It is perhaps one of the best known stories of the Middle Ages: how in the 12th century, Peter Abelard, one of the greatest medieval thinkers of his day, met Héloïse d’Argenteuil, an outstanding student. He was supposed to teach her, but soon they became lovers. It would lead to Heloise’s pregnancy and the birth of a child they named Astrolabe. They secretly got married, but rumours and misunderstandings led to Abelard being attacked and castrated by Heloise’s uncle. He would enter a monastery and she a nunnery, but their story would not be finished yet…
Edited and translated by William Levitan
Hacket Publishing, 2007
You can find several different editions of the writings of Abelard and Heloise – including online – which will provide you with an Peter Abelard’s The Story of My Misfortunes (Historia Calamitatum), where he tells his version of events. As one historian described it to me, it is when Peter Abelard ‘tries to comfort a friend who has fallen on hard times by telling him that things could be much, much worse.’
The book also contains several letters between Abelard and Heloise after they entered the cloister. As Barbara Newman recently wrote, “Among medievalists, few figures have been more deeply contested. Their epistolary tale has been read as a scandal, a tragic romance, an edifying conversion story, a clever forgery and an exemplum of either patriarchy or feminism in action. Along with countless paintings, poems, plays, novels and operas, the letters have generated more than their share of scholarly debate.”
By Constant Mews
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 (first edition was in 1999)
In 1974 a scholar came across a 15th-century text where a scribe had written the letters between two nameless lovers – a teacher and his student. Known as the Epistolae duorum amantium, the style of writing suggests the 12th century, so this could be more Abelard and Heloise. In this book, Constant Mews offers the text and translation of the 113 letters from this collection (many of them just fragments), plus his case for why they are authentic. However, many historians are not convinced that these are genuine letters of Abelard and Heloise. Still, if you want to do further research on the couple, you will need to have this book in your library.
By James Burge
This biography of the two people is aimed for the general reader, and makes use of the lost letters. It recounts their lives by making use of the various sources, and can serve as a good introduction to the topic. One reviewer notes that “Burge skillfully brings to life both lovers through their passionate, beautiful letters and the climate in which they lived. As in all the best biographies, the writing is lively and engaging.”
By Michael.T. Clanchy
Besides getting his student pregnant and being castrated, Abelard is also known for other things. He is one of the leading thinkers of the Middle Ages, who was also condemned for heresy – twice. According to a review in the Times Literary Supplement, “Michael Clancy’s book will rank for some time as the best scholarly biography of Abelard. It is a compelling and convincing account that draws together the many disparate facets of the life of one of the most energetic minds and personalities of the twelfth century, or indeed of the Middle Ages.”
Edited by Bonnie Wheeler
Palgrave Macmillan, 2000
Heloise, the twelfth-century French abbess and reformer, emerges from this book as one of history’s most extraordinary women, a thinker-writer of profound insight and skill. Her learned mind attracted the most radical philosopher of her time, Peter Abelard. He became her teacher, lover, husband, and finally monastic ally. That relationship has made her fame until now. But Heloise is far more important in her own right. Seventeen experts of international standing collaborate here to reveal and analyze how Heloise’s daring achievements shaped normative issues of theology, rhetoric, rational argument, gender, and emotional authenticity. At last we are able to see her for herself, in her moment of history and human awareness. Papers include ‘Heloise the Abbess: The Expansion of the Paraclete’, by Mary M. McLaughlin, ‘The Curse of Eve: Female Bodies and Christian Bodies in Heloise’s Third Letter’, by Peggy McCracken, and ‘Heloise and Consolation of Friendship’, by Brian Patrick McGuire.
By Marion Meade
William Morrow, 1979
The story of Abelard and Heloise has inspired countless authors, including medieval ones, to write about the love and plight in novels, plays and even movies. One of these works is Stealing Heaven, written by Marion Meade. It is described as “an epic story of one of history’s most tragic love affairs. With facts pulled from Heloise’s actual love letters, Meade creates a poetic and sensual tapestry of France in the 12th century. Heloise and Abelard lived beyond their punishment in quiet contemplation of life and God–Abelard as a monk and Heloise as a nun and the founder of a convent. Her story is one of a brilliant woman, trapped within the confines of her society. But, it is also the story of an inspiring love that has lived on throughout history.”
The book was also turned into a movie, also called Stealing Heaven, which was released in 1998.