Flamboyant But Forgotten will be a regular column by contributor Rachel Cohen. In this column, Rachel will highlight some of the lesser-known historical figures whose backstories, personalities, and occupations make great fodder for creative fanfiction writing.
It was Shakespeare who coined the now hackneyed “star-crossed lovers” in Romeo and Juliet. The stars did not like those two, so both Romeo and Juliet died. Which sounds pretty bad. Until you find out what happened to the lovers the stars really had it in for. Then, a quick death seems like a pretty decent exit.
Peter Abélard (otherwise known as Pierre de Pallet) was a medieval celebrity. He was a theologian and a philosopher: when he debated other learned men, he attracted crowds. When he moved about, he was trailed by groupies (ahem, students). He was surprising wealthy because his adoring followers brought him things. It is hard to know what Abélard looked like, but his statue in the Louvre (at left) suggests a certain comeliness.
In 1115, when Abélard was at the peak of his popularity, he met a French abbess named Héloïse. By the age of 17, Héloïse was already a renowned scholar in Western Europe, an impressive feat. Moreover, it was not as if she learned everything she knew (Latin, Greek, rules of discourse, medicine, philosophy, etc.) by herself. She was a ward of her uncle Fulbert, a canon of Paris. Fulbert was so keen on educating his brilliant niece, he hired a string of tutors for her, culminating with the famous Pierre Abélard.
The story of Héloïse and Abelard is largely derived from the letters they’ve written. Abélard referred to his first letter in a sequence that speaks of their affair as the “Story of Misfortune.” (I think you can start to form the idea that this is not anything Disney would leap at…)
Almost as soon as they met, Abélard and Héloïse became lovers. They had known of each before they had been introduced, and, presumably, the real-life encounter did not disappoint. It is a measure of Fulbert’s admiration for Abélard that he did not doubt his ward’s honour was safe with the learned tutor. However, he was wrong. Héloïse became pregnant and gave birth to a son they named… Astrolabe. (Maybe everything that happened to them was punishment for inflicting this name on an innocent boy.). Canon Fulbert was furious.
Although Héloïse was no longer a child – the timing is debated by historians, but it appears she became a mother in her mid-twenties – the shame of a canon’s niece bearing an out-of-wedlock child was considerable. Fulbert insisted that Abélard should marry Héloïse. The kicker was… Abélard was perfectly willing to do so! He really was very much in love with and greatly admired Héloïse. It was Héloïse, in fact, who objected. She argued that Abélard’s popularity and stature would wane if he became known as a married man.
Thus, the couple married in secret. Abélard, suspecting that Fulbert might not be content until he found out the marriage had taken place, suggested Héloïse should go into a convent – not to become a nun, but to live with the nuns. Héloïse obliged, leaving her son behind, and Abélard went about his regular duties. Fulbert passed through furious and came out the other side. One night, he and his accomplices burst in on Abélard and castrated him. Abélard was shamed, destroyed, and devastated. He became a monk.
Now, if you read Héloïse and Abélard’s letters, you will be moved. They are touted as a record of a great love. Frankly, I have no idea why. The people who wrote them were great: intelligent, educated, passionately articulate. But great love? In sickness and in health, love? For better or for worse, love? I would argue that only half of that love remained – in Héloïse. Yes, Abélard had been the far more injured party. But, as Héloïse bitterly pointed out to him, he had always claimed sensual pleasure was only a small part of his feelings for her.
So where did the rest of the love go once the sensual pleasures were taken away? After the incident, Héloïse had ceased to exist for Abélard. He no longer wished to correspond with her because she was blamed as the cause of his misfortune. Abélard also insisted that Héloïse should take the veil (and thus be forever parted from their child) because he could not bear the thought another man might have her. Dog in a manger, much?
I suppose I am being too hard on poor Abélard. After all, many guys are notoriously attached to their bits, and losing a crucial one is, apparently, like losing the reason for living. But surely, a scholar as thoughtful as Abélard ought to have been more philosophical about his plight? No, I wouldn’t call the letters a testimony to great love. But they are a record of our frailty. We are all sticks in the Maelstrom, after all. We do not know what calamity might befall us. Romeo and Juliet, who died valiantly and prettily and said all the right words, were fictional.
Abélard and Héloïse are much more what the real deal looks like.
I envy their happiness who have never loved; how quiet and easy are they! But the tide of pleasure has always a reflux of bitterness; I am but too much convinced now of this: but though I am no longer deceived by love, I am not cured. While my reason condemns it my heart declares for it. I am deplorable that I have not the ability to free myself from a passion which so many circumstances, this place, my person and my disgraces tend to destroy. I yield without considering that a resistance would wipe out my past offences, and procure me in their stead both merit and repose. Why use your eloquence to reproach me for my flight and for my silence? Spare the recital of our assignations and your constant exactness to them; without calling up such disturbing thoughts I have enough to suffer. ~ Letter II, Abelard to Héloïse