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Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography [Hardcover]

James Burge


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Nov. 18 2004

The heart-rending love story of Abelard and Heloise was one of the most talked about relationships in the Middle Ages, and is one of the greatest love stories of all time. Peter Abelard was arguably the greatest poet, philosopher, and religious teacher in all of twelfth-century Europe. In an age when women were rarely educated, Heloise was his most gifted young student. As master of the cathedral school at Notre Dame in Paris, Abelard was expected to be celibate; his career would be destroyed by marrying. In spite of this, Abelard and Heloise's private tutoring sessions inevitably turned to passionate romance, and their moments apart were spent writing love letters.

When Heloise became pregnant, her possessive guardian and uncle, Fulbert, angrily insisted that they marry. The ceremony was held in secret, but the rumor spread through Paris. Enemies confronted Heloise, who publicly denied the marriage in order to protect Abelard's career. Fearing for her safety, Abelard slipped Heloise out of the city and sent her to a convent. Robbed of his niece and his family's honor, Fulbert took revenge by having Abelard brutally castrated. Abelard retreated to a monastery, and the famous lovers now lived separate lives behind cloistered walls -- but their love, and their letters, continued.

For a long time, the only letters known to have survived dated from the later period of their separation. Then, astoundingly, a few years ago a young scholar identified 113 new letters between the pair. Lost for almost nine hundred years, these fresh missives provide an intriguing snapshot of the couple's clandestine passion that is erotic, poignant, and at times even funny.

James Burge is the first biographer to combine these astonishing new discoveries with the latest scholarship, resulting in a more complete biography; one that paints a fuller picture of Heloise as a woman who tested the cultural constraints of her time. Burge also addresses Abelard's theological disputes with other teachers, including Bernard of Clairvaux, which led to Abelard's eventual trial for heresy. But Heloise & Abelard is much more than a biography. It opens a window onto the enormous and exciting changes that took place in medieval Europe, even as it presents us with the richest telling yet of one ofhistory's greatest love stories.


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From Publishers Weekly

The romance of Héloïse and Abelard remains one of the greatest love stories of all time—one of forbidden love; the eventual lifelong separation of the lovers, cloistered in a monastery and convent; and the vengeful castration of Abelard by Héloïse's uncle. More tantalizingly, we know of the affair only from eight surviving letters between the couple. But British Sunday Independent columnist Burge draws on 113 recently translated letters that have been attributed to the lovers. Based on all of these letters, Burge analyzes the feelings and states of mind of the correspondents, and he can be a bit pedantic at times. But who can fail to be moved by the passion expressed in the letters? "Even during the celebration of the Mass," Héloïse famously wrote, "when our prayers should be purest, lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take... a hold on my unhappy soul...." Burge relates Abelard's theological struggles with the medieval Church, especially with the powerful Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux. Unlike in previous biographies, Héloïse emerges as a leader, too, in her role as abbess of the Paraclete, which she developed into a substantial institution. A complex woman, she sought a unified sense of self that would incorporate both her sexuality and her religious faith. Readers new to this medieval drama will be drawn to this vivid account. B&w illus., maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Burge draws heavily on historical sources and the letters of Heloise and Abelard to recount the lives of the famous lovers. Besides the letters long known and used, he refers to recently discovered letters (originally copied in the fifteenth century by Johannes de Vepria) that have been attributed to Heloise and Abelard, presenting compelling evidence for accepting the ascription. After establishing the new letters' credibility, Burge gives the reader a detailed description of the political, social, and religious setting in which the couple's romance blossomed. The two met in 1115, when Abelard was an outspoken philosopher and Heloise was a promising student. Their affair was conducted virtually under the nose of Heloise's uncle, who was enraged when he learned the truth and eventually had Abelard castrated. Thereafter, the couple turned to religious life, but their passion never abated. 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. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly... but still fun and interesting to read. Nov. 11 2004
By Megan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Forget Romeo and Juliet... this is the real deal.

A brilliant up-and-coming philosopher is hired to tutor the equaly brilliant young niece of a powerful man... what should ensue but a story that involves love, romance, a nighttime escape with both lovers dressed as nuns, the birth of a child, and a brutal act of revenge that will make men everywhere wince.

Anyone who studied medieval history in college knows of the letters of Abelard and Heloise... the research for this book is based upon not only the original 8 that made their story famous, but also upon what the author believes to be a newly discovered cache of letters between the lovers. He makes a convincing case for the legitimacy of these new letters, and offers a much more thorough analysis of the story, the characters, and the major events of the period than exists elsewhere.

The author does a wonderful not only telling the story, but also putting it into historical context. This is a truly powerful story of unrequeited love that has fascinated historians and lay people alike for centuries, but it is also a very interesting history of a crucial period in Church history and in the history of Western Europe. The first whispers of the reformation are being heard, the Church is starting to punish heresy in very serious ways, and many of the social, religious, and educational institutions are being questioned. The modern reader might be particularly interested in the life that Heloise makes for herself: her career trajectory might come as a surprise to those who think that, except for the occasional queen, women were completely powerless in medieval European society.

This book provides a very well researched and well written study of two people stuck in a situation that is much greater than either of them, and of the repurcussions that follow their affair. It offers a very interesting examination of the state of philisophy and religious thought of the period. I highly recomend it to anyone who is interested in medieval history, church history, or women's history... or to anyone who is interested in reading about the greatest love story of all time.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly Nov. 17 2004
By ilmk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
James Burge's uptodate examination of the lives and letters of the twelfth century tragic lovers, Heloise and Abelard, is a superb piece of scholarship. With an examination of both the original attributed letters and the excerpts now identified as from their original love letters collated by Johannes de Vepria and first revealed by Constant Mews in 1999, Burge takes us through the known lives of the two ill-fated lovers whilst continually instructing the reader on twelfth century european monastic life and the firm secular power that the Church weilded through its canonical law.

The story of Abelard and Heloise (he the greatest logiical philosopher of his age, she a brilliant classical scholar some ten years his junior) who fall in love whilst she studies under him in Paris, their subsequent hasty and secretive marriage, the birth of their child Astralabe, Aberlard's subsequent castration by Heloise envious uncle, Fulbert and their enforced separation to the Orders and literary reconciliation, has echoed down the ages.

The Romeo and Juliet of its time, the erudite, first hand accounts of an altogether human love between two great intellectuals opens up the world of twelfth century europe to us in a way that is priceless. As Burge correctly comments fairly early in the text, the concept of the period being part of the medieval ages and pre-renaissance is farcical in the evidence of the Parisian centres of learning that Abelard founded and taught at.

Drawing heavily on the texts, Burge gives us an insight into the personalities of both, showing Abelard as that brilliant, yet socially aggressive, scholar, Heloise as his intellectually equal, yet through what modern terms would denote as `true love', utterly under his charming spell right to the end.

The primary source material consists of eight letters, opening with a letter from Aberlard to an unknown correspondent in response to several meetings he has had, putting down what is almost an autobiography. The letter (or a copy) makes its way to Heloise who writes a reply, thus reopening communication between the two. Whilst the opening 200 pages refer heavily to the first letter of each, as Burge's biography catches up with Aberlard's abscondment from St Denis and sojourn near St Troyes at Paraclete then the remaining six letters come into force. Ableard's papal-acknowledged bestowal on Paraclete to Heloise to found her abbey means that the two came into contact and through the letters we are able to see Heloise 'force' Abelard to acknowledge that he is her first true love and her taking the veil was enforced by him upon her.

Burge now continues to move through the later stages of Abelard's life, continuing to note his cyclic fortunes, waxing and waning with Stephen de Garlande until the latter finally fell from grace as Bernard de Clairvaux rose to European political pre-eminence and the former finally returned to Paris. In a change of style Burge spends several pages discussing the themes within the hymns of Abelard, a literary examination amongst the historical investigation before reverting to discussions of Abelard's fighting with Clairvaux and the famous Council of Sens where the latter's brilliant rhetoric won the minds of the 'jurors' rendering Abelard speechless. Abelard ended his days condemned for heretical discouse, eventually dying whilst under the hospitality of Abbot Peter and with his death so the story peters out quite quickly, a few pages remaining to briefly cover what little we know of the remaining third of Heloise's life, and some of the known actions of their son before even more quickly covering their escalation within the French national identity and final resting place in Paris together.

Burge's work excels in bringing the story, the period and the nature of the philosophy to the reader in a manner that is both readable, informative and deeply stimulating. It is the kind of secondary text that would inspire a reader to go out and purchase the original texts of these brilliant twelfth cenutry lovers and read even further around the entires scope of twelfth century european religion, politics and philosophy. At the same time it does not lose its emotive discussion, humanising both of these people and making their tragic love story rise fresh to a new century of people. This book is highly recommended.
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Light on the Classic Lovers Jan. 20 2005
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Shakespeare immortalized the fictional lovers Romeo and Juliet, but for historic doomed lovers, readers have always gone to the story of Heloise and Abelard. The letters between them, written in twelfth century France, are flirtatious, intellectual, dramatic, tragic, and erotic. The world for centuries has been fascinated by the eight letters exchanged by them when they were forced to be apart, but then a few years ago emerged a cache of letters they sent each other while they were also having passionate physical and intellectual exchanges. James Burge has drawn upon the letters old and new to produce _Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography: (HarperSanFrancisco) which is a genial guide to the classic story, a thoughtful and affecting work that explains the times, religion, and politics of a vastly different age. No American reader, however, will come away without thinking about the current influence of conservative or restrictive religious ideals, or of the continued desire of those in power to impose moral values.

In 1115 Abelard was 36 years old, a teacher of logic and master of the Cathedral School at Notre Dame in Paris. Heloise was fifteen years younger when they met. She was the niece of a local Parisian canon named Fulbert, and she came to the attention of Abelard because of her learning and her desire to learn. She became Abelard's pupil, and then his mistress. Even though they spent a lot of time in personal tutorials, they wrote letters to each other. Abelard wrote, "Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new we welcomed it." Heloise was consumed as well; this couple enjoyed their intellectual exchanges, enjoyed romance, but they really enjoyed sex. At least one time they made love in the refectory of a church. Years later, looking back on the torrid year and a half of their affair, Heloise wrote even as an abbess, "The lovers' pleasures that we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they can never displease me." When Fulbert found out about the affair, he threw Abelard out, and when Heloise became pregnant, he forced them to get married. It would seem that Fulbert would have been satisfied with the outcome he had engineered, but he was still enraged at the loss of his family's honor, and perhaps at the loss of Heloise as well. He sent his henchmen out to Abelard's house one night, and they castrated him. Abelard became a monk and made Heloise become a nun.

He preceded her in death, when his body was taken back to the crypt of the little church of Heloise's abbey, and she was eventually buried there as well. The Paraclete did not survive the French Revolution, but the lovers' remains were brought back to Paris and became initial celebrity occupants of the newly formed Pére Lachaise cemetery. It may be that the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison get more visits there now, but the Gothic Revival monument of Abelard and Heloise does not lack for flowers brought by those captivated by a romantic and frankly sexual story. Burge has been careful to set quotations from the letters in the circumstances of their times. There are, sadly, huge gaps in the story, years we do not know about and thoughts that even these prolific pen-pals kept to themselves; Burge has always indicated when he is making suppositions. He is particularly strong on church history and thought, especially contrasted with the words of Heloise who joined a religious to a sexual rapture. There can be no doubt that these two were serious thinkers and soundly Christian, but theirs was a strikingly modern faith that could accommodate desire and eroticism.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Abelard & Heloise June 14 2006
By Anna Jane Stone - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The romance of Abelard and Heloise is almost as famous as Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet were fictitious. Abelard and Heloise, however, lived. In addition, both Abelard, a famous Medieval philosopher, and Heloise, the administrator of a large convent, had identities beyond their relationship.

Many books about Abelard and Eloise have been written during the 900 years since their death. Their story is sad. The author, James Burge, demonstrates that their difficulties were partly due to the times but were also due to their personalities.

The occasion for this excellent book is the remarkable recent discovery of 113 letters the lovers wrote to each other. James Burge uses these together with previously known letters and other records to construct biographies of each of the lovers. As we follow them through their lives, Burge describes 12th century philosophical and religious thought, Medieval educational institutions, places important to the couple, the economic situation of the times, Medieval architectural movements, clothing, food, and other details of life.

The new and old letters provide a wealth of information about Abelard and Heloise. Burge uses them to flesh out their long dead bones. By the end of the book, I felt I knew these people, complete with their strengths and weaknesses. Other records describe people with whom the couple interacted. These interactions importantly elucidate the personalities of Abelard and Heloise.

While he lived, Abelard was well known for winning philosophical disputations and for his teaching. The book is a bit disappointing in that we never watch Abelard either dispute an opponent or teach students. Perhaps surviving records do not give enough information to permit this. Without such "demonstrations", we don't know exactly what Abelard did in these situations that was so unusual.

Heloise was a big surprise to me. She was no retiring, Medieval, uneducated miss. Today we would call her a Liberated Woman. She was brilliant and had a mind of her own. Had she lived today, she probably would have had an illustrious career as a writer. Her letters are outstanding. Her Latin vocabulary was immense and her choice of words and sentence structure (as translated) was original and vivid. Her writing is immediate and moving. At times her prose feels like poetry.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Uncommonly Powerful Love Story Jan. 9 2008
By Ray - Published on Amazon.com
James Bruge's recent work on Heloise and Abelard must surely rate as one of the best to date on the moving and emotional story of this epic love affair torn from the pages of 900 years past. Although the story has been told countless times since Heloise and Abelard fell in love in Paris while Abelard pursued a teaching career at the recently started University of Paris, this new book offers not only superb writing and prose, but also an important "extra" which is not to be missed.

As most people may know, the story of Heloise and Abelard's love is based solely on the eight existing documents written back and forth to each other back in the eleventh century (three written by Abelard, and five by Heloise). Due to some fortuitous circumstances, some good detective work, and a subsequent extensive critical review, a cache of some additional 113 letters from between the two were discovered only recently in the 1970's (the letters were embedded in another medieval work that sought to teach proper Latin writing form, and made use of the text of these letters to illustrate outstanding writing examples, but nevertheless did not cite the source authors). With the majority of the academic community now confirming the authenticity of these 113 "new" letters, Bruge is able for the first time to weave what these letters reveal into the greater narrative, address lingering questions, fill in gaps, and just generally build a much greater understanding of the lives of these two people who must certainly be considered two of the most famous persons of medieval Europe to have ever lived.

It is certainly a story worth telling. What shines forth from these letters is, surprisingly, not Abelard's renowned logic or rhetorical skills, but Heloise's love, her consummate skill at expressing that love in some of the best Latin ever penned (and that must surely be rated as good as Cicero, or better), and her steadfast obedience to that love she possessed in spite of the most difficult circumstances. Yes, this is a book about two medieval individuals, is set in medieval times, and contains numerous historic references to the people and events of the period. To any medievalist, that's not only fine, but good. But this book, for all its references to medieval university structures, medieval church rules and practices, and the start of the gothic building movement, is really about none of these. Rather, it is about Heloise and Abelard, their love, and the cost that each of them paid for pursuing that love. It's Romeo and Juliet on steroids, and once one has read the story as Bruge tells it, it can be little mystery as to why this story has been repeatedly told for the past 900 years. It truly is a love story worth reading.

Bruge's writing is clear and meaningful, and includes a few minor explanations that the non-medievalist will find helpful to help set the context of the writings. Thus the book is really a popular work, accessible to anyone. Nevertheless, Bruge has managed to keep the work "scholarly," and the work can easily be used by any medievalist scholar who wishes to read more about the process of discovering and authenticating the new 133 letters. There is also a well-regulated smattering of historical signposts and indicators sprinkled throughout the work that help contextualize Heloise and Abelard's story, necessary because so many of the issues they faced were a direct result of the era in which they lived. On the way, we are introduced to Willam of Champeaux, Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot Suger, Abelard's patrons, and others with whom Abelard tangled (the list of "offenedees" is both long and distinguished). We also learn of some of the regional areas in which Abelard travelled: a native of Brittany, he spent much time in Paris, but was also called to Sens to defend his positions, set up the Paraclete outside of Paris, and we also learn up front a little bit about how Paris was physically constructed at the time as opposed to the city's current incarnation. The book can certainly beef up your historical understandings of the period as you read the story itself.

Looking for a great romance? Skip the front rack at the bookstore, and go directly to Bruge's "Heloise and Abelard." And be prepared to be moved.

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