She was a rare apparition in the cloister of the Paris cathedral: a young woman, still in her teens, pursuing philosophical studies with no evident desire to take the veil. Though undoubtedly lovely, she was renowned more for her keen mind and her thirst for knowledge than for her beauty. Her name was Heloise.
That two such extraordinary individuals in the same academic world should find one another seems inevitable. That their eloquent expressions of love should have survived for us in their own words is a rare gift of history.
That tragedy should await them makes their story all the more poignant.1
The Pursuit of Love
While Abelard surely caught sight of Heloise at some time in the busy academic scene of Paris, there were no social occasions on which they were likely to meet. He was occupied with his studies and university life; she was under the protection of her Uncle Fulbert, a canon at the cathedral. Both turned away from frivolous social pastimes in favor of a happy absorption with philosophy, theology, and literature.
But Abelard, having reached his thirties without ever knowing the joys of romantic or physical love, had decided he wanted such an experience. He approached this course with his usual logic:
It was this young girl whom I, after carefully considering all those qualities which are wont to attract lovers, determined to unite with myself in the bonds of love...2
Canon Fulbert was known to care deeply for his niece; he recognized her academic ability and wanted the best education that could be provided for her. This was Abelard's route into his house and confidence. Claiming the upkeep of a home of his own was too expensive and interfered with his studies, the scholar sought to board with Fulbert in exchange for a small fee and, more significantly, for providing instruction to Heloise. Such was Abelard's reputation -- not only as a brilliant teacher but as a trustworthy individual -- that Fulbert eagerly welcomed him into his home and entrusted him with the education and care of his niece.
I should not have been more smitten with wonder if he had entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf...
Learning of Love
We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it.
There is no way to know what entreaties or wiles Abelard used to seduce his student. Heloise may very well have loved him from the moment they met. The force of his personality, his razor-sharp mind, and his handsome demeanor undoubtedly resulted in an irresistible combination for a young woman. Not yet twenty, she had no hint of how she and her uncle had been manipulated, and she was at just the right age to see Abelard's presence in her life as ordained by Fate -- or by God.
Moreover, rarely have two lovers been so suited to each other as Abelard and Heloise. Both attractive, both extremely intelligent, both enraptured with the arts of learning, they shared an intellectual energy that few couples of any age -- or era -- have been fortunate enough to know. Yet in these early days of intense desire, learning was secondary.
Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words.
However base Abelard's original intentions had been, he was soon overwhelmed by his feelings for Heloise. Finding his once-beloved studies burdensome, his energy for learning flagged, he delivered uninspired lectures, and his poems now focused on love. It wasn't long before his students deduced what had come over him, and rumors swept Paris of the heated affair.
Only Canon Fulbert seemed unaware of the romance that was taking place under his own roof. His ignorance was fostered by his trust in the niece he loved and the scholar he admired. Whispers may have reached his ears, but if so they did not reach his heart.
1 As with most names from the Middle Ages, you will find both "Abelard" and "Heloise" rendered in a variety of ways, including, but by no means limited to: Abélard, Abeillard, Abailard, Abaelardus, Abelardus; Héloise, Hélose, Heloisa, Helouisa. The forms used in this feature were chosen for their recognizability and their ease of presentation within the limits of HTML.
2 The excerpted material on these pages is all from Abelard's Historia Calamitatum unless otherwise noted.