IV. THE LETTERS OF HELOÏSE

He had an interlude of moderate happiness when Suger decided to use for other purposes than a nunnery the house at Argenteuil. Since her separation from Abélard Héloïse had so devoted herself there to her duties as a nun that she had been made prioress, and had won “such favor in the eyes of all… that the bishops loved her as a daughter, the abbots as a sister, and the laity as a mother.” Learning that Héloïse and her nuns were looking for new quarters, Abélard offered them the oratory and buildings of “the Paraclete.” He went in person to help establish them there, and frequently visited them to preach to them and the villagers who had settled near by. Gossip murmured “that I, who of old could scarcely endure to be parted from her whom I loved, was still swayed by the delights of earthly lust.”38

It was during his troubled abbacy at St. Gildas that he composed his autobiography—Historia calamitatum mearum (1133?). We do not know its motive; it assumed the guise of an essay in consolation offered to a plaintive friend, “so that, in comparing your sorrows with mine, you may discover that yours are in truth naught”; but apparently it was intended for the world, as both a moral confession and a theological defense. An old but unverifiable tradition says that a copy of it came to Héloïse, and that she wrote this astonishing reply:

To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother: his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to Abélard, Héloïse. Your letter written to a friend for his comfort, beloved, was lately brought to me by chance…. Which things I deem that no one can read or hear with dry eyes, for they renewed in fuller measure my griefs…. In His name Who still protects thee… in the name of Christ, as His handmaids and thine, we beseech thee to deign to inform us by frequent letters of those shipwrecks in which thou still art tossed, that thou mayest have us, at least, who alone have remained to thee as partners in thy grief or joy….

Thou knowest, dearest—all men know—what I have lost in thee…. Obeying thy command, I changed both my habit and my heart, that I might show thee to be the possessor of both my body and my mind…. Not for the pledge of matrimony, nor for any dowry, did I look…. And if the name of wife appears more sacred and valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if thou be not ashamed, concubine or whore…. I call God to witness, if Augustus, ruling over the whole world, were to deem me worthy of the honor of marriage, and to confirm the whole world to me, to be ruled by me forever, dearer to me and of greater dignity would it seem to be called thy strumpet than his empress….

For who among kings or philosophers could equal thee in fame? What kingdom or city or village did not burn to see thee? Who, I ask, did not hasten to gaze upon thee when thou appearedst in public?… What wife, what maiden did not yearn for thee in thine absence, nor burn in thy presence? What queen or powerful lady did not envy me my joys and my bed?…

Tell me one thing only if thou canst: why, after our conversion [to the religious life], which thou alone didst decree, I am fallen into such neglect and oblivion with thee that I am neither refreshed by thy speech and presence, nor comforted by a letter in thine absence. Tell me one thing only, if thou canst, or let me tell thee what I feel, nay, what all suspect: concupiscence joined thee to me rather than affection…. When, therefore, what thou hadst desired ceased, all that thou hadst exhibited at the same time failed. This, most beloved, is not mine only but the conjecture of all…. Would that it seemed thus to me only, and thy love found others to excuse it, by whom my grief might be a little quieted.

Attend, I beseech thee, to what I ask…. While I am cheated of thy presence, at least by written words—whereof thou hast abundance-present the sweetness of thine image…. I deserved more from thee, having done all things for thee… I, who as a girl was allured to the asperity of monastic conversion… not by religious devotion, but by thy command alone…. No reward for this may I expect from God, for the love of Whom it is well known that I did not anything….

And so in His name to Whom thou hast offered thyself, before God I beseech thee that in whatsoever way thou canst thou restore to me thy presence by writing to me some word of comfort…. Farewell, my all.39

Abélard was physiologically incapacitated from responding to such passion in kind. The reply that tradition assigns to him is a reminder of religious vows: “To Héloïse his dearly beloved sister in Christ, Abélard her brother in the same.” He counsels her to accept their misfortunes humbly, as a cleansing and saving punishment from God. He asks for her prayers, bids her assuage her grief with the hope of their reunion in heaven, and begs her to bury him, when he is dead, in the grounds of the Paraclete. Her second letter repeats her fond impieties: “I have ever feared to offend thee rather than God, I seek to please thee more than Him…. See how unhappy a life I must lead, if I endure all these things in vain, having no hope of reward in the future. For a long time thou, like many others, hast been deceived by my simulation, so as to mistake hypocrisy for religion.”40 He answers that Christ, not he, truly loved her: “My love was concupiscence, not love; I satisfied my wretched desires in thee, and this was all that I loved…. Weep for thy Saviour, not for thy seducer; for thy Redeemer, not for thy defiler.”41 And he composes a touching prayer which he asks her to recite for him. Her third letter shows her resigned to the earthly death of his love; she asked him now only for a new rule by which she and her nuns might live properly the religious life. He complied, and drew up for them a kindly moderate code. He wrote sermons for their edification, and sent these compositions to Héloïse over a tender signature: “Farewell in the Lord to His servant, once dear to me in the world, now most dear in Christ.” In his own broken heart he still loved her.

Are these famous letters genuine? The difficulties leap to the eye. The first letter of Héloïse purports to follow upon his Historia calamitatum, which records several visits of Abélard to Héloïse at the Paraclete; yet she complains that he has ignored her. Possibly the Historia was issued in installments, and only the earlier parts preceded the letter. The bold carnality of certain passages seems incredible in a woman whose religious devotion through fourteen years had already earned her the high and general regard which we find attested by Peter the Venerable as well as by Abélard. There are artifices of rhetoric in these letters, and pedantic quotations from the classics and the Fathers, which would hardly occur to a mind sincerely feeling love or piety or remorse. The oldest manuscripts of the letters date from the thirteenth century. Jean de Meung appears to have translated them from Latin into French in 1285.42 We may provisionally conclude that they are among the most brilliant forgeries in history, unreliable in fact, but an imperishable part of the romantic literature of France.43

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