By Sharon Jane Go Chua
Master’s Thesis, Georgetown University, 2009
Abstract: The letters of Abelard and Heloise have mostly been analyzed and critiqued via the artificial dichotomy of “personal” and “instructional,” resulting in a static and monolithic account of Heloise’s so-called transgressive desires. This thesis argues, however, that the letters by Abelard and Heloise, together with their liturgical works for the Oratory of the Paraclete, constitute an ongoing negotiation for the redefinition of authenticity within the religious life. Heloise’s unflinching devotion to her ideal of love becomes her primary impetus for challenging the blind adherence to St. Benedict’s Rule that was pervasive in twelfth century religious devotion.
Excerpt: Abelard’s life, whether for good or bad, is intrinsically tied to the lives of the nuns of the Paraclete. He was not only the founder of the oratory but, more importantly, its religious director, a position that required him to expend great resources and energy to mold the symbolic world of the nuns. The letters exchanged between Abelard and Heloise, all of which form part of the Paraclete’s official record, mark the attempts to structure the symbolic order of the oratory of the Paraclete with a view towards cultivating the “authentic religious self.” Their ideas of what exactly constitutes authenticity never fully converge, however, and their negotiation regarding this moved beyond the purview of the letters to the liturgical works Abelard wrote and composed for the Paraclete. This intellectual exchange, however, is obscured by the notion that Heloise had nothing to contribute to her former teacher’s ideas. Skepticisms about and outright disregard for Heloise’s role in shaping the eventual trajectory taken by Abelard’s thoughts are usually derivative from her status as “only” Abelard’s student and lover.