Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Nell Gwyn
Simon Verelst, ca. 1680
At the National Gallery

Abelard and Heloise

Many a woman, amid the transports of passionate and languishing love, has cried out in a sort of ecstasy:

“I love you as no woman ever loved a man before!”

When she says this she believes it. Her whole soul is aflame with the ardor of emotion. It really seems to her that no one ever could have loved so much as she.

This cry–spontaneous, untaught, sincere–has become almost one of those conventionalities of amorous expression which belong to the vocabulary of self-abandonment. Every woman who utters it, when torn by the almost terrible extravagance of a great love, believes that no one before her has ever said it, and that in her own case it is absolutely true.

Yet, how many women are really faithful to the end? Very many, indeed, if circumstances admit of easy faithfulness. A high- souled, generous, ardent nature will endure an infinity of disillusionment, of misfortune, of neglect, and even of ill treatment. Even so, the flame, though it may sink low, can be revived again to burn as brightly as before. But in order that this may be so it is necessary that the object of such a wonderful devotion be alive, that he be present and visible; or, if he be absent, that there should still exist some hope of renewing the exquisite intimacy of the past.

A man who is sincerely loved may be compelled to take long journeys which will separate him for an indefinite time from the woman who has given her heart to him, and she will still be constant. He may be imprisoned, perhaps for life, yet there is always the hope of his release or of his escape; and some women will be faithful to him and will watch for his return. But, given a situation which absolutely bars out hope, which sunders two souls in such a way that they can never be united in this world, and there we have a test so terribly severe that few even of the most loyal and intensely clinging lovers can endure it.

Not that such a situation would lead a woman to turn to any other man than the one to whom she had given her very life; but we might expect that at least her strong desire would cool and weaken. She might cherish his memory among the precious souvenirs of her love life; but that she should still pour out the same rapturous, unstinted passion as before seems almost too much to believe. The annals of emotion record only one such instance; and so this instance has become known to all, and has been cherished for nearly a thousand years. It involves the story of a woman who did love, perhaps, as no one ever loved before or since; for she was subjected to this cruel test, and she met the test not alone completely, but triumphantly and almost fiercely.

The story is, of course, the story of Abelard and Heloise. It has many times been falsely told. Portions of it have been omitted, and other portions of it have been garbled. A whole literature has grown up around the subject. It may well be worth our while to clear away the ambiguities and the doubtful points, and once more to tell it simply, without bias, and with a strict adherence to what seems to be the truth attested by authentic records.

There is one circumstance connected with the story which we must specially note. The narrative does something more than set forth the one quite unimpeachable instance of unconquered constancy. It shows how, in the last analysis, that which touches the human heart has more vitality and more enduring interest than what concerns the intellect or those achievements of the human mind which are external to our emotional nature.

Pierre Abelard was undoubtedly the boldest and most creative reasoner of his time. As a wandering teacher he drew after him thousands of enthusiastic students. He gave a strong impetus to learning. He was a marvelous logician and an accomplished orator. Among his pupils were men who afterward became prelates of the church and distinguished scholars. In the Dark Age, when the dictates of reason were almost wholly disregarded, he fought fearlessly for intellectual freedom. He was practically the founder of the University of Paris, which in turn became the mother of medieval and modern universities.

He was, therefore, a great and striking figure in the history of civilization. Nevertheless he would to-day be remembered only by scholars and students of the Middle Ages were it not for the fact that he inspired the most enduring love that history records. If Heloise had never loved him, and if their story had not been so tragic and so poignant, he would be to-day only a name known to but a few. His final resting-place, in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, in Paris, would not be sought out by thousands every year and kept bright with flowers, the gift of those who have themselves both loved and suffered.

Pierre Abelard–or, more fully, Pierre Abelard de Palais–was a native of Brittany, born in the year 1079. His father was a knight, the lord of the manor; but Abelard cared little for the life of a petty noble; and so he gave up his seigniorial rights to his brothers and went forth to become, first of all a student, and then a public lecturer and teacher.

His student days ended abruptly in Paris, where he had enrolled himself as the pupil of a distinguished philosopher, Guillaume de Champeaux; but one day Abelard engaged in a disputation with his master. His wonderful combination of eloquence, logic, and originality utterly routed Champeaux, who was thus humiliated in the presence of his disciples. He was the first of many enemies that Abelard was destined to make in his long and stormy career. From that moment the young Breton himself set up as a teacher of philosophy, and the brilliancy of his discourses soon drew to him throngs of students from all over Europe.

Before proceeding with the story of Abelard it is well to reconstruct, however slightly, a picture of the times in which he lived. It was an age when Western Europe was but partly civilized. Pedantry and learning of the most minute sort existed side by side with the most violent excesses of medieval barbarism. The Church had undertaken the gigantic task of subduing and enlightening the semi-pagan peoples of France and Germany and England.

When we look back at that period some will unjustly censure Rome for not controlling more completely the savagery of the medievals. More fairly should we wonder at the great measure of success which had already been achieved. The leaven of a true Christianity was working in the half-pagan populations. It had not yet completely reached the nobles and the knights, or even all the ecclesiastics who served it and who were consecrated to its mission. Thus, amid a sort of political chaos were seen the glaring evils of feudalism. Kings and princes and their followers lived the lives of swine. Private blood-feuds were regarded lightly. There was as yet no single central power. Every man carried his life in his hand, trusting to sword and dagger for protection.

The cities were still mere hamlets clustered around great castles or fortified cathedrals. In Paris itself the network of dark lanes, ill lighted and unguarded, was the scene of midnight murder and assassination. In the winter-time wolves infested the town by night. Men-at-arms, with torches and spears, often had to march out from their barracks to assail the snarling, yelping packs of savage animals that hunger drove from the surrounding forests.

Paris of the twelfth century was typical of France itself, which was harried by human wolves intent on rapine and wanton plunder. There were great schools of theology, but the students who attended them fought and slashed one another. If a man’s life was threatened he must protect it by his own strength or by gathering about him a band of friends. No one was safe. No one was tolerant. Very few were free from the grosser vices. Even in some of the religious houses the brothers would meet at night for unseemly revels, splashing the stone floors with wine and shrieking in a delirium of drunkenness. The rules of the Church enjoined temperance, continence, and celibacy; but the decrees of Leo IX. and Nicholas II. and Alexander II. and Gregory were only partially observed.

In fact, Europe was in a state of chaos–political and moral and social. Only very slowly was order emerging from sheer anarchy. We must remember this when we recall some facts which meet us in the story of Abelard and Heloise.

The jealousy of Champeaux drove Abelard for a time from Paris. He taught and lectured at several other centers of learning, always admired, and yet at the same time denounced by many for his advocacy of reason as against blind faith. During the years of his wandering he came to have a wide knowledge of the world and of human nature. If we try to imagine him as he was in his thirty- fifth year we shall find in him a remarkable combination of attractive qualities.

It must be remembered that though, in a sense, he was an ecclesiastic, he had not yet been ordained to the priesthood, but was rather a canon–a person who did not belong to any religious order, though he was supposed to live according to a definite set of religious rules and as a member of a religious community. Abelard, however, made rather light of his churchly associations. He was at once an accomplished man of the world and a profound scholar. There was nothing of the recluse about him. He mingled with his fellow men, whom he dominated by the charm of his personality. He was eloquent, ardent, and persuasive. He could turn a delicate compliment as skilfully as he could elaborate a syllogism. His rich voice had in it a seductive quality which was never without its effect.

Handsome and well formed, he possessed as much vigor of body as of mind. Nor were his accomplishments entirely those of the scholar. He wrote dainty verses, which he also set to music, and which he sang himself with a rare skill. Some have called him “the first of the troubadours,” and many who cared nothing for his skill in logic admired him for his gifts as a musician and a poet. Altogether, he was one to attract attention wherever he went, for none could fail to recognize his power.

It was soon after his thirty-fifth year that he returned to Paris, where he was welcomed by thousands. With much tact he reconciled himself to his enemies, so that his life now seemed to be full of promise and of sunshine.

It was at this time that he became acquainted with a very beautiful young girl named Heloise. She was only eighteen years of age, yet already she possessed not only beauty, but many accomplishments which were then quite rare in women, since she both wrote and spoke a number of languages, and, like Abelard, was a lover of music and poetry. Heloise was the illegitimate daughter of a canon of patrician blood; so that she is said to have been a worthy representative of the noble house of the Montmorencys– famous throughout French history for chivalry and charm.

Up to this time we do not know precisely what sort of life Abelard had lived in private. His enemies declared that he had squandered his substance in vicious ways. His friends denied this, and represented him as strict and chaste. The truth probably lies between these two assertions. He was naturally a pleasure-loving man of the world, who may very possibly have relieved his severer studies by occasional revelry and light love. It is not at all likely that he was addicted to gross passions and low practices.

But such as he was, when he first saw Heloise he conceived for her a violent attachment. Carefully guarded in the house of her uncle, Fulbert, it was difficult at first for Abelard to meet her save in the most casual way; yet every time that he heard her exquisite voice and watched her graceful manners he became more and more infatuated. His studies suddenly seemed tame and colorless beside the fierce scarlet flame which blazed up in his heart.

Nevertheless, it was because of these studies and of his great reputation as a scholar that he managed to obtain access to Heloise. He flattered her uncle and made a chance proposal that he should himself become an inmate of Fulbert’s household in order that he might teach this girl of so much promise. Such an offer coming from so brilliant a man was joyfully accepted.

From that time Abelard could visit Heloise without restraint. He was her teacher, and the two spent hours together, nominally in the study of Greek and Hebrew; but doubtless very little was said between them upon such unattractive subjects. On the contrary, with all his wide experience of life, his eloquence, his perfect manners, and his fascination, Abelard put forth his power to captivate the senses of a girl still in her teens and quite ignorant of the world. As Remusat says, he employed to win her the genius which had overwhelmed all the great centers of learning in the Western world.

It was then that the pleasures of knowledge, the joys of thought, the emotions of eloquence, were all called into play to charm and move and plunge into a profound and strange intoxication this noble and tender heart which had never known either love or sorrow. ... One can imagine that everything helped on the inevitable end. Their studies gave them opportunities to see each other freely, and also permitted them to be alone together. Then their books lay open between them; but either long periods of silence stilled their reading, or else words of deepening intimacy made them forget their studies altogether. The eyes of the two lovers turned from the book to mingle their glances, and then to turn away in a confusion that was conscious.

Hand would touch hand, apparently by accident; and when conversation ceased, Abelard would often hear the long, quivering sigh which showed the strange, half-frightened, and yet exquisite joy which Heloise experienced.

It was not long before the girl’s heart had been wholly won. Transported by her emotion, she met the caresses of her lover with those as unrestrained as his. Her very innocence deprived her of the protection which older women would have had. All was given freely, and even wildly, by Heloise; and all was taken by Abelard, who afterward himself declared:

“The pleasure of teaching her to love surpassed the delightful fragrance of all the perfumes in the world.”

Yet these two could not always live in a paradise which was entirely their own. The world of Paris took notice of their close association. Some poems written to Heloise by Abelard, as if in letters of fire, were found and shown to Fulbert, who, until this time, had suspected nothing. Angrily he ordered Abelard to leave his house. He forbade his niece to see her lover any more.

But the two could not be separated; and, indeed, there was good reason why they should still cling together. Secretly Heloise left her uncle’s house and fled through the narrow lanes of Paris to the dwelling of Abelard’s sister, Denyse, where Abelard himself was living. There, presently, the young girl gave birth to a son, who was named Astrolabe, after an instrument used by astronomers, since both the father and the mother felt that the offspring of so great a love should have no ordinary name.

Fulbert was furious, and rightly so. His hospitality had been outraged and his niece dishonored. He insisted that the pair should at once be married. Here was revealed a certain weakness in the character of Abelard. He consented to the marriage, but insisted that it should be kept an utter secret.

Oddly enough, it was Heloise herself who objected to becoming the wife of the man she loved. Unselfishness could go no farther. She saw that, were he to marry her, his advancement in the Church would be almost impossible; for, while the very minor clergy sometimes married in spite of the papal bulls, matrimony was becoming a fatal bar to ecclesiastical promotion. And so Heloise pleaded pitifully, both with her uncle and with Abelard, that there should be no marriage. She would rather bear all manner of disgrace than stand in the way of Abelard’s advancement.

He has himself given some of the words in which she pleaded with him:

What glory shall I win from you, when I have made you quite inglorious and have humbled both of us? What vengeance will the world inflict on me if I deprive it of one so brilliant? What curses will follow such a marriage? How outrageous would it be that you, whom nature created for the universal good, should be devoted to one woman and plunged into such disgrace? I loathe the thought of a marriage which would humiliate you.

Indeed, every possible effort which another woman in her place would employ to make him marry her she used in order to dissuade him. Finally, her sweet face streaming with tears, she uttered that tremendous sentence which makes one really think that she loved him as no other woman ever loved a man. She cried out, in an agony of self-sacrifice:

“I would rather be your mistress than the wife even of an emperor!”

Nevertheless, the two were married, and Abelard returned to his lecture-room and to his studies. For months they met but seldom. Meanwhile, however, the taunts and innuendos directed against Heloise so irritated Fulbert that he broke his promise of secrecy, and told his friends that Abelard and Heloise were man and wife. They went to Heloise for confirmation. Once more she showed in an extraordinary way the depth of her devotion.

“I am no wife,” she said. “It is not true that Abelard has married me. My uncle merely tells you this to save my reputation.”

They asked her whether she would swear to this; and, without a moment’s hesitation, this pure and noble woman took an oath upon the Scriptures that there had been no marriage.

Fulbert was enraged by this. He ill-treated Heloise, and, furthermore, he forbade Abelard to visit her. The girl, therefore, again left her uncle’s house and betook herself to a convent just outside of Paris, where she assumed the habit of a nun as a disguise. There Abelard continued from time to time to meet her.

When Fulbert heard of this he put his own interpretation on it. He believed that Abelard intended to ignore the marriage altogether, and that possibly he might even marry some other woman. In any case, he now hated Abelard with all his heart; and he resolved to take a fearful and unnatural vengeance which would at once prevent his enemy from making any other marriage, while at the same time it would debar him from ecclesiastical preferment.

To carry out his plot Fulbert first bribed a man who was the body- servant of Abelard, watching at the door of his room each night. Then he hired the services of four ruffians. After Abelard had retired and was deep in slumber the treacherous valet unbarred the door. The hirelings of Fulbert entered and fell upon the sleeping man. Three of them bound him fast, while the fourth, with a razor, inflicted on him the most shameful mutilation that is possible. Then, extinguishing the lights, the wretches slunk away and were lost in darkness, leaving behind their victim bound to his couch, uttering cries of torment and bathed in his own blood.

It is a shocking story, and yet it is intensely characteristic of the lawless and barbarous era in which it happened. Early the next morning the news flew rapidly through Paris. The city hummed like a bee-hive. Citizens and students and ecclesiastics poured into the street and surrounded the house of Abelard.

“Almost the entire city,” says Fulques, as quoted by McCabe, “went clamoring toward his house. Women wept as if each one had lost her husband.”

Unmanned though he was, Abelard still retained enough of the spirit of his time to seek vengeance. He, in his turn, employed ruffians whom he set upon the track of those who had assaulted him. The treacherous valet and one of Fulbert’s hirelings were run down, seized, and mutilated precisely as Abelard had been; and their eyes were blinded. A third was lodged in prison. Fulbert himself was accused before one of the Church courts, which alone had power to punish an ecclesiastic, and all his goods were confiscated.

But, meantime, how did it fare with Heloise? Her grief was greater than his own, while her love and her devotion were absolutely undiminished. But Abelard now showed a selfishness–and indeed, a meanness–far beyond any that he had before exhibited. Heloise could no more be his wife. He made it plain that he put no trust in her fidelity. He was unwilling that she should live in the world while he could not; and so he told her sternly that she must take the veil and bury herself for ever in a nunnery.

The pain and shame which she experienced at this came wholly from the fact that evidently Abelard did not trust her. Long afterward she wrote:

God knows I should not have hesitated, at your command, to precede or to follow you to hell itself!

It was his distrust that cut her to the heart. Still, her love for him was so intense that she obeyed his order. Soon after she took the vows; and in the convent chapel, shaken with sobs, she knelt before the altar and assumed the veil of a cloistered nun. Abelard himself put on the black tunic of a Benedictine monk and entered the Abbey of St. Denis.

It is unnecessary here to follow out all the details of the lives of Abelard and Heloise after this heart-rendering scene. Abelard passed through many years of strife and disappointment, and even of humiliation; for on one occasion, just as he had silenced Guillaume de Champeaux, so he himself was silenced and put to rout by Bernard of Clairvaux–"a frail, tense, absorbed, dominant little man, whose face was white and worn with suffering,” but in whose eyes there was a light of supreme strength. Bernard represented pure faith, as Abelard represented pure reason; and the two men met before a great council to match their respective powers.

Bernard, with fiery eloquence, brought a charge of heresy against Abelard in an oration which was like a charge of cavalry. When he had concluded Abelard rose with an ashen face, stammered out a few words, and sat down. He was condemned by the council, and his works were ordered to be burned.

All his later life was one of misfortune, of humiliation, and even of personal danger. The reckless monks whom he tried to rule rose fiercely against him. His life was threatened. He betook himself to a desolate and lonely place, where he built for himself a hut of reeds and rushes, hoping to spend his final years in meditation. But there were many who had not forgotten his ability as a teacher. These flocked by hundreds to the desert place where he abode. His hut was surrounded by tents and rude hovels, built by his scholars for their shelter.

Thus Abelard resumed his teaching, though in a very different frame of mind. In time he built a structure of wood and stone, which he called the Paraclete, some remains of which can still be seen.

All this time no word had passed between him and Heloise. But presently Abelard wrote and gave to the world a curious and exceedingly frank book, which he called The Story of My Misfortunes. A copy of it reached the hands of Heloise, and she at once sent to Abelard the first of a series of letters which have remained unique in the literature of love.

Ten years had passed, and yet the woman’s heart was as faithful and as full of yearning as on the day when the two had parted. It has been said that the letters are not genuine, and they must be read with this assertion in mind; yet it is difficult to believe that any one save Heloise herself could have flung a human soul into such frankly passionate utterances, or that any imitator could have done the work.

In her first letter, which was sent to Abelard written upon parchment, she said:

At thy command I would change, not merely my costume, but my very soul, so entirely art thou the sole possessor of my body and my spirit. Never, God is my witness, never have I sought anything in thee but thyself; I have sought thee, and not thy gifts. I have not looked to the marriage-bond or dowry.

She begged him to write to her, and to lead her to God, as once he had led her into the mysteries of pleasure. Abelard answered in a letter, friendly to be sure, but formal–the letter of a priest to a cloistered nun. The opening words of it are characteristic of the whole:

To Heloise, his sister in Christ, from Abelard, her brother in Him.

The letter was a long one, but throughout the whole of it the writer’s tone was cold and prudent. Its very coldness roused her soul to a passionate revolt. Her second letter bursts forth in a sort of anguish:

How hast thou been able to frame such thoughts, dearest? How hast thou found words to convey them? Oh, if I dared but call God cruel to me! Oh, most wretched of all creatures that I am! So sweet did I find the pleasures of our loving days that I cannot bring myself to reject them or to banish them from my memory. Wheresoever I go, they thrust themselves upon my vision, and rekindle the old desire.

But Abelard knew only too well that not in this life could there be anything save spiritual love between himself and Heloise. He wrote to her again and again, always in the same remote and unimpassioned way. He tells her about the history of monasticism, and discusses with her matters of theology and ethics; but he never writes one word to feed the flame that is consuming her. The woman understood at last; and by degrees her letters became as calm as his–suffused, however, with a tenderness and feeling which showed that in her heart of hearts she was still entirely given to him.

After some years Abelard left his dwelling at the Paraclete, and there was founded there a religious house of which Heloise became the abbess. All the world respected her for her sweetness, her wisdom, and the purity of her character. She made friends as easily as Abelard made enemies. Even Bernard, who had overthrown her husband, sought out Heloise to ask for her advice and counsel.

Abelard died while on his way to Rome, whither he was journeying in order to undergo a penalty; and his body was brought back to the Paraclete, where it was entombed. Over it for twenty-two years Heloise watched with tender care; and when she died, her body was laid beside that of her lover.

To-day their bones are mingled as she would have desired them to be mingled. The stones of their tomb in the great cemetery of Pere Lachaise were brought from the ruins of the Paraclete, and above the sarcophagus are two recumbent figures, the whole being the work of the artist Alexandra Lenoir, who died in 1836. The figure representing Heloise is not, however, an authentic likeness. The model for it was a lady belonging to a noble family of France, and the figure itself was brought to Pere Lachaise from the ancient College de Beauvais.

The letters of Heloise have been read and imitated throughout the whole of the last nine centuries. Some have found in them the utterances of a woman whose love of love was greater than her love of God and whose intensity of passion nothing could subdue; and so these have condemned her. But others, like Chateaubriand, have more truly seen in them a pure and noble spirit to whom fate had been very cruel; and who was, after all, writing to the man who had been her lawful husband.

Some of the most famous imitations of her letters are those in the ancient poem entitled, “The Romance of the Rose,” written by Jean de Meung, in the thirteenth century; and in modern times her first letter was paraphrased by Alexander Pope, and in French by Colardeau. There exist in English half a dozen translations of them, with Abelard’s replies. It is interesting to remember that practically all the other writings of Abelard remained unpublished and unedited until a very recent period. He was a remarkable figure as a philosopher and scholar; but the world cares for him only because he was loved by Heloise.


The Story of Antony and Cleopatra  •  Abelard and Heloise  •  Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester  •  Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Bothwell  •  Queen Christina of Sweden and the Marquis Monaldeschi  •  King Charles II. and Nell Gwyn  •  Maurice of Saxony and Adrienne Lecouvreur

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