between them, but they would never be together again. In one of her letters, Heloise is believed to have written, “While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words – of which you have enough and to spare – some sweet sem­blance of yourself.”

One other thing I loved about this story was the debating between Abelard, and a contemporary of his, an abbot called Bernard of Clairvaux. Their different revelation of God, and thinking about how to know Him, was so interesting. Bernard believed that faith is a gift from God, and Abelard believed that people come to faith through an understanding of God’s creation. Bernard believed in Divine revelation, whereas Abelard believed that we come to know God fully through the minds that He has given us – through thought and reason. The dialogue in the play between these two, was amazing to listen to, and really interesting.

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~ by Birgit on May 26, 2007.

One Response to “A Love Story – Heloise and Abelard”

  1. Tou will be enchanted then to read Pope’s dedication
    http://www.monadnock.net/poems/eloisa.html

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