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A story of love and theology

04 September 2021

Abelard and Heloise’s complete relationship, which also became intellectual and spiritual  

 “To her lord, nay father; to her husband, nay brother; her handmaiden, nay daughter; her bride, nay sister: to Abelard Heloise”. So begins Heloise’s first letter, which she wrote to Abelard after years of painful separation. This introduction adequately renders the existential and psychological condition of this couple that has gone down in history as a prototype of unhappy love due to the passions and the dramatic nature of the events of which they were protagonists. When they met in Paris, around 1117, he was almost 40 years old, while she was 17; he at the height of his fame as a philosopher, she known for her intelligence and erudition. Above all, their relationship aroused wonder in the Parisian environment of the time that a young woman should undertake the study of philosophy and theology outside the reassuring walls of a monastery. In addition, this astonishment, mixed with admiration and attraction, also took the master Abelard by surprise and who fell in love with the pupil - who “had everything that seduces lovers”, he later confessed. Thus began a clandestine relationship which culminated with the birth of their son, Astrolabe. The secret marriage -which Abelard wanted, but as a man of the church, did not want to compromise his academic position-, did not dampen the anger of Eloisa’s family who, certain that the philosopher did not want to take the due responsibility towards Heloise and the child, took revenge, at night, with a punitive action, to have him emasculated.

Abelard, in despair, took refuge at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, where he became a Benedictine monk. Instead, Eloise was forced to retire to the monastery of Argenteuil. He dedicated himself to the study and teaching of theology, which was not without conflicts with monks and scholars. She, having become the abbess of the monastery of Paraclete, began to lead a life of prayer and meditation. For ten long years they did not meet, but the news of the dangers that Abelard was going through prompted Heloise to write to him for news. Thus was born an intense Epistolary that permits us today to know their human and spiritual relationship more deeply. In fact, both of them through their separation, had the opportunity to elaborate their pain. Then, after many years, they were able to rebuild a bond that was no longer based on the awe of a disciple towards their master or on passionate love, but on mutual esteem. This new stage in their relationship helped them to feel united in an intense web of collaboration that facilitated them to recognize themselves and to reach inner peace. Abelard, with his cultural preparation, helped Heloise and the nuns of the convent to give value to their female identity by tracing the history of the positive role played by women in the Bible and in the history of the Church. Heloise, for her part, testified to Abelard, who was also a famous moral teacher, of her own autonomy of conscience. This had led her to make courageous choices, to experience a disinterested love with self-denial and to put into practice the ethics of intentionality theorized by the philosopher, which she transformed into the ethics of responsibility. For her too, in fact, the moral significance of an action lies not in the external behavior, but in the intention that moves those who act, and which reveals the essential value of the action. She states, “We must carefully evaluate not the things we do, but the spirit with which we do them”. This allowed her to raise her cry of pain in claiming the legitimacy of her passion for him, not born of sin, but inspired by love and that made her affirm, paradoxically: “I who have sinned much am completely innocent”. Sin dissolves before the truth of love.

Abelard recommended that Heloise and her sisters learn Hebrew and Greek in order to understand Holy Scripture. Therefore, Heloise, who was a mature and scrupulous scholar, posed 42 exegetical questions for a more correct understanding of the Bible and, consequently, for its different application in the ethical choices that real life entailed. The unity of the Christian vocation, the positivity of the matrimonial experience, and the centrality of the ethical conscience, are the foundation of every action. In addition, the attention to the human person considered in his specific individuality, are, in fact, matured in Eloisa by dialoguing with Abelard and meditating on the Bible, for which she showed to possess knowledge and a critical sense.

In a particular way, and in consideration of being a woman, Eloisa strongly felt the need for a norm of monastic life aimed at the peculiarities of the female sex. For this reason she bitterly disputed with the male religious world and in particular with the Benedictine Rule, conceived and fixed for men, which often mortified the person in the name of an objective and external norm.

Abelard died on April 21, 1142. Eloise survived him by twenty-two years. In 1792, their remains were placed together so that they would be reunited at least in death. In 1817, the tomb was placed in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

by Adriana Valerio
Historian and theologian, professor of History of Christianity and Churches at the University Federico II of Naples.