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A 12th Century love affair

Updated Tuesday, 8th April 2008

Rachel Gibbons explores the life of Peter Abelard, and his writing of Historia Calamitatum (Story of His Misfortunes)

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Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages, producing a range of work on philosophical theology, ethics, metaphysics and logic. For many centuries, though, he has been best known for his dramatic affair with his gifted pupil, Héloise.

Abelard himself is our main source of information about the love-story through his Historia Calamitatum (Story of His Misfortunes), written in the 1130s. However, the Historia tells us about far more than the tragic romance, which ended with both Héloise and Abelard, castrated in a revenge attack by Héloise’s uncle, entering monastic life. Analysis of the Historia, as a piece of literature and as an historical source, along with a knowledge of the historical context and circumstances in which it was written, provide us with many more insights into the medieval world.

Whenever historians come across a primary source (that is, contemporaneous evidence, produced at the time), they need to ask themselves a set of basic questions about the source in order to assess its usefulness and value, and to be able to use it correctly in their work. Chief amongst these are questions of authorship – who wrote it, and why did they write it – and, also, questions of purpose – what type of source is it, and whom was the intended audience? Abelard names himself as the author in the text, but the answers to why, what and for who are a lot less clear.

The Historia is set out like a letter, addressed to an anonymous friend, intended (it says) to console the ‘friend’ that his own misfortunes pale in comparison with those that Abelard has endured. A modern reader might reasonably ask, though, why a friend who knew Abelard already would need to be told in such detail about his life and tribulations – and might then conclude that this is not a genuine personal letter, but that Abelard is using the letter (epistolary) format as a literary device. The imagined letter was by this stage a well-used form of rhetoric amongst intellectuals, just like an invented debate between representatives of diverse viewpoints, such as that used by Abelard in another of his works, the Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian.

The Historia Calamitatum is a polished piece of rhetoric. The original Latin prose is ornate, elegant and meticulously constructed. The word ‘calamitatum’ recurs at precise intervals throughout the work, and is the exact middle word, demonstrating Abelard’s extraordinary proficiency. The narrative is full of classical illusions as well, such as the metaphor Abelard uses to describe how he gave up his inheritance as a knight to become a scholar – how he ‘withdrew from the court of Mars (god of war) in order to kneel at the feet of Minerva (goddess of wisdom)’.

The language may be formal, but the story is extremely personal. This may be another reason why Abelard chose the epistolary device as a means by which an author can ‘confide’ in the page. For all its formality, Abelard’s Historia bears some resemblance to modern celebrity autobiographies, confessing past misdemeanours, putting forward a personal, one-sided view of events, and wanting to prove that the author has ‘moved on’ in their life.

Abelard is candid with his readership about his behaviour, his failings and feelings. He admits that he pursued Héloise and takes responsibility for their affair. Having heard of her intelligence and beauty, Abelard orchestrated meetings with her and then persuaded her uncle Fulbert to employ him as a tutor. Fulbert gave Abelard complete charge of Héloise – ‘more than I had dared to hope; … if he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf it would not have surprised me more’.

Abelard is not ashamed to appear vain – ‘I had youth and exceptional good looks to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love’ – or arrogant about his talent and abilities – students flocked to listen to his lectures, ‘and the wealth and fame this brought me must be well-known to you’. He is frank about his despair in the days after he was attacked: ‘How could I show my face in public, to be pointed at by every finger, derided by every tongue, a monstrous spectacle to all I met’.

For all its formality, Abelard’s Historia bears some resemblance to modern celebrity autobiographies

Why, then, did Abelard write the Historia Calamitatum and expose himself to further publicity? There are a few clues to possible motivation in the text. At the time of writing, Abelard was the abbot of an isolated monastery in Brittany, where he was very unhappy and fearful for his safety, alleging the monks had tried to kill him several times. Betty Radice suggests that Abelard circulated the autobiography ‘in order to win sympathy for his predicament’ and gain permission from church authorities to leave this post and, perhaps, be able to return to teaching. If that was one of Abelard’s aims, it was successful. He left Brittany with his bishop’s consent and was back teaching in Paris within a couple of years.

Several statements in the Historia indicate that Abelard’s motives for writing were more complex than this purely practical goal, however. He often recounts situations where he feels that he has been misjudged or falsely accused, such as when his work on the Unity and Trinity of God was publicly burned by the papal legate, or when calling his priory the Paraclete (a name for the Holy Spirit) was condemned. In common with modern autobiographers, Abelard thus uses his Historia as a means of setting the record straight. He frequently stresses that preservation of his good name is the most important thing to him: ‘My agony is less for the mutilation of my body than for the damage to my reputation’.

Abelard also appears to use the process of writing as a cathartic experience, trying to find meaning and personal growth in the worst of his experiences. ‘Let us … bear our wrongs the more cheerfully the more we know they are undeserved’, he is able to say in conclusion to the Historia. ‘[We] must take comfort at least from the knowledge that God’s supreme goodness allows nothing to be done outside his plan, and whatever is started wrongly, He himself brings it to the best conclusion’. It may be going too far to argue that Abelard comes to see his disgrace and castration as a blessing, but he certainly has come to a position where he can convince himself that his downfall had a divine purpose. He freely admits that he had been ‘wholly enslaved to pride and lechery’, and believes that ‘God’s grace provided a remedy for both these evils, though not one of my choosing’.

Is the Historia, then, a story of redemption, in which cruel misfortune in the end saves Abelard from his own sins and means that he lives the rest of his life a better man and better Christian? In that sense, the Historia closely mimics the Confessions of St. Augustine, a highly-revered early Christian writer, in which Augustine relates his life as a journey from sinful youth to a greater understanding of himself, the world, and God’s purpose for him. Abelard may well have used the Confessions as his model, trying to emulate a great scholar of the past just as an exercise of rhetorical writing. However, his letters to Héloise and others of his writings confirm what he says in the Historia – that he has come to acceptance of his fate and can see God’s grace in it.

Abelard tells us about more than just himself in his autobiography. He lived through a period of great change and this is reflected in events surrounding his relationship with Héloise and his career as a scholar. The Historia, then, is a good example of how an historical source or text can provide different kinds of information to historians, and demonstrates that primary sources often tell historians unwittingly far more than the author intended or expected.

it would be better to be Abelard’s mistress than his wife, and that ‘only love freely given’, not under the constrictions of marriage, was worthy.

When the relationship of Abelard and Héloise was discovered, her uncle Fulbert was insistent that they should get married. Like all scholars, Abelard was a cleric – he wasn’t a priest or, at that point, a monk, but had minor clerical status within the Church – and, in the twelfth century, there was renewed drive within the Church to insist on clerical celibacy. Abelard’s experience in Brittany, where monks lived with their concubines and children within the monastery, demonstrates that in many areas of Christian Europe this ideal was slow to catch on, and had not been rigorously enforced. However, after a series of reforming popes, celibacy was being promoted to all clerics. If Abelard wanted to advance as far as his talents and obvious ambitions could take him within the Church, he could not risk marrying.

This explains why Abelard, eager to stay with Héloise but mindful of his career, proposed that they marry in secret. Héloise initially refuses to go along with the plan, well aware that having a wife and family would jeopardise Abelard’s scholarship. She put to him: ‘Who can concentrate on thoughts of Scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house?’ In her argument, Héloise also reflects the culture of courtly love that was beginning to have an impact on society, saying that it would be better to be Abelard’s mistress than his wife, and that ‘only love freely given’, not under the constrictions of marriage, was worthy.

Abelard’s account of his life also tells historians a good deal about the beginnings and original purpose of higher education. By the start of the twelfth century, monasteries were beginning to lose their monopoly on education and those wanting to learn were able to move quite easily from place to place, to wherever their chosen teacher might be. Abelard began his own studies in the cathedral schools of Nôtre Dame in Paris and at Laon, and was amongst the early scholars making significant contributions to the reputation of Paris as the premier seat of learning in northern Europe. The university in the twelfth century was not a place, not the bricks and mortar; the university was the scholars, wherever they chose to gather and teach.

As his reputation grew, Abelard had students congregating around him and informal schools forming, first at Melun, then Compiègne and, after his castration, at what would become the Paraclete. Abelard had retreated into the countryside to live as a hermit, but eager students followed him, built their own huts of reeds, with ‘straw in place of soft beds and using banks of turf for tables’. After the Historia was written and he was able to leave Brittany, Abelard created a school on Mont Sainte-Geneviève just south of Paris on the Left Bank – the beginnings of the Sorbonne.

Abelard did not shy away from controversy in the years after the Historia. After getting into dispute in 1140 over his collection of biblical commentaries and philosophical debate, Sic et Non, with the firebrand preacher and extremely influential Bernard of Clairvaux, Abelard was actually excommunicated. However, the sentence was rescinded and he spent the last eighteen months of his life in peace, protected by the Abbot Peter the Venerable at Cluny Abbey. Abelard died in around April 1142 and was buried at the Paraclete where, according to the abbey records, Héloise was buried alongside him when she died in 1164. After being moved several times over the centuries, the bodies are now believed to rest in Père Lachaise cemetery in the south-east of Paris.

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