Historical essay
Teaching Abélard and Héloïse

Teaching Abélard and Héloïse

One of the wearying inevitabilities of 2018 was that even the most cursory glance at the news was likely to bring you a fresh tale of sexual assault — in politics, the entertainment industry and, closer to home for me, academia. Much of the resulting commentary was almost as jarring as the news articles themselves. So many people are so very invested in making the unconscionable seem tolerable, even natural. Reading one such story recently made me think of the first time I visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

It was easy to find the tomb of Peter Abélard and his wife, Héloïse of Argenteuil, amid the thirty thousand graves that crowd the site. I just had to follow the steady stream of people, probably second in number only to those drawn to the grave of The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison, who were heading for the elaborate, faux-medieval tomb in one corner of the cemetery. Many of those who gathered around the couple’s supposed burial site were young women. Several wore large crowns of artificial flowers — the tail-end of that summer’s fad — although the flowers they lay at the tomb were real.

The tomb of Abélard and Héloïse in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why were so many young people drawn to this monument to two people who’ve been dead for 800 years? A cursory search online answers that question, while also showing how pop culture tends to frame Abélard and Héloïse. They are “one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories … [with] much to teach us about our own understanding of religious tolerance, sexual equality and intellectual freedom.” Their relationship was one of the “top 10 most torrid love affairs” ever. The distressing way their relationship ended “ultimately served as a catalyst for their greatest intellectual achievements.” One writer in the New York Times even assures us that “there’s a grandeur to [their] high-stakes romance, to self-sacrifice, that’s missing from our latex-love culture—and it’s a grandeur we perhaps crave to recover.”

Edmund Blair Leighton, “Abelard and his Pupil Heloise” (1882). (Wikimedia Commons)

(Yes, you read that last quotation correctly. Someone in a national newspaper argued that condom use is a sign that people in the twenty-first century no longer know how to engage in sweeping romance, which is a hot take of a kind that I think even Emily Brontë at her most wuthering would have balked at).

This framing of Abélard and Héloïse’s relationship isn’t unique to pop history, of course. The first time I heard of them, during an undergraduate survey course on medieval history, my professor referred to the couple as one of the great love stories of the Middle Ages. But after reading the couple’s letters to one another, I felt uneasy with that framing. Yet it wasn’t until much later that I acquired the vocabulary to help me articulate that unease: coercion, gaslighting, manipulation.

Here is the story of Peter Abélard and Héloïse of Argenteuil as I lay it out to my students now. In the early twelfth century, a young man from Brittany called Peter Abélard arrived in Paris and quickly made a name for himself as a highly promising university student. Also resident in the city was one Fulbert, a priest of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, and his niece Héloïse. Abélard heard of Héloīse’s beauty and intelligence, and having decided — before he had ever met her — that “she was the one to bring to [his] bed,” Abélard “sought an opportunity of getting to know her through private daily meetings and so more easily winning her over.” Fulbert agreed to hire Abélard as Héloïse’s teacher, so he could provide her with the kind of university-level education ordinarily unavailable to a woman.

Jean Vignaud, “Abelard and Heloise Surprised by the Abbot Fulbert”, 1819. (Wikimedia Commons

Abélard and Héloïse entered into a sexual relationship. As the Catholic Church was no more fond of extramarital sex then than it is now, Abélard sometimes beat Héloïse so that no one would suspect him of any attraction towards her. (He would later write that his “blows were the marks not of anger but of the tender affection that is sweeter than any perfume.”) There was little subterfuge could do to hide the consequences of their sexual activities once Héloïse became pregnant.

Abélard sent her to Brittany to give birth to their son, then secretly married her and bundled her off to the convent of Argenteuil to protect her from her uncle’s wrath. Héloïse’s relatives assumed that Abélard had abandoned her, and so they revenged themselves on him by castrating him. Abélard, barred by his marital status from an ecclesiastical career and by his impotence from fulfilling a key component of the medieval understanding of a husband’s role, became a monk. Héloïse became a nun, and later abbess of the famous monastery of the Paraclete.

In later years, Abélard wrote a kind of memoir, the Historia Calamitatum (“History of My Misfortunes”), and the couple exchanged a series of lengthy letters — intelligent, erudite, full of references to scripture and classical literature — from their respective monastic communities. Héloïse seems to have borne little animosity towards Abélard beyond chastising him for not writing to her often enough. She may not have understood her relationship with Abélard as one marked by abuse or assault. As Irina Dumitrescu rightly reminds us, we “diminish Héloïse if we see her as an eternal teenager, a mere victim of Abelard’s narcissistic love.”

And yet, when I sit with Héloïse’s letters, I can’t help but hear a woman whose life, whose very self, was shaped by a teacher whose pedagogy emphasized submission and a culture that eroticized violence against women. In her letters, Héloïse refers to Abélard as master (dominus), father, and husband; she calls herself his slave (ancilla), daughter, and wife. She would rather be his whore (meretrix) than an empress (imperatrix), she writes. Taken alone, her words have the thrilling ring of the empowered modern woman, but that’s diminished when you see how repeatedly Héloïse defines herself in relationship to Abélard and his wants.

One of the great love stories of the Middle Ages? I suppose that depends on how you define the term “great.”

A romanticised, 19th-century imagining of Héloïse, from a wall painting in a Parisian church. (Wikimedia Commons)

Or the term “love.”

A few weeks ago, I introduced the students in my upper-level undergraduate course on medieval women’s history to Abélard and Héloïse. As part of a broader discussion of the history of ideas around sexual consent, assault, and bodily autonomy, the students had read Carissa Harris’s article on the medieval English literary genre known as the pastourelle. Harris argues that this genre both normalized rape narratives and provided space to challenge rape myths. Her ideas helped students think through various aspects of the problematic modern framing of Abélard and Héloïse. Are they truly the quintessential passionate romance? Does thinking about them in that way mean that the “enlightened” present is not so far removed from the “barbaric” Middle Ages? As young adults who’ve come of age during the #MeToo movement, my students were far quicker to grasp the disturbing implications of Abélard and Héloïse’s relationship than I was as an undergraduate.

I’m proud of the ways in which my students navigated multiple conversations about sexual assault that week — deploying analytical skills and fierce empathy in equal measure — but I still don’t know if I did them justice in the classroom. It’s one thing to discuss how to look past the faux-romantic sentimentality that wreathes Héloïse and to explore how her intelligence and leadership make her a historical figure in her own right. It’s another to talk about why Peter Abélard’s historical reputation largely survived intact over several centuries, even though his own writings tell us that his behavior was unsupportable. It’s another again to have that conversation in an academic setting, within a system and a space which, despite diversity statements and affirmations of safe spaces, remains a bastion of sexual misconduct.

Is it possible to sit in an American college classroom in 2018, to be in a position of authority and to talk honestly about the lessons to be learned from Abélard and Héloïse and yet avoid being a hypocrite?

The words change. More voices speak out. But who tells the story, and how it ends: well, that always seems to stay the same.

Yvonne Seale is an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Geneseo, where she teaches courses in medieval history and digital humanities. Her research focuses on the involvement of women with the development of religious institutions in medieval France.

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