Wednesday, April 3, 2013

In Which I Call Medieval Scholarly Letters "Flaily Meebling"

Héloïse d'Argenteuil (who I am calling Heloise from now on, because wow those accents are inconvenient to modern people with keyboards instead of quills) was a brilliant Latin, Greek, and Hebrew scholar widely renowned for her scholarship and insight.

She lived in France, circa 1090-1164.

That's pretty amazing right there. But Heloise wasn't content just to sit around and study on her own, so she became the student of Pierre Abélard, who was a famous philosopher in Paris at the time.

As Abelard later wrote, 
There was in Paris a young creature formed in a prodigality of nature to show 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. 
Portrait of the two lovers from the 1880s
So yeah, he liked her. And it's pretty cool that he specifically fell for Heloise because of her intelligence. Abelard put the moves on Heloise and she was suitably impressed, but actually wanted to stay unmarried because she thought it would make their scholarly pursuits more difficult.
I took a journey into Brittany in order to bring back my dear Heloise, whom I now considered my wife. When I had acquainted her with what had passed between the Canon and me I found she was of a contrary opinion to me. She urged all that was possible to divert me from marriage--that it was a bond always fatal to a philosopher; that the cries of children and the cares of a family were utterly inconsistent with the tranquillity and application which study require. She quoted to me all that was written on the subject by Theophrastus, Cicero, and, above all, insisted on the unfortunate Socrates, who quitted life with joy because by that means he left Xanthippe. 
'Will it not be more agreeable to me,' said she, 'to see myself your mistress than your wife? And will not love have more power than marriage to keep our hearts firmly united? Pleasures tasted sparingly and with difficulty have always a higher relish, whilst everything that is easy and common grows stale and insipid.' 
I was unmoved by all this reasoning, so Heloise prevailed upon my sister to speak to me.

"Will it not be more agreeable to me to see myself your mistress than your wife?" Wow. Even now this type of thinking is somewhat contrary to our culture, and I can only imagine what kind of absolutely revolutionary thinking it required back then. That's not even taking into account the "to me" of that statement: Heloise was straight up saying she didn't want to marry Abelard because SHE found it inconvenient.

Heloise apparently liked him enough to go ahead with things anyway, because they were (supposedly) secretly married. Although to be honest, I'm sort of thinking at this point that Abelard said, "My darling, I consider us married in our hearts and souls!" while draped over his fainting couch, and Heloise called back from her desk, "Yes dear, that's right, hearts and souls. No paper, baby!"

Heloise and Abelard, chilling. (14th century)
They had a son together that she called Astrolabe (a word for a type of instrument used to measure slope relative to gravity), because Heloise was quite possibly the world's first geek girl.

And then... Heloise's uncle found out about the whole "secret marriage/kid with my niece when I already told him to get off my lawn" thing. Let it be said that Heloise's uncle does not mess around. He sent armed thugs to castrate Abelard.

In solidarity with his fate, Heloise entered a nunnery and eventually became prioress and then abbess (please. You didn't think she'd just be sitting around weeping, did you?). After a few years of silence, the two of them began to correspond - although not until after Heloise scolded Abelard roundly for his lapse in communication.

When you read about Heloise, historians tend to act as though she was a sad, wilted flower who was tossed about on the stormy seas of her uncle's whims and Abelard's affections. But in reading the letters between them, and what Abelard wrote about her, I've never found that to be the case. Heloise seems strong, determined, and of course, fiercely intelligent. Their story is a tragedy, and yet it's impossible not to feel uplifted by the fact that two such remarkable people not only existed, but found each other, and loved each other.

Their discourse has fascinated people for generations, but I must admit, my plebeian soul is more moved by some of their gentler feelings than by their theological discourse. Here are some of my favorite quotes from their letters:

Lovers either find or make all things easy.

Adelard scoffs at all of you only now rounding second base:
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.
I find this both sweet and hilarious. Dude seriously needed to get a grip, and I have the feeling that Heloise was shaking her head at his flaily meebling, charmed despite herself:

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 you had not made this declaration, or that I were at liberty not to suspect your sincerity.'
From much later on, this is a pretty heart-wrenching account of Heloise trying to reconcile herself to her new life after :
My quiet has indeed cost me dear, for I have bought it at the price of my love; I have offered a violent sacrifice I thought beyond my power. But if I have torn you from my heart, be not jealous; God, who ought always to have possessed it, reigns there in your stead. Be content with having a place in my mind which you shall never lose; I shall always take a secret pleasure in thinking of you, and esteem it a glory to obey those rules you shall give me.
And although Adelard attempted to convince the both of them to resign themselves to their fate, it is clear in his last letter to Heloise how deep his feelings still truly go:

I will for the last time open my heart to you;--I am not yet disengaged from you, and though I fight against my excessive tenderness for you, in spite of all my endeavours I remain but too sensible of your sorrows and long to share in them. Your letters have indeed moved me; I could not read with indifference characters written by that dear hand! I sigh and weep, and all my reason is scarce sufficient to conceal my weakness from my pupils. This, unhappy Heloise, is the miserable condition of Abelard. The world, which is generally wrong in its notions, thinks I am at peace, and imagining that I loved you only for the gratification of the senses, have now forgot you. What a mistake is this!
But I think my favorite part of their letters is this beautiful passage written by Heloise herself, on the power of the written word:

By a peculiar power love can make that seem life itself which, as soon as the loved object returns, is nothing but a little canvas and flat colour. I have your picture in my room; I never pass it without stopping to look at it; and yet when you are present with me I scarce ever cast my eyes on it. If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it. 

1 comment:

  1. I found myself tearing up reading Adelard's last letter to Heloise. I think Adelard was the inspiration for every Ryan Gosling from The Notebook-type character...