A tragic example of the perils of the teacher-student affair. Peter Abelard, the celebrated scholastic philosopher, became canon of Notre Dame in 12th-century Paris. There he met Heloise, 22 years his junior, a great beauty educated in the classics by her uncle, Canon Fulbert, who lived in the cathedral precincts. Abelard persuaded Fulbert to let him teach his niece and moved in to their household. He and Heloise became lovers. "There was more kissing than teaching," he wrote in his Historia Calamitatum, "my hands found themselves at her breasts more often than at the books – no sign of love was omitted by us, and whatever unusual love could desire, that was added too."
They were discovered by Fulbert (a favourite scene for painters) and Abelard was banished. But Heloise was pregnant, and Abelard sent her to Brittany to have their son, the eccentrically named Astrolabe. Abelard proposed making an honest woman of Heloise, but she argued that marriage would bring disgrace on Abelard if he had to renounce holy orders. In the end, they married secretly.
Rows with her uncle followed, and Abelard suggested his wife should go to a convent for her own safety. Her uncle, convinced that Abelard was trying to dump her, reacted with terrible violence. He and his kinsmen broke into Abelard's house, found him sleeping and 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."
Abelard returned to teaching and debate, interrupted by a period as a hermit. Heloise became a nun, rising to become abbess of her convent. They saw each other once more, years later, when he became spiritual director of her religious house, but their relationship was now that of brother and sister. Their letters, however, are full of passionate yearning and pleas for mutual comfort, and have been celebrated for centuries as expressions of true love. The lovers' alleged remains lie side by side in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.