This quarter I’ve been teaching an undergraduate seminar on Ideas of Love, a topic not unrelated to that of this column. In the context of our readings, I thought I’d say a few words about the Middle Ages’ most celebrated romantic couple.

Readers familiar with French literature will remember Villon’s lines:

Où est la très sage Héloïs
Pour qui fut châtré et puis moine
Pierre Abélard à Saint-Denys
Pour son amour eut cet essoyne
[Where is the very good/wise Heloise
For whom was castrated and then a monk
Pierre Abelard at Saint-Denis
For his love he paid that penalty.]

Abelard (1079-1142), the perfector of nominalism, the basis of modern empiricism, was arguably the first modern thinker. He was recognized as the most brilliant man of his time; students flocked to his lectures. Heloise (1101-1164), his junior by 22 years, was an unusually well-educated young woman, the pride of her uncle canon Fulbert. Abelard, attracted by her reputation, made use of his own to persuade Fulbert to let him give her lessons, and then to persuade his pupil to turn these lessons into a more agreeable form of activity (We exchanged more kisses than learned propositions; my hands returned more often to her bosom than to our books.) The uncle was not happy on discovering their relationship, which led to a child named Astrolabe–a high-tech name if there ever was one! Although they married–against Heloise’s will, for she preferred the title of lover to that of wife–Abelard kept the marriage secret and sent Heloise off to a convent; this was the time when a church career was becoming incompatible with marriage. Interpreting this situation as a disgrace for his niece, Fulbert sent his men to perform on her husband the painful operation.

Yet to read Abelard’s own version of these events, his Historia calamitatum, one is struck less by the element of love than by that of resentment. As the first thinker to put his own intellect above the traditional respect owed one’s elders, Abelard constantly provoked the wrath of his masters and their other disciples. Here is the first of many examples:

I began to frequent [Guillaume de Champeaux’] school, but I soon became very unwelcome, for I attempted to refute some of his theses, argued against him, and sometimes won. My successes provoked among the cleverest of my fellow pupils an indignation all the greater because I was the youngest and the most recently arrived. It is from this moment that I date the beginning of my misfortunes [calamitatum], from which I still suffer today. My renown grew daily: envy flamed up against me.

Abelard’s calamities begin, in other words, not with his great love, but with the great resentment he provoked in his colleagues.

Except for a few specialists in medieval philosophy, the writings that contain Abelard’s resentment-inducing thought have been forgotten; today we read his tale of woe only because it contains the story of his love. Can this calamitous conjunction of resentment and love be nothing but a coincidence?

Abelard and Heloise were in their own world a star couple; each knew the other by reputation before they met, and if Abelard claims to have planned in advance to seduce Heloise, in her part of their correspondence she speaks of her pride in attracting this man who held an irresistible attraction for women, attributable to his talent as a composer of love-songs, one of the many strings to his bow.

The most insistent theme in the letters they exchanged is the status of women. Heloise claims that women are inferior to men and require their protection; Abelard insists that, on the contrary, God hears women’s prayers more readily than men’s; both cite numerous biblical passages as evidence–Heloise mostly from the Old Testament, Abelard, from the New.

As the first “modern,” Abelard was no longer protected by the ritual hierarchy that assures the smooth succession of generations. His relation to his masters recalls the Oedipus myth, indeed, may well be its first modern, proto-Freudian incarnation. Impatient to demonstrate his mental abilities in a context unbound by ecclesial tradition, then in the process of breaking down under the pressure of the rediscovered Aristotelian dialectic, Abelard threw the masculine society of medieval philosophy into a Hobbesian war of all against all, or rather, of all against him. The marketplace of bourgeois competition had begun in the domain of thought, but it had not yet engendered the institutional basis (notably the University) within which this competition could be channeled. Abelard’s public persona therefore aroused resentment on an unprecedented scale.

In such circumstances, there could be no solace in the Greek model of a public homosexual eros between older and younger men. The only means of deferring the competitivity of the public world was the valorization of the private world of the heterosexual couple–a world that had always existed, in Greece as elsewhere, but which could not acquire significance in pre-Christian slave societies. Abelard and Heloise, contemporaries of the first troubadours, lived in the early days of courtly love. Their adventure helps explain the rise of this attitude, which has by no means lost its influence on relations between the sexes. When masculine equals can only oppose each other “dialectically,” the inequality between men and women comes to be revalorized as an unordered difference (as in vive la différence!) rather than a simple superiority.

No doubt this is not the ultimate step of women’s progress toward full equality with men, but one may well claim it to be the most important. Heloise treats Abelard as her superior, as in intellect and learning–and years–no doubt he was, just as he was superior to his masculine contemporaries. But his claim that God hears women’s prayers before men’s is neither a mere alibi for his neglect of his wife after his calamity nor a simple example of the Christian doctrine that the meek shall inherit the earth, just as the contemporary propensity for putting women on pedestals was not simply a hypocritical mirror-image of the contempt for and oppression of women that dominated everyday life in the Middle Ages. If Heloise admired the genius of her lover, we should take seriously the evidence that he admired her as well, as even today men admire the women they love regardless of their standing in the professional world.

Abelard and Heloise, for all their limitations, engaged in the first modern love affair. Unlike the fictional Tristan and Isolde, whose relationship still reflected the love=curse mentality of archaic myth, they enjoyed each other both sexually and intellectually. Yes, theirs was essentially a teacher-student relationship–a phenomenon not exactly unknown in universities today. In its early stages, it was not even devoid of sexual harassment: Abelard claims to have beaten Heloise to force her to cede to his advances, although her letters express an unabashed sensuality that will surprise those who think female orgasm was discovered around 1950. But in this relationship, for arguably the first time, the intimate world of heterosexual affection becomes of comparable significance to the public masculine one. As a counterweight to the nascent bourgeois society that would generate ever more resentment, there would grow up the private world of mutual love.


Although they never lived together as husband and wife, it is indeed significant that the couple did marry and have a child (albeit not in that order). Abelard and Heloise, their love all too literally cut short, deserve to be called the creators of the modern ideal of marriage founded on the voluntarily shared tenderness of a couple who shelter each other from the harshly competitive world of the marketplace.