Héloïse : Love – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
Love, the flower of Eden
The two Venuses of Socrates
The Venus Urania
The memory of Héloïse cherished
Her birth and education
Her extraordinary gifts
Her aspirations
Peter Abélard
His wonderful genius
His early scholastic triumphs
Abélard at Paris
His wit and flippancy
His scepticism
His successes
His love for Héloïse
His mad infatuation
Scandal of the intimacy
Disinterestedness of Héloïse
Secret marriage of Abélard and Héloïse
Marriage discovered
Retirement of Héloïse and Abélard to separate convents
His renewed labors
His brilliant success
Persecution of Abélard
Letters to Héloïse
Héloïse cannot conquer her love
Her high social position
Her blameless life
Loves of Héloïse and Abélard analyzed
Greatness of sentiment
Last days of Abélard
His retreat to Cluny
Peter the Venerable
Grief of Héloïse

Héloïse : Love

A.D. 1101-1164.

When Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, they yet found one flower, wherever they wandered, blooming in perpetual beauty. This flower represents a great certitude, without which few would be happy,–subtile, mysterious, inexplicable,–a great boon recognized alike by poets and moralists, Pagan and Christian; yea, identified not only with happiness, but human existence, and pertaining to the soul in its highest aspirations. Allied with the transient and the mortal, even with the weak and corrupt, it is yet immortal in its nature and lofty in its aims,–at once a passion, a sentiment, and an inspiration.

To attempt to describe woman without this element of our complex nature, which constitutes her peculiar fascination, is like trying to act the tragedy of Hamlet without Hamlet himself,–an absurdity; a picture without a central figure, a novel without a heroine, a religion without a sacrifice. My subject is not without its difficulties. The passion or sentiment I describe is degrading when perverted, as it is exalting when pure. Yet it is not vice I would paint, but virtue; not weakness, but strength; not the transient, but the permanent; not the mortal, but the immortal,–all that is ennobling in the aspiring soul.

“Socrates,” says Legouvé, “who caught glimpses of everything that he did not clearly define, uttered one day to his disciples these beautiful words: ‘There are two Venuses: one celestial, called Urania, the heavenly, who presides over all pure and spiritual affections; and the other Polyhymnia, the terrestrial, who excites sensual and gross desires.'” The history of love is the eternal struggle between these two divinities,–the one seeking to elevate and the other to degrade. Plato, for the first time, in his beautiful hymn to the Venus Urania, displayed to men the unknown image of love,–the educator and the moralist,–so that grateful ages have consecrated it by his name. Centuries rolled away, and among the descendants of Teutonic barbarians a still lovelier and more ideal sentiment burst out from the lips of the Christian Dante, kindled by the adoration of his departed Beatrice. And as she courses from star to star, explaining to him the mysteries, the transported poet exclaims:–

“Ah, all the tongues which the Muses have inspired could not tell the thousandth part of the beauty of the smile of Beatrice as she presented me to the celestial group, exclaiming, ‘Thou art redeemed!’ O woman, in whom lives all my hope, who hast deigned to leave for my salvation thy footsteps on the throne of the Eternal, thou hast redeemed me from slavery to liberty; now earth has no more dangers for me. I cherish the image of thy purity in my bosom, that in my last hour, acceptable in thine eyes, my soul may leave my body.”

Thus did Dante impersonate the worship of Venus Urania,–spiritual tenderness overcoming sensual desire. Thus faithful to the traditions of this great poet did the austere Michael Angelo do reverence to the virtues of Vittoria Colonna. Thus did the lofty Corneille present in his Pauline a divine model of the love which inspires great deeds and accompanies great virtues. Thus did Shakspeare, in his portrait of Portia, show the blended generosity and simplicity of a woman’s soul:–

“For you [my Lord Bassanio]
I would be trebled twenty times myself;
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich;”

or, in his still more beautiful delineation of Juliet, paint an absorbing devotion:–

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

Thus did Milton, in his transcendent epic, show how a Paradise was regained when woman gave her generous sympathy to man, and reproduced for all coming ages the image of Spiritual Love,–the inamorata of Dante and Petrarch, the inspired and consoling guide.

But the muse of the poets, even when sanctified by Christianity, never sang such an immortal love as the Middle Ages in sober prose have handed down in the history of Héloïse,–the struggle between the two Venuses of Socrates, and the final victory of Urania, though not till after the temporary triumph of Polyhymnia,–the inamorata of earth clad in the vestments of a sanctified recluse, and purified by the chastisements of Heaven. “Saint Theresa dies longing to join her divine spouse; but Saint Theresa is only a Héloïse looking towards heaven.” Héloïse has an earthly idol; but her devotion has in it all the elements of a supernatural fervor,–the crucifixion of self in the glory of him she adored. He was not worthy of her idolatry; but she thought that he was. Admiration for genius exalted sentiment into adoration, and imagination invested the object of love with qualities superhuman.

Nations do not spontaneously keep alive the memory of those who have disgraced them. It is their heroes and heroines whose praises they sing,–those only who have shone in the radiance of genius and virtue. They forget defects, if these are counterbalanced by grand services or great deeds,–if their sons and daughters have shed lustre on the land which gave them birth. But no lustre survives egotism or vice; it only lasts when it gilds a noble life. There is no glory in the name of Jezebel, or Cleopatra, or Catherine de’ Medici, brilliant and fascinating as were those queens; but there is glory in the memory of Héloïse. There is no woman in French history of whom the nation is prouder; revered, in spite of early follies, by the most austere and venerated saints of her beclouded age, and hallowed by the tributes of succeeding centuries for those sentiments which the fires of passion were scarcely able to tarnish, for an exalted soul which eclipsed the brightness of uncommon intellectual faculties, for a depth of sympathy and affection which have become embalmed in the heart of the world, and for a living piety which blazes all the more conspicuously from the sins which she expiated by such bitter combats. She was human in her impulses, but divine in her graces; one of those characters for whom we cannot help feeling the deepest sympathy and the profoundest admiration,–a character that has its contradictions, like that warrior-bard who was after God’s own heart, in spite of his crimes, because his soul thirsted for the beatitudes of heaven, and was bound in loving loyalty to his Maker, against whom he occasionally sinned by force of mortal passions, but whom he never ignored or forgot, and against whom he never persistently rebelled.

As a semi-warlike but religious age produced a David, with his strikingly double nature perpetually at war with itself and looking for aid to God,–his “sun,” his “shield,” his hope, and joy,–so an equally unenlightened but devout age produced a Héloïse, the impersonation of sympathy, disinterestedness, suffering, forgiveness, and resignation. I have already described this dark, sad, turbulent, superstitious, ignorant period of strife and suffering, yet not without its poetic charms and religious aspirations; when the convent and the castle were its chief external features, and when a life of meditation was as marked as a life of bodily activity, as if old age and youth were battling for supremacy,–a very peculiar state of society, in which we see the loftiest speculations of the intellect and the highest triumphs of faith blended with puerile enterprises and misdirected physical forces.

In this semi-barbaric age Héloïse was born, about the year 1101. Nobody knew who was her father, although it was surmised that he belonged to the illustrious family of the Montmorencies, which traced an unbroken lineage to Pharimond, before the time of Clovis. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, an ignorant, worldly-wise old canon of the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame in Paris. He called her his niece; but whether niece, or daughter, or adopted child, was a mystery. She was of extraordinary beauty, though remarkable for expression rather than for regularity of feature. In intellect she was precocious and brilliant; but the qualities of a great soul shone above the radiance of her wit. She was bright, amiable, affectionate, and sympathetic,–the type of an interesting woman. The ecclesiastic was justly proud of her, and gave to her all the education the age afforded. Although not meaning to be a nun, she was educated in a neighboring convent,–for convents, even in those times, were female seminaries, containing many inmates who never intended to take the veil. But the convent then, as since, was a living grave to all who took its vows, and was hated by brilliant women who were not religious. The convent necessarily and logically, according to the theology of the Middle Ages, was a retreat from the world,–a cell of expiation; and yet it was the only place where a woman could be educated.

Héloïse, it would seem, made extraordinary attainments, and spoke Latin as well as her native tongue. She won universal admiration, and in due time, at the age of eighteen, returned to her uncle’s house, on the banks of the Seine, on the island called the Cité, where the majestic cathedral and the castle of the king towered above the rude houses of the people. Adjoining the church were the cloisters of the monks and the Episcopal School, the infant university of Paris, over which the Archdeacon of Paris, William of Champeaux, presided in scholastic dignity and pride,–next to the bishop the most influential man in Paris. The teachers of this school, or masters and doctors as they were called, and the priests of the cathedral formed the intellectual aristocracy of the city, and they were frequent visitors at the house of Fulbert the canon. His niece, as she was presumed to be, was the great object of attraction. There never was a time when intellectual Frenchmen have not bowed down to cultivated women. Héloïse, though only a girl, was a queen of such society as existed in the city, albeit more admired by men than women,–poetical, imaginative, witty, ready, frank, with a singular appreciation of intellectual excellence, dazzled by literary fame, and looking up to those brilliant men who worshipped her.

In truth, Héloïse was a prodigy. She was vastly superior to the men who surrounded her, most of whom were pedants, or sophists, or bigots; dignitaries indeed, but men who exalted the accidental and the external over the real and the permanent; men who were fond of quibbles and sophistries, jealous of each other and of their own reputation, dogmatic and positive as priests are apt to be, and most positive on points which either are of no consequence or cannot be solved. The soul of Héloïse panted for a greater intellectual freedom and a deeper sympathy than these priests could give. She pined in society. She was isolated by her own superiority,–superior not merely in the radiance of the soul, but in the treasures of the mind. Nor could her companions comprehend her greatness, even while they were fascinated by her presence. She dazzled them by her personal beauty perhaps more than by her wit; for even mediaeval priests could admire an expansive brow, a deep blue eye, doux et penétrant, a mouth varying with unconscious sarcasms, teeth strong and regular, a neck long and flexible, and shoulders sloping and gracefully moulded, over which fell ample and golden locks; while the attitude, the complexion, the blush, the thrilling accent, and the gracious smile, languor, and passion depicted on a face both pale and animated, seduced the imagination and commanded homage. Venus Polyhymnia stood confessed in all her charms, for the time triumphant over that Venus Urania who made the convent of the Paraclete in after times a blessed comforter to all who sought its consolations.

Among the distinguished visitors at the house of her uncle the canon, attracted by her beauty and accomplishments, was a man thirty-eight years of age, of noble birth, but by profession an ecclesiastic; whose large forehead, fiery eye, proud air, plain, negligent dress, and aristocratic manners, by turns affable and haughty, stamped him as an extraordinary man. The people in the streets stopped to gaze at him as he passed, or rushed to the doors and windows for a glimpse; for he was as famous for genius and learning as he was distinguished by manners and aspect. He was the eldest son of a Breton nobleman, who had abandoned his inheritance and birthright for the fascinations of literature and philosophy. His name was Peter Abélard, on the whole the most brilliant and interesting man whom the Middle Ages produced,–not so profound as Anselm, or learned as Peter Lombard, or logical as Thomas Aquinas, or acute as Albertus Magnus, but the most eloquent expounder of philosophy of whom I have read. He made the dullest subjects interesting; he clothed the dry bones of metaphysics with flesh and blood; he invested the most abstruse speculations with life and charm; he filled the minds of old men with envy, and of young men with admiration; he thrilled admirers with his wit, sarcasm, and ridicule,–a sort of Galileo, mocking yet amusing, with a superlative contempt of dulness and pretension. He early devoted himself to dialectics, to all the arts of intellectual gladiatorship, to all the sports of logical tournaments which were held in such value by the awakened spirits of the new civilization.

Such was Abélard’s precocious ability, even as a youth, that no champion could be found to refute him in the whole of Brittany. He went from castle to castle, and convent to convent, a philosophical knight-errant, seeking intellectual adventures; more intent, however, on éclat and conquest than on the establishment of the dogmas which had ruled the Church since Saint Augustine. He was a born logician, as Bossuet was a born priest, loving to dispute as much as the Bishop of Meaux loved to preach; not a serious man, but a bright man, ready, keen, acute, turning fools into ridicule, and pushing acknowledged doctrines into absurdity; not to bring out the truth as Socrates did, or furnish a sure foundation of knowledge, but to revolutionize and overturn. His spirit was like that of Lucien,–desiring to demolish, without substituting anything for the dogmas he had made ridiculous. Consequently he was mistrusted by the old oracles of the schools, and detested by conservative churchmen who had intellect enough to see the tendency of his speculations. In proportion to the hatred of orthodox ecclesiastics like Anselme of Laon and Saint Bernard, was the admiration of young men and of the infant universities. Nothing embarrassed him. He sought a reason for all things. He appealed to reason rather than authority, yet made the common mistake of the scholastics in supposing that metaphysics could explain everything. He doubtless kindled a spirit of inquiry, while he sapped the foundation of Christianity and undermined faith. He was a nominalist; that is, he denied the existence of all eternal ideas, such as Plato and the early Fathers advocated. He is said to have even adduced the opinions of Pagan philosophers to prove the mysteries of revelation. He did not deny revelation, nor authority, nor the prevailing doctrines which the Church indorsed and defended; but the tendency of his teachings was to undermine what had previously been received by faith. He exalted reason, therefore, as higher than faith. His spirit was offensive to conservative teachers. Had he lived in our times, he would have belonged to the most progressive schools of thought and inquiry,–probably a rationalist, denying what he could not prove by reason, and scorning all supernaturalism; a philosopher of the school of Hume, or Strauss, or Renan. And yet, after assailing everything venerable, and turning his old teachers into ridicule, and creating a spirit of rationalistic inquiry among the young students of divinity, who adored him, Abélard settled back on authority in his old age, perhaps alarmed and shocked at the mischief he had done in his more brilliant years.

This exceedingly interesting man, with all his vanity, conceit, and arrogance, had turned his steps to Paris, the centre of all intellectual life in France, after he had achieved a great provincial reputation. He was then only twenty, a bright and daring youth, conscious of his powers, and burning with ambition. He was not ambitious of ecclesiastical preferment, for aristocratic dunces occupied the great sees and ruled the great monasteries. He was simply ambitious of influence over students in philosophy and religion,–fond of éclat and fame as a teacher. The universities were not then established; there were no chairs for professors, nor even were there scholastic titles, like those of doctor and master; but Paris was full of students, disgusted with the provincial schools. The Cathedral School of Paris was the great attraction to these young men, then presided over by William of Champeaux, a very respectable theologian, but not a remarkable genius like Aquinas and Bonaventura, who did not arise until the Dominican and Franciscan orders were established to combat heresy. Abélard, being still a youth, attended the lectures of this old theologian, who was a Realist, not an original thinker, but enjoying a great reputation, which he was most anxious to preserve. The youthful prodigy at first was greatly admired by the veteran teacher; but Abélard soon began to question him and argue with him. Admiration was then succeeded by jealousy. Some sided with the venerable teacher, but more with the flippant yet brilliant youth who turned his master’s teachings into ridicule, and aspired to be a teacher himself. But as teaching was under the supervision of the school of Notre Dame, Paris was interdicted to him; he was not allowed to combat the received doctrines which were taught in the Cathedral School. So he retired to Melun, about thirty miles from Paris, and set up for a teacher and lecturer on philosophy. All the influence of William of Champeaux and his friends was exerted to prevent Abélard from teaching, but in vain. His lecture-room was crowded. The most astonishing success attended his lectures. Not contented with the éclat he received, he now meditated the discomfiture of his old master. He removed still nearer to Paris. And so great was his success and fame, that it is said he compelled William to renounce his Realism and also his chair, and accept a distant bishopric. William was conquered by a mere stripling; but that stripling could have overthrown a Goliath of controversy, not with a sling, but with a giant’s sword.

Abélard having won a great dialectical victory, which brought as much fame as military laurels on the battlefield, established himself at St. Geneviève, just outside the walls of Paris, where the Pantheon now stands, which is still the centre of the Latin quarter, and the residence of students. He now applied himself to the study of divinity, and attended the lectures of Anselm of Laon. This celebrated ecclesiastic, though not so famous or able as Anselm of Canterbury, was treated by Abélard with the same arrogance and flippancy as he had bestowed on William of Champeaux. “I frequented,” said the young mocker, “the old man’s school, but soon discovered that all his power was in length of practice. You would have thought he was kindling a fire, when instantly the whole house was filled with smoke, in which not a single spark was visible. He was a tree covered with thick foliage, which to the distant eye had charms, but on near inspection there was no fruit to be found; a fig-tree such as our Lord did curse; an oak such as Lucan compared Pompey to,–Stat magni nominis umbra.”

What a comment on the very philosophy which Abélard himself taught! What better description of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages! But original and brilliant as was the genius of Abélard, he no more could have anticipated the new method which Bacon taught than could Thomas Aquinas. All the various schools of the mediaeval dialecticians, Realists and Nominalists alike, sought to establish old theories, not to discover new truth. They could not go beyond their assumptions. So far as their assumptions were true, they rendered great service by their inexorable logic in defending them. They did not establish premises; that was not their concern or mission. Assuming that the sun revolved around the earth, all their astronomical speculations were worthless, even as the assumption of the old doctrine of atoms in our times has led scientists to the wildest conclusions. The metaphysics of the Schoolmen, whether they were sceptical or reverential, simply sharpened the intellectual faculties without advancing knowledge.

Abélard belonged by nature to the sceptical school. He delighted in negations, and in the work of demolition. So far as he demolished or ridiculed error he rendered the same service as Voltaire did: he prepared the way for a more inquiring spirit. He was also more liberal than his opponents. His spirit was progressive, but his method was faulty. Like all those who have sought to undermine the old systems of thought, he was naturally vain and conceited. He supposed he had accomplished more than he really had. He became bold in his speculations, and undertook to explain subjects beyond his grasp. Thus he professed to unfold the meaning of the prophecies of Ezekiel. He was arrogant in his claims to genius. “It is not by long study,” said he, “that I have mastered the heights of science, but by the force of my mind.” This flippancy, accompanied by wit and eloquence, fascinated young men. His auditors were charmed. “The first philosopher,” they said, “had become the first divine.” New pupils crowded his lecture-room, and he united lectures on philosophy with lectures on divinity. “Theology and philosophy encircled his brow with a double garland.” So popular was he, that students came from Germany and Italy and England to hear his lectures. The number of his pupils, it is said, was more than five thousand; and these included the brightest intellects of the age, among whom one was destined to be a pope (the great Innocent III.), nineteen to be cardinals, and one hundred to be bishops. What a proud position for a young man! What an astonishing success for that age! And his pupils were as generous as they were enthusiastic. They filled his pockets with gold; they hung upon his lips with rapture; they extolled his genius wherever they went; they carried his picture from court to court, from castle to castle, and convent to convent; they begged for a lock of his hair, for a shred of his garment. Never was seen before such idolatry of genius, such unbounded admiration for eloquence; for he stood apart and different from all other lights,–pre-eminent as a teacher of philosophy. “He reigned,” says Lamartine, “by eloquence over the spirit of youth, by beauty over the regard of women, by love-songs which penetrated all hearts, by musical melodies repeated by every mouth. Let us imagine in a single man the first orator, the first philosopher, the first poet, the first musician of the age,–Cicero, Plato, Petrarch, Schubert,–all united in one living celebrity, and we can form some idea of his attractions and fame at this period of his life.”

Such was that brilliant but unsound man, with learning, fame, personal beauty, fascinating eloquence, dialectical acumen, aristocratic manners, and transcendent wit, who encountered at thirty-eight the most beautiful, gracious, accomplished, generous, and ardent woman that adorned that time,–only eighteen, thirsting for knowledge, craving for sympathy, and intensely idolatrous of intellectual excellence. But one result could be anticipated from such a meeting: they became passionately enamored of each other. In order to secure a more uninterrupted intercourse, Abélard sought and obtained a residence in the house of Fulbert, under pretence of desiring to superintend the education of his niece. The ambitious, vain, unsuspecting priest was delighted to receive so great a man, whose fame filled the world. He intrusted Héloïse to his care, with permission to use blows if they were necessary to make her diligent and obedient!

And what young woman with such a nature and under such circumstances could resist the influence of such a teacher? I need not dwell on the familiar story, how mutual admiration was followed by mutual friendship, and friendship was succeeded by mutual infatuation, and the gradual abandonment of both to a mad passion, forgetful alike of fame and duty.

“It became tedious,” said Abélard, “to go to my lessons. I gave my lectures with negligence. I spoke only from habit and memory. I was only a reciter of ancient inventions; and if I chanced to compose verses, they were songs of love, not secrets of philosophy.” The absence of his mind evinced how powerfully his new passion moved his fiery and impatient soul. “He consumed his time in writing verses to the canon’s niece; and even as Hercules in the gay court of Omphale threw down his club in order to hold the distaff, so Abélard laid aside his sceptre as a monarch of the schools to sing sonnets at the feet of Héloïse.” And she also, still more unwisely, in the mighty potency of an absorbing love, yielded up her honor and her pride. This mutual infatuation was, it would seem, a gradual transition from the innocent pleasure of delightful companionship to the guilt of unrestrained desire. It was not premeditated design,–not calculation, but insidious dalliance:–

“Thou know’st how guiltless first I met thy flame,
When love approached me under friendship’s name.
Guiltless I gazed; heaven listened when you sung,
And truths divine came mended from your tongue.
From lips like those, what precept failed to move?
Too soon they taught me ‘t was no sin to love.”

In a healthy state of society this mutual passion would have been followed by the marriage ties. The parties were equal in culture and social position. And Abélard probably enjoyed a large income from the fees of students, and could well support the expenses of a family. All that was needed was the consecration of emotions, which are natural and irresistible,–a mystery perhaps but ordained, and without which marriage would be mere calculation and negotiation. Passion, doubtless, is blind; but in this very blindness we see the hand of the Creator,–to baffle selfishness and pride. What would become of our world if men and women were left to choose their partners with the eye of unclouded reason? Expediency would soon make a desert of earth, and there would be no paradise found for those who are unattractive or in adverse circumstances. Friendship might possibly bring people together; but friendship exists only between equals and people of congenial tastes. Love brings together also those who are unequal. It joins the rich to the poor, the strong to the weak, the fortunate to the unfortunate, and thus defeats the calculations which otherwise would enter into matrimonial life. Without the blindness of passionate love the darts of Cupid would be sent in vain; and the helpless and neglected–as so many are–would stand but little chance for that happiness which is associated with the institution of marriage. The world would be filled with old bachelors and old maids, and population would hopelessly decline among virtuous people.

No scandal would have resulted from the ardent loves of Abélard and Héloïse had they been united by that sacred relation which was ordained in the garden of Eden. “If any woman,” says Legouvé, “may stand as the model of a wife in all her glory, it is Héloïse. Passion without bounds and without alloy, enthusiasm for the genius of Abélard, jealous care for his reputation, a vigorous intellect, learning sufficient to join in his labors, and an unsullied name.”

But those false, sophistical ideas which early entered into monastic life, and which perverted the Christianity of the Middle Ages, presented a powerful barrier against the instincts of nature and the ordinances of God. Celibacy was accounted as a supernal virtue, and the marriage of a priest was deemed a lasting disgrace. It obscured his fame, his prospects, his position, and his influence; it consigned him to ridicule and reproach. He was supposed to be married only to the Church, and would be unfaithful to Heaven if he bound himself by connubial ties. Says Saint Jerome, “Take axe in hand and hew up by the roots the sterile tree of marriage. God permits it, I grant; but Christ and Mary consecrated virginity.” Alas, what could be hoped when the Church endorsed such absurd doctrines! Hildebrand, when he denounced the marriage of priests, made war on the most sacred instincts of human nature. He may have strengthened the papal domination, but he weakened the restraints of home. Only a dark and beclouded age could have upheld such a policy. Upon the Church of the Middle Ages we lay the blame of these false ideas. She is in a measure responsible for the follies of Abélard and Héloïse. They were not greater than the ideas of their age. Had Abélard been as bold in denouncing the stupid custom of the Church in this respect as he was in fighting the monks of St. Denis or the intellectual intolerance of Bernard, he would not have fallen in the respect of good people. But he was a slave to interest and conventionality. He could not brave the sneers of priests or the opinions of society; he dared not lose caste with those who ruled the Church; he would not give up his chances of preferment. He was unwilling either to renounce his love, or to avow it by an honorable, open union.

At last his intimacy created scandal. In the eyes of the schools and of the Church he had sacrificed philosophy and fame to a second Delilah. And Héloïse was even more affected by his humiliation than himself. She more than he was opposed to marriage, knowing that this would doom him to neglect and reproach. Abélard would perhaps have consented to an open marriage had Héloïse been willing; but with a strange perversity she refused. His reputation and interests were dearer to her than was her own fair name. She sacrificed herself to his fame; she blinded herself to the greatest mistake a woman could make. The excess of her love made her insensible to the principles of an immutable morality. Circumstances palliated her course, but did not excuse it. The fatal consequences of her folly pursued her into the immensity of subsequent grief; and though afterwards she was assured of peace and forgiveness in the depths of her repentance, the demon of infatuated love was not easily exorcised. She may have been unconscious of degradation in the boundless spirit of self-sacrifice which she was willing to make for the object of her devotion, but she lost both dignity and fame. She entreated him who was now quoted as a reproach to human weakness, since the languor of passion had weakened his power and his eloquence, to sacrifice her to his fame; “to permit her no longer to adore him as a divinity who accepts the homage of his worshippers; to love her no longer, if this love diminished his reputation; to reduce her even, if necessary, to the condition of a woman despised by the world, since the glory of his love would more than compensate for the contempt of the universe.”

“What reproaches,” said she, “should I merit from the Church and the schools of philosophy, were I to draw from them their brightest star! And shall a woman dare to take to herself that man whom Nature meant to be the ornament and benefactor of the human race? Then reflect on the nature of matrimony, with its littleness and cares. How inconsistent it is with the dignity of a wise man! Saint Paul earnestly dissuades from it. So do the saints. So do the philosophers of ancient times. Think a while. What a ridiculous association,–the philosopher and the chambermaids, writing-desks and cradles, books and distaffs, pens and spindles! Intent on speculation when the truths of nature and revelation are breaking on your eye, will you hear the sudden cry of children, the lullaby of nurses, the turbulent bustling of disorderly servants? In the serious pursuits of wisdom there is no time to be lost. Believe me, as well withdraw totally from literature as attempt to proceed in the midst of worldly avocations. Science admits no participation in the cares of life. Remember the feats of Xanthippe. Take counsel from the example of Socrates, who has been set up as a beacon for all coming time to warn philosophers from the fatal rock of matrimony.”

Héloïse, after the drawing by Gleyre

Héloïse, after the drawing by Gleyre

Such was the blended truth, irony, and wit with which Héloïse dissuaded Abélard from open marriage. He compromised the affair, and contented himself with a secret marriage. “After a night spent in prayer,” said he, “in one of the churches of Paris, on the following morning we received the nuptial blessing in the presence of the uncle of Héloïse and of a few mutual friends. We then retired without observation, that this union, known only to God and a few intimates, should bring neither shame nor prejudice to my renown.” A cold and selfish act, such as we might expect in Louis XIV. and Madame de Maintenon,–yet, nevertheless, the feeble concession which pride and policy make to virtue, the triumph of expediency over all heroic and manly qualities. Like Maintenon, Héloïse was willing to seem what she was not,–only to be explained on the ground that concubinage was a less evil, in the eyes of the Church, than marriage in a priest.

But even a secret marriage was attended with great embarrassment. The news of it leaks out through the servants. The envious detractors of Abélard rejoice in his weakness and his humiliation. His pride now takes offence, and he denies the ties; and so does Héloïse. The old uncle is enraged and indignant. Abélard, justly fearing his resentment,–yea, being cruelly maltreated at his instigation,–removes his wife to the convent where she was educated, and induces her to take the veil. She obeys him; she obeys him in all things; she has no will but his. She thinks of nothing but his reputation and interest; she forgets herself entirely, yet not without bitter anguish. She accepts the sacrifice, but it costs her infinite pangs. She is separated from her husband forever. Nor was the convent agreeable to her. It was dull, monotonous, dismal; imprisonment in a tomb, a living death, where none could know her agonies but God; where she could not even hear from him who was her life.

Yet immolation in the dreary convent, where for nearly forty years she combated the recollection of her folly, was perhaps the best thing for her. It was a cruel necessity. In the convent she was at least safe from molestation; she had every opportunity for study and meditation; she was free from the temptations of the world, and removed from its scandals and reproach. The world was crucified to her; Christ was now her spouse.

Abélard Teaching in the Paraclete After the painting by A. Steinheil

Abélard Teaching in the Paraclete After the painting by A. Steinheil

To a convent also Abélard retired, overwhelmed with shame and penitence. At St. Denis he assumed the strictest habits, mortified his body with severe austerities, and renewed with ardor his studies in philosophy and theology. He was not without mental sufferings, but he could bury his grief in his ambition. It would seem that a marked change now took place in the character of Abélard. He was less vain and conceited, and sought more eagerly the consolations of religion. His life became too austere for his brother monks, and they compelled him to leave this aristocratic abbey. He then resumed his lectures in the wilderness. He retreated to a desert place in Champagne, where he constructed a small oratory with his own hands. But still students gathered around him. They, too, constructed cells, like ancient anchorites, and cultivated the fields for bread. Then, as their numbers increased, they erected a vast edifice of stone and timber, which Abélard dedicated to the Holy Comforter, and called the Paraclete. It was here that his best days were spent. His renewed labors and his intellectual boldness increased the admiration of his pupils. It became almost idolatry. It is said that three thousand students assembled at the Paraclete to hear him lecture. What admiration for genius, when three thousand young men could give up the delights of Paris for a wilderness with Abélard! What marvellous powers of fascination he must have had!

This renewed success, in the midst of disgrace, created immeasurable envy. Moreover, the sarcasms, boldness, and new views of the philosopher raised a storm of hatred. Galileo was not more offensive to the pedants and priests of his generation than Abélard was to the Schoolmen and monks of his day. They impeached both his piety and theology. He was stigmatized as unsound and superficial. Yet he continued his attacks, his ridicule, and his sarcasms. In proportion to the animosities of his foes was the zeal of his followers, who admired his boldness and arrogance. At last a great clamor was raised against the daring theologian. Saint Bernard, the most influential and profound ecclesiastic of the day, headed the opposition. He maintained that the foundations of Christianity were assailed. Even Abélard could not stand before the indignation and hostility of such a saint,–a man who kindled crusades, who made popes, who controlled the opinions of the age. Abélard was obliged to fly, and sought an asylum amid the rocks and sands of Brittany. The Duke of this wild province gave him the abbey of St. Gildas; but its inmates were ignorant and disorderly, and added insubordination to dissoluteness. They ornamented their convent with the trophies of the chase. They thought more of bears and wild boars and stags than they did of hymns and meditations. The new abbot, now a grave and religious man, in spite of his opposition to the leaders of the orthodox party, endeavored to reform the monks,–a hopeless task,–and they turned against him with more ferocity than the theologians. They even poisoned, it is said, the sacramental wine. He was obliged to hide among the rocks to save his life. Nothing but aid from the neighboring barons saved him from assassination.

Thus fifteen years were passed in alternate study, glory, suffering, and shame. In his misery Abélard called on God for help,–his first great advance in that piety which detractors depreciated. He wrote also to a friend a history of his misfortunes. By accident this history fell into the hands of Héloïse, then abbess of the Paraclete, which Abélard had given her, and where she was greatly revered for all those virtues most esteemed in her age. It opened her wound afresh, and she wrote a letter to her husband such as has seldom been equalled for pathos and depth of sentiment. It is an immortal record of her grief, her unsubdued passion, her boundless love, not without gentle reproaches for what seemed a cold neglect and silence for fifteen long and bitter years, yet breathing forgiveness, admiration, affection. The salutation of that letter is remarkable: “Héloïse to her lord, to her father, to her husband, to her brother: his servant,–yes, his daughter; his wife,–yes, his sister.” Thus does she begin that tender and long letter, in which she describes her sufferings, her unchanged affections, her ardent wishes for his welfare, revealing in every line not merely genius and sensibility, but a lofty and magnanimous soul. She glories in what constitutes the real superiority of her old lover; she describes with simplicity what had originally charmed her,–his songs and conversation. She professes still an unbounded obedience to his will, and begs for a reply, if for nothing else that she may be stimulated to a higher life amid the asperities of her gloomy convent.

Yet write, oh, write all, that I may join
Grief to thy griefs, and echo sighs to thine!
Years still are mine, and these I need not spare,
Love but demands what else were shed in prayer;
No happier task these faded eyes pursue,–
To read and weep is all I now can do.

Abélard replies to this touching letter coldly, but religiously, calling her his “sister in Christ,” but not attempting to draw out the earthly love which both had sought to crush. He implores her prayers in his behalf. The only sign of his former love is a request to be buried in her abbey, in anticipation of a speedy and violent death. Most critics condemn this letter as heartless; yet it is but charitable to suppose that he did not wish to trifle with a love so great, and reopen a wound so deep and sacred. All his efforts now seem to have been directed to raise her soul to heaven. But his letter does not satisfy her, and she again gives vent to her passionate grief in view of the separation:–

“O inclement Clemency! O unfortunate Fortune! She has so far consumed her weakness upon me that she has nothing left for others against whom she rages. I am the most miserable of the miserable, the most unhappy of the unhappy!”

This letter seems to have touched Abélard, and he replied to it more at length, and with great sympathy, giving her encouragement and consolation. He speaks of their mutual sufferings as providential; and his letter is couched in a more Christian spirit than one would naturally impute to him in view of his contests with the orthodox leaders of the Church; and it also expresses more tenderness than can be reconciled with the selfish man he is usually represented. He writes:–

“See, dearest, how with the strong nets of his mercy God has taken us from the depths of a perilous sea. Observe how he has tempered mercy with justice; compare our danger with the deliverance, our disease with the remedy. I merit death, and God gives me life. Come, and join me in proclaiming how much the Lord has done for us. Be my inseparable companion in an act of grace, since you have participated with me in the fault and the pardon. Take courage, my dear sister; whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth. Sympathize with Him who suffered for your redemption. Approach in spirit His sepulchre. Be thou His spouse.”

Then he closes with this prayer:–

“When it pleased Thee, O Lord, and as it pleased Thee, Thou didst join us, and Thou didst separate us. Now, what Thou hast so mercifully begun, mercifully complete; and after separating us in this world, join us together eternally in heaven.”

No one can read this letter without acknowledging its delicacy and its loftiness. All his desires centred in the spiritual good of her whom the Church would not allow him to call any longer his wife, yet to whom he hoped to be reunited in heaven. As a professed nun she could no longer, with propriety, think of him as an earthly husband. For a priest to acknowledge a nun for his wife would have been a great scandal. By all the laws of the Church and the age they were now only brother and sister in Christ. Nothing escaped from his pen which derogates from the austere dignity of the priest.

But Héloïse was more human and less conventional. She had not conquered her love; once given, it could not be taken back. She accepted her dreary immolation in the convent, since she obeyed Abélard both as husband and as a spiritual father; but she would have left the convent and rejoined him had he demanded it, for marriage was to her more sacred than the veil. She was more emancipated from the ideas of her superstitious age than even the bold and rationalistic philosopher. With all her moral and spiritual elevation, Héloïse could not conquer her love. And, as a wedded wife, why should she conquer it? She was both nun and wife. If fault there was, it was as wife, in immuring herself in a convent and denying the marriage. It should have been openly avowed; the denial of it placed her in a false position, as a fallen woman. Yet, as a fallen woman, she regained her position in the eyes of the world. She was a lady abbess. It was impossible for a woman to enjoy a higher position than the control of a convent. As abbess, she enjoyed the friendship and respect of some of the saintliest and greatest characters of the age, even of such a man as Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. And it is impossible that she should have won the friendship of such a man, if she herself had not been irreproachable in her own character. The error in judging Héloïse is, that she, as nun, had no right to love. But the love existed long before she took the veil, and was consecrated by marriage, even though private. By the mediaeval and conventional stand point, it is true, the wife was lost in the nun. That is the view that Abélard took,–that it was a sin to love his wife any longer. But Héloïse felt that it was no sin to love him who was her life. She continued to live in him who ruled over her, and to whose desire her will was subject and obedient, according to that eternal law declared in the garden of Eden.

Nor could this have been otherwise so long as Abélard retained the admiration of Héloïse, and was worthy of her devotion. We cannot tell what changes may have taken place in her soul had he been grovelling, or tyrannical, a slave of degrading habits, or had he treated her with cruel harshness, or ceased to sympathize with her sorrows, or transferred his affections to another object. But whatever love he had to give, he gave to her to the end, so far as the ideas of his age would permit. His fault was in making a nun of his wife, which was in the eyes of the world a virtual repudiation; even though, from a principle of sublime obedience and self-sacrifice, she consented to the separation. Was Josephine to blame because she loved a selfish man after she was repudiated? Héloïse was simply unable to conquer a powerful love. It was not converted into hatred, because Abélard, in her eyes, seemed still to be worthy of it. She regarded him as a saint, forced by the ideas of his age to crush a mortal love,–which she herself could not do, because it was a sentiment, and sentiment is eternal. She was greater than Abélard, because her love was more permanent; in other words, because her soul was greater. In intellect he may have been superior to her, but not in the higher qualities which imply generosity, self-abnegation, and sympathy,–qualities which are usually stronger in women than in men. In Abélard the lower faculties–ambition, desire of knowledge, vanity–consumed the greater. He could be contented with the gratification of these, even as men of a still lower type can renounce intellectual pleasures for the sensual. It does not follow that Héloïse was weaker than he because she could not live outside the world of sentiment, but rather loftier and nobler. These higher faculties constituted her superiority to Abélard. It was sentiment which made her so pre-eminently great, and it was this which really endeared her to Abélard. By reason and will he ruled over her; but by the force of superior sentiment she ruled over him.

Sentiment, indeed, underlies everything that is great or lovely or enduring on this earth. It is the joy of festivals, the animating soul of patriotism, the bond of families, the beauty of religious, political, and social institutions. It has consecrated Thermopylae, the Parthenon, the Capitol, the laurel crown, the conqueror’s triumphal procession, the epics of Homer, the eloquence of Demosthenes, the muse of Virgil, the mediaeval cathedral, the town-halls of Flanders, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the struggles of the Puritans, the deeds of Gustavus Adolphus, the Marseilles hymn, the farewell address of Washington. There is no poetry without it, nor heroism, nor social banqueting. What is Christmas without the sentiments which hallow the evergreen, the anthem, the mistletoe, the family reunion? What is even tangible roast-beef and plum-pudding without a party to enjoy them; and what is the life of the party but the interchange of sentiments? Why is a cold sleigh-ride, or the ascent of a mountain, or a voyage across the Atlantic, or a rough journey under torrid suns to the consecrated places,–why are these endurable, and even pleasant? It is because the sentiments which prompt them are full of sweet and noble inspiration. The Last Supper, and Bethany, and the Sepulchre are immortal, because they testify eternal love. Leonidas lives in the heart of the world because he sacrificed himself to patriotism. The martyrs are objects of unfading veneration, because they died for Christianity.

In the same way Héloïse is embalmed in the affections of all nations because she gave up everything for an exalted sentiment which so possessed her soul that neither scorn, nor pity, nor ascetic severities, nor gloomy isolation, nor ingratitude, nor a living death could eradicate or weaken it,–an unbounded charity which covered with its veil the evils she could not remove. That all-pervading and all-conquering sentiment was the admiration of ideal virtues and beauties which her rapt and excited soul saw in her adored lover; such as Dante saw in his departed Beatrice. It was unbounded admiration for Abélard which first called out the love of Héloïse; and his undoubted brilliancy and greatness were exaggerated in her loving eyes by her imagination, even as mothers see in children traits that are hidden from all other mortal eyes. So lofty and godlike did he seem, amidst the plaudits of the schools, and his triumph over all the dignitaries that sought to humble him; so interesting was he to her by his wit, sarcasm, and eloquence,–that she worshipped him, and deemed it the most exalted honor to possess exclusively his love in return, which he gave certainly to no one else. Satisfied that he, the greatest man of the world,–as he seemed and as she was told he was,–should give to her what she gave to him, she exulted in it as her highest glory. It was all in all to her; but not to him. See, then, how superior Héloïse was to Abélard in humility as well as self-abnegation. She was his equal, and yet she ever gloried in his superiority. See how much greater, too, she was in lofty sentiments, since it was the majesty of his mind and soul which she adored. He was comparatively indifferent to her when she became no longer an object of desire; but not so with her, since she was attracted by his real or supposed greatness of intellect, which gave permanence to her love, and loftiness also. He was her idol, since he possessed those qualities which most powerfully excited her admiration.

This then is love, when judged by a lofty standard,–worship of what is most glorious in mind and soul. And this exalted love is most common among the female sex, since their passions are weaker and their sentiments are stronger than those of most men. What a fool a man is to weaken this sympathy, or destroy this homage, or outrage this indulgence; or withhold that tenderness, that delicate attention, that toleration of foibles, that sweet appreciation, by which the soul of woman is kept alive and the lamp of her incense burning! And woe be to him who drives this confiding idolater back upon her technical obligations! The form that holds these certitudes of the soul may lose all its beauty by rudeness or neglect. And even if the form remains, what is a mortal body without the immortal soul which animates it? The glory of a man or of a woman is the real presence of spiritual love, which brings peace to homes, alleviation to burdens, consolation to sufferings, rest to labors, hope to anxieties, and a sublime repose amid the changes of the world,–that blessed flower of perennial sweetness and beauty which Adam in his despair bore away from Eden, and which alone almost compensated him for the loss of Paradise.

It is not my object to present Abélard except in his connection with the immortal love with which he inspired the greatest woman of the age. And yet I cannot conclude this sketch without taking a parting glance of this brilliant but unfortunate man. And I confess that his closing days strongly touch my sympathies, and make me feel that historians have been too harsh in their verdicts. Historians have based their opinions on the hostilities which theological controversies produced, and on the neglect which Abélard seemed to show for the noble woman who obeyed and adored him. But he appears to have employed his leisure and tranquil days in writing hymns to the abbess of the Paraclete, in preparing homilies, and in giving her such advice as her circumstances required. All his later letters show the utmost tenderness and zeal for the spiritual good of the woman to whom he hoped to be reunited in heaven, and doing for Héloïse what Jerome did for Paula, and Fénelon for Madame Guyon. If no longer her lover, he was at least her friend. And, moreover, at this time he evinced a loftier religious life than he has the credit of possessing. He lived a life of study and meditation.

But his enemies would not allow him to rest, even in generous labors. They wished to punish him and destroy his influence. So they summoned him to an ecclesiastical council to answer for his heresies. At first he resolved to defend himself, and Bernard, his greatest enemy, even professed a reluctance to contend with his superior in dialectical contests. But Abélard, seeing how inflamed were the passions of the theologians against him, and how vain would be his defence, appealed at once to the Pope; and Rome, of course, sided with his enemies. He was condemned to perpetual silence, and his books were ordered to be burned.

To this sentence it would appear that Abélard prepared to submit with more humility than was to be expected from so bold and arrogant a man. But he knew he could not resist an authority based on generally accepted ideas any easier than Henry IV. could have resisted Hildebrand. He made up his mind to obey the supreme authority of the Church, but bitterly felt the humiliation and the wrong.

Broken in spirit and in reputation, Abélard, now an old man, set out on foot for Rome to plead his cause before the Pope. He stopped on his way at Cluny in Burgundy, that famous monastery where Hildebrand himself had ruled, now, however, presided over by Peter the Venerable,–the most benignant and charitable ecclesiastical dignitary of that age. And as Abélard approached the gates of the venerable abbey, which was the pride of the age, worn out with fatigue and misfortune, he threw himself at the feet of the lordly abbot and invoked shelter and protection. How touching is the pride of greatness, when brought low by penitence or grief, like that of Theodosius at the feet of Ambrose, or Henry II. at the tomb of Becket! But Peter raises him up, receives him in his arms, opens to him his heart and the hospitalities of his convent, not as a repentant prodigal, but as the greatest genius of his age, brought low by religious persecution. Peter did all in his power to console his visitor, and even privately interceded with the Pope, remembering only Abélard’s greatness and his misfortunes. And the persecuted philosopher, through the kind offices of the abbot, was left in peace, and was even reconciled with Bernard,–an impossibility without altered opinions in Abélard, or a submission to the Church which bore all the marks of piety.

The few remaining days of this extraordinary man, it seems, were spent in study, penitence, and holy meditation. So beloved and revered was he by the community among whom he dwelt, that for six centuries his name was handed down from father to son among the people of the valley and town of Cluny. “At the extremity of a retired valley,” says Lamartine, “flanked by the walls of the convent, on the margin of extensive meadows, closed by woods, and near to a neighboring stream, there exists an enormous lime-tree, under the shade of which Abélard in his closing days was accustomed to sit and meditate, with his face turned towards the Paraclete which he had built, and where Héloïse still discharged the duties of abbess.”

But even this pensive pleasure was not long permitted him. He was worn out with sorrows and misfortunes; and in a few months after he had crossed the hospitable threshold of Cluny he died in the arms of his admiring friend. “Under the instinct of a sentiment as sacred as religion itself, Peter felt that Abélard above and Héloïse on earth demanded of him the last consolation of a reunion in the grave. So, quietly, in the dead of night, dreading scandal, yet true to his impulses, without a hand to assist or an eye to witness, he exhumed the coffin which had been buried in the abbey cemetery, and conveyed it himself to the Paraclete, and intrusted it to Héloïse.”

She received it with tears, shut herself up in the cold vault with the mortal remains of him she had loved so well; while Peter, that aged saint of consolation, pronounced the burial service with mingled tears and sobs. And after having performed this last sad office, and given his affectionate benediction to the great woman to whom he was drawn by ties of admiration and sympathy, this venerable dignitary wended his way silently back to Cluny, and, for the greater consolation of Héloïse, penned the following remarkable letter, which may perhaps modify our judgment of Abélard:–

“It is no easy task, my sister, to describe in a few lines the holiness, the humility, and the self-denial which our departed brother exhibited to us, and of which our whole collected brotherhood alike bear witness. Never have I beheld a life and deportment so thoroughly submissive. I placed him in an elevated rank in the community, but he appeared the lowest of all by the simplicity of his dress and his abstinence from all the enjoyments of the senses. I speak not of luxury, for that was a stranger to him; he refused everything but what was indispensable for the sustenance of life. He read continually, prayed often, and never spoke except when literary conversation or holy discussion compelled him to break silence. His mind and tongue seemed concentrated on philosophical and divine instructions. Simple, straightforward, reflecting on eternal judgments, shunning all evil, he consecrated the closing hours of an illustrious life. And when a mortal sickness seized him, with what fervent piety, what ardent inspiration did he make his last confession of his sins; with what fervor did he receive the promise of eternal life; with what confidence did he recommend his body and soul to the tender mercies of the Saviour!”

Such was the death of Abélard, as attested by the most venerated man of that generation. And when we bear in mind the friendship and respect of such a man as Peter, and the exalted love of such a woman as Héloïse, it is surely not strange that posterity, and the French nation especially, should embalm his memory in their traditions.

Héloïse survived him twenty years,–a priestess of God, a mourner at the tomb of Abélard. And when in the solitude of the Paraclete she felt the approach of the death she had so long invoked, she directed the sisterhood to place her body beside that of her husband in the same leaden coffin. And there, in the silent aisles of that abbey-church, it remained for five hundred years, until it was removed by Lucien Bonaparte to the Museum of French Monuments in Paris, but again transferred, a few years after, to the cemetery of Père la Chaise. The enthusiasm of the French erected over the remains a beautiful monument; and “there still may be seen, day by day, the statues of the immortal lovers, decked with flowers and coronets, perpetually renewed with invisible hands,–the silent tribute of the heart of that consecrated sentiment which survives all change. Thus do those votive offerings mysteriously convey admiration for the constancy and sympathy with the posthumous union of two hearts who transposed conjugal tenderness from the senses to the soul, who spiritualized the most ardent of human passions, and changed love itself into a holocaust, a martyrdom, and a holy sacrifice.”


Lamartine’s Characters; Berington’s Middle Ages; Michelet’s History of France; Life of St. Bernard; French Ecclesiastical Historians; Bayle’s Critical Dictionary; Biographic Universelle; Pope’s Lines on Abélard and Héloïse; Letters of Abélard and Héloïse.

Joan of Arc : Heroic Women

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women