By Albrecht Classen
Rocky Mountain Review, Vol.57:1 (2003)
Introduction: The debate about the authenticity of Abelard and Heloise’s correspondence has raged for many decades, if not centuries. Traditionally, many critics have claimed that Heloise, as a woman, could not have composed such learned letters in Latin because they demonstrate outstanding literary and rhetorical skills, or that the highly famed Abelard would not have entered such a correspondence with his former student, then girl friend, and eventual wife, or that such a correspondence could have been only the invention and falsification of a later detractor of Abelard. But recent research has finally put much of the doubts and disbelief to rest. Constant Mews has been highly instrumental in providing new evidence in favor of Heloise as the actual writer of these letters addressed to Abelard and has cogently argued against the critics in the discussion pertaining to the authenticity of these texts. Moreover, he has demonstrated that Heloise not only composed the letters traditionally known as having been exchanged between herself and Abelard, but that she also can be identified as the author of another large collection of an epistolary dialogue with her husband, transcribed by the fifteenth-century Cistercian monk Johannes de Vepria, working in the library of Clairvaux. Summarizing his extensive investigations, Mews reaches the following conclusion:
These letters help confirm the authenticity of the famous correspondence of Abelard and Heloise. They also suggest that the Historia calamitatum cannot be relied upon as the final word on Abelard’s early relationship with Heloise. Much more than Heloise, Abelard distances himself from his past in order to save his reputation. She, by contrast, was rigorously hostile to hypocrisy both in love and in the religious life.
The history of medieval scholarship focused on the correspondence and its authenticity reaches far back and reflects as much, if not more, about itself as about the actual letters. Apart from many stylistic, historical, literary, philosophical, and theological arguments which, in fact, allow us to attribute these epistolary documents to this outstanding twelfth-century female intellectual, feminism has taught us to comprehend the typical patriarchal perceptions of women’s “proper” role in society, and also Heloise’s, which was not supposed to break this stereotype. Considering the author’s surprising self-consciousness, sharp intellect, stunning rhetorical and aesthetic skills, but also Heloise’s surprising stance on marriage and free love, it is easily understandable why older, particularly male scholarship, was vehemently opposed to Heloise’s claim on the authorship of these letters.