The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise - Peter Abelard - ebook

Abelard, Professor of Logic and Canon of Notre Dame, the most celebrated man of his day, being thirty seven years of age and having so far lived the life intellectual and scorned the passions, meets Heloise, a beautiful and learned woman of nineteen, and falls desperately in love as only the late lover can. Reason and religion are thrown to the winds; he would marry her, but she loves with a devotion as mad as his, and marriage would arrest his advancement in the Church, so she refuses yet gives him all.

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Peter Abelard

The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Christian Classics





New Edition

Published by The Big Nest

This Edition first published in 2016

Copyright © 2016 The Big Nest

Images and Illustrations © 2016

All Rights Reserved.

ISBN: 9781911535423













The letters of Abelard and Heloise were written in Latin about the year 1128, and were first published in Paris in 1616. The ‘Letters’ appeared first in England in 1728 in their original Latin, but thereafter translations were numerous, the anonymous one given here being published in 1722. It is rather a paraphrase than a translation, but by its swiftness and sympathy best gives the spirit of the original. The story of these illustrious lovers is told in their correspondence, but the outline of their lives is briefly this:—Abelard, Professor of Logic and Canon of Notre Dame, the most celebrated man of his day, being thirty-seven years of age and having so far lived the life intellectual and scorned the passions, meets Heloise, a beautiful and learned woman of nineteen, and falls desperately in love—as only the late lover can. Reason and religion are thrown to the winds; he would marry her, but she loves with a devotion as mad as his, and marriage would arrest his advancement in the Church, so she refuses yet gives him all. Her child is born, and then Abelard insists on a secret marriage, but in her unselfish infatuation she denies she is a wife and glories in the title of mistress. Fulbert, her uncle and guardian, is furious; with hired assistance he breaks into Abelard’s chamber and brutally mutilates and shames him. Abelard cannot bear the degradation; he has not the courage to face his students, he has not the control to stay near Heloise; he resolves to turn monk. But, manlike, he first demands that Heloise turn nun, in order that no other may know the attractions he has enjoyed. Heloise willingly consents; she being then twenty-two and he forty years of age. Ten years after, in her convent, a letter of Abelard’s falls into her hands; she learns he has not found content, she knows she has not. She writes to Abelard betraying all the pent-up passion of those years of restraint; he replies in a letter alternating between religion and regret—not accepting the inevitable, not daring to break free. Other four letters pass, each less passionate than the previous, and then the silence falls once more.

Abelard died in 1142 at the age of sixty-three, and twenty years later Heloise died and was buried beside him. Subsequently their remains were removed to Père Lachaise, where their tomb can now be seen.

And Abelard, the great leader and logician, his treatises are forgotten, his fame as a philosopher is dead—only his love letters live.

And Heloise, the beautiful and the learned, who stands second to Sapho, is known merely as an example of the passionate devotion of woman.

So they remain to us, the typical lovers; he with man’s mania to master, she with woman’s one desire to submit.

No love letters that have ever been written but have contained phrases common to one another and to be found here; but no love letters that have ever been published have equalled these in the old passionate tale of the struggle to forget—to sink the love of the human in the love of the divine.



Abelard consoles his friend HE last time we were together, Philintus, you gave me a melancholy account of your misfortunes; I was sensibly touched with the relation, and like a true friend bore a share in your griefs. What did I not say to stop your tears? I laid before you all the reasons philosophy could furnish, which I thought might anyways soften the strokes of fortune. But all these endeavours have proved useless; grief, I perceive, has wholly seized your spirits, and your prudence, far from assisting, seems to have forsaken you. But my skilful friendship has found out an expedient to relieve you. Attend to me a moment, hear but the story of my misfortunes, and yours, Philintus, will be nothing as compared with those of the loving and unhappy Abelard. Observe, I beseech you, at what expense I endeavour to serve you; and think this no small mark of my affection; for I am going to present you with the relation of such particulars as it is impossible for me to recollect He relates his early life without piercing my heart with the most sensible affliction. You know the place where I was born, but not, perhaps, that I was born with those complexional faults which strangers charge upon our nation—an extreme lightness of temper, and great inconstancy. I frankly own it, and shall be as free to acquaint you with those good qualities which were observed in me. I had a natural vivacity and aptness for all the polite arts. My father was a gentleman and a man of good parts; he loved the wars, but differed in his sentiments from many who follow that profession. He thought it no praise to be illiterate, but in the camp he knew how to converse at the same time with the Muses and Bellona. He was the same in the management of his family, and took equal care to form his children to the study of polite learning as to their military exercises. As I was his eldest, and consequently his favourite son, he took more than ordinary care of my education. I had a natural genius for study, and made extraordinary progress in it. Smitten with the love of books, and the praises which on all sides were bestowed upon me, I aspired to no other reputation than that of learning. To my brothers I leave the glory of battles and the pomp of triumphs; nay, more, I yielded them up my birthright and patrimony. I knew necessity was the great spur to study, and was afraid I should not merit the title of learned if I distinguished myself from others by nothing but a more plentiful fortune. Of all the sciences logic was the most to my taste. Such were the arms I chose to His youthful struggles profess. Furnished with the weapons of reasoning I took pleasure in going to public disputations to win trophies; and wherever I heard that this art flourished, I ranged, like another Alexander, from province to province, to seek new adversaries with whom I might try my strength.

The ambition I had to become formidable in logic led me at last to Paris, the centre of politeness, and where the science I was so smitten with had usually been in the greatest perfection. I put myself under the direction of one Champeaux, a professor who had acquired the character of the most skilful philosopher of his age, but by negative excellencies only as being the least ignorant! He received me with great demonstrations of kindness, but I was not so happy as to please him long; for I was too knowing in the subjects he discoursed upon, and I often confuted his notions. Frequently in our disputations I pushed a good argument so home that all his subtlety was not able to elude its force. It was impossible he should see himself surpassed by his scholar without resentment. It is sometimes dangerous to have too much merit.

Envy increased against me in proportion to my reputation. My enemies endeavoured to interrupt my progress, but their malice only provoked my courage. Measuring my abilities by the jealousy I had raised, I thought I had no further need for Champeaux’s lectures, but rather that I was sufficiently qualified to read to others. I stood for a post which was vacant at Melun. My master used all his artifice to defeat my hopes, but in vain; and on this occasion I triumphed over his He conquers Champeaux cunning as before I had done over his learning. My lectures were always crowded, and my beginnings so fortunate, that I entirely obscured the renown of my famous master. Flushed with these happy conquests, I removed to Corbeil to attack the masters there, and so establish my character of the ablest logician. The rush of travelling threw me into a dangerous distemper, and not being able to recover my health, my physicians, who perhaps were in league with Champeaux, advised me to remove to my native air. Thus I voluntarily banished myself for some years. I leave you to imagine whether my absence was not regretted by the better sort. At length I recovered my health, when I received news that my greatest adversary had taken the habit of a monk; you may think it was an act of penitence for having persecuted me; quite the contrary, ’twas ambition; he resolved to raise himself to some church dignity, therefore fell into the beaten track and took on him the garb of feigned austerity; for this is the easiest and shortest way to the highest ecclesiastical dignities. His wishes were successful and he obtained a bishopric; yet did he not quit Paris and the care of his schools: he went to his diocese to gather in his revenues, but returned and passed the rest of his time in reading lectures to those few pupils which followed him. After this I often engaged with him, and may reply to you as Ajax did to the Greeks:—

‘If you demand the fortune of that day

When stak’d on this right hand your honours lay,

If I did not oblige the foe to yield,

Yet did I never basely quit the field.’

He studies divinity About this time my father, Beranger, who to the age of sixty had lived very agreeably, retired from the world and shut himself up in a cloister, where he offered up to Heaven the languid remains of a life he could make no further use of. My mother, who was yet young, took the same resolution. She turned a Religious, but did not entirely abandon the satisfactions of life; her friends were continually at the grate, and the monastery, when one has an inclination to make it so, is exceedingly charming and pleasant. I was present when my mother was professed. At my return I resolved to study divinity, and inquired for a director in that study. I was recommended to one Anselm, the very oracle of his time, but, to give you my own opinion, one more venerable for his age and his wrinkles than for his genius or learning. If you consulted him upon any difficulty, the sure consequence was to be much more uncertain in the point. They who only saw him admired him, but those who reasoned with him were extremely dissatisfied. He was a great master of words and talked much, but meant nothing. His discourse was a fire, which, instead of enlightening, obscured everything with its smoke; a tree beautified with variety of leaves and branches, but barren of fruit. I came to him with a desire to learn, but found him like the fig tree in the Gospel, or the old oak to which Lucan compares Pompey. I continued not long underneath his shadow. I took for my guides the primitive Fathers and boldly launched into the ocean of the Holy Scriptures. In a short time I had made such progress that others Love conquers him chose me for their director. The number of my scholars was incredible, and the gratuities I received from them were proportionate to the great reputation I had acquired. Now I found myself safe in the harbour, the storms were passed, and the rage of my enemies had spent itself without effect. Happy had I known to make a right use of this calm! But when the mind is most easy ’tis most exposed to love, and even security is here the most dangerous state.

And now, my friend, I am going to expose to you all my weaknesses. All men, I believe, are under a necessity of paying tribute at some time or other to Love, and it is vain to strive to avoid it. I was a philosopher, yet this tyrant of the mind triumphed over all my wisdom; his darts were of greater force than all my reasonings, and with a sweet constraint he led me wherever he pleased. Heaven, amidst an abundance of blessings with which I was intoxicated, threw in a heavy affliction. I became a most signal example of its vengeance, and the more unhappy because, having deprived me of the means of accomplishing satisfaction, it left me to the fury of my criminal desires. I will tell you, my dear friend, the particulars of my story, and leave you to judge whether I deserved so severe a correction.

I had always an aversion for those light women whom ’tis a reproach to pursue; I was ambitious in my choice, and wished to find some obstacles, that I might surmount them with the greater glory and pleasure.

There was in Paris a young creature (ah, Philintus!) formed in a prodigality of nature to show He meets Heloise mankind a finished composition; dear Heloise, the reputed niece of one Fulbert, a canon. Her wit and her beauty would have stirred the dullest and most insensible heart, and her education was equally admirable. Heloise was the mistress of the most polite arts. You may easily imagine that this did not a little help to captivate me; I saw her, I loved her, I resolved to make her love me. The thirst of glory cooled immediately in my heart, and all my passions were lost in this new one. I thought of nothing but Heloise; everything brought her image to my mind. I was pensive and restless, and my passion was so violent as to admit of no restraint. I was always vain and presumptive; I flattered myself already with the most bewitching hopes. My reputation had spread itself everywhere, and could a virtuous lady resist a man who had confounded all the learned of the age? I was young—could she show an insensibility to those vows which my heart never formed for any but herself? My person was advantageous enough, and by my dress no one would have suspected me for a doctor; and dress, you know, is not a little engaging with women. Besides, I had wit enough to write a billet-doux, and hoped, if ever she permitted my absent self to entertain her, she would read with pleasure those breathings of my heart.

Filled with these notions I thought of nothing but the means to speak to her. Lovers either find or make all things easy. By the offices of common friends I gained the acquaintance of Fulbert; and can you believe it, Philintus, he allowed me the privilege of his table, and an apartment in his house?

He teaches her philosophy I paid him, indeed, a considerable sum, for persons of his character do nothing without money. But what would I not have given! You, my friend, know what love is; imagine then what a pleasure it must have been to a heart so inflamed as mine to be always so near the dear object of desire! I would not have exchanged my happy condition for that of the greatest monarch upon earth. I saw Heloise, I spoke to her—each action, each confused look told her the trouble of my soul. And she, on the other side, gave me ground to hope for everything from her generosity. Fulbert desired me to instruct her in philosophy; by this means I found opportunities of being in private with her, and yet I was surely of all men the most timorous in declaring my passion.

As I was with her one day alone, ‘Charming Heloise,’ said I, blushing, ‘if you know yourself you will not be surprised with the passion you have inspired me with. Uncommon as it is, I can express it but with the common terms—I love you, adorable Heloise! Till now I thought philosophy made us masters of all our passions, and that it was a refuge from the storms in which weak mortals are tossed and shipwrecked; but you have destroyed my security and broken this philosophic courage. I have despised riches; honour and its pageantries could never wake a weak thought in me, beauty alone has stirred my soul; happy if she who raised this passion kindly receives this declaration; but if it is an offence?—’

‘No,’ replied Heloise, ‘she must be very ignorant of your merit who can be offended at your passion. But for my own repose I wish either that And love you had not made this declaration, or that I were at liberty not to suspect your sincerity.’

‘Ah, divine Heloise, said I, flinging myself at her feet, ‘I swear by yourself—’ I was going on to convince her of the truth of my passion, but heard a noise, and it was Fulbert: there was no avoiding it, I had to do violence to my desire and change the discourse to some other subject. After this I found frequent opportunities to free Heloise from those suspicions which the general insincerity of men had raised in her; and she too much desired that what I said might be true not to believe it. Thus there was a most happy understanding between us. The same house, the same love, united our persons and our desires. How many soft moments did we pass together! We took all opportunities to express to each other our mutual affection, and were ingenious in contriving incidents which might give us a plausible occasion of meeting. Pyramus and Thisbe’s discovery of the crack in the wall was but a slight representation of our love and its sagacity. In the dead of night, when Fulbert and his domestics were in a sound sleep, we improved the time proper with the sweets of love; not contenting ourselves, like those unfortunate lovers, with giving insipid kisses to a wall, we made use of all the moments of our charming interviews. In the place where we met we had no lions to fear, and the study of philosophy served us for a blind. But I was so far from making any advances in the sciences that I lost all my taste for them, and when I was obliged to go from the sight of my dear mistress to my philosophical exercises, it was with the utmost regret and Her uncle separates them melancholy. Love is incapable of being concealed; a word, a look, nay, silence, speaks it. My scholars discovered it first; they saw I had no longer that vivacity of thought to which all things are easy; I could now do nothing but write verses to soothe my passion. I quitted Aristotle and his dry maxims to practise the precepts of the more ingenious Ovid. No day passed in which I did not compose amorous verses; love was my inspiring Apollo. My songs were spread abroad and gained me frequent applause. Those who were in love as I was took a pride in learning them, and by luckily applying my thoughts and verses they obtained favours which perhaps they would not otherwise have gained. This gave our amours such an éclat that the lives of Heloise and Abelard were the subject of all conversations.

The town talk at last reached Fulbert’s ears; it was with great difficulty he gave credit to what he heard, for he loved his niece, and was prejudiced in my favour; but upon closer examination he began to be less credulous. He surprised us in one of our more tender conversations. How fatal sometimes are the consequences of curiosity! The anger of Fulbert seemed too moderate on this occasion, and I feared in the end some more heavy revenge. It is impossible to express the grief and regret which filled my soul when I was obliged to leave the Canon’s house and my dear Heloise. But this separation of our persons the more firmly united our minds; and the desperate condition we were reduced to made us capable of attempting anything.

My intrigues gave me but little shame, so The episode of the maid lovingly did I regard the occasion; think what the gay young divinities said when Vulcan caught Mars and the Goddess of Beauty in his net, and impute it all to me. Fulbert surprised me with Heloise, but what man that had a soul in him would not have borne any ignominy on the sane conditions? The next day I provided myself with a private lodging near the loved house, being resolved not to abandon my prey. I abode some time without appearing publicly. Ah! how long did those few days seem to me! When we fall from a state of happiness with what impatience do we bear our misfortunes!

It being impossible that I could live without seeing Heloise, I endeavoured to engage her servant, whose name was Agaton, in my interest. She was brown, well-shaped, and a person superior to her rank; her features were regular and her eyes sparkling, fit to raise love in any man whose heart was not prepossessed by another passion. I met her alone and entreated her to have pity on a distressed lover. She answered she would undertake anything to serve me, but there was a reward. At these words I opened my purse and showed the shining metal which puts to sleep guards, forces a way through rocks, and softens the heart of the most obdurate fair.