Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Review: Heloise and Abelard by Etienne Gilson

Heloise and Abelard by Etienne Gilson

One of the most famous romantic tragedies of the Middle Ages was also a historical event--the relationship of Heloise and Abelard. Abelard was a philosopher and theologian teaching in Paris during the early 1100s. He had a towering intellect with an ego to match. His career was highly successful and occasionally controversial. He was hired by Fulbert to teach his niece Heloise. She had private lessons in Fulbert's house and the thirty-something Abelard fell in love and had an affair with the teen-aged Heloise. She was a brilliant student even before coming under Abelard's influence. When Fulbert found out about the affair, he had them separated. Heloise and Abelard continued to meet in secret. She became pregnant and went to Brittany to have the child in the home of Abelard's sister. Abelard proposed a secret marriage (kept secret to preserve his intellectual career) to appease Fulbert. Heloise objected but finally consented. Fulbert did not want it kept a secret so he announced the marriage after it happened. Abelard sent Heloise to a convent to free her from the influence of her uncle. Fulbert took this a a rejection of Heloise and had some men break into Abelard apartment at night and castrate him. Abelard decided to become a monk and argued Heloise into becoming a nun at the convent. She still pined for his love and was uncomfortable in her role as a nun and eventually an abbess. They exchanged several letters which are the primary source for their story.

Gilson draws on these letters to give not so much the history of Heloise and Abelard but a sense of them as two people swept up in their passion for learning the classics (they were as fond of Roman Stoics as of Christian writings) and for each other. Heloise realizes that, in order to be a great man of letters like Seneca of St. Jerome, Abelard needs to be chaste and focused on his intellectual work. She objects to marrying since that will certainly hurt his academic career, not so much for causing scandal or limiting his clerical options, but for creating other responsibilities that will consume his energy and time. He seems to want it both ways--to be married but not admit it in public so as to let him advance his career. His ego lets him think it will work and he persuades her to accept his judgment. When things turn out poorly, he has a change of mind and heart which causes anguish and strife for both of them.

Gilson does a great job describing them as persons. He also spends quite a while debunk others who have written about the pair from the historical-critical method, casting doubts on the authenticity of the letters. Theories range from "the letters were substantially rewritten" to "the letters were created afterwards." Gilson argues ably and interestingly against these theories, though the arguments are a bit dry and academic. They are important, however, from the viewpoint of trying to know Heloise and Abelard as they were themselves, rather than as readers would like them to be.

This book is an interesting read and makes me want to read the original letters, along with Abelard's Historia Calamitatum, which also describes the events.

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