In his first letter, titled “Historia Calamitatum”, Abelard tells an anonymous friend the story of his tragic early life. He was born on the borders of Brittany to noble parents. As the eldest son, he stood to inherit lands and a castle, but his father also encouraged his children in their learning, which led Abelard to abandon military life for the life of learning.
“I renounced the glory of military life, made over my inheritance and rights of the eldest son to my brothers, and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be educated in the lap of Minerva (3).”
He went to Paris to learn dialectic under William of Champeaux, but after disputing with him on some points of philosophy his former teacher became an enemy. In many ways, the life of a scholar and teacher was far more treacherous than the military life. The world Abelard describes in his letter was one of cut-throat competition where a teacher’s reputation could make or break them. After falling out with William, Abelard goes off to setup a rival school. The more William and others denigrate him, the better his reputation becomes and the more students he gains.
After studying and teaching philosophy, particularly Aristotelian logic, Abelard decides to go off to study Scripture with Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with the better known St. Anselm), who was the preeminent scholar of the Bible in his day. Abelard finds Anselm unintelligent and not very insightful, often being unable to answer simple questions and leaving his students more confused about a particular point than when they began. Some of his students start speaking poorly of him to Anselm, especially after Abelard decides to start skipping lecture. On a challenge from his fellow students, Abelard writes his own lecture on a particularly difficult passage of Ezekiel. Everyone is so impressed with his interpretation that he soon gains the ire of Anselm too. However, this backfires as well and soon gains him students who want his Biblical interpretations.
It’s at the height of this worldly success when he first meets Heloise.
“In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her most renowned throughout the realm. I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love (10).”
Abelard convinces her uncle to hire him as her private tutor. They have a secret passionate love affair. She gets pregnant. Abelard takes her away into his own country to deliver the baby. This, of course, means the uncle learns of the affair. He tries to appease the uncle by marrying Heloise, but hoped to keep the marriage a secret so it doesn’t damage his reputation. Heloise tries to convince him that this is a bad idea and won’t really satisfy her uncle who feels his honor has been damaged. Once they are married the uncle reveals their union to everyone and constantly berates Heloise. Abelard sends her to a convent, which leads the uncle and her family to believe he is preparing to divorce her. Angered by this final insult, they break into his house by bribing a servant and castrate him.
Humiliated and mutilated, Abelard retires to a monastery, which at first welcomes a man of his reputation, but once he starts criticizing some of their evil habits they begin to resent and hate him as well. He writes his first major book on scripture. Heloise goes off and becomes a nun for real at exhortations of Abelard. Meanwhile his intellectual rivals convince higher officials that the book is heretical and this causes him to be summoned to a trial. During his first trial of heresy, they struggle to find any evidence in his book that could be deemed heretical and are about to let him go with no charges, but his rivals at the last second convince the heads of the trial to punish him anyway. They misrepresent his views about the trinity, force him to recant views he doesn’t hold, and then burn his book.
Abelard returns to the monastery where everyone hates him. The monks trump up charges against based on some comments about the origins of the French Church and plan to bring him to justice before the king. He flees to the protection of Count Theobald, a powerful neighboring lord, whose strength is equal to the king’s. He then retires to the wilderness where his students follow him. They help him build a monastery to house his school, which he calls the Paraclete. Shortly after, he gains a post as an abbot at St. Gildas. The unruly monks hate his strict rules and try to poison him.
He gives the Paraclete to Heloise and her nuns as their new convent once their old one was confiscated.
Abelard views his early intellectual successes as sinful pride and leads to his carnal lust. He believes God punished his pride and lust through his subsequent castration and having his books burnt at the first heresy trial. At the end of his letter, he explains that he views his tribulations as tests from God. The Bible shows that this is the nature of the world and all these misfortunes that have befallen him are part of God’s plan.
After being out contact with Heloise for many years, they begin writing letters to each other again. In this letter, written by Heloise, we get to hear her take on the events Abelard has recounted of their past life together. Despite her high position as an abbess in charge of nuns, she says her time with him as his lover was the highest point of her life and she still loves him more than anyone.
“In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet – they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers (68).”
She still lusts for him even after these many years. She seems to regret the course of events their lives have taken. She knows she should repent, but she still longs for the past.
Abelard in his next letter responds that their entrance into religious life should be seen as divine mercy rather than as divine punishment. God gave them the opportunity to use their intellectual gifts for the good of the faith and not spoil it on selfish concerns. In an obvious rationalization, Abelard argues that this tragic event was actually a good event when you look back on it from a different lens.
Seeming ready to move forward, Heloise wants guidance on the proper way to run a convent according to religious principles. She enquires about the history of nuns. She points out that there are many who join the monastic orders who aren’t prepared to live by their rules.
Abelard writes a letter that discusses how monasteries and convents should be properly run. His letters are often peppered with copious examples from the Bible and quotations from the church fathers as well as the occasional reference to Ovid and Cicero. He turns to these sources for the origin of the nuns and monks and using these sources he makes a strong argument for women playing an important role in the Church.
Unsurprisingly, Abelard couldn’t keep himself out of controversy and soon ended up in a second heresy trial at Sens in 1140 led by Bernard of Clairvaux. Peter the Venerable, the abbot of the powerful Cluny monastery, took him in Abelard and supported him in his final years. Along with the letters between Abelard and Heloise, the collection also includes a brief set of correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Heloise concerning Abelard.
“He was engaged on such holy occupations when the Visitor of the Gospels came to find him, and found him awake, not asleep like so many; found him truly awake, and summoned him to the wedding of eternal life . . . For he brought with him a lamp full of oil, that is, a conscience filled with the testimony of his saintly life. As the time came for him to pay the common debt of humanity, the sickness from which he suffered worsened and quickly brought him to his last hour (222).”
We find out from their letters that after his Abelard’s death, Peter the Venerable transported Abelard’s body to Heloise and her nuns and that Peter granted him absolution for his sins.