Howard Brenton's passion for Abélard and Heloise

Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, Scarlett and Rhett... The names of doomed lovers live forever in our minds. Yet one tale is often forgotten: the true story of the brilliant scholar Abélard and his beautiful, gifted pupil Heloise. Here, the acclaimed British dramatist Howard Brenton, who revives the couple in his new play 'In Extremis', explores the scandalous romance that rocked medieval France - and still has the power to captivate
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When Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, Simone de Beauvoir - who had shared with him a notorious, lifelong "open" relationship of great intensity and at times, on her part, great pain - wanted to make a gesture of farewell to the love of her life. She tried to get into the death bed to lie with him in her arms one last time. She had to be restrained from doing so by Sartre's doctors. It was too dangerous. The corpse had gangrene.

De Beauvoir was inspired to this extreme by a famous precedent. When Mozart died, his wife Constanze held him in her arms upon the death bed for four hours, allowing no one near them. Eventually she had to be dragged away from the long, last embrace.

These two wonderful women, one a great writer at the end of the era of Romanticism, the other a great singer at its beginning, were trying to live an idea that has been with us in European culture for 1,000 years. It is that the profoundest expression of human love can only be achieved in death.

In this age of the postmodern myth of the easy ecstatic shag on a Saturday night, the romantic myth of ecstatic love in death seems downright unhealthy and ridiculous. But it has a strange, eerie beauty about it. Here is the 12th-century Breton poet Thomas d'Angleterre, ending his version of the story of Tristan and Iseult: "She takes him in her arms and then, lying at full length, she kisses his face and lips and clasps him tightly to her. Then straining body to body, mouth to mouth, she at once renders up her spirit and, of sorrow for her lover, dies thus at his side."

Beside Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), there are two other great core stories of doomed love.

The second is the favourite of so many soap plots, Romeo and Juliet - so familiar we think of them as Brits, not citizens of Verona. The story may be a cliché but, in our multicultural society, some young people find themselves living it across ethnic boundaries, as so many have lived it through the centuries across divides of religion and class. (It's fun to think how updating could wreck Shakespeare's play: if Friar John has a mobile phone when he gets stuck in the charnel house, he can ring Romeo to tell him Juliet's going to look dead but won't be... On the other hand absurd plots often make the greatest stories!) The third core story is that of the love affair between Pierre Abélard and Heloise in 12th century Paris.

Tristan and Iseult, and Romeo and Juliet, may be or may be not distantly based on real people. How myths begin is a fascinating speculation. In a play, The Romans In Britain, I invented two cooks who, in a time of famine, are forced to find another way of scratching a living. They try their hands at poetry and, improvising desperately, tell the story of King Arthur for the first time.

But Abélard and Heloise were real. We have Abélard's long, autobiographical letter, the "Historia Calamitatum"; we also have letters between them that describe their feelings in a forthright way, astonishing for the 12th century. But because we know so much about them does not mean we understand why they did what they did, any more than we understand the depths of the Tristan and Iseult myth.

There are many spinoffs from the three core stories, of course. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Julie, or the New Heloise was a sensation when it was published in 1761, laying out his libertarian philosophy for the first time. The affair between Winston Smith and Julia in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a frighteningly anti-Romantic reworking of the doomed love plot. Goethe's Elective Affinities sees the theme as a love triangle that can only be resolved by the death, through voluntary starvation, of one of the three lovers. Goethe's story was in turn reworked in Jules et Jim, a 20th-century novel by Henri Pierre Roche filmed by Francois Truffaut in 1962 - which fired dreams of romantic, experimental love among many who were young in that decade. Some of us dared to try to live it, too.

But in the three stories and their many variants, the set-up is always the same. The couple's love is an impossibility. The world cannot allow it. But they are reckless, helpless in their passion, subsumed. In Death-Devoted Heart, his excellent little book on Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde, Roger Scruton quotes a programme note by Wagner describing the predicament of his hero and heroine: "... endless yearning, longing, the bliss and wretchedness of love; world, power, fame, honour, chivalry, loyalty and friendship all blown away like and unsubstantial dream; one thing alone left living - longing, longing unquenchable, a yearning, a hunger, a languishing forever renewing itself; one sole redemption - death, surcease, a sleep without waking."

The Tristan and Iseult story is a tangle of many versions. It was reworked from folk tales by medieval poets, of whom Thomas d'Angleterre was just one, through to the 19th century and Wagner and our own Algernon Swinburne (sadly his "Tristram" poem is not one of the language's finest). The nightmarish drug film, Requiem for a Dream, is a contemporary retelling.

Tristan is an orphan, the nephew of Mark, king of Cornwall. An emissary comes from Ireland: Morold. There is a brawl and Tristan kills him. But Tristan is wounded and travels to Ireland under an assumed name to be healed by the King of Ireland's daughter, Iseult. And, reader, yes oh yes: she was betrothed to Morold. They are attracted to each other but when she discovers Tristan murdered her future husband her feelings turn to hatred.

He returns to Cornwall and... King Mark decides to resolve the quarrel between Ireland and Cornwall by marrying Iseult. Tristan is sent back to Ireland to bring her to Cornwall for the wedding. At this point the famous Tristan and Isolde ship sets sail, as does Wagner's opera - for some wrecking European music for ever, for others opening up a new world of sound and drama which, once entered, you can never leave.

Enter drugs into the plot. Isolde, hating Tristan, tries to poison him. But by a quaint device - a meddling maid servant in some versions, in others a simple mistake - she gives Tristan a powerful love potion. He drinks. She grabs the cup and drinks, thinking she will die with him. But the drug locks them together. They are irredeemably in love.

Later, King Mark discovers them together. Tristan finds he has no moral explanation for his behaviour, but also no way of apologising. His love for Iseult is absolute. Morold's brother arrives and grievously wounds Tristan, who retreats to the Brittany coast to die. Isolde follows him. He dies in her arms and, in some versions, she joins him in death. The preposterous and the profound are entwined together in the old story.

It has been dismissed because Tristan and Isolde's love comes from a drug. But in Wagner's dramatisation, their mutual loathing, pre-drinks, masks their passion. The potion releases their true feelings towards each other. Once they are expressed they are lost and - here is the sickliness in the story which is so difficult to understand today - they are content to fall, ecstatic and with all sense of proportion gone, toward night and death. Wagner has an extraordinary motif at the height of their 40-minute-long love duet in act two. The music swirls round and round in a vortex of such power that you almost see the sound. It seems to both rise and fall. It expresses what the story of Tristan and Isolde is about, through its many versions over the centuries: complete and utter abandonment to desire. Isolde's last words in Wagner's libretto are:

In the surging swell,

in the ringing sound,

in the vast wave of the

world's breath -

to drown,

to sink unconscious -

overwhelming bliss!

When I came to write my play In Extremis, which dramatises Abélard and Heloise's story, I imagined that they knew Thomas's "Tristan". The dates are possible, though I don't want to start an academic brawl. It would be irrelevant. I used the motifs of the Tristan and Iseult story to try and understand their extraordinary love affair: its recklessness, its abandon, particularly on Heloise's part. I know I am, to a degree, mythologising their lives. But this is a process they encouraged in the way they wrote about themselves. They wanted to turn their lives into a song we would not forget. In one of her letters to Abélard, written after the catastrophic end of their sexual relationship, when she was a nun, Heloise is unrepentant. "God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."

So I have Heloise read "Tristan" aloud to a retired mother superior, who was her mentor. They grin. Abélard laughs and calls it "a trashy love story", then admits that copies are circulating among the monks of the monastery of St Denis, of which he is abbot. This happens near the end of the play. The point is that for a few mad years they lived a real life story as heady as that of the mythical lovers.

Peter Abélard was born around 1079 in Brittany. In 1100 he came to Paris where he was taught by one of the great scholars of the day, William of Champeaux. But he turned on his teacher and destroyed his reputation. The fight was over Plato's universals. Is everything on earth merely an imperfect copy of a perfection in heaven? Is there a perfect table at which the angels sit? Abélard said no - a stone can be a perfect table if it is fine to eat bread from. It is the function of things on earth that make them perfect, not their relationship to a heavenly abstraction.

This approach led Abélard into dangerous waters. He was beginning to define our modern individualism, how we speak of ourselves and question our place in the world. As the theologian Constant J Mews, our foremost authority on Abélard and Heloise, summarises it: "Did 'man' have any real existence as an abstraction, or did there exist simply individual men? Abélard's reading of the few texts of Aristotle then available in Latin translation led him to reject the reality of 'man' as a general notion. What mattered were the words that we might invent to describe any particular subject, whether it existed or not."

Abélard became the most famous philosophers of his day, founding his own school at the abbey of Monte-Sainte-Geneviere, on the left bank of the Seine at Paris. This was probably around AD1112. Heloise was the niece of Fulbert, a canon at the church of Notre Dame in Paris. Nothing is known of her mother or father. Her voice calls out to us clear as a bell across the centuries. She is as much a heroine of our time as she was of hers: fearless in her sexuality, intellectually Abélard's equal, a woman who appears in history as totally self-invented. There was no one like her before, and millions who have wished to be like her since. With Fulbert's blessing she became Abélard's pupil and at once his lover.

Rumours of sightings of them making love in the fields outside Paris spread like wildfire. She became pregnant with their son, Astralabe. For a while she left Paris and lived with Abélard's father and sister in Brittany. But foolishly they returned to Paris to attempt a reconciliation with Fulbert. Heloise at first refused point blank to marry. "The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding," she wrote, "but sweeter for me will always be the word friend, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore." Against every fibre in her being, she gave in. They were married secretly. But this seems to have inflamed Fulbert's anger all the more. He wanted revenge and had it. Members of his family burst into Abélard's lodgings and castrated him. Peter entered the monastery of St Denis as a monk. Heloise entered the convent of St Argenteuil as a nun. And then their lives really began. They reinvented themselves, and this real life Tristan and Isolde lived their "love in death" for another 30 years. He became an abbot, she an abbess of a convent, the Paraclete, which Abélard built for her. The famous lovers became famous religious teachers.

The first half of the 12th century was a very fluid time. It has been called "The 12th-century Renaissance". Things were not decided, the nature of the Church was not fixed - even the wording of the marriage ceremony was not set. Science was in its early stages and in Paris there was heady sense of new ideas. France, growing rich on the wool trade that flourished from the Rhone valley up to Burgundy, was not a terror state, but life was dangerous and unpredictable. For example at one time King Louis VI ("Louis the Fat" himself a considerable intellectual) banned Abélard from preaching anywhere on French soil. So he preached from a tree, his feet off the ground. People assumed that Abélard had gone too far and was heading for life imprisonment. But the French king laughed and lifted the ban. Two monks shouting at each other about the nature of Christ was considered excellent entertainment at Louis' court.

Abélard's greatest opponent was Bernard, the abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux. He was canonised as a saint in 1174 and is still venerated by many Catholics - Opus Dei loves him. He was an ascetic who set the rule of St Benedict so strictly at Clairvaux that monks would eat grass to survive. But he was also a master of Church politics, a pope-maker and a thorn in the side of King Louis VI, who wanted to protect Abélard but at times could not because Bernard's influence was too strong.

Bernard thought that Abélard's Aristotelian logic would destroy Christian faith. For him faith comes as a direct gift from God; for Abélard it comes from understanding God's creation. Bernard believes in divine revelation; Abélard believes in human enquiry. Abélard argued that God gave us minds so that, by reason, we would come to know Him fully. It was the beginning of individualism, whereas Bernard wanted to negate the individual, deny the self and be true to nature - he was a mystic. His attack on Abélard was so vehement and unrelenting because he saw that the emphasis on the personal quest for knowledge would put man at the centre of creation, not God. It is the struggle at the heart of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It goes on now with Christian and Islamic fanatics on the one hand and the rest of us on the other with our Western values of scientific progress, existential personal struggle and liberty - and the right to shop in a Godless world! For Bernard senses Abélard's philosophy would end in an atheistic hedonism and, in a way, he was right.

Bernard had his way. Eventually Abélard was excommunicated and his books were banned. Peter died in 1142, Heloise survived him for 20 years. Bernard went on to preach the second crusade inventing holy indulgences: fight the Arabs and you win time off in purgatory. Three hundred and fifty years later the Church paid the price for that obscenity when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, triggering the Reformation and the eventual breakdown of the Catholic Church's power in Europe. But by the early 13th century the Church had stopped the flow of translations from the Arabic made at the school of Salerno - the source of the Greek classics known to Abélard. In 1184 the Church started the inquisition to deal with the Cathar heresy in the south of France. The theological mindset changed. In the first part of the century the emphasis was on life as a journey: there were two paths, one to Christ's Jerusalem the other to Babylon. You could change the path you were on. But with the end of the century the notion of sin and damnation took hold. You were no longer on a journey you were on your knees. The 12th-century Renaissance was shut down.

Abélard and Heloise are, for me, so attractive because they were part of a future that broke out too early. They were both deeply religious, they didn't know they were inventing our sense of individual freedom with its joys and its existential dangers. But they were. Where is a great new human future trying to break out in our time?

Howard Brenton's In Extremis, The Story of Abélard and Heloise is at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (, 020-7401 9919)

Abélard and Heloise's love letters, straight from the heart

In his autobiography, Historia Calamitatum, Abélard described the beginning of the affair with Heloise: "Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts." She later wrote to him: "Two gifts you had to lead captive the proudest soul, your voice that made all your teaching a delight, and your singing, which was like no other. Do you forget those tender songs you wrote for me, which all the world caught up and sang, but not like you, those songs that kept your name ever floating in the air, and made me known through many lands, the envy and the scorn of women?"

Heloise believed marriage and scholarship incompatible, writing to her lover that even "if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me... it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore"

She wanted neither the title of "wife" nor her lover's wealth. "God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself," she wrote. "I simply wanted you, nothing of yours." The letters are sexually frank: "Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried," wrote Abélard, "and if love could devise something new we welcomed it."

Later Abbess of her own convent, Heloise wrote to Abélard: "Even during the celebration of Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers."

A meeting of brilliant minds and rebellious bodies

"Logic has made me hated by the world," the French philosopher, teacher and monk Pierre Abélard wrote early in the 12th century. But it was his eminence as a logician that won him the love of Heloise. This celebrated medieval romance was no sappy, handkerchief-wafting affair, but a true meeting of brilliant brains and rebellious bodies.

The eldest son of a noble Breton family, Abélard made intellectual mincemeat of all who taught him at the cathedral school of Notre Dame de Paris. At 22, he set up his own school, calling himself the world's only undefeated philosopher.

Within Notre Dame lived Heloise, under the care of her canon uncle, Fulbert. Probably in her late twenties, and not the starstruck teenager of myth, Heloise was not only beautiful, but also a sparkling scholar. Abélard, smitten, inveigled a job as her tutor. They fell in love.

Once Fulbert found out, he forbade trysts but they met in secret until Heloise became pregnant. Abélard whisked her off to Brittany where their son Astrolabe was born. Heloise was opposed to marriage, but they wed to appease Fulbert. The marriage had to be kept secret so as not to hinder Abélard's ecclesiastical advancement. But Fulbert didn't keep mum; Heloise denied the nuptials, fled to a nunnery and spent the rest of her life in holy orders, praying, as Alexander Pope later lyricised, for the "eternal sunshine of the spotless mind", keeping her promise to love no other man.

Abélard was certainly able to consummate love with no other woman; Fulbert broke into the philandering philosopher's chamber one night and castrated him.

The pair corresponded in a series of passionate and philosophical letters until Abélard, condemned by Rome for heresy, died in 1142. Heloise followed him in 1162, and the couple may finally have been reunited as corpses in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, although it is suspected that Heloise's bones lie elsewhere - and alone.

Helen Brown