Heloise and Abelard: a 12th-century love story. By James Burge

Burge is rather in love with Heloise himself: she writes, thinks and feels exquisitely
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Heloise and Abelard were not given a Shakespeare to mythologise their passion; but even so, it is doubtful if their story would have eclipsed that of the doomed lovers of Verona: it is far more complex, deep and terrible. Nor, at first glance, does it seem to offer much hope for those who believe in all-conquering love. But in this biography of the medieval period's most controversial couple, James Burge prompts us to more than a glance. This is intelligent, clearly written, and, perhaps inevitably, heart-rending.

When the couple met in 1115, Abelard was master of the nascent university of Paris, a renowned philosopher with contentious theories and a temperament to match. She, 15 years his junior, was his most responsive and enquiring pupil. Abelard quickly found a way to enter the household of her uncle and guardian, Fulbert, and the two began an affair whose sexual intensity was sharpened by a passionate search for truth. And they exchanged endless letters, as full of flourishes as of feeling: cajoling, adoring, reproaching, discussing. Then Heloise became pregnant. Abelard whisked her off to his native Brittany, where the child was christened Astrolabe, a testament not so much to the couple's eccentricity as to their enduring love of the cosmos.

But her guardian found out, as guardians do. His injured honour would be satisfied only by a marriage. To this Abelard agreed, but Heloise, who had already developed her own theology of love, objected. It would imperil his career and add nothing to their love. Finally she agreed, but only on condition that any marriage be secret. The result was, as the author says, something paradoxically akin to divorce. Frustrated beyond endurance by the restrictions imposed by Fulbert, Abelard tried to take her away again. Fulbert, never the most pacific of people, sent his men at night to enact a sickening vengeance. Abelard was woken from sleep, assaulted and castrated.

Abelard became a monk, Heloise, at his insistence, a nun. And this, of course, is the beginning of the story. Abelard went on to become the greatest teacher of his age, bruising many an ecclesiastical ego in his passage, while Heloise presided over a convent which he founded. Then, with the avowed purpose of comforting an unnamed spiritual brother, Abelard composed an autobiography. It fell into Heloise's hands and she composed a letter to him, making it clear that neither time, nor her vows, nor even God had dimmed her love for him. So their long-sundered correspondence resumed. He constantly reminds her that providence has, in a sense, freed them both of temptation. She constantly reminds him that she cannot repent of what gave her such bliss.

Perhaps this book's greatest strength is the subtlety with which Burge aligns the lives with the developments in thought. Abelard, of course, is well known for his dialectical method, the "Sic et Non" approach to problems. And his contention that sin lay in intent not action seems to prefigure much later thinking. But Heloise, too, was developing a philosophy, one in which passion and piety could co-exist in the soul in perfect reciprocity. Abelard's thinking was eventually superseded by the Thomist revolution; Heloise's has yet to be tested. As the author notes, Abelard in later life came to be more and more drawn to Heloise's vision, and it is comforting to reflect that his last great hymns, full of hope for a new dawning, were co-written with her.

As he comes very close to admitting, Burge is rather in love with Heloise himself. It isn't hard to see why, though. She writes, thinks and feels exquisitely. One slightly comic result of this infatuation is that the author sometimes writes as if Abelard was just too coarse for her, too insensitive; what Heloise really needed was someone more open, more aware - more like the author really. But such lapses are rare.

My major quibble is with Burge's frequent references to her as "modern". This of course is just a common way of saying that she vividly expressed feelings which are perennial. But we must remember that Heloise nailed her will to her love, refused ever to unsay or rewrite her passion, and there could be nothing less "modern" than that.

In fact, it is precisely Burge's concern for our modern preconceptions which yanks this otherwise lucid and perceptive book into some bewildering fatuities. The author is forever pausing after events to utter variations upon "to the modern mind, this may seem strange." The explanations which follow serve only to make the modern mind look thoroughly shallow and silly. Perhaps this is as it should be, but is it what the author intended? Then there are the long psychological digressions, some of which are presumptuous and some plain silly. So, we are generously informed at the end of a passage in which Abelard is described as repressing or castrating Heloise by urging her to accept her lot: "But one mind can hold many thoughts and this is not a complete description of what Abelard is offering." Nice of you to point that out. Hints of S&M in their relationship are given over a page of earnest therapy. Who knows, maybe they just found it fun? On one occasion this psychological approach descends into an unseemly mollycoddling of the reader. When Burges writes of Abelard's feeling of shame after his castration he suggests that this might seem strange to the modern reader. I think many of us could imagine at least one analogy.

There is a blind spot, a baffling one. Nowhere could I find any acknowledgement that for Abelard, the memory of their passion might have been too painful to remember, let alone mention. For all her insight into her own feelings, Heloise never quite seemed to fathom this. And after all, wasn't Abelard only suggesting that they be realistic? Perhaps in the end he was proven right, just as she was when she foresaw that their marriage would only lead to catastrophe. But asking who was the greater is like asking which of two rubbed sticks produces the fire.