Monday, February 6, 2012

Abelard and Heloise

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Betty Radice, trans./ed.

I bought this book several years ago under the influence of Sharan Newman's excellent series of 12th-century mysteries.  The first, Death Comes as Epiphany, is set in 1139 and introduces Catherine LeVendeur, a novice under Heloise at the famous convent of the Paraclete, and Edgar, a student of Peter Abelard's.  Heloise and Abelard themselves appear in the books, and I learned quite a bit about their story over the course of the series.  Around 1118, Abelard, a famous master of logic and professor at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame in Paris, agreed to tutor Heloise, the niece of one of the cathedral's canons.  She had a brilliant mind and had already received an excellent education for a woman of that day.  Abelard set out to seduce her, and they were soon involved in a passionate affair, one they found impossible to hide even before Heloise became pregnant.  Her uncle's rage when he discovered the affair was not satisfied by their hasty marriage, particularly after they separated, with Heloise living in a convent.  One night his servants attacked Abelard in his lodging and castrated him.  Their separation then became permanent; Heloise entered the convent, and Abelard became first a monk and later a priest.

I probably thought that this book would be letters exchanged back and forth during their passionate love affair.  It's not, it's much more than that. It is a fascinating window into the lives to two extraordinary people, and also into life in the 12th century.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first is Abelard's Historia Calamitatum (The Story of His Misfortunes), written around 1132.  An autobiographical account of his life up to that time, it tells the story of his meteoric rise as a master of logic, the enemies he made along the way, and the conflicts he constantly found himself involved in.  Abelard was a leader in the new branch of dialectics, teaching through questions that forced students to think and reason for themselves, but when he turned his focus to theology, some became alarmed that he was leading young minds to question faith itself.  This charge would haunt him through his career and his writings, bringing him to face church councils and once to have his work publicly burned.  He also accepted an appointment as abbot of a troubled monastery, which turned out to be a disaster, as the monks rebelled against his authority and even tried to kill him.

The Historia is framed as a letter to a friend undergoing his own troubles: "In comparison with my trials you will see that your own are nothing, or only slight, and will find them easier to bear."  This was perhaps just a literary convention, though, because a copy found its way to Heloise.  She was then the abbess of a convent called the Paraclete, formerly the site of one of Abelard's schools.  She and her nuns were refugees from their original convent, which had been appropriated by a powerful abbot who turned them out into the world.  Heloise wrote Abelard in distress at his sufferings, but also in distress that he had taken no note of her sufferings.  She had no vocation for religious life; she fled to the convent after the attack on him.  Abelard found a vocation as a monk and priest.  Heloise simply endured, through years of religious life, still deeply in love and physically drawn to him, though outwardly a model nun, elected to the highest office.  She wanted the consolation of knowing that he did love her.  Their letters back and forth make up the second section, the "Personal Letters."  Abelard refused to give her that consolation, telling her to find it in faith and her life in God, finally telling her that he felt for her was lust, not love, and God's mercy had saved them both from that.

Heloise's response to that opens the third section, the "Letters of Direction."  It is as if a door had closed in her mind, or in her heart.  She will not ask again.  Instead, she asked Abelard, whom the nuns considered their founder, to draw up a rule of life for them.  They were Benedictines, under the Rule of Benedict, which was written for men, for monks.  Though Benedict had a sister Scholastica, considered the first Benedictine nun, he wrote no separate rule for her community.  Heloise listed some of the problems: could nuns offer hospitality to men, as monks were commanded to do?  The Rule instructs the abbot to read the Gospel aloud at set times, but women are forbidden from doing that.  I did not realize that there were few if any rules for women, some seventy years before Francis and Clare of Assisi would form the Poor Clares, or Dominic his nuns.  Though Abelard's long letter on his proposed rule was sometimes hard to follow, it was also full of fascinating details.  Unlike other nuns, the Paraclete nuns were allowed meat, since after all the priests and rulers of the church allowed themselves meat, and it was often cheaper than fish.  But they were not to eat white bread, and never bread hot from the oven!  Any nun who showed an aptitude for learning must be educated, particularly in the Scriptures.  The abbess ruled unconditionally in the monastery, like a general in the army, but as women they must be under the direction and authority of the abbot of a men's community.

I found this book unexpectedly fascinating.  Both Heloise and Abelard wrote frankly about abuses in the Church and in religious life.  They discussed life in the world, in contrast to the cloister.  It was painful to read the constant refrain, even from Heloise herself, that women are weak not just physically but in intellect and morals, inferior, tending to gossip and malice, at the mercy of their passions, like Eve leading men astray.  They are, however, much less liable to drunkenness than men, because of their extremely humid bodies.

I came away from this book grateful that that I was not born in the 12th century, and with a deep admiration for Heloise.  She at first refused to marry Abelard, believing that domestic married life would distract him from his calling as a teacher and philosopher, and their bond did not need the legality of marriage.  Abelard overruled her, then her uncle's assault ended her marriage, and against her will she entered the convent.  She was powerless in these matters, and she was left to make what she could of her life.  She reminded me of another woman placed in religious life, in this case by her father: Suor Maria Celeste Galilei, whose story is told in Dava Sobel's excellent Galileo's Daughter.  Her letters have also been published separately.

There are apparently further letters between Abelard and Heloise, dealing with the practical matters of the Paraclete.  They were not included in this book, but I would be interested to read them even if they consist of the minutiae of convent life.  The editor and translator, Betty Radice, wrote a wonderful introduction that frames their lives, and particularly Abelard's career, and also carries their stories beyond the final letter here.  As she said, they "are also individuals who would be exceptional in any age . . . They deserve to be heard, even if imperfectly and at second-hand through a translation, in the words they wrote."

1 comment:

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!