This is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra) and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it.
But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.
“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met -
‘He [Heloise's uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious for her, as you have yourself perceived. He bade me say that she will be at your disposal at any hour you choose.’ Gilles’ voice rasped like a saw.
Abelard sat grimly silent. Suddenly he rose, and coming down the room, stood square in front of Gilles. ‘Is the man right in his wits?’
- and is still there weeping over their fate at the end:
She [Heloise] got up quickly and crossed the room to the window, that he [Gilles] might not see her agony. And standing there, struggling to control herself, she heard behind her a small stifled sound. She turned round. He had his face to the wall, but she could see the old Silenus mask distorted with soundless weeping, the hands opening and closing in impotent despair.
Abelard agrees to teach Heloise at home, privately. Indeed, he moves into their house, board and lodging being one of the blandishments that induce him to go along with the idea. And of course they grow close. Heloise is very beautiful, very sweet and very intelligent; Abelard is a youing man still, charming and charismatic.
Then Heloise panics and runs. Abelard goes after her, searching the countryside around Paris and returns home that night in despair only to find her waiting for him in his room.
He fumbled at the latch, the door fell open: he came in a step or two, bewildered by the light: she saw his eyes seeking, not yet comprehending, suddenly wild with hope. She was there at the window: he saw the small white oval of her face, the black pools of her eyes. With a little stifled cry, she held out her arms to him: he was on his knees at her feet, his head buried in her lap, his whole body shaking with a terrible tearless sobbing. [...] She stooped and took his head and carried it to her breast.
They have passed the point of no return. At one point, they journey back from Britanny together, Heloise disguised as a boy, and of course make love in the forest. What was there in love that taught a man all the mysteries of the ancient faiths? He looked at the young creature riding ahead of him, with a kind of awe. Was that the Heloise he knew, or had Psyche become Eros …?
The only person in Paris who is not aware of what is happening is Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle (Or was he really her father? – which would be ironical considering his attitude to Abelard, who was willing to sacrifice his career in the Church to marriage.) And when he does find out, it is Heloise who is against the idea of marriage. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, they compromise, get married in secret, and she bears him a son. But this is not enough for Fulbert, who has swung from guileless and doting to remorselessly vindictive: he has Abelard castrated.
The end of the story, in a sense.
Abelard joins a monastery, Heloise a convent (at his insistence).
However, Helen Waddell’s account of the rest of Abelard’s life, the accusations of heresy, the trial, and so on, is a masterpiece:
‘Have you read the “De Trinitate”, Gilles?’
Gilles nodded. ‘It is more than his accusers have, I’ll be bound.’
‘And is it heretical?’
‘Of course it is heretical. Every book that ever was written about the Trinity is heretical, barring the Athanasian Creed. And even that only saves itself by contradicting everything it says as fast as it says it.’
But he is tried at the Council of Soissons, where, in a complete travesty of justice even by the standards of the medieval Church, Abelard is sentenced after being found not guilty: his book is to be burnt and he is to be incarcerated for life. By the time his friends arrange his release, he is a broken man. He retreats with one young disciple to a hermitage in the forest, and there, as a result of a mystical insight into the nature of the Incarnation, formulates the doctrine known as the Moral Atonement, condemnned by the Church as patripassianism. [In his own words:] “How cruel and unjust it appears that anyone should have demanded the blood of the innocent as any kind of ransom. Or have been in any way delighted with the death of the innocent, let alone that God should have found the death of His Son so acceptable, that through it he should have been reconciled to the whole world ” In brief: God suffers when man or any passible creature suffers, and it is by identifying with Christ on the Cross that man becomes God.
This is what places him among the ranks of the great heresiarchs.
Reprinted nine times in its year of publication (1933) and in print continuously ever since, this is a book that must be read (and read again) by anyone interested in medieval Paris and/or the medieval Church, but especially by those who appreciate a marvellous and very moving love-story that has now established itself as one of the classics of the genre.
But for what happens to him and Heloise later, when they reestablish contact after ten years, it is necessary to turn to another book: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Here we meet the new Heloise, “famed for her learning and administrative genius as an abbess,” who addresses Abelard in the opening paragraph of the first letter as “my beloved” and “my only love” and who beneath the surface is clearly still the old Heloise: in that same first letter she says “God is my witness that Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore“. Her love had not changed one iota.
“Where is the learned Heloise?” asked Francois Villon, the Paris ‘gutter-poet’, sometime in the 1450s. “Where is he who for her sake was castrated and forced to live the life of a monk – Peter Abelard, who for love of her suffered so much misfortune, shed so many a tear? But then, where are the snows of yesteryear?”
The Penguin Classics edition of the letters that I have in my hand also contains Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, Abelard’s own account of his misfortunes, on which of course much of the novel is based. Abelard’s own words again: “But success always puffs up fools with pride I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of one of the canons …’