34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
- 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.