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Eloise and Abelard

Quick Facts

Him: Pierre Abelard, French theologian

Her: Eloise d’Argenteuil, scholar and student of Abelard

Setting: Paris, France in the late 12th century

 

Background

This famous love story is about a meeting of the minds as much as it is an affair of the heart. Abelard, possibly the most renowned philosopher in all of Europe at the time, takes on a highly-esteemed pupil named Eloise. The two develop a deep love for one another and are secretly married in order to avoid scandal. Despite their best efforts, it manages to find them anyway.

 

Story

Eloise and Abelard are remembered by most as the central characters of Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem, written more than five centuries after the affair is said to take place. The story begins when Eloise, a young woman from somewhat low social standing, seeks education from the eminent philosopher Abelard. The chemistry between the two – likely some of the most intelligent individuals of the age – is electric and, despite social pressures, the two decide to wed in a secret ceremony.

Eloise and Abelard soon conceive a child and her family, furious over the turn of events, decide on a most brutal punishment for the teacher: castration. The act of revenge causes a rift between Abelard and Eloise that is never quite solved, as he elects to enter a monastery and encourages her to follow suit.

Now beholden to God, Eloise is tortured by her passionate feelings toward Abelard and, confined by the vow of silence she has taken, begins writing letters to him about their relationship in response to his Historia Calamitatum – an autobiography that leaves the sordid affair they had out.

At first, the letters deal with their romance. She chastises him for being silent about their marriage, yet encourages him in his efforts as a theologian. The affection between the two is obvious, yet in the end Abelard claims he had abused her, was consumed by lust and their passion was a sin against their Heavenly Father. (Whether this is true or merely a way to put an end to her – or his – feelings is up for debate.) In the end, he asks her to turn toward Jesus Christ for love and their correspondence continues in a predominantly scholarly manner.


Reputation

There are many interpretations of this famous love story, as one might look at the taboo of an older man connecting with a woman in her late teens and be disgusted. It’s easy to look to the family’s reaction and say Abelard and Eloise’s contemporaries felt the same, but some believe the issue for her family was more about being kept in the dark than it was related to the relationship itself.

From another perspective, the romance is clearly one built on an undeniable attraction between the two. Both of them were smart, well-read people of influence – Eloise would later end up abbess of the Paraclete, an abbey founded by Abelard – and feelings of love are bound to rise up among those who have similar talents and intellect. In this way, the events that follow Abelard’s castration are more about what might have been than what actually was.



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