It was extraordinary to discover, when I was researching Queens of the Conquest, that, in a brutal world dominated by men, the Norman queens were recognized as equal sharers in the royal authority, and that they wielded real power and often acted autonomously. Few females of lesser rank could have broken so remarkably through the constraints of an age in which women were regarded as inferior creatures who should be subject to the rule of men; yet there was one who, like the Norman queens, defied the conventions of her time, took control of her own body, and was one of the great free thinkers of her day. Her name was Heloise, and her story is known through eight letters that were discovered in the thirteenth century.She is famous for her tragic love affair with the scholar Peter Abelard, yet there was much more to her life than that. Not for nothing has she been celebrated, for eight centuries, by historians, artists, poets, novelists and filmmakers.
Heloise grew up in a world dominated by feudalism, the Church and the flowering of the twelfth–century Renaissance. She was the niece of Fulbert, a wealthy, cunning and miserly canon of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Reared at the ancient royal convent of Argenteuil, she was taught Latin, Greek and even Hebrew, and educated to a standard not normally permitted to girls, even those of noble birth. At seventeen, by which time her formidable erudition was already renowned, she was sent to Paris to live in the house of her uncle, who would hopefully find her a husband of standing—-and enrich himself in the process.
But Heloise turned down offers of marriage, as she wanted to continue with her studies. Arriving at her uncle’s house in 1115, she met his lodger, the famous scholar Peter Abelard, and, like many women, was powerfully attracted to him. “What king or philosopher could match your fame?” she would later write. “What region, city, or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you, or crane her neck and strain her eyes to follow your departure? Every wife, every young girl, desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence. Your manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body.”
Abelard was then about thirty–six, more than twice Heloise’s age. The oldest son of a noble Breton family, he was already established as a great—-and revolutionary—-teacher in the cathedral school of Paris, which later evolved into the university of the Sorbonne. As was mandatory for all such teachers at that time, Abelard had taken minor orders and was vowed to celibacy, for it was believed that marriage and family life were incompatible with the teaching of theology, philosophy and other disciplines.
As part–payment for his keep, Canon Fulbert asked Abelard to tutor Heloise. Abelard, who had until now kept his vow of celibacy, found himself captivated by her beauty and intellect. He later recalled: “In looks she did not rank least, while in the abundance of her learning she was supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her very famous throughout the realm.” Entranced, he seduced her. “Knowing her knowledge and love of letters I thought she would be all the more ready to consent, and that even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages in which we could write many things more boldly than we could say them, and so need never lack the pleasures of conversation.” And so it proved. In Paris, on the wall of a house near Notre Dame, there is even an inscription commemorating the place where Heloise first experienced the joys of consummation.
Secretly, they embarked on a passionate love affair. Abelard recalled: “We were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so, with our lessons as a pretext, we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then, with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts.”
Their “desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love devised something new, [they] welcomed it.” They risked making love in Fulbert’s house, on holy days (when it was forbidden) and even in a convent. Sometimes the sex was violent, as Abelard would reveal. “To attract less suspicion, I sometimes gave her blows, but out of love, not fury, out of kindness, not anger—-blows that surpassed the sweetness of all ointment.” He blamed himself for this. “Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power, and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature, I often forced you to consent with threats and blows. So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we blush even to name, above God as above myself.” He was aware at the time that, in making Heloise his mistress, he was not only infringing all the laws of hospitality, but also fatally diminishing her chances in the marriage market, for virginal girls of good birth were essentially chattels who could be married off for profit.
Abelard was also tormented by guilt for betraying his vows, but Heloise saw things differently. For her, the love they bore each other superseded all else. Abelard was everything to her. She wanted only to love him and pursue her studies. Marriage was a convention that meant nothing. “I looked for no marriage–bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours,” she was to tell Abelard. “The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend, or, if it does not shame you, that of concubine, or whore. I believed that, the more I humbled myself on your account, the more gratitude I should win from you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation.”
Her passion was returned in full measure. “If there is anything that may properly be called happiness here below,” Abelard wrote, “I am persuaded it is the union of two persons who love each other with perfect liberty, who are united by a secret inclination, and satisfied with each other’s merits. Their hearts are full and leave no vacancy for any other passion; they enjoy perpetual tranquillity because they enjoy contentment.”
Such a great passion could not be kept secret for long. Abelard, Heloise recalled, had “the gift of composing verse and song. More than anything, this made women sigh for love of you.” His love songs celebrating her were widely circulated and became famous. “As most of the songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me.” She would claim that “queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.”
Fulbert heard the gossip and was enraged. After Heloise discovered she was pregnant, he threw Abelard out of his house. Abelard tried bribing one servant after another to get a message to Heloise, urging her to abscond with him. At length, her singing teacher agreed, and Heloise managed to inform Abelard that she was expecting his child and would willingly join him. He fled with her to his sister’s house in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son whom she called Astrolabe—-because that instrument was seen as a path to Heaven and the stars and symbolized her love for Abelard.
Learning what had happened, Fulbert flew into a fury. To pacify him, Abelard offered to wed a reluctant Heloise. “She, however, most violently disapproved of this, and for two chief reasons: the danger thereof, and the disgrace which it would bring upon me. What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light!” But she really had no choice. Leaving her son in Brittany (beyond a few obscure references to him in her letters, nothing is known of what became of him), she returned to Paris, where she and Abelard married in secret, to protect his reputation and his career. Not wishing to stand in the way of that, Heloise chose openly to deny that she was his wife. “God knows,” she wrote, “I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.”
She had a presentiment that marriage would sound the death knell of their love. “Then there is no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known.” With hindsight, Abelard later wrote, “As now the whole world knows, she did not lack the spirit of prophecy.”
As fearful for her reputation as she was for his, and to shield her from Fulbert’s anger, Abelard persuaded her to put on a nun’s habit and seek refuge at the convent of Argenteuil. Again, Fulbert was enraged, believing that this was just a ruse on Abelard’s part to be rid of her, although Abelard was visiting her there—-and having sex with her on the table in the visitors’ parlor or kitchen. Incandescent at Abelard bringing such shame upon him, and thwarted in his plans for a lucrative marriage for Heloise, Fulbert sent some of his relatives and friends to take his revenge. Later, Abelard described what happened next: “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.”
Although Abelard recovered, the loss of his manhood was devastating for both him and Heloise. Not only did it put an end to their passionate relationship, but it also put an end to any hope Abelard might have had for future high office in the Church, since eunuchs were barred from that—-a fact of which Fulbert had been fully aware. The perpetrators of the crime were condemned to be castrated also, and Fulbert was barred from Notre Dame for some years, but that did not help the lovers. In shame, Abelard retreated to the abbey of St. Denis in Paris, and there became a monk. But first, contrary to her own desire—-she was only twenty—-he commanded, as her husband, that Heloise too enter religion, as a nun at Argenteuil. It was as if he was ensuring that, if he could not have her, no other man could.
That hurt her deeply. She was still feeling a sense of betrayal years later when she wrote to him: “As though mindful of the wife of Lot, who looked back from behind him, you delivered me first to the sacred garments and monastic profession before you gave yourself to God. And for that, in this one thing, you should have had little trust in me: I vehemently grieved and was ashamed. For I (God knows) would without hesitation precede or follow you to the Vulcanian fires according to your word. For not with me was my heart, but with thee. But now, more than ever, if it be not with thee, it is nowhere. For without thee it cannot anywhere exist.”
She had no leaning toward the religious life. “It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone. I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of Him.” She existed only for Abelard’s love, or the memory of it.
Condemned for heresy in 1121 (he had attacked the accepted concept of the Holy Trinity), Abelard became a hermit for a time, then, with the aid of his pupils, he built a new monastic school, which he called the Paraclete (the Comforter) near Troyes, in northeastern France. In 1125, he was made Abbot of St Gildas–de–Rhuys in his native Brittany, and gave the Paraclete to Heloise and her sister nuns. Throughout their monastic lives, Heloise and Abelard maintained a regular and often passionate correspondence. Their letters reveal how their love endured until the end of their lives.
“Let me have a faithful account of all that concerns you,” Heloise wrote in one. “I would know everything, be it ever so unfortunate. Perhaps, by mingling my sighs with yours, I may make your sufferings less, for it is said that all sorrows divided are made lighter.” It grieved her that, although he remained devoted to her, Abelard would not engage with her emotionally in his letters, or give her the responsive support she needed to endure the life he had chosen for her. “While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words, of which you have enough to spare, some sweet semblance of yourself. Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me. I beg you to restore your presence to me in what way you can, by writing some word of comfort. Give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my one–and–only.”
In time, Abelard could find it in himself to thank God for his “greatest misfortune,” which had mercifully excised “the place from which lust rules”; he now felt he had been “cleansed rather than deprived.” Heloise had no such consolation. “Men call me chaste,” she wrote. “They do not know the hypocrite I am.” She kept asking to meet Abelard, reminding him that they were still married, but he refused, saying his love for her had been purely physical. God’s mercy had freed them from sexual desire so that they could embrace divine love.
Yet Heloise could never forget their passion. For her, love had been intensely physical, and the remembrance of it burned like a flame in her soul. “The lovers’ pleasures we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they can scarcely fade 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 on my most unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness rather than on prayer. I, who should be grieving for the sins I have committed, am sighing rather for what I have lost. The things we did, and also the places and times we did them, are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you. Even in sleep I know no respite.”
In time, though, her letters took on a more spiritual tone, and she resigned herself to being Abelard’s “dearly beloved sister in Christ.”
In 1142, after again being accused of heresy and retiring to the great abbey of Cluny, Abelard died at the priory of St. Marcel near Chalon, aged sixty–three. At Heloise’s request, his body was buried at the Paraclete, and she was laid to rest beside him in the same tomb on her own death in 1164. Legend has it that, as she was laid beside him, Abelard’s skeleton opened its arms to embrace her. In 1800, after being moved several times, their remains were translated to Paris, and in 1817, at the behest of the Empress Josephine, they were buried together in an elaborate sepulchre at Pere Lachaise cemetery. Today, lovers still leave flowers there.
In 1980, a cache of 113 short letters said to have been exchanged between Heloise and Abelard was discovered in a Latin manual of letter writing dating from 1471, having been transcribed in a single document. But the attribution to the lovers can be based only on circumstantial, rather than actual, evidence, and scholarly opinion is divided as to the letters’ authenticity.
Heloise’s story is perceived as being eternally entwined with Abelard’s, but she deserves to stand in her own right alongside such heroines of the twelfth century as Matilda of Scotland, Hildegard of Bingen, Matilda of Boulogne and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In some ways, Heloise is a very modern heroine, for in making her controversial choice to place her love for Abelard above all other considerations, and to indulge that love freely, taking no account of the conventions of her day, she defied society and the rules of the Church. She has been seen as a champion of free love because for a long time she refused marriage, believing that men and women should give themselves freely to each other without enslavement. She is also seen as a rebel who defied God Himself, and as an early champion of the liberation of women. Her name is synonymous with both love and tragedy, and for that alone, she has become a legend.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. “The past is a foreign country,” wrote L. P. Hartley, but is it possible to draw parallels between the world inhabited by the Norman queens and our world today?
2. Were you surprised by the extent of the power and influence enjoyed by the Norman queens? If so, why?
3. Which queen did you like most? And which one was most effective in her role?
4. Why was it that women were so often denied power in the past? Did the example of the Empress Maud reinforce those views?
5. Was it the Empress Maud’s sex that militated against her? Or was it her own actions?
6. Is it possible to see any of the Norman queens as feminist heroines? And is it right to draw feminist parallels with women who lived centuries ago and had no understanding of the concept of feminism?
7. In the nineteenth century, biographer Agnes Strickland wrote highly romanticized and moralistic accounts of medieval queens, an approach that has only relatively recently been abandoned. Do you think that Alison Weir has achieved a more realistic and objective portrayal?
8. What kind of monarchs would these queens have made had they been allowed to rule?
9. How do the moral values and priorities of the eleventh and twelfth centuries differ from those of today? Would kings like William the Conqueror and Henry I be as much admired in the modern age?
10. Do you feel that this book and other contemporary sources clarify or obscure our view of the Norman queens? And do you believe it is possible for a historian to achieve—-and convey to readers—-some apprehension of their emotional lives?