The Medieval Mindset: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (12th century)

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This month marks the end of my thoroughly successful non-fiction reading project.  In December last year, I decided to use the blog as a spur to finally prioritise the non-fiction books (mostly biographies) which have been gathering on my bookshelves.  Last but by no means least was this collection of Abelard and Heloise’s letters; a book I’ve been wanting to get into for years, but which somehow always got replaced on the reading pile at the last minute.

As I learned from my initial research.  Abelard and Heloise had an incredibly eventful romance.  He was the intellectual celebrity hot-shot of the day, she was a virtuous and highly intelligent orphan.  In his initial letter Abelard says it was lust for her that caused him to lodge with Heloise’s uncle, giving him the perfect excuse to give her private lessons.  Their romance was soon an open secret, mostly due to Abelard’s boasting of his conquest.   As more people learned of the scandal, Heloise’s uncle attempted to separate them, but his influence wasn’t enough to prevent the birth of an illegitimate child.  In an attempt to salvage the situation, they eventually got married, though this was kept a close secret in order to avoid harming Abelard’s career as a teacher.  The solution didn’t work; Heloise was extremely opposed to the marriage and her uncle also appeared unconvinced – so much so, he arranged for Abelard to be castrated (see the odd cross-legged pose on the book cover).  It was after this event that Abelard became a monk, and persuaded Heloise to be a nun. It’s a crazy story, and I couldn’t wait to see how the letters gave me a new perspective on it, especially by telling me about the actual feelings of the people affected.

Put briefly, the letters are wonderful.   They were written when the lovers were separated physically and by religious ordinance, Heloise as  a nun and Abelard as a monk, and show two highly intelligent people arguing with each other and each presenting their own version of how their lives have ended up.  Abelard’s letters show a desperate belief in God’s grand plans.  He frames his sufferings as retribution and divinely ordained (according to him the worst of these sufferings was having a book burned as heretical, the emotional and spiritual torment far exceeding any physical punishment in his life).  Heloise is less resigned.  She never claims a vocation as a nun, though she has risen to the position of prioress and seems to be a highly respected religious figure.

This year I’ve blogged about Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘ and Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur‘, but this non-fiction book has really presented me with a new view of the medieval mindset.  Most significantly, I’ve been struck by the respect the letters show for authority.  Fans of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath will know she starts her prologue by boasting that she is knowledgeable through ‘experience though noon auctoritee‘, basically that she can form her own conclusions about the world and human relations because of her own experiences.  This is the antithesis of the view espoused by the highly intellectual Abelard and Heloise.  They were writing centuries earlier and ‘experience’ is not significant in their way of understanding the world.  While emotions and impulses are explored in detail, the couple never look to  modern concepts such as psychology, sociology or biology; their letters are filled with references to biblical and classical sources and these are their frames of reference.  Both lovers may seem rebellious by today’s standards, but they never present themselves as such, explaining their actions, ideas and feeling through reference to acceptable, ancient authorities.

Leading on from this is their theoretical (if not practical) respect for hierarchy.  For Abelard this means he is able to advise a very top-down approach to management in Heloise’s nunnery.  He advises ‘In a discussion on what counsel to take, it shall be open to anyone to offer her opinion, but whatever everyone else thinks, the abbess’s decision must not be swayed, for everything depends on her will, even if (which God forbid) she may be mistaken and decide on a worse course.  For as St Augustine says in his ‘Confessions’, ‘He who disobeys his superiors in anything sins greatly, even if he chooses what is better than what is commanded him.”  I can’t imagine any modern organisation openly advising this course of action, but the need for strong and unquestioned authority is central to both writers’ mindsets.  This is especially noticeable in Heloise’s letters; she does not consider women to be equal to men or herself to be equal to Abelard.  She exults in her subservience and says her main argument agains their marriage had always been that such a connection would demean him.   Hartley was right when he said ‘the past is foreign country’  – they think very differently there!

These letters have been a compelling and thought-provoking view of twelfth century European culture.  They’ve also allowed me to finish my planned non-fiction reading on a real high note.  This won’t be the end of my experiments in reading out of my comfort zone though; given my thoroughly enjoyable experience of life-writings this year so far, and the number of authorities that recommend great non-fiction, I’d be foolish to stop here!

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7 Responses to The Medieval Mindset: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (12th century)

  1. Pingback: Reading out of my comfort zone part II: Life Writings | Shoshi's Book Blog

  2. Elle says:

    YES – I think one of the things about medieval thought that is hardest for 21st-century folks to grasp is that absolute trust of authority and precedent. That the Wife of Bath claims her own personal intimate experience is in any way comparable to the great writers and thinkers of antiquity makes her utterly incendiary; plenty of people at the time would have thought she was insane (maybe not literally, but definitely not quite normal) and dismissed her or pitied her. It’s why her tale is so iconic. I’ve never read the letters of Abelard and Heloise, but your review of them makes me want to! (Helen Waddell, an Oxford medievalist, wrote a novel called Peter Abelard in 1933 which might be worth checking out, too.)

    • Thank you for the reading tip. I really really enjoyed these letters and would highly recommend them to anyone with an interest in the period. They’re especially great for fans of the Wife of Bath as Abelard uses lots of the same sources as her for his own arguments around matrimony and chastity!

  3. Ste J says:

    I came across this book through God’s Philosophers and absolutely love it, there is so much to it and it is a great insight into the times.

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