Up to this time (1117?), he doth protest, he had maintained “the utmost continence,” and “had diligently refrained from all excesses.”11 But in the maiden Héloïse, niece of the cathedral canon Fulbert, there was a comeliness of person, and a flair for learning, which aroused the sensitivity of his manhood and the admiration of his mind. During those hectic years when Abélard and William fought the universal war, Héloïse had grown from infancy to girlhood as an orphan of whose parentage no certain trace remains. Her uncle sent her for many years to a convent at Argenteuil; there, falling in love with the books in the little library, she became the brightest pupil the nuns had ever had. When Fulbert learned that she could converse in Latin as readily as in French, and was even studying Hebrew,12 he took new pride in her, and brought her to live with him in his home near the cathedral.
She was sixteen when Abélard came into her life (1117). Presumably she had heard of him long since; she must have seen the hundreds of students who crowded the cloisters and lecture rooms to hear him; perhaps, so intellectually eager, she had gone openly or furtively to see and hear the idol and paragon of the scholars of Paris. We can imagine her modest trepidation when Fulbert told her that Abélard was to live with them and be her tutor. The philosopher himself gives the frankest explanation of how it had come about:
It was this young girl whom I… determined to unite with myself in the bonds of love. And indeed the thing seemed to me very easy to be done. So distinguished was my name, and I possessed such advantages of youth and comeliness, that no matter what woman I might favor with my love, I dreaded rejection of none…. Thus, utterly aflame with passion for this maiden, I sought to discover means whereby I might have daily and familiar speech with her, thereby the more easily to win her consent. For this purpose I persuaded the girl’s uncle… to take me into his household… in return for the payment of a small sum…. He was a man keen in avarice, and… believed that his niece would vastly benefit from my teaching…. The man’s simplicity was nothing short of astounding; I should not have been more surprised if he had entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf….
Why should I say more? We were united, first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned within us. Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love…. Our kisses outnumbered our reasoned words; our hands sought less the book than each other’s bosoms; love drew our eyes together.13
What had begun with his simple physical desire graduated through Héloïse’s delicacy into “a tenderness surpassing in sweetness the most fragrant balm.” It was a new experience for him, and wooed him quite from philosophy; he borrowed passion from his lectures for his love, and left them anomalously dull. His students mourned the dialectician, but welcomed the lover; they were delighted to learn that even Socrates could sin; they consoled themselves for lost jousts of argument by singing the love songs that he now composed; and Héloïse from her windows could hear on their lips the boisterous echo of his enchantment.14
Not long afterward she announced to him that she was with child. Secretly by night he stole her from her uncle’s house, and sent her to his sister’s home in Brittany.15 Half from fear and half from pity, he offered to the infuriated uncle to marry Héloïse provided Fulbert would let him keep the marriage secret. The canon agreed, and after his classes had adjourned Abélard went to Brittany to fetch a tender but unwilling bride. Their son, Astrolabe, was three days old when he arrived. Héloïse long refused to marry him. The reforms of Leo IX and Gregory VII, a generation back, had barred married men from the priesthood unless the wife became a nun; she was not ready to contemplate such a surrender of her mate and her child; she proposed to remain his mistress, on the ground that such a relationship, kept judiciously secret, would not, like marriage, close his road to advancement in the Church.16 A long passage in Abélard’s History of My Calamities (vii) ascribes to Héloïse at this point a learned array of authorities and instances against the marriage of philosophers, and an eloquent plea against “robbing the Church of so shining a light”: “Remember that Socrates was wedded, and with how sordid a case he first purged that stain on philosophy, that thereafter other men might be more prudent.” “It would be far sweeter for her,” he reports her as saying, “to be called my mistress than to be known as my wife; nay, this would be more honorable for me as well.”17 He persuaded her by promising that the marriage would be known only to an intimate few.
They left Astrolabe with the sister, returned to Paris, and were married in the presence of Fulbert. To keep the marriage secret Abélard went back to his bachelor lodgings, and Héloïse lived again with her uncle; the lovers saw each other now only rarely and clandestinely. But Fulbert, anxious to redeem his prestige, and overruling his promise to Abélard, divulged the marriage. Héloïse denied it, and Fulbert “visited her repeatedly with punishments.” Abélard again stole her away; this time he sent her, much against her will, to the convent at Argenteuil, and bade her don the garb of a nun, but not to take the vows or the veil. When Fulbert and his kinsmen heard of this, says Abélard, they were convinced that now I had completely played them false, and had rid myself forever of Héloïse by forcing her to become a nun. Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me; and one night, while… I was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance upon me with a most cruel and shameful punishment… for they cut off those parts of my body whereby I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow. This done, they fled; but two of them were captured, and suffered the loss of their eyes and their genitals.18
His enemies could not have chosen a subtler revenge. It did not immediately disgrace him; all Paris, including the clergy, sympathized with him;19 his students flocked to comfort him. Fulbert shrank into hiding and oblivion, and the bishop confiscated his property. But Abélard realized that he was ruined, and that “the tale of this amazing outrage would spread to the very ends of the earth.” He could no longer think of ecclesiastical preferment. He felt that his fair fame had been “utterly blotted out,” and that he would be a butt of jokes for generations to come. He felt a certain unpoetic justice in his fall: he had been maimed in the flesh that had sinned, and had been betrayed by the man whom he had betrayed. He bade Héloïse take the veil, and he himself, at St. Denis, took the vows of a monk.