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Heloise, abbess of the Paraclete

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abbess of the Paraclete

Heloise had already been very well educated by her uncle, Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame, when he hired his fellow canon, Peter Abelard, to tutor her in exchange for a room, c.1113. She was trained in the classics, with a good knowledge of Latin letters and rhetoric and Abelard advanced her knowledge in philosophy. She also knew some Greek and Hebrew.(1) It is hard to imagine why Fulbert encouraged such learning, unless he hoped she would have a brilliant career as an abbess. The love affair between tutor and pupil might have been expected to end such a dream, but instead it seems to have made it possible. The story of their love affair, the birth of a son, the enforced marriage which Heloise opposed because it would harm Abelard’s career, his castration, her entrance into and departure from a monastery at Argenteuil, and her subsequent success as abbess and administrator of the abbey of the the Paraclete, which he gave her, and the five priories attached to it are well known.(2) Their extant correspondence — they mention earlier letters which we do not have — has been the subject of much scholarly argument, and will probably continue to be, but it is generally accepted as authentic now.(3) After a personal exchange, they settled into a professional relationship, in which she requested material for study at her convent and he produced it, indeed much of his extant writing was done for her. We have only two letters of request from Heloise, but Abelard’s responses to her other requests give us some idea of what was in them. Their exchanges constitute the bulk of Heloise’s correspondence, but there are also letters from churchmen who admired her, like Peter the Venerable and Hugh Metel, and official letters from a series of popes. Recently an argument has been made for ascribing Latin love letters between an unnamed man and woman to Abelard and Heloise. The letters were first edited by Ewad Könsgen, Epistolae duorum amantium: Briefe Abaelards und Heloises? (Leiden: Brill, 1974), and now they have been reproduced and translated by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant Mews, and Mews makes a strong case for authenticity, though it is of necessity based on circumstantial rather than on absolute evidence, Constant J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999). Whether or not they were written by Heloise and Abelard, the letters are an interesting example of a contemporary male-female exchange.

Biographical notes: 

(1) That she knew some words in Hebrew, even Peter the Venerable attests, and Peter Abelard speaks of her as expert in all three biblical languages and encourages her nuns to take advantage of her knowledge (letter to Paraclete, see below, ep.9). There was an interest in Hebrew studies among some Latin scholars of Scripture in this period which Heloise may have profited from, and there was always the possibility of access to some kind of Greek through contact with the Byzantine world though how much she knew is impossible to determine. (2) The forthcoming study of Heloise and her work by Mary McLaughlin, Heloise and the Paraclete: Ductrix et Magistra, will greatly extend our knowledge and understanding of this remarkable figure. Abelard tells some of the story of their relationship in the "Historia Calamitatum" which can be read in Betty Radice’s translation in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), a volume which includes the personal letters and some of the others. The "Historia," purportedly a letter to a friend, set off the correspondence we have. Peter Dronke has collected a number of contemporary [medieval] texts that make allusions to the story in Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1976). (3) For a sensible discussion of the problem, see Barbara Newman, "Authority, authenticity, and the repression of Heloise," JMRS 22 (1992), 121-57.