The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise, , at sacred-texts.com
This edition of 'The Letters of Abelard and Heloise' has been edited by Miss Honnor Morten. The translation bas been re-printed from Watt's edition of 1722.
In the accompanying Notes Miss Morten has epitomised much valuable research, elucidating the text of the Letters.
May 8th, 1901.
Former Editions.--There have been between fifty and sixty editions of these 'Letters' published; all founded on the Latin edition printed in Paris in 1616. This first edition is now very rare, but there is a beautiful specimen in the British Museum only mutilated by one little bookworm, which luckily has chosen the driest of Abelard's dissertations on the monastic life through which to eat its wandering way. The title page is as follows:--
IN BRITANNIA ABBATIS
HELOISAE CONGUGIS EIUS
QUOE POSTMODUM PRIMA CŒNOBII
PARACLITENSIS ABBATISSA FUIT
NUNC PRIMA EX MMS. CODD. ERUTA ET
IN LUCEM EDITA STUDIO AC DILIGENTIA
ANDREAE QUERCETANI, TURONENSIS.
SUMPTIBUS NICOLAI BUON VIA JACOBAE
SUB SIGNIS SANCTI CLAUDII ET HOMINIS
The best English edition was published in
[paragraph continues] 1718--Petri Abaelardi et Heloissae Epistolae, and shortly after the Rev. Jos. Beringer of Birmingham published a translation of the letters together with a life of the lovers. But for many years it has been impossible to secure an English or Latin version of the letters. In 1782, in Paris, appeared Lettres D’Abelard et D’Heloise. Nouvelle Traduction, avec le texte a coté. Par J. Fr. Bastien. In 1836 Cousin issued his Ouvrages indits D’Abelard, and thereafter in France editions were common. The best one, which is still procurable, is Lettres D'Heloise et D' Abelard. Traduction Nouvelle par le Bibliophile Jacob. Paris. Charpentier. 1865. It is complete, down to the least interesting of the Abelard fragments, but is in the paper covers of the Charpentier library.
Of course the authenticity of the letters has been questioned, but no human being can read them and not know them to be genuine.
1. Philintus.--In the original Latin the name of 'Philintus' does not appear--the friend is addressed only as 'delectissime frater.' This gives at once the tone of this translation--the desire to give a lively and readable reproduction of the letters rather than an exact one. The reader will probably not regard this as a fault if he turn to some of the clumsy and graceless renderings of the letters that have appeared.
Also the frequent and lengthy quotations from Scripture and the fathers are here omitted:--in one of her letters Heloise quotes no less than ninety-eight separate passages; and one of Abelard's letters is entirely taken up with a history of the origin of monastic institutions. The author of this translation has ignored all but the love passages of the letters; he has written for the littérateur, and left the dreary disquisitions for the historian.
2. Palais.--They still show at Palais or Palet, eight miles from Nantes, some ruins supposed to be those of the house where Abelard was born. His family was of noble origin.
3. Paris University.--'About the latter part of the eleventh century a greater ardour for intellectual pursuits began to show itself in Europe, which in the twelfth broke out into a flame. This was manifested in the numbers who repaired to the public academies, or schools of philosophy. None of these grew so early into reputation as that of Paris. In the year 1100 we find William of Champeaux teaching logic, and apparently some higher parts of philosophy, with much credit. But this preceptor was eclipsed by his disciple, afterwards his rival and adversary, Peter Abelard, to whose brilliant and hardy genius the University of Paris appears to be indebted for its rapid advancement.
[paragraph continues] Abelard was almost the first who awakened mankind in the ages of darkness to a sympathy with intellectual excellence. His bold theories, his imprudent vanities, that scorned the regularly acquired reputation of older men, allured a multitude of disciples. It is said that twenty cardinals and fifty bishops had been among his hearers.'--Europe during the Middle Ages (HALLAM) .
5. Beranger turns Monk.--The glimpses of the cloister given throughout these letters are instructive and quaint; as a place of retirement for elderly couples and widows they were in frequent use. The remnants of a useless life seem to have been a favourite offering. Compare Kingsley's Ugly Princess--
5. Lucan's Oak.--'Stat magni nomimis umbra.'--Pharsale.
6. 'An aversion for light women.'--In the original, 'Scortorum immunditiam semper abhorrebam.' And Villenave says 'Jusqu’à l’époque de ses liaisons avec Héloïse il avait eu horreur des vices du libertinage et que de profondes études l’avaient tenu constamment éloigné du commerce des femmes.' This is worth noting, as Boyle and others, without any grounds, have asserted that Abelard had always lived a loose life. Abelard does
not spare himself in his confessions, and there is no reason why he should have made the above statement if untrue. The very force of his love for Heloise points to its being the one great passion of a scholar's life. Jacob, in his translation, makes Abelard give as a reason for Fulbert's trust in making him tutor to Heloise 'la réputation si bien établié de ma continence.'
7. Her Wit and her Beauty.--Abelard insists rather on the learning than the beauty of Heloise--'Per faciem non infima; per abundantiam litterarum erat suprema.' When the bones of the illustrious lovers were moved from the Paraclete they were inspected by Delaunage, who published a life of Abelard in 1795. In this book he says he found that Heloise must have been of noble stature and beautiful proportions. Of her learning we have the testimony not only of Abelard but of the Abbé de Cluny and St. Bernard. The first wrote to her--'You have vanquished in knowledge all the women and surpassed in wisdom most of the men.' In the calendar of Paraclete she is recorded in these words--'Heloise, Mother and first Abbess of this place, famous for her learning and her religion.' And Boyle says' I must not here pass by the custom the religious of the Paraclete now have to commemorate how learned their first Abbess was in the
Greek, which is, that every year on the day of Pentecost they perform divine service in the Greek tongue. What a ridiculous vanity! 'M. Villenave, after studying the constitution of the Paraclete, says--Le xiie siècle n’a eu aucun théologien plus profond, aucun écrivain plus érudit et plus éloquent qu’Héloïse.'
8. 'Fulbert desired me to instruct her in philosophy.'--Fulbert gave Abelard complete control as tutor over Heloise, even to the point of personal chastisement--'minis et verberibus'; and Abelard says that in order to avoid suspicion gentle blows were often given--'verbera quondoque dabat amor, non furor; gratia, non ira.'
11. 'Agaton.'--Again imagination supplies the name. Luckily it is the letters of Abelard that are most freely paraphrased. The first letter of Heloise--the gem of all love letters--is most exquisitely rendered, so that it can be said that the translator may not have known how to read Latin, but she certainly knew how to write English. The 'she' is implied by the inaccuracy in the learning and the excellence of the love passages.
13. Abelard's Son.--It is strange that of the child of Abelard and Heloise so little is known; there are only two references to him. In one of her letters to the Abbé de Cluny, Heloise begs him to remember 'Astralabe' and procure him a benefice,
and in his reply Pierre de Cluny says--'I will willingly try and get a benefice in some great church for your Astralabe (Astrabis vestro).' Thereafter there is only the notice in the death list of the Paraclete that on the 4th of November died Peter Astralabe, son of our master Peter. (Obiit Petrus Astralabius, magistri nostri Petri filius.) The year is not given, but it is subsequent to his father's death. Some verses addressed to his son by Abelard are included amongst the Fragments edited by M. Cousin.
14. Heloise refuses Marriage.--It seems that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries marriage was common among priests. Pope Leo, who died in 1054, in his Parmenien epistle says--'We profess openly that it is not permitted to a bishop, priest or deacon to neglect his wife for his religion, or to refuse to provide her with food and clothing; but it is his duty to abstain from living carnally with her.' Marriage, apparently, was allowed but not approved, and was a bar to advancement in the Church.
16. Fulbert's Revenge.---' Corporis mei partibus amputatis quibus ad quod plangebant, commiseram.' In M. Gréard's translation Abelard says--'Ce qui contribuait encore à m’atterrer, c’était la pensée que, selon la lettre meurtrière de la loi, les eunuques sont en telle abomination devant Dieu, et que les animaux eux-mêmes,
lorsqu’ils sont ainsi mutilés, sont rejetés du sacrifice'--and he quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
16. 'So cruel an action escaped not unpunished.'--As usual, the chief sinner and instigator, Fulbert, escaped punishment, whilst those who for money carried out his evil intent suffered the loss of their eyes and other mutilation. Abelard meditated going to Rome to accuse Fulbert, but his friend, Foulques, Prior of Deuil, wrote and told him that to appeal to the Pope without taking an immense sum of money was useless. 'Nothing can satisfy the infinite avarice and luxury of the Romans. I question if you have enough for the undertaking, and then nothing will be gained but vexation for having wasted your wealth. They who go to Rome without large sums of money to squander will return just as they went, the expense of their journey only excepted.' This letter of Foulques is included in Abelard's 'Opera.'
17. 'O Conjux.'--Lucan's Pharsal, liv. viii.
18. 'A Council.'--The Council of Soissons, 1121. Abelard had opened a school at the Priory of Maisoncielle in 1120, and delivered some theological lectures on the 'tangled trinities,' which drew, as usual, large crowds of students--'Ad quas Scholas tanta Scholarium multitudo confluxit, ut nec locus Hospitiis, nec terra
sufficerit Alimentis.' Unfortunately he put in writing his doctrines in the Introductio ad Theologiam, and his enemies, Alberic of Rheims, and Lotulf of Lombardy, prevailed upon Conan, the Pope's Legate, to summon a Council, and to cause Abelard to appear before it with the 'great work I had composed upon the Trinity.' Abelard says the book was condemned without being examined, on the ground that he had no right to have read it or presented it to others without the permission of the Pope or the Church:--'Called by the Council, I presented myself on the field, and then, without discussion, without examination, I was forced with my own hand to throw my book in the fire. It was burnt in the midst of silence, my enemies only feebly murmuring that it contained a proposition that God the Father was the only omnipotent. A certain Dr Terriere replied ironically, in the words of St. Ambrose, "There are not three Almighties, but one Almighty." Then the Archbishop arose and confirmed the sentence, saying, "The Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty." They then called on me to confess and retract my heresy by repeating the symbol of Athanasius, and in order to humiliate me fetched a book for me to read it from, as though I did not know it by heart! Half
stifled by sobs and tears I said the words, and then the Abbé of St. Médard dragged me off to his cloister as to a prison. God, who knows the bitterness of all hearts, alone felt for the pain that devoured me, as without cease I cried again and again, "Jesus, my Saviour, where art Thou?" The mutilation of my body I had deserved, but this tarnishing of my name and reputation was a cruel injustice, and struck me to the soul.' Abelard had only been a few months in his new retreat when he again fell into 'heresy,' saying that Denis the Areopagite was Bishop of Corinth and not of Athens. This time, instead of facing the storm, he fled by night to a 'desert' near Nogent-sur-Seine (1131).
18. 'My enemies,' St. Norbert and St. Bernard, now joined Alberic and Lotulf in attacking this teacher who could attract such enormous crowds of students to the most out-of-the-way spots. The students had built Abelard a chapel, and he, having found comfort in that solitary place, dedicated the chapel to the Holy Ghost, under the name of the Paraclete or Comforter. His enemies said this title was a subtle recrudescence of the Trinity scandal, and that it was heresy to dedicate a chapel to the Paraclete. So once more Abelard had to flee; for some time, he says, he even hesitated whether he should not forsake 'Christian' lands and go across the
seas and dwell with the heathen; but being offered the Abbey of St Gildas-de-Ruys, he accepted it, only to find himself in worse plight than before.
18. St. Gildas.--A promontory on the coast of Brittany, between Loire Inférieure and La Vendée.
19. 'My dissolute Monks.'--'Les moins m’obsédaient pour leurs besoins journaliers, car la communauté ne possédait rien que je pusse distribuer, et chacun prenait sur son propre patrimoine pour se soutenir lui et sa femme, et ses fils et ses filles.'--Gréard's Translation.
Lord Lyttelton, in his Life of Henry II., says that had Heloise not been compelled to study the fathers in a nunnery, but had been allowed to improve her genius by application to polite literature, from what appears in her letters, she would have excelled any man of that age. It may be worth while to give a few sentences of Heloise's Latin:--'Duo autem, fateor, tibi specialiter inerant, quibus feminarum quarumlibet animos statim allicere poteras, dictandi videlicit et cantandi gratia; quae caetoros minimè philosophos assecutos esse novimus. Quibus quidem quasi ludo quodam laborem exercitii recreans philosophici pleraque amatorio metro vel rithmo composita reliquisti carmina, quae prae nimiâ
suavitate tam dictaminis quam cantûs saepius frequentata tuum in ore omnium nomen incessanter tenebant, ut etiam illiteratos melodiae dulcedo tui non sineret immemores esse. Atque hinc maxime in amorem tui feminae suspirabant.'--See page 32.
32. The Smallest Song.--Of the love songs of Abelard no authentic vestige remains, though they lived as folk-songs for many years, and are referred to as late as 1722. In the Chants Populaires de la Bretagne, published in Paris in 1846, there is a ballad crediting Heloise with being a sorceress: doubtless her learning led her to practise the healing art amongst the ignorant Bretons.
40. 'Your Rigorous Rule.'--The rules of the Paraclete, drawn up by Abelard and modified and adopted by Heloise, are exceedingly lengthy, but of great interest to those who study the history of religious houses. The dress was a chemise, a lamb's skin, a robe, sandals, veil, and a rope girdle, and for the winter a mantle was allowed, which could also be used as an extra bed covering. The nuns slept in their habit, but Heloise insists to Abelard that they must be allowed two sets of clothing, in order that the garments may be washed and vermin kept at bay! No meat was eaten--the chief food was vegetables,--but on feast days milk, eggs and fish were occasionally allowed. Wine
was permitted only for those who were ill, and was apparently made at the Paraclete and doctored with herbs. A Sister who went outside the cloister was to be punished by one day on bread and water in every week for a year. A Sister guilty of breaking her vow of chastity is to be severely beaten and not again allowed to wear the veil, but made to act as a servant. All the offices were said regularly, night and day. The Paraclete existed as a cloister, and kept its rule under twenty-six abbesses after Heloise, the last being Charlotte de La Rochefoucauld. After her death the Paraclete was sold (1792) and turned into a factory.
Abelard to Heloise.--This letter is slightly abbreviated, some of Abelard's confessions evidently not being deemed suitable for print.
56. 'Our former irregularities require tears, shame and sorrow to expiate them.'--'Cependant, pour adoucir l’amertume de ta douleur, je voudrais encore demontrer que ce qui nous est arrivé est aussi juste qu’utile, et qu’en nous punissant après notre union et non pendant que nous vivions dans le désordre, Dieu a bien fait. Après notre marriage,
tu le sais, et pendant ta retraite à Argenteuil au convent des religieuses, je vins secrètement te rendre visite, et tu te rappelles à quels excès la passion me porta sur toi dans un coin même du réfectoire. Tu sais, dis-je, que notre impudicité ne fut pas arrêtée par le respect d’un lieu consacré a la Vierge. Fussions-nous innocents de tout autre crime, celui là ne méritait-il pas le plus terrible des châtiments ? Rappellerai-je maintenant nos anciennes souillures et les honteux désordres qui ont précédé notre marriage, l’indigne trahison enfin dont je me suis rendu coupable envers ton oncle, moi son hôte et son commensal, en te séduisant si impudemment ? La trahison n’était-elle pas juste? Qui pourrait en juger autrement, de la part de celui que j’avais le premier si outrageusement trahi? Penses-tu qu’une blessure, une souffrance d’un moment ait suffi à la punition de si grands crimes? Que dis-je? De tels péchés méritaient-ils une telle grâce? Quelle blessure pouvait expier aux yeux de la justice divine la profonation d’un lieu consacré à sa sainte mère? Certes je me trompe bien, ou une blessure si salutaire compte moins pour l’expiation de ces fautes, que les épreuves sans relâche auxquelles je suis soumis aujourd’hui. Tu sais aussi qu’au moment de ta grossesse, quand je t’ai fait passer dans mon pays, tu as revêtu l’habit sacré, pris le rôle de religieuse, et que, par cet irreverencieux
déguisement, tu tes jouée de la profession a laquelle tu appartiens aujourd’hui ? Vois, après cela, si la justice, si la grâce divine a eu raison de te pousser malgré toi dans l’état monastique; elle a voulu que l’habit que tu avais profané servit à expier la profanation.
Tu sais à quelles turpitudes les emportements de ma passion avaient veué nos corps; ni le respect de la décence, ni le respect de Dieu, même dans les jours de la passion de Notre-Seigneur et des plus grandes solemnités, ne pouvaient m’arracher du bourbier où je voulais. Toi-même tu ne voulais pas, tu résistais de toutes les forces, tu me faisais des remontrances, et quand la faibleose de ton sexe eût dû te protéger, que de fois n’ai-je pas usé de menaces et de rigueurs pour forcer ton consentement! Je brûlais pour toi d’une telle ardeur de désirs, que, pour ces voluptés infâmes dont le nom seul me fait rougir, j’oublais tout, Dieu, moi-même: la clémence divine pouvait-elle me sauver autrement qu’en m’interdisant à jamais ces voluptés? Compare la maladie et le remède. Compare le danger et la délivrance.'--Gréard's Translation.
The passion of Heloise is only increased by the letter from Abelard; she has succeeded in
making him write to her, and now craves his presence or further news of him.
62. 'How void of reason.'--Seneca. Marhob, 34
65. 'Hearken, my son.'--Prov. vii. 24. Eccles. vii. 26.
68. 'How many persons.'--St. Gregory. Lib. de Pænit. c. 10.
70. 'I preside over others but cannot rule myself.'--Compare Nietzsche's 'Many a one cannot loose his own chains, and yet is a saviour unto his friend.'
72. 'I seek not to conquer,' etc.--This is a quotation from St. Jerome's Adverns Vigilantum and runs in the original--'Fateor imbecellitatem: nolo spe victoriae pugnare, ne perdam aliquando victoriam.'
Heloise to Abelard.--Not having received the desired letter, Heloise feigns to have conquered her love and writes to demand spiritual help, and rules for the Paraclete. She would do anything to bring herself into closer touch with Abelard. He meanwhile is becoming less the lover and more the priest.
83. 'I give myself up at night.'--It is impossible not to recall Mrs Meynell's beautiful sonnet, 'Renouncement,' though the likeness is accidental:--
Oh, just beyond the fairest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits, hidden, yet bright;
But it must never, never, come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long,
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,--
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart.'
From 'Poems.' (Mathews and Lane.)
Abelard ceases the correspondence so far as personal thoughts or desires go; he sends Heloise a prayer not given in the 5722 translation, of which the following is an abbreviated rendering:--
'Grant us pardon, Great God, for you are merciful; pardon our sins though they are many; O let the immensity of your mercy equal the multitude of our faults! Punish the wicked in this world and not in the next, punish us now but not in eternity. Take against your servants the rod of correction and not the weapon of vengeance; strike the body but preserve the soul; be our merciful father rather than our severe master.
'You, Lord, joined us and then separated us at
your pleasure; we pray Lord that having separated us in this world, you will unite us again in eternity.'
Two further letters passed between Heloise and Abelard, but both dealing entirely with the affairs of the Paraclete and containing no personal matter whatever. Then, so far as we know, the correspondence ceased.
The troubles of Abelard did not end with the conquering of his love for Heloise. Once more his foe, Bernard of Clairvaux, arraigned him for heresy, and he was summoned before the Council of Sens. Abelard determined this time on the bold stroke of appealing to Rome, but he was an old man now, and broken by persecution and continual trouble; on his way to Rome he was taken ill, and took refuge at the Abbey of Cluni, which was presided over by the Venerable Peter, the friend and admirer of Heloise. Here he lingered for some months, getting steadily worse; he was removed to the Priory of St. Marcel for better treatment, but died there on the 21st of April 1142. The Abbot of Cluni sent his remains to Heloise at the Paraclete.
Bernard's letters condemning Abelard's Theologia, Sententiae, Scito teipsum, and Epistola ad Romanos are given in brief in Dupin's History of Ecclesiastical Writers. He also inserts the collection of propositions condemned by the Council of Soissons. An account of Abelard's heresies is also given in
[paragraph continues] Ranken's History of France. The writer of the article 'Abelard' in the Encyclopædia Britannica says:--'The general importance of Abelard lies in his having fixed more decisively than any one before him the scholastic method of philosophising, with its object of giving a formally rational expression to the received ecclesiastical doctrine. Through him was prepared in the Middle Age the ascendency of the philosophical authority of Aristotle which became firmly established in the half century after his death.'
'It is related that the prelates assembled at the Council of Sens, which condemned Abelard, went to sleep, one and all, over their cups after dinner, during the reading of the offensive volume. Upon the occurrence of an objectionable passage the reader interrogated the somnolent judges, "Damnatis?" to which a drowsy voice answered, "Damnamus"; and the remainder, aroused by the noise, responded in half articulate but appropriate chorus, "Namus," i.e., "we swim" (in debauchery). Thus the man who night and day exercised himself in the Lord was condemned by the satellites of Bacchus.'--Rise and Progress of Christianity (MACKAY).
'Simple in his food as in his vestments, he condemned by his discourse and his example not only all superfluities, but all that was not absolutely necessary to retain life. He read continually; he prayed often; he kept perpetual silence. Never saw I so great a man so completely abase himself. It was thus that the great Pierre finished his days.'--PIERRE-LE-VENERABLE (Abbé de Cluny). Liv. iv. ep. 21.
Heloise lived twenty years after Abelard, ruling her convent well, till it became the most famous religious house in France. She was in constant communication with the Pope, with St. Bernard, with the Abbot of Cluni, and all the great ecclesiastics of the day, who all held her in high repute.
'It appears by a letter of Peter de Cluny to Eloisa that she had solicited for Abelard's absolution. The Abbot gave it to her. It runs thus:--"Ego Petrus Cluniacensis Abbas, qui Petrum Abaelardum in monachum Cluniacensem recepi, et corpus ejus furtim delatum Heloissae abbatessae et moniali Parecleti concessi, auctoritate omnipotentis Dei et omnum sanctorem absolvo eum pro officio ob omnibus peccatis suis."'--Curiosities of Literature (DISRAELI).
The Abbot of Cluni also wrote an extravagant Latin epitaph comparing Abelard to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and interesting only as showing in what high esteem the lost learning of Abelard was held.
'An ancient chronicle of Tours records that when they deposited the body of the Abbess Eloisa in the tomb of her lover, Peter Abelard, who had been there interred twenty years, this faithful husband raised his arms, stretched them, and closely embraced his beloved Eloisa. Du Chesne, the father of French history, not only relates this legendary tale of the ancient chroniclers, but gives it as an incident well authenticated.'--Curiosities of Literature (DISRAELI).