Heloise and Abelard: A Twelfth-century Love Story by James Burge
Although their profiles seem to have dimmed in recent years, Heloise and Abelard are surely the equal of Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra, as one of the great romantic couples in history. However, the difference is that Heloise and Abelard were real people, living in 12th Century France, and their story is even more remarkable than fiction.
There is increasing understanding that the Middle Ages, far from being merely a dull preface to the Renaissance, was actually a culturally rich world in its own right, and James Burge's approachable study of Heloise and Abelard is as much an attempt to adumbrate this richness as it is to understand the lives of this particular couple. Peter Abelard was the 12th Century's most famous philosopher and became tutor to Heloise, a young Parisian woman from a well-connected family. They soon began a passionate and illicit affair which, when discovered by Heloise's uncle, resulted in banishment to a convent for Heloise and castration for Abelard. Their story has been passed down to us via a series of letters, the first set discovered in the 13th Century and the second, a recently discovered cache thought to be contemporary to the period of their affair.
Translated into modern English, the eroticism of their letters still packs a powerful punch, but what resonates even more is the remarkable character of Heloise. Intellectual, sensuous, and tenacious at a time when women were not expected to be any of those things, her letters contain strikingly honest declarations of love, but also quick-witted reprimands for a lover whose responses so often fail to live up to her expectations. Like most famous couples in history - real and fictional - there has been more than enough sentimental rubbish written about Heloise and Abelard. Yet their story is still relevant because the letters provide not only a wonderfully intimate glimpse into their relationship, but also a vivid portrait of their changing cultural times - the all-encompassing ecclesiastical influence and wealth, the role of women in the church, the expansion in formal learning and the inauguration of the first universities are all touched upon in the letters.
The accessibility of Burge's approach may frustrate those looking for a meatier academic treatise on the moral and theological debates contained within the letters. However, for those wanting a window into the shifting world of the Middle Ages, this is an illuminating introduction.