One famous and tragic love story from medieval times captured the imagination of people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story involved Peter Abelard who was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician and Heloise d’Argenteuil, a French nun, writer, scholar, and abbess.
Abelard has been described as a fascinating man who was twenty years older than Heloise. Yet, when he met Heloise, he was intrigued by her wit, intelligence, and remarkable knowledge of classical letters in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
Heloise was under the care of her uncle named Fulbert, and because of Abelard’s interest in Heloise, Abelard obtained work at her uncle’s house in 1115 or 1116. Abelard then pursued Heloise and did so to the point it interfered with his career and ended his celibacy. Moreover, once Fulbert found out about Abelard’s interest in his niece, he separated the pair, but their relationship was so intense and passionate, they could not resist one another and continued to met in secret.
Their affair became even more scandalous when Heloise announced she was pregnant. To provide and care for her, Abelard sent her to his family in Brittany. It was there that she gave birth to a son whom she named Astrolabe, after the scientific instrument that is an elaborate inclinometer and historically used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. In the meantime, to protect his niece’s reputation, Fulbert arranged a secret marriage between Heloise and Abelard, but the marriage was a ruse.
The ruse was soon discovered and it became clear to the lovers that Fulbert’s true plot was to ruin Abelard and keep Heloise for himself. Luckily, Heloise escaped to a convent at Argenteuil, but Abelard did not have the same luck. He was attacked by Fulburt’s friends and castrated. Filled with shame, Abelard decided to become a monk and encouraged Heloise to become a nun, which also meant Heloise had to give up her child and never see Astrolabe again.
In 1132, Abelard wrote Historia Calamitatum, an autobiographical work that told of his seduction of Heloise. His words so moved Heloise, she wrote her first letter. Then, for the next twenty years, Abelard and Heloise’s corresponded with one another until eventually, they had a chance meeting in Paris and briefly reunited. They realized at that time that their love was the reason for human existence, and they promised to remain together forever.
Their love story and their letters, which ended upon Abelard’s death in 1142, were not widely known to their contemporaries. In fact, the first publication of the letters was in Latin and occurred in Paris in 1616. After the 1616 translation, other translations followed, and, so, by the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Abelard and Heloise were thought of as tragic medieval lovers and revered as romantic saints.
The lovers who endured adversity and separation in life became united after death. Abelard died in 1142 and his bones were moved to the Oratory of the Paraclete, which is a Benedictine monastery founded by him in Ferreux-Quincey, France. In 1163/64, after Heloise’s death, her remains were placed in his coffin. At their internment, one person noted:
An ancient chronicle of Tours records that when they deposited the body of the Abbess … 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 [Heloise]. 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.
Their remains remained intermingled until 1497 when some prudish nuns had them separated. The two lovers may have forever remained apart had their love story not captured the attention of Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine Bonaparte. She was so enamored with Abelard and Heloise’s love story, she ordered them to be entombed together at the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise in a crypt, and Napoleon must have thought it was a good idea as the transfer of their remains to Père Lachaise occurred in 1817.*
Entombing Abelard and Heloise’s remains at Père Lachaise was also a smart marketing move. Up to that time it had been an unpopular cemetery because it was considered too far outside Paris. After Abelard and Heloise’s remains were interred there, the cemetery increased in popularity and that encouraged others to bury their loved ones there. The story of Abelard and Heloise’s love also sparked nineteenth century lovers and the lovelorn to visit their crypt, and it became a lover’s shrine where love letters were left in the hopes that they too might have or find a forever love.
*There is some dispute as to whether or not Abelard and Heloise’s remains are actually buried in the crypt at Père Lachaise. The Oratory of the Paraclete, maintains the couple are buried there and that the crypt at Père Lachaise is merely a monument to the lovers. However, other people claim Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père Lachaise and that Heloise’s remains are elsewhere.
- Abelard, Peter, The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 1908
- Clannish, Michael T., Abelard: A Medieval Life, 1999
- Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 14, 1882
- Hughes, Esq., John, Translator, Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 1760