Heloise and Abelard

Over Shabbat, I read the letters of Heloise and Abelard. The short story: Abelard was a brilliant monk tutor, who fell in love with his tutee, Heloise. They were forced into marriage, and Abelard was castrated in retribution by Heloise’s uncle. Thereafter, Heloise entered a convent (actually, she entered the convent before Abelard was castrated, since their wedding was a secret, so as not to harm Abelard’s reputation), and Abelard devoted himself to God. This all took place in the 12th century, and was considered quite the scandale.

A few things struck me about their letter exchange:

1. Abelard comes off looking self-righteous and self-centered.

2. Heloise reproaches Abelard for not writing her, to which he makes the lame excuse of “I figured you could get by without my letters”, and reveals that she only became a nun because of Abelard. She uses extremely loving language, in contrast to his. When you realize that Abelard ruined Heloise’s life – that he forced her into a marriage she did not want, then to be a nun when she did not want to – and that despite that, he barely writes her, and his letters are full of self-righteousness and self-pity (at one point, he tells Heloise to stop kvetching, because both she and he deserve punishment for sex they had in the rectory when Heloise was a nun, and they were married. Of course, he leaves out that it was his fault they were married, and the Heloise was living in a place where the only private spot was the rectory), its hard not to feel angry at Abelard. It just goes to show the gender power imbalance of that era – and the ability of love to make us blind to all our lover’s flaws.

3. The power of the Church is immense: It is the major avenue for professional scholarly advancement, and for women wishing to not live with their husband/brother/uncle/father/other male guardian, and still not be destitute. The Church has the power to make or break people’s lives, and its opression of Abelard is a constant theme throughout the letters.

4. Heloise tells Abelard that when he could get sex from her, he wrote her day and night. Now that sex isn’t on the table (or the bed, or the floor), he doesn’t write: It makes her doubt whether he truly loved her, or simply lusted after her and wanted her for her body. This just goes to show that not much has changd.

4. In her letters, Heloise implies that once they were married, and she lived in the convent, Abelard’s attentions waned a bit – they still had sex, but contact was not frequent. This makes me wonder if part of the reason Heloise did not want to marry Abelard is that she suspected it was only lust, and, given that divorce did not exist, did not want to marry lest she be stuck with a man who was no longer stuck on her. Also, it shows that even in the Middle Ages, the straight woman’s gripe against the straight man was the same.

6. Heloise has some proto-feminist nuggest of wisdom: “I never sought anything in you except yourself;I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond…it was not my own wishes and pleasures I wished to gratify, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend, or if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. …For a person’s worth does not depend on wealth or power; these depend on fortune, but worth on its merits. And a woman should realize if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one. and desires her husband more for his possesions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale…any woman who comes to marry through desires of this kind deserves wages, not grattitude, for clearly her mind is on the man’s property, not himself, and she would be ready to prostitute herself to a richer man, if she could.”

7. In another passage, Heloise says she is unable to regret or forget sex, but rather, thinks of it constantly. Is this a case of abstinence makes the libido go stronger? Given that nunneries served not just as the only pathway for a woman who wanted to pursure learning or escape the male-headed household, but also as the place of refuge for girls sent away from home due to scandal (usually of a sexual nature), one wonders how many other nuns went around fantasizing about their sex-filled pasts. Even today: How many priests or nuns think of sex? Refraining from it is one thing, but unless you’re asexual, not thinking about it seems nigh well impossible. How do celibate clergy deal with these feelings – I don’t mean the molesters, I mean the one who keep their hands in their pockets.

8. I found Heloise’s words pretty applicable to the current era: “Men call me chaste; they do not know the hypocrite that I am. They consider purity of the flesh a virtue, though virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul. I can win praise in the eyes of men but deserve none before God, who searches our hearts…I am judged religious at a time when there is little in religion which is not hypocrisy, when whoever does not offend the opinions of men receives the highest praise. And yet perhaps there is some merit and it seems somehow acceptable to God, if a person whatever her intention gives no offence to the Church in her outward behavior”. Reading these lines, I could not help but be reminded of a society that equates shomerness with piety, and in which discourse is stymied by fear of controversy.

9. How does this entire saga play out in light of this? Can sexual love ever completely avoid objectification?

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