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The Letters of Abelard and Heloise: Among the Best Known Records of Early Forbidden Romantic Love

Schøyen Collection, Ms 2085. Abélard et Héloise. France, c. 1350.

Schøyen Collection, Ms 2085. Abélard et Héloise. France, c. 1350.

At the great cathedral school of Notre Dame de Paris, Pierre Abélard became one of the most famous teachers of philosophy in Europe.

"Distinguished in figure and manners, Abélard was seen surrounded by crowds - it is said thousands of students, drawn from all countries by the fame of his teaching. Enriched by the offerings of his pupils, and entertained with universal admiration, he came, as he says, to think himself the only undefeated philosopher in the world. But a change in his fortunes was at hand. In his devotion to science, he had always lived a very regular life, enlivened only by philosophical debate: now, at the height of his fame, he encountered romance.

"Living within the precincts of Notre-Dame, under the care of her uncle, the canon Fulbert, was a girl named Heloise, of noble birth, and born about 1101. She is said to have been beautiful, but still more remarkable for her knowledge, which extended beyond Latin, it is said, to Greek and Hebrew. Abélard fell in love with her; and he sought and gained a place in Fulbert's house. Becoming tutor to the girl, he used his power for the purpose of seduction, and she returned his devotion. Their relations interfered with his public work, and were not kept a secret by Abélard himself. Soon everyone knew except the trusting Fulbert. When he found out, they were separated, only to meet in secret. Heloise became pregnant, and was carried off by her lover to Brittany, where she gave birth to a son. To appease her furious uncle, Abélard proposed a secret marriage, in order not to mar his prospects of advancement in the church; but Heloise opposed the idea. She appealed to him not to sacrifice for her the independence of his life, but reluctantly gave in to pressure. The secret of the marriage was not kept by Fulbert; and when Heloise boldly denied it, life was made so difficult for her that she sought refuge in the convent of Argenteuil at Abélard's bidding. Immediately Fulbert, believing that her husband, who had helped her run away, wanted to be rid of her, plotted revenge. He and some others broke into Abélard's chamber by night, and castrated him. The priesthood and ecclesiastical office were canonically closed to him. Heloise, not yet twenty, consummated her work of self-sacrifice at Abélard's jealous bidding that she never again share romantic love with a man, and became a nun" (Wikipedia article on Peter Abelard).

For the remainder of his life Abelard endured persecution for the scandal. Apart from fiction, such as" Romeo and Juliet," today the letters of Abelard and Eloise are among the best known records of early forbidden romantic love. However, this was not always so:

"It is unclear quite how the letters of Abelard and Héloïse came to be preserved. There are brief and factual references to their relationship by 12th-century writers including William Godel and Walter Map. It seems unlikely, however, that the letters were widely known in this period. Rather, the earliest manuscripts of the letters are dated to the late 13th century. It therefore seems likely that the letters sent between Abelard and Héloïse were kept by Héloïse at the Paraclete along with the 'Letters of Direction', and that more than a century after her death they were brought to Paris and copied.[30] At this time, the story of their love affair was summarised by Jean de Meun in his continuation to Le Roman de la Rose.

"Their story does not appear to have been widely known in the later Middle Ages, either. There is no mention of the couple in DanteChaucer makes a very brief reference in the Wife of Bath's Prologue (lines 677–8), but no more. One of the first people to show a deeper interest in the couple appears to have been Petrarch, who owned an early 14th-century manuscript of the couple's letters. This silence on what is today seen as a particularly touching story is perhaps surprising, given the Renaissance ideal of courtly love – but it is possible that the story of Abelard and Héloïse could not be appropriately fitted into the ideals of the lover's devotion to the chaste and unattainable lady.[31]" (Wikipedia)

Reflective of limited interest in the story during the 15th and 16th century, first printed editions of the letters, in Latin, was in Paris in 1616, simultaneously in two editions. 

"Only 12 MSS of this text are known. 7 MSS are in Paris: Bibliothèque nationale, ms. lat. 2923 (13th c.), 2544, 2545, 13057, 13826, (17th c.) and 1873 and 20001 (a fragment); 1 in Reims: Bibliothèque Municipale, ms.872; 1 in Troyes: Bibliothèque Municipale, ms.802; Douai: Bibliothèque Municipale, ms.797; and Oxford: Bodleian MS. Add.C.271 (a fragment)" (Schøyen Collection MS 2085).

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