Imagine for a moment someone in church history you’d most like to spend time with. Ruth Tucker mentions her favorites. Let’s hear it from you.
Heloise and Abelard
“The twelfth century, with all its sparkle,” writes Henry Adams, “would be dull without Abelard and Heloise.” Their story is one of the most well-known from the Middle Ages. It has all the drama necessary for a novel or movie—both of which have been done. We know about this couple because of their personal letters that contain his confessing of sin and her confiding a broken heart. Some historians have cast doubt on the authenticity of these letters, but most accept their historicity, and I fall in line—not because of careful original research but because I want them to be true. (How is that for an historian’s confession of sin!).
I often think of historical figures in personal terms, sometimes asking myself if I’d like to spend time with certain ones. Renée of Fererra would get a solid yes, Calvin, not really—and I’m quite sure the feelings would be mutual. A lot of the individuals I intend to feature in these posts, would likewise not wish to waste their time with the likes of me. But if I could pick historical figures to interact with, at the top of my list would be Katie Luther (with Martin close by). She was a feisty lady with a mind of her own. Heloise would also be high on my list.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a twelfth-century free-thinking philosopher and theologian, not bound by the writings of recognized church scholars. For example, he set forth the moral influence theory of atonement, insisting Christ’s death revealed his infinite love more than anything else, thus challenging Alselm’s satisfaction theory. He likewise turned Anselm’s motto: “I believe in order to understand”—upside-down. In his Sic et Non (Yes and No), he wrote: “The first key to wisdom is the constant and frequent questioning. . . . For by doubting we are led to question, and by questioning we arrive at the truth.”
Indeed, Abelard’s thought-provoking subject matter and his engaging teaching style combined to transform him into a popular professor—at times drawing as many as a thousand students. While studying in Paris, he had proven his brilliance by debating and besting his own professors and then was asked to fill an academic chair at the prestigious Cathedral School of Notre-Dame with Canon Fulbert as his immediate superior. Fulbert was the uncle and guardian of his niece Heloise, a sparkling and intellectually curious teenager who read not only Latin but also Greek and Hebrew..
Most people know where the story goes from here. Briefly summarized, Fulbert offered Abelard the additional assignment of tutoring Heloise and almost immediately Abelard “decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success for at that time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me.” Aware of this seventeen-year-old’s “knowledge and love of letters, I thought she would be all the more ready to consent.” Abelard is not only arrogant, but he’s also an abuser—certainly by today’s standards. Heloise would have confirmed his later recollection: “Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love. . . .Our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words.”
When Heloise discovered she was pregnant, they apparently had some sort of secret marriage; a public one would have been a career-stopper. Has anyone ever heard of a married man holding a prestigious teaching position at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame? So his plan was to place Heloise in a convent, hush up the affair, and go on teaching. Fulbert disagreed and had his henchmen enter Abelard’s room in the dark of night and, in Abelard’s words, “cut off the parts of my body whereby I had committed the wrong of which they complained.”
Recovering from his wounds, Abelard concluded that what had happened to him was God’s way of setting him aside as a monk. He later explained his decision to Heloise: “Consider the magnanimous design of God’s mercy for us.” God “made use of evil itself and mercifully set aside our impiety, so that by a wholly justified wound in a single part of my body he might heal two souls.”
Heloise surely did not feel like she was the beneficiary of “the magnanimous design of God’s mercy.” As is often true, however, she initially blamed herself. And not herself only. “It is the general lot of women to bring total ruin on great men.” We could fault her for such a statement, but she was blinded by the sorrow of losing her “husband,” and her infant son to be raised by others.
A remorseful Abelard entered the Abbey of Saint-Denis. After a time he resumed his lectures. Again, students flocked to hear him. But Church authorities were not impressed. He was accused of heresy. All the while he was deliberately out of touch with the mother of his child, whom he had established in a convent. After more than a decade, Heloise learned of his whereabouts. In a haunting letter she implored him: “Tell me one thing, if you can. Why . . . have I been so neglected and forgotten by you? . . . You are bound to me by an obligation which is all the greater for the further close tie of the marriage sacrament.”
Why would he treat her so meanly, she wonders, “particularly now when I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that when I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself.” Here she reminded him that she entered the convent for one reason alone: her love for him. She destroyed herself for him. There was no joy in pretending to serve God. The other nuns “do not know the hypocrite I am.” She went through the motions but her heart was not in it. “Of all the wretched women, I am the most wretched, and amongst the unhappy I am the unhappiest.”
She was a brilliant woman stripped of her dignity. What a pity that her legacy is largely a very sad love story. She would carry on for decades as a prioress at the Paraclete, a monastery established by Abelard himself. She would outlive him by more than twenty years and gain a reputation as one of the greatest abbesses of medieval monasticism. During her lifetime, the Paraclete became a widely recognized convent in France, with six well-established daughter houses. In a letter to her, Peter the Venerable, who himself ruled over more than two thousand Cluniac houses in Europe, enthusiastically praised her ministry: “You have surpassed all women in carrying out your purpose, and have gone further than almost every man.”
Although her son was reared by others, she apparently looked after him from a distance. Peter the Venerable responded to her request: “I will gladly do my best to obtain a prebend [stipend] in one of the great churches for your Astrolabe, who is also ours for your sake.”
After receiving word of Abelard’s death, she arranged to have him buried at the Paraclete. In Extraordinary Women of Christian History, I write: “Legend tells us that when Heloise died, Abelard’s grave was opened so she could be buried with him, and as they lowered her body, he opened his arms to draw her into his bosom.” What a silly story—as though Abelard could in death somehow make up for years of treating her miserably.
A far better ending to her sad story is that today she is getting some of the credit she deserves. Like Duchess Renée, she is living beyond the grave, recognized as a brilliant woman who was so easily dismissed solely due to gender.