Abelard and Heloise lived during the Middle Ages. They defied the Church and paid a terrible price.
1. Peter Abelard and Heloise are one of the most celebrated couples in history, known for their love affair... and for the tragedy that separated them.
2. Both Abelard and Heloise were prominent intellectuals of 12th century France. Abelard, of noble birth and eighteen years the senior of Heloise, was a prominent lecturer in philosophy. Abelard was an adventurous thinker, and was constantly at odds with the Church. On several occasions he was forced to recant and burn his writings.
3. Heloise was a strong-willed and gifted woman who was fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and came from a lower social standing than Abelard. At age 19, and living under her uncle Fulbert's roof, Heloise fell in love with Abelard, who she was studying under.
4. Not only did they have a clandestine affair of a sexual nature, they had a child, Astrolabe, out of wedlock.
5. Discovered by the Fulbert (who was a Church official), Abelard was assaulted by a hired thug and castrated, and Heloise entered a convent.
6. Abelard described the terrible attack: "Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow."
7. Abelard would later write: "Oh, how great was the uncle's grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!"
8. Abelard was exiled to Brittany, where he lived as monk. Eventually Heloise became abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete, an abbey which Abelard had founded.
9. It was at this time that they exchanged their famous letters. The letters, originally written in Latin (but now available in English), are passionate both in the remembrance of lost love, and the attempt to reconcile that love with their respective monastic duty to remain chaste. The tension between the two lovers generates a huge amount of emotional electricity.
10. In a letter to Abelard, Heloise wrote: "You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you."
11. The story of Abelard and Heloise is tragic, but what's more important to literature and history is what happened after the agony was over... Both Peter Abelard and Heloise continued to go on living, to write, to love, to contribute to our literary history.
12. They didn't kill themselves, or marry anyone else (unless you count the fact that both married the Church).
13. Heloise asks for his words, saying: "While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words--of which you have enough and to spare--some sweet semblance of yourself." She ends the letter with: "I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my only love."
The tomb of Abelard and Heloise
The full story of the lovers is here