Heloise loved Abelard with a big-hearted feminine love

Heloise departing from Abelard

Everyone today should listen attentively to the voice of the learned, articulate medieval woman Heloise writing about Abelard.  Medieval scholars, who have historically been predominately men, have under-appreciated Heloise just as they have under-appreciated the medieval woman writer Marie de France.  Heloise, like Marie de France, spoke out with a strong, independent voice in love for men in the fullness of their persons.[1]

Heloise understood that hypergamy tends to characterize women more than men.  Aspasia, a friend of Socrates, the mistress-master of Pericles, and perhaps also a brothel-keeper, declared:

Unless you come to believe that there is no better man nor worthier woman on earth you will always still be looking for what you judge the best thing of all — to be the husband of the best of wives, and the wife of the best of husbands.

{ Quare, nisi hoc peregeritis, ut neque vir melior neque femina in terris letior sit, profecto semper id, quod optimum putabitis esse, multo maxime requiretis, ut et tu maritus sis quam optime, et hec quam optimo viro nupta sit. } [2]

While Heloise appreciated Aspasia’s wisdom, Heloise better understood the truth about women’s and men’s love.[3]  As a young woman, Heloise fell in love with her older, eminent tutor-scholar Peter Abelard.  Abelard had taken the initiative to establish a relationship with her.  While most men find most attractive in women youth, beauty, and warm receptivity, Abelard had broader interests in Heloise:

In looks she did not rank least, while in the abundance of her learning she was supreme.  A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her very famous throughout the realm. … Knowing her knowledge and love of letters I thought she would be all the more ready to consent, and that even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages in which we could write many things more boldly than we could say them, and so need never lack the pleasures of conversation.

{ Que cum per faciem non esset infima, per habundantiam litterarum erat suprema. Nam quo bonum hoc, litteratorie scilicet scientie in mulieribus est rarius, eo amplius puellam commendabat et in toto regno nominatissimam fecerat. … Tanto autem facilius hanc mihi puellam consensuram credidi quanto amplius eam litterarum scientiam et habere et diligere noveram, nosque etiam absentes scriptis internuntiis invicem licere presentare et pleraque audacius scribere quam colloqui, et sic semper iocundis interesse colloquiis.} [4]

Abelard’s broader interests in Heloise did not mean that she was his social and intellectual equal.  He was her tutor.  He was probably more than fifteen years older than her.  Heloise’s description of Abelard’s social standing implies that he was much more eminent than she:

What king or philosopher could match your fame?  What region, city, or village did not long to see you?  When you appeared in public, who (I ask) did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you, or crane her neck and strain her eyes to follow your departure?  Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed. You had beside, I admit, two special gifts with which you could at once win the heart of any woman — the gift of composing verse and song. … You have left many songs composed in amatory verse and rhyme.  Because of the very great sweetness of their words as much as their tune, they have been repeated often and have kept your name continually on the lips of everyone.  The beauty of the melody ensured that even the unlettered did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you.  And as most of the songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me. What is even one grace of mind and body with which your manhood was not adorned?

{ Quis etenim regum aut philosophorum tuam exequare famam poterat ? Que te regio aut civitas seu villa videre non estuabat? Quis te, rogo, in publicum procedentem conspicere non festinabat ac discedentem collo erecto, oculis directis non insectabatur? Que coniugata, que virgo non concupiscebat absentem, et non exardebat in presentem? Que regina vel prepotens femina gaudiis meis non invidebat vel thalamis? Duo autem, fateor, tibi specialiter inerant quibus feminarum quarumlibet animos statim allicere poteras, dictandi videlicet et cantandi gratia, que ceteros minime philosophos assecutos esse novimus. Quibus quidem, quasi ludo quodam laborem exercitii recreans philosophici, pleraque amatorio metro vel rithmo composita reliquisti carmina, que pre nimia suavitate tam dictaminis quam cantus sepius frequentata, tuum in ore omnium nomen incessanter tenebant, ut illiteratos etiam melodie dulcedo tui non sineret immemores esse. Atque hinc maxime in amorem tui femine suspirabant. Et cum horum pars maxima carminum nostros decantaret amores, multis me regionibus brevi tempore nuntiavit et multarum in me feminarum accendit invidiam. Quod enim bonum animi vel corporis tuam non exornabat adolescentiam? } [5]

Abelard didn’t love Heloise because there was no worthier woman, as the worth of women was commonly judged among men of his time.  Heloise’s love for Abelard was love for a man who had leading sexual market value among men of his time.[6]  Aspasia’s sexually symmetric proposition about wives’ and husbands’ love failed to recognize important differences in women’s and men’s natures.  In terms of the fundamental model of sexual selection, men desire youth and beauty.  Women desire social status.[7]  Heloise implicitly recognized those differences.

While Abelard’s social and intellectual eminence made him powerfully attractive to Heloise and other women, Heloise in intimate relationship with Abelard valued greatly his physical masculinity.  Heloise could not suppress, years after the acts, delightful memories of “our lust”:

The lovers’ pleasures we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they cannot displease me and can scarcely fade from my memory.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep.  Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my most unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness rather than on prayer.  I, who should be grieving for the sins I have committed, am sighing rather for what I have lost.  The things we did and also the places and times we did them are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live though them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite.

{ In tantum vero ille quas pariter exercuimus, amantium voluptates dulces mihi fuerunt, ut nec displicere mihi nec vix a memoria labi possint. Quocumque loco me vertam, semper se oculis meis cum suis ingerunt desideriis, nec etiam dormienti suis illusionibus parcunt. Inter ipsa missarum solempnia, ubi purior esse debet oratio, obscena earum voluptatum phantasmata ita sibi penitus miserrimam captivant animam ut turpitudinibus illis magis quam orationi vacem; que cum ingemiscere debeam de commissis, suspiro potius de amissis. Nec solum que egimus sed loca pariter et tempora in quibus hec egimus ita tecum nostro infixa sunt animo, ut in ipsis omnia tecum agam nec dormiens etiam ab his quiescam. } [8]

Heloise described Abelard as her “one-and-only {unicus}.”  Among the things Heloise and Abelard did was have sex in her uncle Fulbert’s house.  They also had sex in the rectory of the convent in which Heloise later lived.  They had sex during Easter week and during other holy days.[9]  Abelard took the most egregious fault upon himself:

Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power, and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows.  So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we blush even to name, above God as above myself

{ Sed et te nolentem et, prout poteras reluctantem et dissuadentem, que natura infirmior eras, sepius minis ac flagellis ad consensum trahebam. Tanto enim tibi concupiscentie ardore copulatus eram ut miseras illas et obscenessimas voluptates, quas etiam nominare confundimur, tam Deo quam mihi ipsi preponerem } [10]

Based on her own description of her lust, the occasions on which Heloise was unwilling to have sex with Abelard were probably quite rare.  In the ancient and medieval world, women’s lust was thought to be more fiery than men’s.  The configuration of sexual desire and punishment for sexual acts are much different today than they were then.  Yet today one might still dare to recognize and celebrate Heloise’s profoundly humanistic appreciation for Abelard’s physical masculinity.

Adding to the horrific historical record of violence against men, Abelard suffered castration for his relationship with Heloise.  Involuntary bodily punishment wasn’t imposed on Heloise.  Heloise sorrowed deeply for the punishment that Abelard received as a result of their relationship.  Heloise and Abelard together resolved to become, respectively, a nun and a monk.

While Abelard’s punitive castration prevented him from further providing Heloise with the delights of his physical masculinity, Heloise also cherished Abelard’s emotional and intellectual support for her.  Heloise assigned to Abelard the task of writing hymns, sermons, and other liturgical, regulatory, and exegetical texts to serve her and the nuns of her convent.  Abelard completed many of those assignments with outstanding work.[11]  Nonetheless, in Heloise’s view, Abelard was deficient in providing emotional support to her.  She wrote to him:

While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words — of which you have enough to spare — some sweet semblance of yourself.  … Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me.  … in the name of God to whom you have dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your presence to me in what way you can — by writing some word of comfort … I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my one-and-only.

{ Dum tui presentia fraudor, verborum saltem votis, quorum tibi copia est, tue mihi imaginis presenta dulcedinem. … Memento, obsecro, que fecerim et quanta debeas attende. … Per ipsum itaque cui te obtulisti Deum te obsecro ut quo modo potes tuam mihi presentiam reddas, consolationem videlicet mihi aliquam rescribendo … Perpende, obsecro, que debes; attende que postulo; et longam epistolam brevi fine concludo: vale, unice. } [12]

Heloise’s insistence, “you owe me,” has a cutting resonance.  Heloise and Abelard were married before Abelard was punitively castrated. In medieval Christian understanding, husband and wife were required to fulfill each other’s sexual needs, irrespective of their own desires.  That requirement was known as the “marital debt.”  Because he was punitively castrated, Abelard could not fulfill his marital debt.  Heloise insisted that he had other debts that he could fulfill.

Heloise loved Abelard with a woman’s big-hearted love.  Heloise was a deeply humanistic, flesh-and-blood woman.  Heloise’s love for Abelard cries out to be adequately appreciated.

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[1] The primary collection of surviving letters between Heloise and Abelard has recently been edited and translated in Luscombe & Radice (2013).  A more accessible version is Radice (1974).  An version of Hughes (1714) is available online.  Radice (1974), p. 52, describes that text as a “travesty.”  Ziolkowski (2008) includes additional letters from Abelard to Heloise.  An additional letter from Heloise to Abelard is included in the preface to Problemata Heloissae, 42 biblical-textual questions that Heloise sent to Abelard and he answered. Epistolae duorum amantium, a letter collection that has been ascribed to Heloise and Abelard, doesn’t provide a reasonable basis for such an ascription. Close textual study suggests that Abelard did not write the letters in Epistolae duorum amantium that the man wrote.  Ziolkowski (2004).  Many other letters that Heloise and Abelard exchanged apparently have been lost.  A fine example of men scholars’ lack of appreciation for Heloise’s voice is Alexander Pope’s lengthy poem, Eloisa to Abelard (1717).  That poem inspired Angelica Kauffman’s painting above, “The Parting of Heloise and Abelard” (1780).

[2] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.11, Latin text and English trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) pp. 134-5.  Heloise took this quote from Cicero, De inventione, i.31, 51-2.  The context in Cicero includes some sex differentiation.  Aspasia had the wife of Xenophon express her desire for better gold and more valuable dresses and ornaments for women.  Aspasia had Xenophon express his desire for a better horse and a better farm.  On Aspasia, see Plutarch, Lives, Pericles 24, 32.  Pericles, enamored of Aspasia, reportedly waged war against the Samians at Aspasia’s behest.  Hypergamy has attracted considerable reasoned analysis in today’s New Renaissance.

[3] Heloise also wisely and nobly rejected the men-oppressing formal institution of marriage.

[4] Abelard, A Letter of Consolation from Abelard to a Friend (Historia calamitatum), Letter 1.16, Latin text and English trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 25.  Heloise’s fame for learning may have arisen in part through her relationship with her tutor Abelard.  Heloise told Abelard, “your many songs put your Heloise on everyone’s lips, so that every street and house resounded with my name {frequenti carmine tuam in ore omnium Heloissam ponebas, me platee omnes, me domus singule resonabant}.” Letter 2.16, id. p. 141.  Writing years after their relationship, Abelard mayhave projected to some extent Heloise’s fame backward in time.

[5] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.12-13, id. pp. 135, 137.  Heloise perceived herself to be socially exalted through her relationship with Abelard:

The higher I was exalted when you preferred me to all other women, the greater was my suffering over my fall and yours as much, when I was flung down; for the higher the ascent, the heavier the fall.  Has Fortune ever set any great or noble woman above me or made her my equal, only to be similarly case down and crushed with grief?  What glory she gave me in you!  What ruin she brought upon me in you!

{ quanto universis in te feminis prelata sublimiorem obtinui gradum, tanto hinc prostrata graviorem in te et in me pariter perpessa sum casum! Quanto quippe altior ascendentis gradus, tanto gravior corruentis casus. Quam mihi nobilium potentium feminarum fortuna unquam preponere potuit aut equare? Quam denique adeo dejecit et dolore conficere potuit? Quam in te mihi gloriam contulit! Quam in te mihi ruinam intulit! }

Letter 4.7, id. p. 165.  Following “my fall,” the parenthetical “and yours as much” interrupts Heloise’s line of self-concern with brief recognition of Abelard’s castration.

[6] Heloise disparaged women who married men for their wealth or power:

For a person’s worth does not rest on wealth or power; these depend on fortune, but worth on his merits.  And a woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale. Certainly any woman who comes to marry through desires of this kind deserves wages, not favors, for clearly her mind is on the man’s property, not himself, and she would be ready to prostitute herself to a richer man, if she could.

{ Non enim quo quisque ditior sive potentior, ideo et melior; fortune illud est, hoc virtutis. Nec se minime venalem estimet esse que libentius ditiori quam pauperi nubit, et plus in marito sua quam ipsum concupiscit. Certe quamcunque ad nuptias hec concupiscentia ducit, merces ei potius quam gratia debetur. Certum quippe est eam res ipsas, non hominem, sequi, et se, si posset, velle prostituere ditiori }

Letter 2.11, id. p. 135.  Abelard was neither wealthy nor politically powerful.  His extremely high sexual market value was a result of his social status.  As Heloise’s attraction to Abelard makes clear, a man’s worth to women depends on his social status.  That can but does not necessarily follow from wealth or (political) power.

[7] Of course, real life is more complicated than abstract models.  Women often desire as lovers “bad boys,” who have high social status in a transgressive or brutish sense.  Many older husbands remain deeply attracted to their wives, whom they still remember as young, beautiful women.  Men even have other reasons for being sexually attracted to old women.

[8] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.12,  id p. 171.  For one of Heloise’s references to “our lust,” see her letter to Abelard, Letter 2.16, id. p. 141. In his song of advice to their son Astralabe, Abelard wrote:

There are those whom the sins they have committed delight to such an extent
that they may never truly repent of them,
or rather, the sweetness of this pleasure is so great
that no penance done on its account can weigh them down.
This is the frequent complaint of our Heloise on this matter
which she often says to me and to herself:
“If, unless I repent of what I earlier committed,
I cannot be saved, no hope remains for me:
so sweet were the joys of our transgression
that those things, which pleased too much, bring delight when remembered.”

{ Sunt quos oblectant adeo pecata peracta
ut numquam uere peniteant super his
immo uoluptatis dulcedo tanta sit huius
ne grauet ulla satisfactio propter eam.
Est nostre super hoc Eloyse crebra querela
que michi que secum dicere sepe solet:
“Si nisi peniteat me comississe priora
saluari nequeam spes michi nulla manet:
dulcia sunt adeo comissi gaudia nostri
ut memorata iuuent que placuere nimis.” }

Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} ll. 375-84, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Ruys (2014).

[9] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.16, id p. 141, 4.1 id. p. 159 (“my one-and-only”); Abelard to Heloise, Letter 5.17, id. p. 197 (sex in convent refectory and in Fulbert house) , Letter 5.20, id. p. 199 (sex during days of Our Lord’s Passion and other holy days).

[10] Abelard to Heloise, Letter 5.20, id. p. 199.

[11] Ziolkowki (2008) pp. 3-132.  Id. p. xlii observed:

The standard translation of the earlier correspondence {between Heloise and Abelard} may leave an unsuspecting reader with the misimpression that once Heloise had taken the veil, Abelard has no interest in communicating with her.  He may come across as being coolly logical and as having no niche for her in his mind and even less in his heart, now that he has been castrated and has turned to religion.  Such a construction would be badly misguided.  These later letters and the long writings that they accompanied bear witness to an altered but continued devotion to Heloise and thus complicate our understanding of their relationship as it evolved after the affair.

[12] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.16, id. p. 141.

[image] Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) , The Parting of Heloise and Abelard.  Oil on canvas, 1780. Thanks to Wikipedia.


Hughes, John. 1714. 4th ed. 1722, reprinted 1901, Honnor Morten, ed. The love letters of Abelard and Heloise. London: J.M. Dent and Sons.

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Radice, Betty, trans. 1974. The letters of Abelard and Heloise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2004. “Lost and Not Yet Found: Heloise, Abelard, and the Epistolae duorum amantium.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 14 (1): 171-202.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M., ed. and trans. 2008. Letters of Peter Abelard, beyond the personal. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

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