Abelard and Héloïse: A Peculiar Relationship

The twelfth century provided ideal conditions for a peculiar relationship between Peter Abelard, the teacher, and Héloïse, the pupil. Many factors contributed to an environment where education was a major focus in society. The stable political climate, coupled with increased agricultural production and a religious revival, among other factors, allowed a society to exist where education grew to become significant. This was evident by the rise of the universities throughout Europe.1

Abelard was born to nobility. He excelled at his studies early on and quickly mastered the trivium. As Abelard pursued advanced studies, he sought Jean Roscelin and William of Champeaux. Roscelin was known for his dialectic abilities and William was a “formidable master and philosopher whose keen intellect attracted many students to Paris.”2 Despite the prowess of Roscelin and William, Abelard soon proved his own superior intellect, especially in the areas of rhetoric and logic. Abelard soon became famous for his superior logic.3

Not much is known about Héloïse’s childhood. However, it is well know that she lived with her uncle, Canon Fulbert, at the Notre Dame campus in Paris. Fulbert hired Abelard as a personal tutor for his niece, Héloïse. Abelard appeared to have two motives for accepting the job.

The obvious motive was revealed in Abelard’s autobiography. He found the young women to be intelligent and attractive and desired to seduce her. Abelard felt that “she was powerless to resist such advances.”4 Despite the emotional feelings, Abelard and Héloïse had to be discrete about their relationship, so as not to alert Fulbert of their impropriety.

The other motive is a pragmatic one. Although no hard evidence exists, historians speculate that it is likely that Abelard wished to further his own clerical career. A professional relationship with Fulbert would be a means to that end.5

The relationship that ensued between Abelard and Héloïse was filled with drama. They encountered numerous complications due to the fraternizing nature of their relationship. Scholars were held to similar standards as clergy in terms of celibacy. The scholarly community, like the clergy, viewed relationships with women as distracting.

Fulbert eventually discovered the secret relationship between Abelard and Héloïse and expelled Abelard from his house. After learning of her pregnancy, Héloïse secretly traveled to Abelard’s sister’s house, where she gave birth to her son. Abelard and Héloïse had a discrete marriage ceremony, despite Héloïse’s protests. Héloïse felt that the addition of a family would severely detract from Abelard’s scholarly studies. As a leader at Notre Dame, Abelard was expected to lead a sexually pure life. Fulbert eventually subjected Héloïse to abuse over the secret marriage. Fearing that Abelard would divorce Héloïse, Fulbert castrated Abelard.6

Abelard contributed many scholarly works. He often used logic to critique and comment on church doctrine such as the Trinity. His use of logic often offended church leaders, who primarily relied on tradition in explaining theological matters. Abelard’s exegetical approach to scripture became well-known amongst his peers.

Due to a changing social climate, Héloïse belonged to one of the “last generations of educated women who maintained close literary contact with male colleagues.”7 Her intellect and mental prowess matched Abelard’s, if not exceeded. However, due to the limitations placed on women by society, Héloïse never had the chance to truly shine. Eight more centuries would pass before women gained significant educational status.8

References:

  1. Jane Slaughter and Melissa K. Bokovoy. Sharing the Stage: Biography and Gender in Western Civilization. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 247-248.
  2. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 252.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 256.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 257-258.
  7. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 263.
  8. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 264.
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