The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise recount the love affair between a philosopher and his pupil. Abelard, a prominent theologian, philosopher, and logician, was hired by the canon Fulbert to teach his niece, Heloise. Abelard and Heloise fell in love and had sexual relations with each other until they were discovered by Fulbert. The two lovers were separated, but continued to meet in secret until Heloise became pregnant.

After Heloise gave birth to a son, Astrolabe, Abelard suggested that he and Heloise should be married in secret in order to appease Fulbert. Abelard and Heloise could not be married publicly as Abelard’s reputation in the Church would be severely damaged. Heloise originally objected to the marriage, but the couple were eventually wedded in secret. Later, Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, although Abelard and Heloise denied it.

For her own safety, and to escape public scandal, Abelard sent Heloise, disguised as a nun, to the convent of Argenteuil where she had been brought up. Meanwhile, Fulbert and his friends punished Abelard by castrating him. To escape his shame, Abelard entered the Abbey of St Denis. Shortly afterwards, Heloise finally took the veil and became a prioress until the convent was taken over by the Abbey. Abelard arranged for Heloise and the nuns to enter the Order of the Paraclete, where Heloise became abbess to a new community of nuns.

The letters that we are reading are the ‘Personal Letters’ that were exchanged between Abelard and Heloise, and they reflect on the nature of their past relationship and their current life in the Church. The other letters exchanged between the two contain information about Abelard’s life and his misfortunes (letter 1, Historia calamitatum), and Abelard’s advice to Heloise on how to direct religious communities of women (letters 6 to 8, the ‘Letters of Direction’).

Questions for discussion

  1. What is the nature of the letter form as a means of private exchange? How do Abelard and Heloise greet each other?
  2. How are biblical stories and quotations used throughout the letters?
  3. What is the relationship between marriage and public shame? What do you make of Heloise’s repudiation of marriage? How would you characterise the relationship between Abelard and Heloise?
  4. How are female piety and private devotion represented in Abelard’s letters? Are they represented differently in Heloise’s letters?
  5. How does the goddess Fortune function in Heloise’s lament?
  6. What is the relationship between punishment, repentance, and salvation? How are these related to crime, intention, and guilt?
  7. What do you make of Abelard’s final rejection of the love affair and his appeal for absolution?
  8. Some scholars believe the letters were written by a single author (probably Heloise): can you find any similarities or differences between the letters of Heloise and Abelard?