Abelard and Heloïse

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Abelard and his pupil Heloïse, painted by Edmund Blair Leighton.
Abelard and Heloïse surprised by Master Fulbert, painting by Jean Vignaud (1819).

Abelard and Heloïse are the protagonists of one of history's most famous love stories. In this true story from the Middle Ages, the French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) fell in love with his young and brilliant female student Heloïse (1101 – 1162). Their relationship became a deep lifelong love affair after Abelard began to regularly spank his charge under the pretext of disciplining her.

The couple's names have often been transliterated and are known as:

  • Peter Abelard: Petrus Abaelardus, Pierre Abélard, Pierre Abailard, Pedro Abelardo, ...
  • Heloïse: Heloise, Heloisa, Héloyse, Hélose, Helouisa, Eloise, Aloysia, ...

The story[edit]

Abelard was one of the most popular teachers and philosophers in Paris, when (at the age of 35) he became Heloïse's tutor at her uncle Fulbert's house, who was a canon in Paris. Heloïse was a highly gifted girl 13 years of age, 22 years younger to Abelard.

There was in Paris a young girl named Heloïse, the niece of a canon, Fulbert. It was his affectionate wish that she should have the best education in letters that could be procured. Her face was not unfair, and her knowledge was unequalled (...) I had hitherto lived continently, but now was casting my eyes about, and I saw that she possessed every attraction that lovers seek; nor did I regard my success as doubtful, when I considered my fame and my goodly person, and also her love of letters. Inflamed with love, I thought how I could best become intimate with her. It occurred to me to obtain lodgings with her uncle, on 5 the plea that household cares distracted me from study. Friends quickly brought this about, the old man being miserly and yet desirous of instruction for his niece. He eagerly entrusted her to my tutorship, and begged me to give her all the time I could take from my lectures, authorizing me to see her at any hour of the day or night, and punish her when necessary.
  — From The Mediaeval Mind by Henry Osborn Taylor

When he had thus given her into my charge, not alone to be taught but even to be disciplined, what had he done save to give free scope to my desires, and to offer me every opportunity, even if I had not sought it, to bend her to my will with threats and blows if I failed to do so with caresses?
  — From Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

The two fell in love, and Abelard was anxious that Heloïse's uncle might become suspicious. Periodically, with Heloïse's full consent, he would pull her over his knee, and spank her bottom, the loud noise of which (and Heloïse's attendant cries) reassured her uncle that there was nothing suspicious going on, as Abelard was obviously taking his employment as the girl's tutor and disciplinarian seriously.

Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love (...) In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness...
  — From Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum, translated by Henry Adams Bellows

These tender, love-inspired spanking sessions had the effect that Heloïse, originally with just a crush, an infatuation, found that her love for her tutor grew deeper and stronger the more he reddened her quivering buns. And vice-versa. Their illicit relationship continued for about four years until Heloïse bore him a son, whom she named Astrolabius (Astrolabe), c. 1118; the exact year is unsure.

The couple got married in secrecy and Abelard placed Heloïse in the convent of Argenteuil where she had grown up. In the same year her uncle set men upon Abelard and had him castrated. It is thought that Fulbert believed Abélard had abandoned Heloïse and took vengeance upon him. Abelard survived the assault, but the two lovers were separated from then on. Abélard's career had ended and he became a monk in the Abbey of Saint-Denis. Héloïse was forced to become a nun against her will.

Heloïse eventually became the abbess of the Benedictine monastery Oratory of the Paraclete in Ferreux-Quincey that had been founded by Abelard. After 10 years of silence Abelard and Heloïse began a regular correspondence through passionate letters, that continued until Abelard's death.

Before his death Abelard wrote a singularly honest and exceptionally readable book on his life, Historia Calamitatum, in which he gives a complete account of these matters, while confessing his sins. Abaelard died in the year 1142, aged sixty-three. Twenty-one years afterward Heloïse died at the same age, and was buried in the same tomb with him at the Paraclete.

In literature, play and film[edit]

The German play The Tutor, or The Benefits of a Private Education (German: Der Hofmeister, oder Vorteile der Privaterziehung) (1774) is a tragicomedy by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz based on the story of Abelard and Heloïse. In the twentieth century, it was adapted by Bertolt Brecht, also under the title The Tutor (German: Der Hofmeister).

The story of Abelard and Heloïse also inspired the 1761 novel Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is also a love story between a teacher and his student.

The English film Stealing Heaven (1988) is a modern retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloïse.

See also[edit]