Heloise d’Argenteuil, an educated medieval woman

Following on my profile of the life of a male university graduate, I want to profile two highly educated women of the Middle Ages, whose lives turned out quite differently. First, since I mentioned her yesterday, Heloise d’Argenteuil. What we know about Heloise is fairly limited.

We know her story mainly because many years after Peter Abelard’s fall from grace, he felt drawn to tell his sad story to a fellow Abbot who also had a tragic life. His letter to Philintus got passed on to someone who still had contact with Heloise. Heloise, agitated and now having his current address, wrote to him; they exchanged five letters. (link to all of these letters)

We don’t know what her family was like; a line in her letters suggests that she was middle-class at most. She was probably an orphan; she may have been an oblate child who chose not to take orders. She grew up at a convent in Argenteuil, and from an early age proved a brilliant scholar. They taught her Latin and Greek; she also learned Hebrew. It’s not clear to me whether convents had Hebrew scholars at that time; I’d like to construct a back story in which Heloise begged her nearest relative, Canon Fulbert, to take her to Paris where she could study with Jewish Hebrew scholars for a while. We do know that she was living with Canon Fulbert when the known story begins.

We also don’t know how old she was. We assume she was very young, but on the other side, she was a famous scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, which takes time. There’s one line in a letter that hints she may have been older than we assume. She was somewhere between 18 and 28.

Heloise wanted to continue her education, but she could not enroll at the University of Paris in the 1100s. Peter Abelard, Paris’s most famous teacher of philosophy, met her. After years of scholarly celibacy, he suddenly wanted this particular woman. He asked Canon Fulbert if he could stay in his house and tutor ┬ániece Heloise in the remaining university subjects such as philosophy and medicine.

Heloise was an unusually strong-willed, free-thinking woman. She had turned away any offers of marriage; in my fictional back-story, she also turned down taking orders in the convent. She wanted to live as an independent adult, reading and living as she wished. It’s clear that although she loved Abelard passionately, the initiative to start a sexual relationship was his. Since he was living in the same house, he had plenty of opportunities. In her first letter to him, she recalls that they were quite innovative in their lovemaking. Abelard dropped celibacy in favor of aggressive sensuality.

Abelard lost interest in his former career and began writing so many love poems that soon the entire city was talking about them. Canon Fulbert found out and kicked him out. Abelard began trying to bribe her servants to get word to Heloise to run away with him. Finally, the singing teacher took the bribe, and Heloise managed to tell Abelard she was pregnant. He took her away to his sister’s house in Brittany.

Heloise gave birth to a son, and she became the forerunner of all those Hollywood celebs who call their kids Moonbeam. She named her son Astrolabe, which was the new technology device. The name was every bit as weird as it sounds. Astrolabe lived out his life in Brittany, probably; little is known. (He never knew his mother, but it’s possible that he met his father since he was living with his paternal aunt.)

Heloise was set against marriage still. She declared that she was proud to be his whore! But Abelard married her to placate Fulbert. Then he had a problem: his career required the marriage to be kept secret. He placed Heloise temporarily at the convent where she’d grown up, though apparently he still not only visited her but had sex on the table that was in the visit room. Fulbert believed that he had only married her to cast her off, and now he was truly furious. He paid a gang of thugs to break into Abelard’s rented room and castrate him (without benefit of actual surgery). Abelard survived.

Now Abelard did a cowardly thing. Heloise promised to be his true wife, but he was jealous, thinking “she loved sex so much, surely she’ll eventually do it with someone else.” So he ordered her, as a husband, to take convent orders right there in front of him. Then he left. He himself entered monastic orders. Eventually he got someone to create a convent just for Heloise to be Abbess, so she was provided for.

When Heloise got Abelard’s address after many years, she wrote to him with a broken heart still full of love, begging him to come see her, as they were still husband and wife. He refused, and he now disavowed their former love, saying he’d only been after her body. Heloise gradually calmed down, and in her letters, she mainly asked him to explain salvation and God’s love to her. She had always been an intellectual believer, and she had no devotional love to carry her through this forced vocation. Their letters became a dialogue on faith, and then they fell silent.

When Heloise died, 20 years after Peter Abelard, she was buried next to him. Later they were given a joint tomb at Pere Lachaise.

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