Abelard and Héloïse

Marco Montagnin

But love remained: a helpless love, a distant memory that breached the mind by flooding it with memories; it was no longer a carnal love but an all-embracing love, an emptying of the ego.

Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,

 Seized this man for the person beautiful

That was ta’en from me, and still the mode offends me.
Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,

Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,

That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;
Love has conducted us unto one death;

Caina waiteth him who quenched our life!”


In these verses, Dante managed to express the impetuous force of a sudden irresistible love, the passion is so disruptive that not even Love itself can resist it, as recounted by Apuleius.

Eros shapelessly mutates, thickens, loosens, then focuses and finally dissipates or evolves into Agape, which in turn can become Kenosis. If through Dante and Apuleius we witness the greatest demonstrations of Eros, it is throughout our history that we must look for extraordinary love. A love that has evolved with certainty into Agape and, in my opinion, has transcended into Kenosis.

Love became history and, from it, turned into legend, inspiring many authors in the writing of tragic love stories if not appearing otherwise in the outlines of their tales, for example in Notre Dame de Paris.


There were found among these hideous carcases two skeletons, the one clasped in the arms of the other. One of
these skeletons, which was that of a woman, had still about it some tattered remnants of a garment that
had once been white, and about its neck was a string of beads together with a small silken bag
ornamented with green glass, but open and empty. These objects had been of so little value that the
executioner, doubtless, had scorned to take them. The other skeleton, which held this one in so close a
clasp, was that of a man.

This love story is an ancient one. It was the year 1079, and in the Southern part of Brittany, in Palais, the eldest son of a noble family was born, his name was Pierre Abélard (Peter Abelard). He did not follow the traditional path of a young descendant, he gave up his inheritance and devoted himself to his studies.

Between the ages of thirteen and twenty, he became Anselm of Loan’s pupil, who taught him dialectic and introduced him to the philosophical theory of nominalism.

At the age of 21, he moved to Paris. The city was constantly changing, the people were beginning to get rich and obtain rights, and they were moving from the countryside to the city. Paris was alive: intellectuals, clergy, gentry, and people on the margins of society, who found their smithy a few centuries later in Villon, met and clashed, generating intense progress in the arts and technique.

Abelard, alone, struggled in a world in turmoil, increasing his fame and knowledge, at first as a student and then finally as a master, he stood victorious over countless losers. 1114 is when he was awarded the most coveted professorship, that of Notre Dame.

Abelard became a well-known teacher and his lectures were, at the time, avant-garde: he brought in students who, if worthy, became his partners over the years.

He seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success built on the strength of his thought alone, and then Love shot him with an arrow, secretly depriving him, if only momentarily, of his intellect.

Heloise was born around the year 1100 from a scandalous union between the lady of a castle and the seneschal of France (the highest dignitary of the kingdom). She was left in her maternal uncle’s care, studied in a convent and at an early age knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew. She was famous for her wisdom and much of her fame derived from the fact that she was a woman.


Now there dwelt in that same city of Paris a certain young girl named Héloise, the niece of a canon who was called Fulbert. Her uncle’s love for her was equalled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters. Now this virtue is rare among women, and for that very reason it doubly graced the maiden, and made her the most worthy of renown in the entire kingdom. Abelard became her tutor and soon abandoned the teaching of thought to indulge that of the flesh.


The most famous teacher in France and the most popular maiden hid away from prying eyes, lingering in each other’s company, rediscovering the intense nature that bends one’s will to itself.


Why should I say more? We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it.

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 as; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other’s bosoms: love drew our eves together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness. What followed? No degree in love’s progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as vet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched.


This secret love nurtured in Abelard a passion for music and poetry, which distracted him from philosophy and teaching, but all this did not last long. Heloise fell pregnant and her uncle found out about the affair.

Abelard tried everything to appease his fury: he married Heloise in secret and entrusted the child to the care of his family. Heloise was not in favour of the marriage because it could have damaged Abelard’s career and because she believed in a free, pure, disinterested love that gave everything and demanded nothing. So she returned to the convent to escape her uncle’s injustice.

The latter, not satisfied with the situation and offended by his pride, decided to destroy their love by humiliating Abelard.


I sent her to a convent of muns at Argenteuil, not fr from Paris, where she herself had been brought up and educated as a young girl. I had them make ready for her all the garments of a nun, suitable for the life of a convent, excepting only the veil. and these I bade her put on.

When her uncle and his kinsmen heard of this, they were convinced that now I had completely plaved them false and had rid myself forever of Héloise by forcing her to become a nun. Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night, while I, all un-suspecting, was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants, whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world, for they eut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.


My incessant thought was of the renown in which I had so much delighted, now brought low, nay, utterly blotted out, so swiftly by an evil chance. I saw, too, how justly God had punished me in that very part of my body whereby I had sinned. I perceived that there was indeed justice in my betraval by him whom I had mi-self already betrayed; and then I thought how eagerly my rivals would seize upon this manifestation of justice, how this disgrace would bring bitter and enduring grief to my kindred and my friends, and how the tale of this amazing outrage woukd spread to the very ends of the carth.

What path las open to me thereafter? How could I ever again hold up my head among men, when every finger should be pointed at me in scor, every tongue speak my blistering shame, and when I should be a monstrous spectacle to all eyes? I was overwhelmed by the remembrance that, according to the dread letter of the law, God holds eunuchs in such abomination that men thus maimed are forbidden to enter a church even as the unclean and filthy; nay, even beasts in such plight were not acceptable as sacrifices. Thus in Leviticus (xvii, 94) is it said: “Ye shall not offer unto the Lord that which hath its stones bruised, or crushed, or broken, or cut.” And in Deuteronomy (xxii, D), “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”

I must confess that in my misery it was the overwhelming sense of my disgrace rather than an ardour for conversion to the religious life that drove me to seek the seclusion of the monastic cloister.

Heloise had already, at my bidding, taken the veil and entered a convent. Thas it was that we both put on the sacred garb, I in the abbey of St. Denis, and she in the convent of Argenteuil,


Abelard lost his position as France’s first magister. Still, he did not stop teaching: from dialectics, he switched to sacred sciences, a choice that once again led him to become influential, but one that would put him in conflict with the most fearsome person of the time: St Bernard. 

Heloise was never abandoned by her beloved when he was master at the monastery and helped the nuns by providing them with money.

In 1211, after being accused of being a heretic, he managed to obtain permission to retire to a hermit’s life.

This is when he founded the Paraclete and resumed teaching, but once again he had to flee out of fear of danger; the place was later donated to Heloise. There, they met again for the first time after eight years and it soon became Ogigia, but nothing could last forever.

Love, vows, the first accusation of heresy, St Bernard’s accusations about the Paraclete and now the malicious rumours about their meetings never seemed to give the brilliant philosopher any peace and he was forced to cease his visits.

But love remained: a helpless love, a distant memory that breached the mind by flooding it with memories; it was no longer a carnal love but an all-embracing love, an emptying of the ego.


It was the second excommunication that deprived Abelard of all strength and the architect was, once again, St Bernard who, after the struggle between the antipope and Innocent II, having supported the latter and led to the victory of the schism, found himself de facto indebted to the latter. Hence, St Bernard took advantage of his influence to deliver the final blow to the philosopher-theologian who, thinking he could defend himself, asked to be heard. This was not granted, and the power the saint wielded over the pope earned Abelard the conviction of the incriminating chapters, the burning of his works and perpetual silence, excommunication and a sentence that would later be revoked thanks to the intervention of Peter the Venerable.

Abelard remained in Peter’s monastery until his death, teaching and writing his last works.

By his own wish, he was buried in the Paraclete, where Heloise lived and was buried with Abelard when she died. Legend has it that his arm rose to receive and embrace his beloved in the eternity of death. The tomb is now in Paris in Père-Lachaise cemetery.


Gallorum Socrates, Plato maximus Hesperiarum,

Noster Aristoteles, logicis quicunque fuerunt,

Aut par, aut melior; studiorum cognitus orbi

Princeps, ingenio varius, subtilis et acer,

Omnia vi superans rationis, et arte loquendi,

Abaelardus erat. Sed tunc magis omnia vicit,

Cum Cluniacensem monachum, moremque professus,

Ad Christi veram transivit philosophiam,

In qua longaevae bene complens ultima vitae,

Philosophis quandoque bonis se connumerandum

Spem dedit, undenas Maio renovante Kalendas.


Ti è piaciuto l’articolo? Lascia qui la tua opinione su La Livella.

Did you enjoy the article? Leave here your feedback on La Livella.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email