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The romantic growth and imaginative shaping of chivalric love having been followed in the fortunes of its great exemplars, Tristan, Iseult, Lancelot, Guinevere, Parzival, a different illustration of mediaeval passion may be had by turning from these creations of literature to an actual woman, whose love for a living man was thought out as keenly and as tragically felt as any heart-break of imagined lovers, and was impressed with as entire a self-surrender as ever ravished the soul of nun panting with love of the God-man.There has never been a passion between a man and woman more famous than that which brought happiness and sorrow to the lives of Abaelard and Heloïse. Here fame is just. It was a great love, and its course was a perfect soul’s tragedy. Abaelard was a celebrity, the intellectual glory of an active-minded epoch. His love-story has done as much for his posthumous fame as all his intellectual activities. Heloïse became known in her time through her relations with Abaelard; in his songs her name was wafted far. She has come down to us as one of the world’s love-heroines. Yet few of those who have been touched by her story have known that Heloïse was a great woman, possessed of an admirable mind, a character which proved its strength through years, and, above all, a capacity for loving—for loving out to the full conclusions of love’s convictions, and for feeling in their full range and power whatever moods and emotions could arise from an unhappy situation and a passion as deeply felt as it was deeply thought upon...
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Copyright © 2015 by Henry Taylor
Published by Perennial Press
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THE HEART OF HELOÏSE
GERMAN CONSIDERATIONS: WALTHER VON DER VOGELWEIDE
SCRIPTURAL ALLEGORIES IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES; HONORIUS OF AUTUN
THE RATIONALE OF THE VISIBLE WORLD: HUGO OF ST. VICTOR
CATHEDRAL AND MASS; HYMN AND IMAGINATIVE POEM
THE SPELL OF THE CLASSICS
EVOLUTION OF MEDIAEVAL LATIN PROSE
EVOLUTION OF MEDIAEVAL LATIN VERSE
MEDIAEVAL APPROPRIATION OF THE ROMAN LAW
SCHOLASTICISM: SPIRIT, SCOPE, AND METHOD
CLASSIFICATION OF TOPICS; STAGES OF EVOLUTION
THE UNIVERSITIES, ARISTOTLE, AND THE MENDICANTS
DUNS SCOTUS AND OCCAM
THE MEDIAEVAL SYNTHESIS: DANTE
THE ROMANTIC GROWTH AND IMAGINATIVE shaping of chivalric love having been followed in the fortunes of its great exemplars, Tristan, Iseult, Lancelot, Guinevere, Parzival, a different illustration of mediaeval passion may be had by turning from these creations of literature to an actual woman, whose love for a living man was thought out as keenly and as tragically felt as any heart-break of imagined lovers, and was impressed with as entire a self-surrender as ever ravished the soul of nun panting with love of the God-man.
There has never been a passion between a man and woman more famous than that which brought happiness and sorrow to the lives of Abaelard and Heloïse. Here fame is just. It was a great love, and its course was a perfect soul’s tragedy. Abaelard was a celebrity, the intellectual glory of an active-minded epoch. His love-story has done as much for his posthumous fame as all his intellectual activities. Heloïse became known in her time through her relations with Abaelard; in his songs her name was wafted far. She has come down to us as one of the world’s love-heroines. Yet few of those who have been touched by her story have known that Heloïse was a great woman, possessed of an admirable mind, a character which proved its strength through years, and, above all, a capacity for loving—for loving out to the full conclusions of love’s convictions, and for feeling in their full range and power whatever moods and emotions could arise from an unhappy situation and a passion as deeply felt as it was deeply thought upon.
Abaelard was not a great character—aside from his intellect. He was vain and inconsiderate, a man who delighted in confounding and supplanting his teachers, and in being a thorn in the flesh of all opponents. But he became chastened through his misfortunes and through Heloïse’s high and self-sacrificing love. In the end, perhaps, his love was worthy of the love of Heloïse. Yet her love from the beginning was nobler and deeper than his love of her. Love was for him an incident in his experience, then an element in his life. Love made the life of Heloïse; it remained her all. Moreover, in the records of their passion, Heloïse’s love is unveiled as Abaelard’s is not. For all these reasons, the heart of Heloïse rather than the heart of Abaelard discloses the greatness of a love that wept itself out in the twelfth century, and it is her love rather than his that can teach us much regarding the mediaeval capacity for loving. Hers is a story of mediaeval womanhood, and sin, and repentance perhaps, with peace at last, or at least the lips shut close and further protest foregone.
Abaelard’s stormy intellectual career and the story of the love between him and the canon’s niece are well known. Let us follow him in those parts of his narrative which disclose the depth and power of Heloïse’s love for him. We draw from his Historia calamitatum, written “to a friend,” apparently an open letter intended to circulate.
“There was,” writes he, referring to the time of his sojourn in Paris, when he was about thirty-six years old, and at the height of his fame as a lecturer in the schools—
“There was in Paris a young girl named Heloïse, the niece of a canon, Fulbert. It was his affectionate wish that she should have the best education in letters that could be procured. Her face was not unfair, and her knowledge was unequalled. This attainment, so rare in women, had given her great reputation.
“I had hitherto lived continently, but now was casting my eyes about, and I saw that she possessed every attraction that lovers seek; nor did I regard my success as doubtful, when I considered my fame and my goodly person, and also her love of letters. Inflamed with love, I thought how I could best become intimate with her. It occurred to me to obtain lodgings with her uncle, on the plea that household cares distracted me from study. Friends quickly brought this about, the old man being miserly and yet desirous of instruction for his niece. He eagerly entrusted her to my tutorship, and begged me to give her all the time I could take from my lectures, authorizing me to see her at any hour of the day or night, and punish her when necessary. I marvelled with what simplicity he confided a tender lamb to a hungry wolf. As he had given me authority to punish her, I saw that if caresses would not win my object, I could bend her by threats and blows. Doubtless he was misled by love of his niece and my own good reputation. Well, what need to say more: we were united first by the one roof above us, and then by our hearts. Our hours of study were given to love. The books lay open, but our words were of love rather than philosophy, there were more kisses than aphorisms; and love was oftener reflected in our eyes than the lettered page. To avert suspicion, I struck her occasionally—very gentle blows of love. The joy of love, new to us both, brought no satiety. The more I was taken up with this pleasure, the less time I gave to philosophy and the schools—how tiresome had all that become! I became unproductive, merely repeating my old lectures, and if I composed any verses, love was their subject, and not the secrets of philosophy; you know how popular and widely sung these have become. But the students! what groans and laments arose from them at my distraction! A passion so plain was not to be concealed; every one knew of it except Fulbert. A man is often the last to know of his own shame. Yet what everybody knows cannot be hid forever, and so after some months he learned all. Oh how bitter was that uncle’s grief! and what was the grief of the separated lovers! How ashamed I was, and afflicted at the affliction of the girl! And what a storm of sorrow came over her at my disgrace. Neither complained for himself, but each grieved at what the other must endure.”
Although Abaelard was moved at the plight of Heloïse, he bitterly felt his own discomfiture in the eyes of the once admiring world. But the sentence touching Heloïse is a first true note of her devoted love: what a storm of sorrow (moeroris aestus) came over her at my disgrace. Through this trouble and woe, Heloïse never thought of her own pain save as it pained her to be the source of grief to Abaelard.
“The separation of our bodies joined our souls more closely and inflamed our love. Shame spent itself and made us unashamed, so small a thing it seemed compared with satisfying love. Not long afterwards the girl knew that she was to be a mother, and in the greatest exultation wrote and asked me to advise what she should do. One night, as we agreed on, when Fulbert was away I bore her off secretly and sent her to my own country, Brittany, where she stayed with my sister till she gave birth to a son, whom she named Astralabius.
“The uncle, on his return to his empty house, was frantic. He did not know what to do to me. If he should kill or do me some bodily injury, he feared lest his niece, whom he loved, would suffer for it among my people in Brittany. He could not seize me, as I was prepared against all attempts. At length, pitying his anguish, and feeling remorse at having caused it, I went to him as a suppliant and promised whatever satisfaction he should demand. I assured him that nothing in my conduct would seem remarkable to any one who had felt the strength of love or would take the pains to recall how many of the greatest men had been thrown down by women, ever since the world began. Whereupon I offered him a satisfaction greater than he could have hoped, to wit, that I would marry her whom I had corrupted, if only the marriage might be kept secret so that it should not injure me in the minds of men. He agreed and pledged his faith, and the faith of his friends, and sealed with kisses the reconciliation which I had sought—so that he might more easily betray me!”
It will be remembered that Abaelard was a clerk, a clericus, in virtue of his profession of letters and theology. Never having taken orders, he could marry; but while a clerk’s slip could be forgotten, marriage might lead people to think he had slighted his vocation, and would certainly bar the ecclesiastical preferment which such a famous clericus might naturally look forward to. Nevertheless, he at once set out to fetch Heloïse from Brittany, to make her his wife.
The stand which she now took shows both her mind and heart:
“She strongly disapproved, and urged two reasons against the marriage, to wit, the danger and the disgrace in which it would involve me. She swore—and so it proved—that no satisfaction would ever appease her uncle. She asked how she was to have any glory through me when she should have made me inglorious, and should have humiliated both herself and me. What penalties would the world exact from her if she deprived it of such a luminary; what curses, what damage to the Church, what lamentations of philosophers, would follow on this marriage. How indecent, how lamentable would it be for a man whom nature had made for all, to declare that he belonged to one woman, and subject himself to such shame. From her soul, she detested this marriage which would be so utterly ignominious for me, and a burden to me. She expatiated on the disgrace and inconvenience of matrimony for me and quoted the Apostle Paul exhorting men to shun it. If I would not take the apostle’s advice or listen to what the saints had said regarding the matrimonial yoke, I should at least pay attention to the philosophers—to Theophrastus’s words upon the intolerable evils of marriage, and to the refusal of Cicero to take a wife after he had divorced Terentia, when he said that he could not devote himself to a wife and philosophy at the same time. ‘Or,’ she continued, laying aside the disaccord between study and a wife, ‘consider what a married man’s establishment would be to you. What sweet accord there would be between the schools and domestics, between copyists and cradles, between books and distaffs, between pen and spindle! Who, engaged in religious or philosophical meditations, could endure a baby’s crying and the nurse’s ditties stilling it, and all the noise of servants? Could you put up with the dirty ways of children? The rich can, you say, with their palaces and apartments of all kinds; their wealth does not feel the expense or the daily care and annoyance. But I say, the state of the rich is not that of philosophers; nor have men entangled in riches and affairs any time for the study of Scripture or philosophy. The renowned philosophers of old, despising the world, fleeing rather than relinquishing it, forbade themselves all pleasures, and reposed in the embraces of philosophy.’”
Speaking thus, Heloïse fortified her argument with quotations from Seneca, and the examples of Jewish and Gentile worthies and Christian saints, and continued:
“It is not for me to point out—for I would not be thought to instruct Minerva—how soberly and continently all these men lived who, according to Augustine and others, were called philosophers as much for their way of life as or their knowledge. If laymen and Gentiles, bound by no profession of religion, lived thus, surely you, a clerk and canon, should not prefer low pleasures to sacred duties, nor let yourself be sucked down by this Charybdis and smothered in filth inextricably. If you do not value the privilege of a clerk, at least defend the dignity of a philosopher. If reverence for God be despised, still let love of decency temper immodesty. Remember, Socrates was tied to a wife, and through a nasty accident wiped out this blot upon philosophy, that others afterwards might be more cautious; which Jerome relates in his book against Jovinianus, how once when enduring a storm of Xanthippe’s clamours from the floor above, he was ducked with slops, and simply said, ‘I knew such thunder would bring rain.’
“Finally she said that it would be dangerous for me to take her back to Paris; it was more becoming to me, and sweeter to her, to be called my mistress, so that affection alone might keep me hers and not the binding power of any matrimonial chain; and if we should be separated for a time, our joys at meeting would be the dearer for their rarity. When at last with all her persuasions and dissuasions she could not turn me from my folly, and could not bear to offend me, with a burst of tears she ended in these words: ‘One thing is left: in the ruin of us both the grief which follows shall not be less than the love which went before.’ Nor did she here lack the spirit of prophecy.”
Heloïse’s reasonings show love great and true and her absolute devotion to Abaelard’s interests. None the less striking is her clear intelligence. She reasoned correctly; she was right, the marriage would do great harm to Abaelard and little good to her. We see this too, if we lay aside our sense of the ennobling purity of marriage—a sentiment not commonly felt in the twelfth century. Marriage was holy in the mind of Christ. But it did not preserve its holiness through the centuries which saw the rise of monasticism and priestly celibacy. A way of life is not pure and holy when another way is holier and purer; this is peculiarly true in Christianity, which demands the ideal best with such intensity as to cast reflection on whatever falls below the highest standard. From the time of the barbarian inroads, on through the Carolingian periods, and into the later Middle Ages, there was enough barbarism and brutality to prevent the preservation, or impede the development, of a high standard of marriage. Not monasticism, but his own half-barbarian, lustful heart led Charlemagne to marry and remarry at will, and have many mistresses besides. It was the same with the countless barons and mediaeval kings, rude and half civilized. This was barbarous lust, not due to the influence of monasticism. But, on the other hand, it was always the virgin or celibate state that the Church held before the eyes of all this semi-barbarous laity as the ideal for a Christian man or woman. The Church sanctioned marriage, but hardly lauded it or held it up as a condition in which lives of holiness and purity could be led. Such were the sentiments in which Heloïse was born and bred. They were subconscious factors in her thoughts regarding herself and her lover. Devoted and unselfish was her love; undoubtedly Heloïse would have sacrificed herself for Abaelard under any social conditions. Nevertheless, with her, marriage added little to love; it was a mere formal and binding authorization; love was no purer for it. To her mind, for a man in Abaelard’s situation to be entangled in a temporary amour was better than to be chained to his passion, with his career irrevocably ruined, in marriage. In so far as her thoughts or Abaelard’s were influenced by the environment of priestly thinking, marriage would seem a rendering permanent of a passionate and sinful state, which it were best to cast off altogether. For herself, as she said truly, the marriage would bring obloquy rather than reinstatement. She had been mistress to a clerk; marriage would make her the partner of his abandonment of his vocation, the accomplice of broken purposes if not of broken vows. And finally, as there was then no line of disgrace as now between bastard and lawful issue, Heloïse had no thought that the interests of her son demanded that his mother should become his father’s wife.
“Leaving our son in my sister’s care, we stole back to Paris, and shortly after, having in the night celebrated our vigils in a certain church, we were married at dawn in the presence of her uncle and some of his and our friends. We left at once separately and with secrecy, and afterwards saw each other only in privacy, so as to conceal what we had done. But her uncle and his household began at once to announce the marriage and violate his word; while she, on the contrary, protested vehemently and swore that it was false. At that he became enraged and treated her vilely. When I discovered this I sent her to the convent of Argenteuil, near Paris, where she had been educated. There I had her take the garb of a nun, except the veil. Hearing this, the uncle and his relations thought that I had duped them, ridding myself of Heloïse by making her a nun. So having bribed my servant, they came upon me by night, when I was sleeping, and took on me a vengeance as cruel and irretrievable as it was vile and shameful. Two of the perpetrators were pursued and vengeance taken.
“In the morning the whole town was assembled, crying and lamenting my plight, especially the clerks and students; at which I was afflicted with more shame than I suffered physical pain. I thought of my ruined hopes and glory, and then saw that by God’s just judgment I was punished where I had most sinned, and that Fulbert had justly avenged treachery with treachery. But what a figure I should cut in public! how the world would point its finger at me! I was also confounded at the thought of the Levitical law, according to which I had become an abomination to the Church. In this misery the confusion of shame—I confess it—rather than the ardour of conversion drove me to the cover of the cloister, after she had willingly obeyed my command to take the veil. I became a monk in the abbey of St. Denis, and she a nun in the convent of Argenteuil. Many begged her not to set that yoke upon her youth; at which, amid her tears, she broke out in Cornelia’s lament: ‘O great husband! undeserving of my couch! Has fortune rights over a head so high? Why did I, impious, marry thee to make thee wretched? Accept these penalties, which I gladly pay.’ With these words, she went straight to the altar, received the veil blessed by the bishop, and took the vows before them all.”
Abaelard’s Historia calamitatum now turns to troubles having no connection with Heloïse: his difficulties with the monks of St. Denis, with other monks, with every one, in fact, except his scholars; his arraignment before the Council of Soissons, the public burning of his book, De Unitate et Trinitate divina, and various other troubles, till, seeking a retreat, he constructed an oratory on the bank of the Ardisson. He named it the Paraclete, and there he taught and lectured. He was afterwards elected abbot of a monastery in Brittany, where he discovered that those under him were savage beasts rather than monks. Here the Historia calamitatum was written.
The monks of St. Denis had never ceased to hate Abaelard for his assertion that their great Saint was not really Dionysius the Areopagite who heard Paul preach. Their abbot now brought forward and proved an ancient title to the land where stood the convent of Argenteuil, “in which,” to resume Abaelard’s account,
“she, once my wife, now my sister in Christ, had taken the veil, and was at this time prioress. The nuns were rudely driven out. News of this came to me as a suggestion from the Lord to bethink me of the deserted Paraclete. Going thither, I invited Heloïse and her nuns to come and take possession. They accepted, and I gave it to them. Afterward Pope Innocent II. confirmed this grant to them and their successors in perpetuity. There for a time they lived in want; but soon the Divine Pity showed itself the true Paraclete, and moved the people of the neighbourhood to take compassion on them, and they soon knew no lack. Indeed as women are the weaker sex, their need moves men more readily to pity, and their virtues are the more grateful to both God and man. And on our sister the Lord bestowed such favour in the eyes of all, that the bishops loved her as a daughter, the abbots as a sister, the laity as a mother; and all wondered at her piety, her wisdom, and her gentle patience in everything. She rarely let herself be seen, that she might devote herself more wholly to prayers and meditations in her cell; but all the more persistently people sought her spiritual counsel.”
What were those meditations and those prayers uttered or unuttered in that cell? They did not always refer to the kingdom of heaven, judging from the abbess’s first letter to her former lover. After the installation of Heloïse and her nuns, Abaelard rarely visited the Paraclete, although his advice and instruction was desired there. His visits gave rise to too much scandal. In the course of time, however, the Historia calamitatum came into the hands of Heloïse, and occasioned this letter, which seems to issue forth out of a long silence; ten years had passed since she became a nun. The superscription is as follows:
“To her master, rather to a father, to her husband, rather to a brother, his maid or rather daughter, his wife or rather sister, to Abaelard, Heloïse.
“Your letter, beloved, written to comfort a friend, chanced recently to reach me. Seeing by its first lines from whom it was, I burned to read it for the love I bear the writer, hoping also from its words to recreate an image of him whose life I have ruined. Those words dropped gall and absinthe as they brought back the unhappy story of our intercourse and thy ceaseless crosses, O my only one. Truly the letter must have convinced the friend that his troubles were light compared with yours, as you showed the treachery and persecutions which had followed you, the calumnies of enemies and the burning of your glorious book, the machinations of false brothers, and the vile acts of those worthless monks whom you call your sons. No one could read it with dry eyes. Your perils have renewed my griefs; here we all despair of your life and each day with trembling hearts expect news of your death. In the name of Christ, who so far has somehow preserved thee for himself, deign with frequent letters to let these weak servants of Him and thee know of the storms overwhelming the swimmer, so that we who alone remain to thee may be participators of thy pain or joy. One who grieves may gain consolation from those grieving with him; a burden borne by many is more lightly borne. And if this tempest abates, how happy shall we be to know it. Whatever the letters may contain they will show at least that we are not forgotten. Has not Seneca said in his letter to Lucilius, that the letters of an absent friend are sweet? When no malice can stop your giving us this much of you, do not let neglect prove a bar.
“You have written that long letter to console a friend with the story of your own misfortunes, and have thereby roused our grief and added to our desolation. Heal these new wounds. You owe to us a deeper debt of friendship than to him, for we are not only friends, but friends the dearest, and your daughters. After God, you alone are the founder of this place, the builder of this oratory and of this congregation. This new plantation for a holy purpose is your own; the delicate plants need frequent watering. He who gives so much to his enemies, should consider his daughters. Or, leaving out the others here, think how this is owing me from thee: what thou owest to all women under vows, thou shalt pay more devotedly to thine only one. How many books have the holy fathers written for holy women, for their exhortation and instruction! I marvel at thy forgetfulness of these frail beginnings of our conversion. Neither respect of God nor love of us nor the example of the blessed fathers, has led thee by speech or letter to console me, cast about, and consumed with grief. This obligation was the stronger, because the sacrament of marriage joined thee to me, and I—every one sees it—cling to thee with unmeasured love.
“Dearest, thou knowest—who knows not?—how much I lost in thee, and that an infamous act of treachery robbed me of thee and of myself at once. The greater my grief, the greater need of consolation, not from another but from thee, that thou who art alone my cause of grief may be alone my consolation. It is thou alone that canst sadden me or gladden me or comfort me. And thou alone owest this to me, especially since I have done thy will so utterly that, unable to offend thee, I endured to wreck myself at thy command. Nay, more than this, love turned to madness and cut itself off from hope of that which alone it sought, when I obediently changed my garb and my heart too in order that I might prove thee sole owner of my body as well as of my spirit. God knows, I have ever sought in thee only thyself, desiring simply thee and not what was thine. I asked no matrimonial contract, I looked for no dowry; not my pleasure, not my will, but thine have I striven to fulfil. And if the name of wife seemed holier or more potent, the word mistress (amica) was always sweeter to me, or even—be not angry!—concubine or harlot; for the more I lowered myself before thee, the more I hoped to gain thy favour, and the less I should hurt the glory of thy renown. This thou didst graciously remember, when condescending to point out in that letter to a friend some of the reasons (but not all!) why I preferred love to wedlock and liberty to a chain. I call God to witness that if Augustus, the master of the world, would honour me with marriage and invest me with equal rule, it would still seem to me dearer and more honourable to be called thy strumpet than his empress. He who is rich and powerful is not the better man: that is a matter of fortune, this of merit. And she is venal who marries a rich man sooner than a poor man, and yearns for a husband’s riches rather than himself. Such a woman deserves pay and not affection. She is not seeking the man but his goods, and would wish, if possible, to prostitute herself to one still richer. Aspasia put this clearly when she was trying to effect a reconciliation between Xenophon and his wife: ‘Until you come to think that there is nowhere else a better man or a woman more desirable, you will be continually looking for what you think to be the best, and will wish to be married to the man or woman who is the very best.’ This is indeed a holy, rather than a philosophical sentiment, and wisdom, not philosophy, speaks. This is the holy error and blessed deception between man and wife, when affection perfect and unimpaired keeps marriage inviolate not so much by continency of body as by chastity of mind. But what with other women is an error, is, in my case, the manifest truth: since what they suppose in their husbands, I—and the whole world agrees—know to be in thee. My love for thee is truth, being free from all error. Who among kings or philosophers can vie with your fame? What country, what city does not thirst to see you? Who, I ask, did not hurry to see you appearing in public and crane his neck to catch a last glimpse as you departed? What wife, what maid did not yearn for you absent, and burn when you were present? What queen did not envy me my joys and couch? There were in you two qualities by which you could draw the soul of any woman, the gift of poetry and the gift of singing, gifts which other philosophers have lacked. As a distraction from labour, you composed love-songs both in metre and in rhyme, which for their sweet sentiment and music have been sung and resung and have kept your name in every mouth. Your sweet melodies do not permit even the illiterate to forget you. Because of these gifts women sighed for your love. And, as these songs sung of our loves, they quickly spread my name in many lands, and made me the envy of my sex. What excellence of mind or body did not adorn your youth? No woman, then envious, but now would pity me bereft of such delights. What enemy even would not now be softened by the compassion due me?
“I have brought thee evil, thou knowest how innocently. Not the result of the act but the disposition of the doer makes the crime; justice does not consider what happens, but through what intent it happens. My intent towards thee thou only hast proved and alone canst judge. I commit everything to thy weighing and submit to thy decree.
“Tell me one thing: why, after our conversion, commanded by thee, did I drop into oblivion, to be no more refreshed by speech of thine or letter? Tell me, I say, if you can, or I will say what I feel and what every one suspects: desire rather than friendship drew you to me, lust rather than love. So when desire ceased, whatever you were manifesting for its sake likewise vanished. This, beloved, is not so much my opinion as the opinion of all. Would it were only mine and that thy love might find defenders to argue away my pain. Would that I could invent some reason to excuse you and also cover my cheapness. Listen, I beg, to what I ask, and it will seem small and very easy to you. Since I am cheated of your presence, at least put vows in words, of which you have a store, and so keep before me the sweetness of thine image. I shall vainly expect you to be bountiful in acts if I find you a miser in words. Truly I thought that I merited much from you, when I had done all for your sake and still continue in obedience. When little more than a girl I took the hard vows of a nun, not from piety but at your command. If I merit nothing from thee, how vain I deem my labour! I can expect no reward from God, as I have done nothing from love of Him. Thee hurrying to God I followed, or rather went before. For, as you remembered how Lot’s wife turned back, you first delivered me to God bound with the vow, and then yourself. That single act of distrust, I confess, grieved me and made me blush. God knows, at your command I would have followed or preceded you to fiery places. For my heart is not with me, but with thee; and now more than ever, if not with thee it is nowhere, for it cannot exist without thee. That my heart may be well with thee, see to it, I beg; and it will be well if it finds thee kind, rendering grace for grace—a little for much. Beloved, would that thy love were less sure of me so that it might be more solicitous; I have made you so secure that you are negligent. Remember all I have done and think what you owe. While I enjoyed carnal joy with you, many people were uncertain whether I acted from love or lust. Now the end makes clear the beginning; I have cut myself off from pleasure to obey thy will. I have kept nothing, save to be more than ever thine. Think how wicked it were in thee where all the more is due to render less, nothing almost; especially when little is asked, and that so easy for you. In the name of God to whom you have vowed yourself, give me that of thee which is possible, the consolation of a letter. I promise, thus refreshed, to serve God more readily. When of old you would call me to pleasures, you sought me with frequent letters, and never failed with thy songs to keep thy Heloïse on every tongue; the streets, the houses re-echoed me. How much fitter that you should now incite me to God than then to lust? Bethink thee what thou owest; heed what I ask; and a long letter I will conclude with a brief ending: farewell only one!”
Remarks upon this letter would seem to profane a shrine—had the man profaned that shrine? He had not always worshipped there. Heloïse knew this, for all her love. She said it too, writing in phraseology which had been brutalized through the denouncing spirit of Latin monasticism. How truly she puts the situation and how clearly she thinks withal, discerning as it were the beautiful and true in love and marriage. The whole letter is well arranged, and written in a style showing the writer’s training in Latin mediaeval rhetoric. It was not the less deeply felt because composed with care and skill. Evidently the writer is of the Middle Ages; her occasional prolixity was not of her sex but of her time; and she quotes the ancients so naturally; what they say should be convincing. How the letter bares the motives of her own conduct: not for God’s sake, or the kingdom of heaven’s sake, but for Abaelard’s sake she became a nun. She had no inclination thereto; her letters do not indicate that she ever became really and spontaneously devoted to her calling. Abaelard was her God, and as her God she held him to the end; though she applied herself to the consideration of religious topics, as we shall see. Moreover, her position as nun and abbess could not fail to force such topics on her consideration.
Is there another such love-letter, setting forth a situation so triple-barred and hopeless? And the love which fills the letter, which throbs and burns in it, which speaks and argues in it, how absolute is this love. It is love carried out to its full conclusions; it includes the whole woman and the whole of her life; whatever lies beyond its ken and care is scorned and rejected. This love is extreme in its humility, and yet realizes its own purity and worth; it is grieved at the thought of rousing a feeling baser than itself. Heloïse had been and still was Heloïse, devoted and self-sacrificing in her love. But the situation has become torture; her heart is filled with all manner of pain, old and new, till it is driven to assert its right at least to consolation. Thus Heloïse’s love becomes insistent and requiring. Was it possibly burdensome to the man who now might wish to think no more of passion? who might wish no longer to be loved in that way? In his reply Abaelard does not unveil himself; he seems to take an attitude which may have been the most faithful expression that he could devise of his changed self.
“To Heloïse his beloved sister in Christ, Abaelard her brother in the Same.”
This superscription was a gentle reminder of their present relationship—in Christ. The writer begins: his not having written since their conversion was to be ascribed not to his negligence, but to his confidence in her wisdom; he did not think that she who, so full of grace, had consoled her sister nuns when prioress, could as abbess need teaching or exhortation for the guidance of her daughters; but if, in her humility, she felt the need of his instruction in matters pertaining to God, she might write, and he would answer, as the Lord should grant. Thanks be to God who had filled their hearts—hers and her nuns—with solicitude for his perils, and had made them participators in his afflictions; through their prayers the divine pity had protected him. He had hastened to send the Psalter, requested by his sister, formerly dear to him in the world and now most dear in Christ, to assist their prayers. The potency of prayer, with God and the saints, and especially the prayer of women for those dear to them, is frequently declared in Scripture; he cites a number of passages to prove it. May these move her to pray for him. He refers with affectionate gratitude to the prayers which the nuns had been offering for him, and encloses a short prayer for his safety, which he begs and implores may be used in their daily canonical hours. If the Lord, however, delivers him into the hands of his enemies to kill him, or if he meet his death in any way, he begs that his body may be brought to the Paraclete for burial, so that the sight of his sepulchre may move his daughters and sisters in Christ to pray for him; no place could be so safe and salutary for the soul of one bitterly repenting of his sins, as that consecrated to the true Paraclete—the Comforter; nor could fitter Christian burial be found than among women devoted by their vows to Christ. He begs that the great solicitude which they now have for his bodily safety, they will then have for the salvation of his soul, and by the suffrage of their prayer for the dead man show how they had loved him when alive. The letter closes, not with a personal word to Heloïse, but with this distich:
“Vive, vale, vivantque tuae valeantque sorores,
Vivite, sed Christo, quaeso, mei memores.”
Thus as against Heloïse’s beseeching love, Abaelard lifted his hands, palms out, repelling it. His letter ignored all that filled the soul and the letter of Heloïse. His reply did not lack words of spiritual affection, and its tone was not as formal then as it now seems. When Abaelard asked for the prayers of Heloïse and her nuns, he meant it; he desired the efficacy of their prayers. Then he wished to be buried among them. We are touched by this; but, again, Abaelard meant it, as he said, for his soul’s welfare; it was no love sentiment. The letter stirred the heart of Heloïse to a rebellious outcry against the cruelty of God, if not of Abaelard, a soul’s cry against life and the calm attitude of one who no longer was—or at least meant to be no longer—what he had been to her.
“To her only one, next to Christ, his only one in Christ.
“I wonder, my only one, that contrary to epistolary custom and the natural order of things, in the salutation of your letter you have placed me before you, a woman before a man, a wife before a husband, a servant before her lord, a nun before a monk and priest, a deaconess before an abbot. The proper order is for one writing to a superior to put his own name last, but when writing to an inferior, the writer’s name should precede. We also marvelled, that where you should have afforded us consolation, you added to our desolation, and excited the tears you should have quieted. How could we restrain our tears when reading what you wrote towards the end: ‘If the Lord shall deliver me into the hand of my enemies to slay me’! Dearest, how couldst thou think or say that? May God never forget His handmaids, to leave them living when you are no more! May He never allot to us that life, which would be harder than any death! It is for you to perform our obsequies and commend our souls to God, and send before to God those whom you have gathered for Him—that you may have no further anxiety, and follow us the more gladly because assured of our safety. Refrain, my lord, I beg, from making the miserable most miserable with such words; destroy not our life before we die. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’—and that day will come to all with bitterness enough. ‘What need,’ says Seneca, ‘to add to evil, and destroy life before death?’
“Thou askest, only one, that, in the event of thy death when absent from us, we should have thy body brought to our cemetery, in order that, being always in our memory, thou shouldst obtain greater benefit from our prayers. Did you think that your memory could slip from us? How could we pray, with distracted minds? What use of tongue or reason would be left to us? When the mind is crazed against God it will not placate Him with prayer so much as irritate Him with complaints. We could only weep, pressing to follow rather than bury you. How could we live after we had lost our life in you? The thought of your death is death to us; what would be the actuality? God grant we shall not have to pay those rites to one from whom we look for them; may we go before and not follow! A heart crushed with grief is not calm, nor is a mind tossed by troubles open to God. Do not, I beg, hinder the divine service to which we are dedicated.
“What remains of hope for me when thou art gone? Or what reason to continue in this pilgrimage, where I have no solace save thee? and of thee I have but the bare knowledge that thou dost live, since thy restoring presence is not granted me. Oh!—if it is right to say it—how cruel has God been to me! Inclement Clemency! Fortune has emptied her quiver against me, so that others have nothing to fear! If indeed a single dart were left, no place could be found in me for a new wound. Fortune fears only lest I escape her tortures by death. Wretched and unhappy! in thee I was lifted above all women; in thee am I the more fatally thrown down. What glory did I have in thee! what ruin have I now! Fortune made me the happiest of women that she might make me the most miserable. The injury was the more outrageous in that all ways of right were broken. While we were abandoned to love’s delights, the divine severity spared us. When we made the forbidden lawful and by marriage wiped out fornication’s stains, the Lord’s wrath broke on us, impatient of an unsullied bed when it long had borne with one defiled. A man taken in adultery would have been amply punished by what came to you. What others deserved for adultery, that you got from the marriage which you thought had made amends for everything. Adulteresses bring their paramours what your own wife brought you. Not when we lived for pleasure, but when, separated, we lived in chastity, you presiding at the Paris schools, I at thy command dwelling with the nuns at Argenteuil; you devoted to study, I to prayer and holy reading; it was then that you alone paid the penalty for what we had done together. Alone you bore the punishment, which you deserved less than I. When you had humiliated yourself and elevated me and all my kin, you little merited that punishment either from God or from those traitors. Miserable me, begotten to cause such a crime! O womankind ever the ruin of the noblest men!
“Well the Tempter knows how easy is man’s overthrow through a wife. He cast his malice over us, and the man whom he could not throw down through fornication, he tried with marriage, using a good to bring about an evil where evil means had failed. I thank God at least for this, that the Tempter did not draw me to assent to that which became the cause of the evil deed. Yet, although in this my mind absolves me, too many sins had gone before to leave me guiltless of that crime. For long a servant of forbidden joys, I earned the punishment which I now suffer of past sins. Let the evil end be attributed to ill beginnings! May my penitence be meet for what I have done, and may long remorse in some way compensate for the penalty you suffered! What once you suffered in the body, may I through contrition bear to the end of life, that so I may make satisfaction to thee if not to God. To confess the infirmities of my most wretched soul, I can find no penitence to offer God, whom I never cease to accuse of utter cruelty towards you. Rebellious to His rule, I offend Him with indignation more than I placate Him with penitence. For that cannot be called the sinner’s penitence where, whatever be the body’s suffering, the mind retains the will to sin and still burns with the same desires. It is easy in confession to accuse oneself of sins, and also to do penance with the body; but hard indeed to turn the heart from the desire of its greatest joys! Love’s pleasures, which we knew together, cannot be made displeasing to me nor driven from my memory. Wherever I turn, they press upon me, nor do they spare my dreams. Even in the solemn moments of the Mass, when prayer should be the purest, their phantoms catch my soul. When I should groan for what I have done, I sigh for what I have lost. Not only our acts, but times and places stick fast in my mind, and my body quivers. O truly wretched me, fit only to utter this cry of the soul: ‘Wretched that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ Would I could add with truth what follows:—‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Such thanksgiving, dearest, may be thine, by one bodily ill cured of many tortures of the soul, and God may have been merciful where He seemed against you; like a good physician who does not spare the pain needed to save life. But I am tortured with passion and the fires of memory. They call me chaste, who do not know me for a hypocrite. They look upon purity of the flesh as virtue—which is of the soul, not of the body. Having some praise from men, I merit none from God, who knows the heart. I am called religious at a time when most religion is hypocrisy, and when whoever keeps from offence against human law is praised. Perhaps it seems praiseworthy and acceptable to God, through decent conduct,—whatever the intent—to avoid scandalizing the Church or causing the Lord’s name to be blasphemed or the religious Order discredited. Perhaps it may be of grace just to abstain from evil. But the Scripture says, ‘Refrain from evil and do good’; and vainly he attempts either who does not act from love of God. God knows that I have always feared to offend thee more than I feared to offend Him; and have desired to please thee rather than Him. Thy command, not the divine love, put on me this garb of religion. What a wretched life I lead if I vainly endure all this here and am to have no reward hereafter. My hypocrisy has long deceived you, as it has others, and therefore you desire my prayers. Have no such confidence; I need your prayers; do not withdraw their aid. Do not take away the medicine, thinking me whole. Do not cease to think me needy; do not think me strong; do not delay your help. Cease from praising me, I beg. No one versed in medicine will judge of inner disease from outward view. Thy praise is the more perilous because I love it, and desire to please thee always. Be fearful rather than confident regarding me, so that I may have the help of your care. Do not seek to spur me on, by quoting, ‘For strength is made perfect in weakness,’ or ‘He is not crowned unless he have contended lawfully.’ I am not looking for the crown of victory; enough for me to escape peril;—safer to shun peril than to wage war! In whatever little corner of heaven God puts me, that will satisfy me. Hear what Saint Jerome says: ‘I confess my weakness; I do not wish to fight for the hope of victory, lest I lose.’ Why give up certainties to follow the uncertain?”
This letter gives a view of Heloïse’s mind, its strong grasp and its capacity for reasoning, though its reasoning is here distraught with passion. Scathingly, half-blinded by her pain, she declares the perversities of Providence, as they glared upon her. Such a disclosure of the woman’s mind suggests how broadly based in thought and largely reared was that great love into which her whole soul had been poured, the mind as well as heart. Her love was great, unique, not only from its force of feeling, but from the power and scope of thought by which passion and feeling were carried out so far and fully to the last conclusions of devotion. The letter also shows a woman driven by stress of misery to utter cries and clutch at remedies that her calmer self would have put by. It is not hypocrisy to conceal the desires or imaginings which one would never act upon. To tell these is not true disclosure of oneself, but slander. Torn by pain, Heloïse makes herself more vile and needy than in other moments she knew herself to be. Yet the letter also uncovers her, and in nakedness there is some truth. Doubtless her nun’s garb did clothe a hypocrite. Whatever she felt—and here we see the worst she felt—before the world she had to act the nun. We shall soon see how she forced herself to act, or be, the nun toward Abaelard.
Abaelard replied in a letter filled with religious argument and consolation. It was self-controlled, firm, authoritative, and strong in those arguments regarding God’s mercy which have stood the test of time. If they sometimes fail to satisfy the embittered soul, at least they are the best that man has known. And withal, the letter is calmly and nobly affectionate—what place was there for love’s protestations? They would have increased the evil, adding fuel to Heloïse’s passionate misery.
The master-note is struck in the address: “To the spouse of Christ, His servant.” The letter seeks to turn Heloïse’s thoughts to her nun’s calling and her soul’s salvation. It divides her expressions of complaint under four heads. First, he had put her name first, because she had become his superior from the moment of her bridal with his master Christ. Jerome writing to Eustochium called her Lady, when she had become the spouse of Jerome’s Lord. Abaelard shows, with citations from the Song of Songs, the glory of the spouse, and how her prayers should be sought by one who was the servant of her Husband. Second, as to the terrors roused in her by his mention of his peril and possible death, he points out that in her first letter she had bidden him write of those perils; if they brought him death, she should deem that a kind release. She should not wish to see his miseries drawn out, even for her sake. Third, he shows that his praise of her was justified even by her disclaimer of merit—as it is written, Who humbles himself shall be exalted. He warns her against false modesty which may be vanity.
He turns at last to the old and ceaseless plaint which she makes against God for cruelty, when she should rather glorify Him; he had thought that that bitterness had departed, so dangerous for her, so painful to him. If she wished to please him, let her lay it aside; retaining it, she could not please him or advance with him to blessedness; let her have this much religion, not to separate herself from him hastening to God; let her take comfort in their journeying to the same goal. He then shows her that his punishment was just as well as merciful; he had deserved it from God and also from Fulbert. If she will consider, she will see in it God’s justice and His mercy; God had saved them from shipwreck; had raised a barrier against shame and lust. For himself the punishment was purification, not privation; will not she, as his inseparable comrade, participate in the workings of this grace, even as she shared the guilt and its pardon? Once he had thought of binding her to him in wedlock; but God found a means to turn them both to Him; and the Lord was continuing His mercy towards her, causing her to bring forth spiritual daughters, when otherwise she would only have borne children in the flesh; in her the curse of Eve is turned to the blessing of Mary. God had purified them both; whom God loveth He correcteth. Oh! let her thoughts dwell with the Son of God, seized, dragged, beaten, spit upon, crowned with thorns, hung on a vile cross. Let her think of Him as her spouse, and for Him let her make lament; He bought her with himself, He loved her. In comparison with His love, his own (Abaelard’s) was lust, seeking the pleasure it could get from her. If he, Abaelard, had suffered for her, it was not willingly nor for her sake, as Christ had suffered, and for her salvation. Let her weep for Him who made her whole, not for her corrupter; for her Redeemer, not for her defiler; for the Lord who died for her, not for the living servant, himself just freed from the death. Let his sister accept with patience what came to her in mercy from Him who wounded the body to save the soul.
“We are one in Christ, as through marriage we were one flesh. Whatever is thine is not alien to me. Christ is thine, because thou art His spouse. And now thou hast me for a servant, who formerly was thy master—a servant united to thee by spiritual love. I trust in thy pleading with Him for such defence as my own prayers may not obtain. That nothing may hinder this petition I have composed this prayer, which I send thee: ‘O God, who formed woman from the side of man and didst sanction the sacrament of marriage; who didst bestow upon my frailty a cure for its incontinence; do not despise the prayers of thy handmaid, and the prayers which I pour out for my sins and those of my dear one. Pardon our great crimes, and may the enormity of our faults find the greatness of thy ineffable mercy. Punish the culprits in the present; spare, in the future. Thou hast joined us, Lord, and hast divided us, as it pleased thee. Now complete most mercifully what thou hast begun in mercy; and those whom thou hast divided in this world, join eternally in heaven, thou who art our hope, our portion, our expectation, our consolation, Lord blessed forever. Amen.’
“Farewell in Christ, spouse of Christ; in Christ farewell and in Christ live. Amen.”
In her next letter Heloïse obeys, and turns her pen if not her thoughts to the topics suggested by Abaelard’s admonitions. The short scholastically phrased address cannot be rendered in any modern fashion: “Domino specialiter sua singulariter.”
“That you may have no further reason to call me disobedient, your command shall bridle the words of unrestrained grief; in writing I will moderate my language, which I might be unable to do in speech. Nothing is less in our power than our heart; which compels us to obey more often than it obeys us. When our affections goad us, we cannot keep the sudden impulse from breaking out in words; as it is written, ‘From the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh.’ So I will withhold my hand from writing whenever I am unable to control my words. Would that the sorrowing heart were as ready to obey as the hand that writes! You can afford some remedy to grief, even when unable to dispel it quite. As one nail driven in drives out another, a new thought pushes away its predecessor, and the mind is freed for a time. A thought, moreover, takes the mind up and leads it from others more effectually, if the subject of the thought is excellent and of great importance.”
The rest of this long letter shows Heloïse putting her principles in practice. She is forcing her mind to consider and her pen to discourse upon topics which might properly occupy an abbess’s thoughts—topics, moreover, which would satisfy Abaelard and call forth long letters in reply. Whether she cared really for these matters or ever came to care for them; or whether she turned to them to distract her mind and keep up some poor makeshift of intercourse with one who would and could no longer be her lover; or whether all these motives mingled, and in what proportion, perhaps may best be left to Him who tries the heart.
The abbess writes:
“All of us here, servants of Christ and thy daughters, make two requests of thy fathership which we deem most needful. The one is, that you would instruct us concerning the origins of the order of nuns and the authority for our calling. The other is, that you would draw up a written regula, suitable for women, which shall prescribe and set the order and usages of our convent. We do not find any adequate regula for women among the works of the holy Fathers. It is a manifest defect in monastic institutions that the same rules should be imposed upon both monks and nuns, and that the weaker sex should bear the same monastic yoke as the stronger.”
Heloïse, having set this task for Abaelard, proceeds to show how the various monastic regulae, from Benedict’s downward, failed to make suitable provision for the habits and requirements and weaknesses of women, the regulae hitherto having been concerned with the weaknesses of men. She enters upon matters of clothing and diet, and everything concerning the lives of nuns. She writes as one learned in Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, and sets the whole matter forth, in its details, with admirable understanding of its intricacies. She concludes, reminding Abaelard that it is for him in his lifetime to set a regula for them to follow forever; after God, he is their founder. They might thereafter have some teacher who would build in alien fashion; such a one might have less care and understanding, and might not be as readily obeyed as himself; it is for him to speak, and they will listen. Vale.
The first of Heloïse’s letters is a great expression of a great love; in the second, anguish drives the writer’s hand; in the third, she has gained self-control; she suppresses her heart, and writes a letter which is discursive and impersonal from the beginning to the little Vale at the end.
Abaelard returned a long epistle upon the Scriptural origin of the order of nuns, and soon followed it with another, still longer, containing instruction, advice, and rules
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