The Letter Collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise

Barbara Newman writes:

Nine hundred years ago, a celebrity philosopher fell in love with his star student and seduced her. Peter Abelard’s once brilliant lectures grew tepid, while his love songs placed the name of Heloise on every tongue. Passionate letters flew, and the Parisian gossip mill went into overdrive – until pregnancy, as so often, betrayed the secret. Much against Heloise’s will, Abelard insisted on marriage to soothe her enraged uncle Fulbert, and spirited their child off to his sister’s farm in Brittany. The pair married secretly at dawn, then went their separate ways. A resentful Heloise denied all rumours of the marriage, so Abelard, to protect her from Fulbert’s wrath, clothed her in a nun’s habit and hid her away at Argenteuil, the convent where she had been raised. This proved to be the last straw for Fulbert, whose hired thugs surprised Abelard in his sleep and ‘cut off the parts of [his] body whereby [he] had committed the wrong’. For want of a better option, the eunuch philosopher turned monk, while Heloise became a nun in earnest, prefacing her vows with a public lament.

(LRB 23 January 2014)