The Perfect Valentine: Sex and Violence in Medieval Paris – Heloise and Abelard

The feast of St. Valentine on February 14th is the right time to look at the two lovers, Heloise and Abelard.
Héloïse et Abailard, by Jean-Baptiste Goyet.
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It started ordinarily enough, as affairs often do. Abelard was a brilliant academic, in Paris making a living teaching philosophy to rich kids. During his lifetime he was to become the most famous man in the world partly, but not entirely, because of his philosophical prowess. Heloise was his student. She lived in the house of her uncle Fulbert, also an academic. It was there that Abelard had his lodgings. Romantic encounters probably have more to do with chance and opportunity than we like to admit, and it was here that Heloise and Abelard met.

This happened almost exactly 900 years ago. We know about it because of a remarkable series of eight letters the couple were to write to each other. Through their correspondence, over the distance of nine centuries, their voices ring out clear and their exchanges provide an invaluable historical insight into the psychology and culture of romance in the past, a historical treasure that is unrivalled for the next 400 years. Part of the deal was that Abelard should teach his bright young housemate philosophy. She was a keen student and the two of them got on well, as he says in the first letter in Latin quid plura – need I say more? Very soon his hands were straying more over the curves of her body than to their books. He tiptoed nightly across the landing until lack of sleep began to affect his work. He himself tells us all this while making a point of emphasising the inventive diversity of the couple’s lovemaking. He even adds a hint of additional inventiveness, ‘there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness sweeter than the most fragrant balm’. The letters are so immediate and human that scholars in the past  have tried to argue that they are a fake of some sort, perhaps an exercise in instructive fiction. But they are not.

In our times the feast of Saint Valentine on February 14th is the day that couples, both actual and potential, mark their relationship with some symbolic gift or card. Of course it is very largely a device to help the card industry along and – in less troubled times – to make sure restaurants are all full at least once a year. But there is also surely a serious function as well, a genuine chance for those who love to commemorate or to accelerate the progress of their relationship and for couples to concentrate on their love and the idea of love. I, of course, have no reason to complain about any of this because February 14th still marks a surge in sales for my, now old, book about our Heloise and Abelard.

In many ways a tale from the early twelfth century could not be more appropriate for people in the 21st Century who wish to contemplate love. We live in a time of flux in the nature of romantic relationships. Most dating, it is claimed, now originates through new media, patterns of marriage and cohabitation are radically rearranging themselves and I need hardly mention the welcome diversity of genders, identifications and preferences that the mainstream card industry is now happy to accept as customers. In the 12th century there was change too, apparently pushing in two directions. On the one hand there was a hardening of attitudes. The church was getting to the end of its campaign against married priests. It had been a long struggle and there were still obstinate priests holding on to their partners of long-term relationships despite growing disapproval. As we shall see, marriage was now seen in some circles as an impediment to a career. On the other hand, a time of relative peace had produced a new interest in personal relationships. Essays were written in praise of the glorious camaraderie of the monastery and tales where romantic love was the narrative dynamo had suddenly become popular. There were two stories in particular which were to dominate the 12th century, one was Tristan and Isolde the other was Abelard and Heloise.

The next two events were almost inevitable. Uncle Fulbert found out about the liaison and Heloise found out she was pregnant. The two men had a meeting to sort things out. They decided that the best thing is for the couple to marry but, perhaps surprisingly, Heloise did not agree. She, we are told, was clear about her reasons: marriage would adversely affect Abelard’s career and anyway they didn’t need a piece of paper keeping them tied and true.

But the men prevailed and Heloise and Abelard married in secret. Heloise had the child, his name was Astrolabe and we do know some things about his life and what happened to him. She left him to be looked after by Abelard’s family and returned to Paris to live in Uncle Fulbert’s house again. Abelard meanwhile took up lodging nearby. An unusual, unconventional setup which was to have disastrous consequences. Something happened in Fulbert’s house. We don’t know what it was, only that it was bad enough for Abelard to rush to help Heloise escape from the house dressed as a nun. Amateur psychologists can speculate as to what might have gone wrong but one this is certain: Fulbert turned out to be a violent psychopath. A couple of days later he turned up at Abelard’s lodgings in the dead of night with a pair of thugs who proceeded to castrate him. Fulbert got away, having presumably supervised the attack, but the other two were caught and in their turn castrated and blinded.

At first sight this is not a very suitable Valentine’s story. Love leading to disaster. It is not like any romcom I have ever heard of. Perhaps one might pose the question, ‘Darling would you still love me if I were castrated by a deranged academic?’ Probably best not to ask.  And yet in the sequel to Abelard’s castration we discover a profound story about love.

In the immediate aftermath of the castration Abelard behaved rather badly. He was under stress. He became a monk, appropriate, you might slightly unkindly think, but it was also for him a smart career move, probably giving this original but irascible thinker a little extra authority. But he also insisted that Heloise become a nun which was unnecessary. At least that was the opinion of her friends who, she tells us, attended her admission to the novitiate all the time begging her to change her mind. But becoming a nun was a good career move for her too. She became prioress of her own convent, corresponding with the church leaders of the day. And Heloise, always intelligent, became wise and insightful as she developed a project. As she puts it, she wished to recapture the balm of friendship that once existed between her and Abelard. Something had evidently happened in which Abelard had apparently lost sight of this. They had met and he had treated her with cold formality. In the letters she takes issue with him over this and also with his claim in his first letter that she was happy now. She is not happy, she tells him, because she feels the lack of their love. She even assures him that during the celebration of the mass she cannot prevent memories of their physical relationship from coming flooding back to her. This remark, purposely designed, no doubt, to shock Abelard, would probably continue to shock even today. Imagine for a moment a nun as a guest on the Graham Norton Show who, on prompting from the host, remarks that for her the most difficult thing about being a nun is that she can’t stop thinking about sex during holy communion. It would be a news event, guaranteed to over-excite the popular press. Yet from 900 years ago we meet a woman who says that very thing loud and clear. Historians sometimes get lucky. Heloise says much else as well. She argues with logical force and sometimes with beguiling charm but we never lose sight of the honest and steadfast woman behind those letters.

As the story moves on, we have some facts to go on but there are also times when we are reduced to speculation. In the end it does seem there is some sort of conclusion. And all the time we are aware of the privilege of meeting people from the distant past who struggle to understand and to touch that powerful emotion which we all experience. Different ages have seen it in different ways, even in one lifetime it can appear to change. It may sometimes seem flimsy and transient but then again there are times when we are sure of its overwhelming, all-pervading importance. Philip Larkin puts it rather well, ‘Our almost instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.’

James Burge is the author of Heloise and Abelard: A Medieval Love Story.