One of France’s prettiest rivers, the Sevre, has its source near the village of Secondigny, which lies in Poitou-Charente in the South West of the country. As the stream widens into a river and winds North, passing through La Vendee, it gathers speed as it descends in altitude until it gushes into the Loire just South of the city of Nantes. The Sevre runs with such speed on its last leg into the Loire that, in the past, many built water mills along its banks, bringing prosperity from the tanning of leather and the weaving and dying of wool. With the tanners and weavers came the hoopers of barrels, criers of onions, carriers of faggots, scummers of pots and all the other flotsam and jetsam, including the thieves and slipshod cafards that feed on the success of others. Today the river is tranquil, a destination for the quieter kind of tourist seeking those last outposts of France’s august, provincial cuisine and the tangible remnants of the region’s ancient history.
Long before France was united under a common crown, the Sevre was already busy and important, the confluence of the independently ruled lands of Brittany, Poitou and Anjou. Then, all Europe was no more than a collection of private fiefdoms and even where claims of Kingship existed, actual rule depended upon the allegiance of the nobility, many of whom were tied only by that flimsiest of knots, marriage. In 1137, Louis VII, King of the Franks, having acquired Aquitaine by wedding its Duchess, Eleanor, promptly lost it after the marriage was annulled. Only two years after being cast aside for failure to produce a son, Eleanor married Louis’ rival, Henry II, King of England, gifting Henry the Duchy of Aquitaine and providing him with the male heirs that would continue their father’s struggle against Louis.
Ever changing alliances, the making and breaking of marriages and the resulting territorial claims, immersed Europe in constant warfare. And so it was that in 1076 the Duchy of Brittany, then ruled by Hoel of Cornouaille was invaded by the forces of Duke William II of Normandy, who doubled as King William I of England. Among the barons loyal to Hoel who helped repel the Anglo-Norman invasion was Daniel, Lord of Le Pallet. Daniel’s castle, of which only the ruined keep now remains, dominated Le Pallet, a village on the banks of the fast-flowing Sevre, only 10 miles south of Nantes.
Lord Daniel’s daughter, Lucie, was married to her father’s chief knight and garrison commander, Berengar, and in 1079 she bore him their first child. It was a boy and they called him Peter, later to be known as Peter Abelard. More children followed – Rudalt, Porcar, Dagobert and finally, a daughter, Denise. Abelard and his siblings had the good fortune to be born, in this most class-conscious of times, outside the yolk of serfdom and to parents that encouraged learning. But while his brothers were drawn towards the military and religious life customary for their class, Abelard pursued academe. He was not, and never would be, one to ‘dance the brangle gay in fits of dalliance’. Curious, obsessed with learning, he was oblivious to the normal customs and pleasantries of youth and probably friendless, for he had no space in his life for anything other than his passion for knowledge. At seven he was at the Cathedral school of Notre Dame; at eleven he was reading Ovid, Virgil, Juvenal, Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero, pagan literature that would later separate him from the Church he was to turn to, for in the12th Century it was the Church that dictated the subject matter for philosophical thought and academe and it was in the precincts of cathedrals that the first universities began. The great scholars of the age were wanderers, and their students followed them. In1093 we find Abelard at Loches, in Anjou, listening to Roscelin; in 1100 he is in Paris, being taught by William of Champeaux. In 1101 he became a teacher himself, conducting lectures at Melun and then in Corbeil. Teaching in Abelard’s day was a more harrowing occupation than now. It was not a presentation of a prepared lecture to a room full of respectful, note-taking students, but a disputation, an intense argument between teacher and audience, often revolving around obscure points of logic. By 1105 Peter was burnt out and recovering from a breakdown with his family in Le Pallet.
The Brittany that he returned to was now ruled by Hoel’s heir, Alan IV and the conflict with Normandy had been temporarily halted by Alan’s marriage to Duke William’s daughter, Constance, who, proving an unpopular choice, was promptly poisoned and replaced by Ermengarde of Anjou. The truce with Normandy was over, but Alan had a new ally in Ermengarde’s father, Fulk, Count of Anjou, ruler of that land of angels and unicorns. Overseas, more important conflicts were taking place. In 1085, after years of freedom of worship, three thousand Christian clergy and pilgrims were massacred in Jerusalem, their churches turned into stables and mangers. Ten years later, to Peter the Hermit’s rallying cry of ‘God wills it’, and with the support of Pope Urban II, the People’s Crusade, set out to reclaim the Holy Land, only to be slaughtered by the Turks in Anatolia. A more professional army was raised and in 1099 Jerusalem finally fell to the Crusaders under Raymond of Toulouse.
When recovered and refreshed and after renouncing his inheritance in favour of the eldest son of his brother Dagobert, Abelard returned to Paris and resumed his studies under William of Champeaux. Soon Abelard’s own reputation as philosopher and master of logic was as great as that of his teacher, his fame as a scholar spreading across Europe. Abelard’s teachings, inclined towards the exultation of human reason and rational thought, were often in conflict with the rule of the book that dictated Christian theology. For each student who marveled at his logic and independent spirit there was a prelate who saw him as a fomentor of dispute and division and a heretic.
At 34, after a life devoted to scholarship and at a point where his popularity and reputation were at their height, Abelard allowed his gaze to fall upon Eloise Garlande, the niece and ward of Fulbert, a Canon of Notre Dame. ‘He came to love late’ writes Helen Wadell, ‘fastidiousness and a white heat of the intellect had kept him chaste, and he had small interest in lay society.’[i] Accepting Abelard’s request to rent lodgings in his house in the Rue des Chantres, Fulbert asked if he would oblige him by instructing his ward, effectively ensuring her seduction. In the homosocial society that existed in 12th Century Europe, women were perceived as potentially evil and socially and intellectually inferior to men, the concept stemming from Genesis and Eve’s surrender to temptation. Mental inferiority also translated from assumed physical inferiority, women’s genitalia being perceived as an inverted penis. Galen’s medicinal theories also affected women’s lives, their diet determined by their ‘cold and wet’ humours, which also made them more earthly and correspondingly less spiritual.
This view of womanhood, supported by the Church, naturally impacted on all aspects of life, from family to government. With the Virgin Mary as a role model, women were required to remain chaste in a world where sexuality and honour were closely linked. A dowry system restricted their freedom, while married women were expected to confine themselves to household roles where they were subservient in all respects to their husbands. The appointment of a tutor to a woman, in these circumstances, was therefore quite radical and almost certainly propelled by Fulbert’s desire to glory from the cachet of employing so famous a teacher.
But Eloise, at 23 some ten years younger than Abelard, was an exceptional woman, the Hypatia of her day, highly literate, eager for knowledge and an independent spirit. It was, Abelard tells us, Eloise’s gift for learning as much as her beauty that set him on fire. Shared culture illuminates romantic liaisons. What Eloise saw in Abelard we cannot know. We do not see our fellow men through the eyes of a woman. We cannot see what a woman sees, some quality in a man that other men may see as a fault or perhaps a defect that, for some reason, a woman finds desirable. But the apple had been picked and the invisible worm released into the night.
For a while the affair was conducted in secret, the tutorials abandoned. ‘My hands’ reports Abelard, ‘wandered more to her breasts than our books’.[ii] Absorbed by his passion, Abelard neglected his other students, turning his talents to writing love songs of such elegance they soon found a wide audience. Despite their popularity no existing love song from the period has ever been identified as penned by Abelard. In 1803 more than 250 poems, mainly from the 11th and 12th Centuries and written in medieval Latin, were discovered in a Benedictine monastery in Beuern, Bavaria. These ‘Songs of Beuern’ or Carmina Burana, contain many poems of unknown authorship; Helen Wadell wonders whether Abelard’s work could be among them.
Take thou this rose
Since love’s own flower it is,
And by that rose
Thy lover captive is.
Inevitably, the affair was discovered and the licenciate lodger expelled. Abelard likens the exposure to Ovid’s story of Vulcan finding Mars in bed with his wife, Venus. But Mars and Venus were Gods and did not experience the shame of discovery and the pain of being apart that the human lovers suffered. Shortly after the separation Eloise sent word that she was pregnant. Waiting until Fulbert was away, Abelard stole Eloise away and took her to Le Pallet where she stayed with Abelard’s sister, Denise, until she gave birth to a boy. They called him Astrolabe, the name for a navigational instrument developed in the period of classical antiquity; today they would have called him SAT-NAV. Rather than wait for the punishment he anticipated, Abelard returned to Paris, begged Fulbert’s forgiveness and undertook to marry his niece, specifying one condition, that the marriage be kept secret, for marriage would effectively bar Abelard from a career in the church, the only career path for an intellectual at that time. With Fulbert’s agreement, Abelard returned to Le Pallet to make Eloise his wife, only to be rejected. Eloise argued that it would be a constant risk to Abelard’s advancement in the Church, that it would end in his disgrace and that it would not, ultimately, appease her uncle. She believed, as Cicero believed, that marriage was a bar to the pursuit of serious art or thought, a condition now known as ‘the pram in the hallway’ syndrome.[iii] Finally, and radically for the times, she preferred the role of concubine. ‘The name of wife may have the advantages of sanctity and safety, but to me the sweeter name will always be lover or, if your dignity can bear it, concubine or whore.’[iv] But finally Eloise reluctantly capitulated and the couple returned to Paris where they were married.
Within a very short time Fulbert’s anger had bubbled to the surface again and he began spitefully spreading news of the secret marriage. Alarmed, Abelard placed Eloise, for protection, in a convent in Argenteuil. Thinking this was a ruse by Abelard to hide his wife behind a veil and free himself from the embarrassment of marriage, Fulbert took action, sending a group of kinsmen and servants to Abelard’s lodging one night where they removed all possibility of any further physical intimacy between his niece and her husband. False hearts are easily won over. For a few coins Abelard’s own servant aided the band, joining the long list of vermin (headed by Judas Escariot) who betrayed their masters. The castration of Abelard echoes the fate mythology ascribes to Uranus, but the circumstances were quite different. Uranus, born from Chaos, lived in fear of his own sons, convinced that they would challenge his authority and eventually overthrow him. In a moment of rage he incarcerated some of his younger children in Tartarus, causing his wife Gaia such grief that she asked her sons to castrate their father. Only Cronus stepped up to take the sickle his mother had fashioned for the occasion. The blood that flowed from this castration caused Gaia to give birth to the Gigantes, the Erinyes and the Meliae.[v] The genitals, flung by Cronus into the sea, were whipped by the waves into a white foam, from which, when it reached a sandy shore, stepped Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, Incarnation of Beauty. In contrast, Abelard’s castration was a pitiful, human affair. Nor was it the end of his misfortunes.
Meanwhile, much had been happening in the real world. Henry I, whose mother was Matilda of Flanders, was now King of England. Henry married Matilda of Scotland and their son, William Adelin, married Matilda, daughter of Fulk of Anjou, a surfeit of Matildas destined to confuse later historians of the period. Leaving his son, Conan the Fat (no relation to Conan the Barbarian) to rule Brittany, Alan IV entered the Monastery of Redon followed dutifully by Berengar and Lucie, so creating the first retirement home. Louis VI (also ‘the Fat’) ruled as King of the Franks. In the Holy Land, Hughes de Payen had created an order of warrior monks for the protection of Jerusalem bound pilgrims, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon or, as they are more widely known, the Knight Templars. In an early form of travellers’ cheques, pilgrims could deposit cash and chattels with the Templars’ agents in France against promissory notes redeemable in the Holy Land. More importantly for Abelard, in 1113 a young Burgundian noble, known to history as Bernard of Clairveaux, was admitted into the Cistercian Order. Clever, a diplomat in capouch and caligas, determined to stamp out any slackness in the ranks and to restore the rules of St Benedict to the letter, he was the natural enemy of any liberal minded Christian attempting to re-interpret the established views of the scriptures.
Once healed, Abelard withdrew to the Monastery of St Denis, the family scattered; Astrolabe staying in the care of Abelard’s sister in Le Pallet and Eloise remaining a nun in the convent at Argenteuil. Paris in the 12th century was not entirely lawless. Canon Fulbert was expelled from Notre Dame and deprived of all he owned (although the punishment was rescinded two years later). Two of Abelard’s assailants, his disloyal servant and a kinsman of Fulbert, were castrated and blinded. Abelard entered the monastic order of St Benedict, throwing himself into theology with the same passion he had felt for Eloise, but he was now cloistered with his spiritual opponents, a Church hierarchy jealous of his fame, angered at the number of students coming to sit at his feet. Casting around for means to destroy him the Bishops denounced his thesis ‘On the Unity and Trinity of God’ as heretical. Abelard was ordered to face accusations of heresy before a Synod held in Soissons in 1121. Frustrated by the scholarship and rational arguments of the accused, the Bishops and Papal Legate sitting in judgement resorted to threats, forcing Abelard to publicly burn his thesis. Logic, as he would later write, had made him hated by the world. Humiliated, he sought solitude in a remote area in the North East of France, near the city of Troyes, where he fashioned a Benedictine Monastery from sticks and rushes. He called it the Paraclete,[vi] Solitude was short lived; before long students started drifting in from far and wide to sit at the feet of their master. News of the growing number of pilgrims only further incensed his enemies in the Church. The poisoned chalice took the form of promotion. Chosen as the Abbott of Saint Gildas de Rhuys, Abelard found himself back in Brittany. The Abbey was situated near Vannes on a desolate part of the ragged Breton coastline, blasted by those salt winds that still twist trees of the littoral into grotesque shapes and send them leaning away from the sea, straining against their roots. The climate was no more pleasant inside the Abbey, for the monks were crude and uneducated, mumbling their devotion in native Breton patois. They also took a dislike to Abelard, who endured the misery by writing a history of his torments. The resulting Historia Calamitatum prompted Eloise to write her first letter, a moving outpouring of love, but at the last, asking if it would not be better for Abelard to summon her to God as he once summoned her to his bed. When Abbot Sugur placed the Convent of Argenteuil under the management of St Denis, expelling Eloise and her fellow nuns, Abelard gifted them the deserted Oratory of the Paraclete, now built solidly of wood and stone.
Finally Abelard was given permission to return to Paris, maintaining the rank of Abbott. He chose to teach at the Montagne Sainte Genevieve, where he had earlier established a school. Students flocked to hear Abelard. The area (in Paris’ 5th Arrondissement) remains to this day the cultural and social centre for students of the Sorbonne. Abelard, while remaining a devout Christian, continued with his controversial approach to theology. But he would not be allowed to rock the boat much longer, for many believed that it was the rules of St Benedict and the general acceptance of established Church doctrine that were responsible for maintaining the largely stable society that existed at the time.
While Abelard had been suffering in Brittany, Bernard of Clairvaux’s reputation grew. At the Council of Troyes in 1129 he obtained formal recognition of the Knights Templar as a new monastic Order, which he later eulogized in ‘In praise of the New Knighthood’, a document that would become influential in the development of chivalric ideals. In the following year when the Church had to face the embarrassment of having two rival Popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II, it was Bernard they chose to sort out the so-called ‘Schism’. He was the ideal champion to end Abelard’s controversial teachings and when William of St Thierry accused the latter of heresy, Bernard denounced Abelard to the Papal authorities. Possibly regretting his earlier capitulation, Abelard challenged Bernard to open debate. Wary of confronting such a formidable logician, Bernard declined until Abelard began publicizing the challenge so forcing the former to accept. On the eve of the debate set for June 1142, Bernard presented the Bishops with a list of Abelard’s heresies, asking them to condemn each one. There was no debate – Abelard had been judged before he appeared before the Council the next day. Humbled and excommunicated, Abelard found sanctuary in the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny under the protection of Peter the Venerable who succeeded in lifting the sentence of excommunication. Abelard spent his few remaining years in the Priory of St Marcel.
Scholars from Classical Antiquity through to the Middle Ages were divided on the subject of love, unsure whether it was the brain or the heart that triggered these irrational impulses. Aristotle considered that all mental activity took place in the heart, the brain being a secondary organ, a sensus communus, where all spirits come together. The Islamic philosopher, Avicenna, born at the end of the 10th century, believed that emotional outcomes were determined by the shape of the heart, type of blood and the dominance of one of the four bodily ‘humours’ (hot, cold, moist and dry). The Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon, writing in the first century of the Common Era, was correct in thinking that mental activity took place in the brain rather than the heart but quite wrong in believing the brain to be cold, moist and composed of sperm. Today we would say that Abelard was a hot-head with his brain in his trousers. For a rich language English is surprisingly poor when it comes to describing love: Love sensual, love spiritual, love brotherly, it’s all just love. The Greeks had specific, single words that clearly defined the type of love in question; they would have described the love Abelard first felt for Eloise as eros (romance) and his feelings after emasculation as storge (affection). From her letters it seems clear that Eloise, from the first encounter with Abelard to her death, experienced agape, the all-consuming, selfless, unconditional love that made hers the most famous love affair in history.
When Abelard died in 1142 at the age of 63, he was buried at the Priory of St Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone, before being moved, secretly, to the Paraclete where Eloise continued as Abbess and tended his grave until she was laid next to him in 1164. True fame requires the lasting attention of poets; Abelard and Eloise are remembered by Jean de Meung, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexander Pope and Robert Lowell.[vii] The couple lie, or are at least remembered, in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris, a Gothic shrine to eternal love, surrounded by Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Bizet, Rossini, Moliere and Modigliani. Bernard, canonized in 1174, lies alone, still revered in many quarters but unsung by poets, in the Cathedral at Troyes.
[i] The Wandering Scholars; Helen Waddell; London, Constable, 1927; p195
[ii] Abelard & Heloise, The Letters and Other Writings; William Levitan, Indianapolis; Hackett, 2007; p12
[iii] ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ Cyril Connolly, English critic and writer
[iv] Abelard & Heloise, The Letters and Other Writings; William Levitan, Indianapolis; Hackett, 2007; P55
[v] The Giants, The Furies and the Nymphs of the Mountain Ash
[vi] No trace of the Paraclete remains although it continued as an Abbey for close on 600 years until its dissolution in 1792.
[vii] Roman de La Rose; 1275 allegorical poem on the subject of courtly love by Jean de Meung
Julie, or the New Heloise; 1761 epistolary novel by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Eloisa to Abelard; 1717 poem by English poet Alexander Pope
Eloise & Abelard; 1973 poem by American poet Robert Lowell