Abelard and Heloise in a relief from the tomb at Paraclet. Now at Pierre Lachiase in Paris. Source: Wikipedia

A Medieval Love Story – Abelard and Heloise

Abelard and Heloise loved each other. Their love affair, though, was so much more than just an act of carnal lust. It was also a relationship filled with charity and friendship. By delving into their love story, we may learn of a faraway world.

In 1115 Abelard met Heloise, who was living with her uncle, Fulbert at the Îls de Cité. At this point, she was likely in her early twenties, and Abelard decided to seduce her, offering her uncle to tutor her. At this point, she was known to be a brilliant scholar and well-versed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He, on the other hand, was 37 years old and in his prime as a teacher of philosophy and theology. Unfortunately, the affair ended in pregnancy and Abelard had her removed to his family home in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son, named Astrolabe. After having married her in secret, he sent Heloise to a convent at Argenteuil to protect her. Soon after, Fulbert organised a band of men, who broke into Abelard’s room, where he was castrated. As a consequence, Abelard decided to become a monk and persuaded Heloise to enter religious life. Their story, and what followed is known from his autobiographical writings, the Historia Calamitatum, seven letters between Abelard and Heloise, and four letters between Peter the Venerable and Heloise (three by Peter, one by Heloise). Also, we possess a collection of “lost love letters” which has been argued to be fragments of the illicit correspondence, which they engaged in during the winter of 1115 – 16.

Theirs was a very carnal affair! No doubt about that. For one thing, a son was born of the illicit lovemaking. Yet, the story of Abelard and Heloise is also a story of how – in a medieval context – love might be so much more than sex (amor). People in the Middle Ages also knew of charity (caritas), and friendship (dilectio), and the writings of the couple are full of philosophical and theological musings and reminiscences concerning a love life and way of thinking about love, which was quite different from ours.

This is one of the reasons why the texts of Abelard and Heloise continue to hold such sway over our minds. And why they are so important in the medieval history curriculum. The writings of Abelard and Heloise as well as their – in our minds – tragic love story – are merely exquisite texts to keep students enthralled enough, to entice them to dip into an exotic world entirely different from theirs.

There exist some fine editions of the primary texts as well as introductions and biographies, some of which are listed below


Abelard and Heloise in a relief from the tomb at Paraclet. Now at the cemetery, Père Lachaise, in Paris. Source: Wikipedia


The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
Ed. by Michael Clanchy
Penguin Classics 2004

This is a landmark edition of the translated texts, updated by M. T. Clanchy, author of the main biography of Abelard.  The edition  Includes a recent essay on recent scholarship and bibliographical discoveries, suggestions for further reading, explanatory notes, maps, and index





The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise
Edited by David Luscombe
Oxford University Press 2013

This edition of the collected letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise presents a state- of-the-art edition of the letter collection. It offers a facing-page edition with both the Latin text and a new English translation as well as copious notes. Although some translations have been queried it is generally accepted as the edition to be used in serious studies.





Abelard and Heloise: The Letters and Other Writings
Ed. and transl. by William Levitan
Hacket Publishing, 2007

Geared to smart undergrads, this edition text includes precise notes as well as a readable translation of all the major texts: the Historia calamitatum, the seven letters, the Heloisae Problemata and the confession, the letters of Peter the Venerable from and to Heloise as well as a selection of the songs and poems.





The Letters of Heloise and Abelard. A Translation of Their Collected Correspondence and Related Writings
Ed. by M. McLaughlin, M and B. Wheeler
Palgrave Macmillan 2009

The letters of Heloise and Abelard will remain one of the great, romantic and intellectual documents of human civilization while they, themselves, are probably second only to Romeo and Juliet in the fame accrued by tragic lovers. Here for the first time in Mart Martin McLaughlin’s edition is the complete correspendence with commentary. Some scholars prefer when teacing to use this translation for its readability.





The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France
Ed. and transl.by  Constant Mews
Palgrave Macmillan 1999

In 1974 a German scholar came across a 15th-century text in which a scribe had written an extract of some letters between two nameless lovers – a teacher and his student. Known as the Epistolae duorum amantium, the style of writing suggests the 12th century. In this book, Constant Mews offers the text and translation of the 113 letters  plus his case for why they are authentic fragments of a now lost collection of letters exchanged between Abelard and Heloise written  during the height of their hot affair. Although many historians have not been convinced, Constant Mews makes a good case. Also, for many years the authenticity of the letters of Heloise was questioned by outstanding male scholars, who were disinclined to think that Heloise – or for that matter – any medieval woman was capable of having authored so erudite and clever writings. The same suspicion obviously hit this collection. This edition offers a fine opportunity to discuss with students the questions concerning source criticism, authenticity etc.

Making Love in the Twelfth Century
“Letters of Two Lovers” in Context
A new translation with commentary by Barbara Newman
University of Pennsylvania Press 2016

Barbara Newman contends that the “Epistolae duorum amantium” bears witness to a culture that linked Latin pedagogy with the practice of ennobling love and the cult of friendship during a relatively brief period when women played an active part in that world. Newman presents a new translation of these extraordinary letters, along with a full commentary and two extended essays that parse their literary and intellectual contexts and chart the course of the doomed affair. Included, too, are two other sets of twelfth-century love epistles, the Tegernsee Letters and selections from the Regensburg Songs. Taken together, they constitute a stunning contribution to the study of the history of emotions by one of our most prominent medievalists.


Letters of Peter Abelard, Beyond the Personal 
By Jan M. Ziolkowski
Series: (Medieval Texts in Translation)

Apart from the personal letters between Abelard and Heloise, a dozen of other letters have been preserved, which are obviously from his hands. This translation offers a comprehensive and learned translation of these texts and affords insight into Abelard’s thinking over a much longer sweep of time. It also gives us snapshots of the great twelfth-century philosopher and theologian in a variety of contexts. One group shows him engaging with Heloise and nuns of the Paraclete, another with Bernard of Clairvaux, and a third with four entirely different addressees on four entirely different topics. Broadening our panorama of the twelfth-century Renaissance, the picture presented by these texts complements, complicates, and enriches Abelard’s autobiographical letter of consolation and his personal letters to Heloise.


Heloise and Abelard. A New Biography
By James Burge
HarperOne, 2004

This biography draws heavily on the historical sources and the letters of Heloise and Abelard to recount their lives. However, the author also provides a detailed description of the political, social, and religious setting in which the couple’s love afffair unfolded.  As in all the best biographies, the writing is lively and engaging. Intended, however, for the general reader it should be used more as a general introduction til the time and lives of the famous couple. Excellent for undergraduates.



Abelard: A Medieval Life
By Michael.T. Clanchy
Wiley-Blackwell, 1997

Abelard was not only a arduous lover, and a renowned university teacher. He was also a brilliant philosopher and theologian, who rebelled against the pious and distinctly narrow intellectual climate which tone was set by such renowned reformers as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux and others. This is a biography, which does not limit itself to tell the love story, but which recounts the stories of Abelards intellectual endeavours as well as the heresies, for which he was famously persecuted at inquisitorial procedures. The biography is a tour-de-force and anyone with a serious interest in the life and times of the couple should begin here.



Listening To Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman
Edited by Bonnie Wheeler
Palgrave Macmillan, 2000

This is a collection of essays, which concentrates wholly on the perspective of the affair and its widere social and religious contexts as seen through the eyes of Heloise and her contemporaries. As yet, we lack a modern comprehensive biography as that of Abelard. This collection of articles, however, offers a comprehensive and fascinating opportunity to explore Heloise as not only lover, mother and leader of a religious community. But also the scope of her intellectual capacities and the context in which she strived to reach a level of competence akin to that of her famous lover, Abelard.



Héloïse: L’amour et le savoir Broché
By Guy Lobrichon

Anyone, who have tried to come to an undertanding of the person and way of thinking of Heloise, discover tat there is a shadow cast upon her. First by Abelard, and later by countless (male) scholars who have tried to silence her by claiming she never wrote the letters, or if she did – they were rewritten – by later copyists or editors. Which they undobtedly also were. And yet, claims Guy Lubrichon, in this elegant biography.ne of the few, which places Heloise at the center of the drama. Written in the tradition of Georges Duby, the Annales School and the later French biographical tradition, this is one of the better texts trying to grasp the mentalité or worldview structuring the life of Heloise and Abelard.




Abelard and Heloise 
By Constant J. Mews
Series: Great Medieval Thinkers
Oxford University Press 2005

This intends to be a brief, accessible introduction to not only the lives but also the theological and philosophical thinking of two of the most controversial personalities of the Middle Ages. Abelard and Heloise are familiar names. It is their “star quality,” argues Constant Mews, that has prevented them from being seen clearly in the context of 12th-century thought – a task he has set himself in this book. He contends that the dramatic intensity of these famous lives needs to be examined in the broader context of their shared commitment to the study of philosophy.



The Repentant Abelard: Family, Gender, and Ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus
By J. Ruys
Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Verlag 2014

The Repentant Abelard is both an innovative study and English translation of the late poetic works of controversial medieval philosopher and logician Peter Abelard, written for his beloved wife Heloise and son Astralabe. This study brings to life long overlooked works of this great thinker with analyses and comprehensive notes.




Rethinking Abelard: A Collection of Essays
Ed. by Babette S. Hellemans
Series: Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History
Brill 2014

Drawing on recent scholarship, with essays by a selection of international scholars, this volume throws new light on the literary persona of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), one of the most diversely gifted people of the Middle Ages.





The Cambridge Companion to Abelard
Ed. by Jeffrey E. Browe and Kevin Guilfoy
Cambridge University Press 2004

Although best known for his views about universals and his dramatic love affair with Heloise, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) also made important contributions in metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language, mind and cognition, philosophical theology, ethics, and literature. The essays in this volume survey the complete range of Abelard’s thought by examining his overall achievement in its intellectual and historical context. They also trace Abelard’s influence on later thought and his relevance to contemporary philosophical debate.



The Philosophy of Peter Abelard
by John Marenbon
Cambridge University Press 1999

This book offers a major reassessment of the philosophy of Peter Abelard (1079-1142) which shows that he was a far more constructive and wider-ranging thinker than has usually been supposed. It combines detailed historical discussion, based on published and manuscript sources, with philosophical analysis which aims to make clear Abelard’s central arguments about the nature of things, language and the mind, and about morality. Although the book concentrates on these philosophical questions, it places them within their theological and wider intellectual context.



Abelard in Four Dimensions: A Twelfth-Century Philosopher in His Context and Ours
by John Marenbon
Series: Notre Dame Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame Press 2013

Abelard in Four Dimensions: A Twelfth-Century Philosopher in His Context and Ours by John Marenbon, one of the leading scholars of medieval philosophy and a specialist on Abelard’s thought, originated from a set of lectures in the distinguished Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies series and provides new interpretations of central areas of Peter Abelard’s philosophy and its influence. The four dimensions of Abelard to which the title refers are that of the past (Abelard’s predecessors), present (his works in context), future (the influence of his thinking up to the seventeenth century), and the present-day philosophical culture in which Abelard’s works are still discussed and his arguments debated.


Paradoxes of Conscience in the High Middle Ages. Abelard, Heloise and the Archpoet
By Peter Godman
Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature
Cambridge University Press 2009

The autobiographical and confessional writings of Abelard, Heloise and the Archpoet were concerned with religious authenticity, spiritual sincerity and their opposite – fictio, a composite of hypocrisy and dissimulation, lying and irony. How and why moral identity could be feigned or falsified were seen as issues of primary importance, and Peter Godman here restores them to the prominence they once occupied in twelfth-century thought. This book is an account of the relationship between ethics and literature in the work of the most famous authors of the Latin Middle Ages. Combining conceptual analysis with close attention to style and form, it offers a major contribution to the history of the medieval conscience.


Peter Abelard After Marriage: The Spiritual Direction of Heloise and Her Nuns through Liturgical Song
by Thomas Bell
Series: Cistercian Studies

Famous for their love affair and their letter exchange, Heloise, abbess of the Paraclete, and Abelard, monk and scholar, are less known for their on-going monastic relationship. Abelard’s letters of direction to Heloise and her nuns were complemented by the liturgical music he composed for them. This study of Abelard as musician and spiritual director underlines the importance liturgical song has in forming the virtues of obedience, penitence, and humility as well as highlighting Abelard’s mastery of rhetoric, poetry and melody.



ArbelardThe Poetic and Musical Legacy of Heloise and Abelard: An Anthology of Essays
Ed. by Marc Stewart and David Wulstan
Series: Series: Musicological Studies Volume: LXXVIII
Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2003




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