Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Another Forbidden Love: Abelard and Heloise - Guest Post by Terry

Hello Everyone,

We are pleased to share a special guest post with you today.

Terry, whom you probably know as @Terry the Nurse on Twitter, is indeed a nurse, though she also has a degree in History and a graduate degree in Human Communication.

You may have read her Charity Tuesday spotlight on Covenant House, and we were thrilled when she offered to submit another blog post for the Empire.

She's a big fan of SR's writing, and in today's post, she shares her thoughts on comparing Gabriel and Julia with Abelard and Heloise.

Enjoy and Take Care,

Another Forbidden Love: Abelard and Heloise and the Parallels to Gabriel’s Inferno and Rapture

If you’ve read Gabriel’s Inferno and Gabriel’s Rapture (is there anyone left who hasn’t?) you already know that the medieval lovers Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil are referenced by both Julia (in anger) and Gabriel (in love). In fact, I could argue that the comedy of errors that forces Gabriel and Julia apart, and indeed breaks their hearts --and ours-- can be partly because Julia and Gabriel have very different opinions of these two famous professor-student lovers and whose own fictional experience is not terribly different from this tragic medieval couple.

Who were Abelard and Heloise? Why are they referenced so often in the books? What are the parallels between Gabriel and Julia, and Abelard and Heloise? And what is it about those famous letters to which Gabriel refers?

Let me begin by telling you a little about this illustrative couple and why I think SR makes them relatively prominent in both of the first two books. Likewise, there are countless similarities between Gabriel and Peter Abelard. Indeed so many that I would theorize that much of The Professor is modeled on Peter Abelard. Maybe there’s a deeper reason why Gabriel says to Julia in Rapture “Read my sixth letter. Paragraph 4.” In many ways, Gabriel and Abelard mirror each other.


Abelard and Heloise are considered the iconic couple of forbidden love. Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142), the better known of the couple, was considered one of the greatest intellects of the 12th century. Brilliant, attractive, and arrogant (especially when writing about himself), he drew thousands to his school in the province of Notre Dame in Paris. (Paris was the intellectual center of Europe in the 12th century.) He could place his roots within the French nobility, but according to some historical sources, Abelard gave up the knighthood that was due him in order to be the philosopher and teacher, a role for which he was much better suited. In addition to his knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophy and logic, he was also a renowned theologian.

While we don’t know exactly what Abelard looks like in terms of physical appearance, we do know that he held himself in high esteem. For example, he says of himself with some hubris:

So distinguished was my name, and I possessed such advantages of youth and comeliness, that no matter what woman I might favour with my love, I dreaded rejection of none. (from Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum [The Story of My Misfortune]) Clearly, he was not suffering from a lack of self-confidence, particularly with women. I know another Professor who could have said the same thing about himself.

Heloise d’Argenteuil (1090 – 1164) was a brilliant young woman of a lower social standing than Abelard and was twenty years younger than him when he became her professor. Very little is known about her family, except that she was in the care of an uncle, Fulbert, who was a Church canon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Keeping in mind that women of this historical era were not commonly well-educated, Heloise stands out as a learned woman fluent in both literature and ancient languages. In fact, her intellectual acumen is so unusual that by the time she met Abelard she was already known across Europe for her scholarship. Writings about Heloise describe her as beautiful as well as accomplished – for Abelard (and for another professor, it seems) this is a magnetic combination that becomes difficult to resist in a woman.

Fulbert engaged Abelard to further educate Heloise privately, and Abelard went so far as to take residence in Fulbert’s home in order to be closer to her. That’s where the fireworks begin. He promptly falls deeply in love with her, and she with him even in view of a significant age difference. And their love is like fire -- impassioned, fervent, and all-consuming. And…forbidden.

As Abelard describes his passion for Heloise:

Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other's bosoms -- love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text….. No degree in love's progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched. [Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes)]

With a passion as evocative as Abelard describes in his confessions, it should be no surprise that their love affair rapidly becomes sexual and Heloise finds herself pregnant. In a devoutly Catholic France, Heloise’s illegitimate pregnancy begins the progression of Abelard’s disgrace and Heloise’s exile following the birth of their son; eventually forcing her to spend the rest of her life in a monastery, isolated from Abelard and her son Astrolabius forever. But it gets much worse for Abelard.

Secretly married following the birth of Astrolabius, the couple left their son with Abelard's sister. When Heloise went to stay with the nuns at Argenteuil at Abelard’s insistence and ostensibly for her protection, her uncle mistakenly believed that Abelard had rejected and abandoned her by forcing her to become a nun. In a planned attack designed by Fulbert, Abelard is beaten and castrated by Fulbert’s minions in what can only be described as an act of ultimate revenge and rage. This is how Abelard describes the attack:

Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow. [Historia Calamitatum]

Abelard, like Gabriel, is filled with self-loathing and shame, and for very similar reasons. Both feel God has punished them for their “sins” and that redemption is not possible for them. Neither Gabriel nor Abelard can have children again – one by choice and the other by castration.

Abelard writes about his suffering in a parallel to Gabriel when he describes his anguish to Julia:

What path lay open to me thereafter? How could I ever again hold up my head among men, when every finger should be pointed at me in scorn, every tongue speak my blistering shame, and when I should be a monstrous spectacle to all eyes?…First was I punished for my sensuality, and then for my pride. For my sensuality I lost those things whereby I practiced it; for my pride, engendered in me by my knowledge of letters and it is even as the Apostle said: "Knowledge puffeth itself up" (I Cor. viii. 1)

Following the attack and castration, Abelard retreated to a monastery and lived as monk. Heloise, already in the convent and also now forced to live an asexual life, remained there and eventually became a Prioress. Unlike Gabriel (who reunited with Julia following his retreat to Assisi), the lovers were never to see each other again. However, their love for each other never waned, and is fully expressed in their exchange of letters. In my next post, I will further discuss the famous letters and discuss more similarities between the two couples – one fictional, and one authentic.

Julia: “Congratulations, Professor Abelard. No one has ever made me feel as cheap as you did…”

Gabriel: “But Abelard truly cared for Heloise and I care for you. So in that sense, there is a similarity. He also hurt her as I have hurt you. But he was deeply sorry for having injured her…”

(To be continued in Part Two)



Jenn said...

Thank you so much for writing this, Terry.

I always enjoy pieces like this which only enhance my favorite characters and author.

I'm really looking forward to Part II!


Blogmaitresse said...

A lovely post Terry. Thank you for clarifying a lot of points re Abelard and Heloise. I've only been able to skim through the Letters as yet, but now have time to read in depth. The parallels with Gabriel and Julia are great - and the symbolic castration of Gabriel underlines that.

I'm looking forward to your next post and analysis. M

Sheila xxx

Unknown said...

OMG! You need to get your English Degree darling, this was amazing!!! The parallels between the two sets of characters is almost perfect!!! I have a paper with the parallels of Elizabeth & Mr. Darcy to Julia & Gabriel, but your analysis kicks my silly little analysis ass!!! This was awesomesauce with an extra KICK! So good!! I love it!! Can't wait to read Post 2!! Hurry!!!
<3 Margie *o*

Unknown said...

Terry, thank you so much!! I never knew the story before, and now I see the parallel to Gabriel & Julia's love story. I see more of a connection to Abelard and Heloise than Dante & Beatrice. I'm looking forward to part 2 of your wonderful and informative post.
I don't mean to make a connection to this, but it almost sounds like a Mafia hit for disgracing Heloise. It would be something they would do.

Renata said...

I loved it!

Loved, loved, loved!

I've always been in love with the story of Abelard and Heloise, and, in fact, always been very strict with Abelard, always thought the same as Julia, that he didnt everything he could have done to fight for their love.

Your post is excellent! Seemed that I was reading those aritgos in magazines of literature and history, knows ... but with a lush vibrancy in the text!

Now here I am, sitting in shock, kind of upset because it's one more thing for me to wait, that part I and part II is making me sad it fairly! I hate waiting, Terry!

I need part II!


Thank you, dear, loved!

Who know you can post a teaser part II?! O.o

TerrytheNurse said...

Hey Renata, thank you for your comment. There's always a lot of discussion in the history/literary community about Abelard and that "he didn't do enough." Like you and Julianne, I'm not his biggest fan, either. However, I have to remember that he has to be viewed as a product of his time, and that he may have considered himself "useless" to Heloise since he was unable to express his love sexually (which would have been required as a married couple.) Actually, during this period of the Middle Ages-- the period of Courtly Love -- he would have been possibly viewed as making the ultimate sacrifice for her -- with the possible exception of dying for her.

And, of course once he was castrated, he would have been (and was) shunned. Like our lovely Professor,Abelard really did get himself into one big mess. :)

Jdt said...

Wonderful post Terry! As a teacher myself and literature and history fan enjoyed your parallels and of course your analysis! One of the reason I love reading the books about Gabriel and Julia is the coping to Literature History, Art. I teach German and Swedish in lower high school, and Sylvain Reynard work gives me a kind of "sanctuary" a connection to this beautiful treasure called Literature History.
Looking forward Part 2,

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