February 2005

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography by James Burge

Nine hundred years from now, will people still be telling the great and tragic love stories of our time? Just picture it: academics poring over twenty-first century news accounts of the storybook wedding and heartbreaking divorce of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Seems unlikely. Evidently, though, if you’ve got the right story, even nine intervening centuries aren’t enough to render it obsolete. Proof of this is evident in the publication of James Burge’s Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, whose title lovers first met in the year 1115.

Those readers familiar with the story, one of the most infamous of the Middle Ages, should know all the salient details: boy meets girl, boy and girl have torrid love affair, girl’s uncle finds out and has boy castrated, boy and girl become monk and nun. A light romantic comedy it’s not. Even more amazing than the story is the way in which it was preserved: all of our knowledge of it is based on a mere eight letters the lovers exchanged years after their initial affair, and which were discovered a century after their deaths.

In Burge’s biography, those eight letters do feature prominently, but have been supplemented by a hundred more that were discovered by scholar Constant Mews in 1980 and are now attributed to the lovers. The new letters survived in a fifteenth century how-to letter-writing book; Mews theorized that the book’s compiler might have stumbled upon a set of Heloise and Abelard’s letters in the archives of his monastery and included them as love letter examples.

Even the story of the discovery of the new letters is a meaty one, and Burge manages to describe it succinctly in the first chapter. In subsequent chapters he describes Abelard’s rise to prominence as a philosopher in Paris and his acceptance of Heloise as his student, and eventually turns to their passionate affair. The story is told chronologically but the letters themselves are never revealed in their full order and context; although Burge intersperses excerpts of them skillfully within his text, it is sometimes frustrating to read so few of the lovers’ actual words.

Eventually Heloise and Abelard had a son and were secretly married. This did not stop Heloise’s jealous uncle from ordering the castration of Abelard, the process of which is not dwelt upon at length but is still described sufficiently to leave little to the imagination. After that the relationship of the two devolved into a prolonged absence that made their hearts grow fonder; Abelard spent the rest of his life in one monastery or another, and Heloise went on to become the abbess of a convent that he founded. The eight famous letters date from this period; Heloise contrived to continue the relationship by writing to Abelard with philosophical questions.

Although the blending of the letters and the text is well done, the book often reads more like two separate biographies. Perhaps that was inevitable, due to the lovers’ separation after Abelard’s castration. Perhaps it was also inevitable that the book feels “Abelard-heavy”; the reader can only assume that, as is often the case, the man’s side of the story was the easier to obtain and corroborate. It’s a shame, that, because although Peter Abelard probably was a character (Burge frequently points out that most people, even those who found him brilliant, often tired of having him around) it is Heloise who, despite the little time devoted to her personality and career, emerges as the more intriguing of the two.

It is Heloise who admits that she daydreams about their more carnal encounters while in church, and it is she who reminds Abelard that everything was fine while they “abandoned themselves to fornication,” and that all hell broke loose only after they were married. It took quite a twelfth-century woman to tell her lover that, if it would help his career, she would rather be his whore than his wife. That’s a woman I want to read more about. I also want to see the full text of her letters, damn it, even if the publisher has to cough up a few more pages for an appendix to include them.

In the end, though, Burge has written a compelling and still admirably scholarly book, and has done his part to tell a love story that beats Brad and Jennifer’s, hands down. May it live for another nine hundred years.

Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography by James Burge
HarperSanFrancisco
ISBN: 0060736631
319 pages