The Heloise of History

The Heloise of History

By Carl J. Kelso

Master’s Thesis, University of North Texas, 1988

Raymond Monvoisin depiction of Heloise in the 19th century
Raymond Monvoisin’s depiction of Heloise in the 19th century

Abstract: This thesis seeks to determine the historical role of the twelfth-century abbess Heloise, apart from the frequently cited and disputed letters exchanged between her and Peter Abelard. Independent information exists in the testimony of Heloise’s contemporaries, in the rule written for her abbey the Paraclete, and in the liturgy of the Paraclete.

This evidence not only substantiates an erudite Heloise in concert with the Heloise of the letters, but serves as testimony to a woman of ability and accomplishment who participated in monastic reform and who sought to bring a positive direction to women’s lives in the cloister. From this, it becomes clear that although Heloise may not have written the letters ascribed to her she was certainly capable of writing them.

Introduction: The recent renewed controversy over Heloise’s authorship in the correspondence between her and Abelard may indeed finally answer the question of who wrote Heloise’s letters. The problem of the letters, however, is not the problem of Heloise. If Abelard created the letters, he did not create Heloise herself. Where, beyond the romantic characterizations, exactly does Heloise exist, and was she, when all the available evidence is considered, anything like the romantic, humanist Heloise that she has become?

In 1904, Henry Adams venerated Heloise as a “Frenchwoman to the last millimetre of her shadow” and “by French standards worth at least a dozen Abelards.” Here Adams sets the tone for the many judgements that were to follow.

Later historians praised Heloise more succinctly, but no less warmly, in terms of the humanism of the twelfth century, a phenomenon frequently cited from her letters. Sir Richard Southern notes that it was Heloise’s self-disclosures which gave the collection its human dignity, replete with classical thought and tragic despair. To David Knowles what “renders her unique and gives her nobility” was her “unshakable resolve with the most complete and voluntary self-sacrifice – not, indeed, the surrender of her own will and life to God or to any other ethical demand, but the surrender of herself in totality to another.”

Christopher Brooke regards Heloise’s letters as a supreme expression of medieval humanism, combining a love of the ancient world and a concern for human emotions and their expression.  For Etienne Gilson, though Abelard and Heloise were not simply renaissance Italians of the fourteenth century misplaced to the twelfth, they did demonstrate some characteristics of the Italian Renaissance. In this view Heloise is an anachronistic prototype of the Renaissance individual.  Gilson, indeed, goes so far as to argue that Heloise’s letters disprove Burckhardt’s thesis that Dante was the first writer to reveal the mysteries of an individual’s inner life.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of North Texas

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