Letter – Heloise (c.1100-1163) to Abelard (contributed by Mark Walker)

The story of the ardent love affair between fiery philosopher Peter Abelard and his brilliant young student Heloise has been preserved in their remarkable letters to each other: Abelard’s autobiographical Historia Calamitatum (‘Story of my misfortunes’) tells how he was asked to tutor the remarkable young girl at her uncle’s home in Paris, how their lessons soon turned into passionate love-making sessions, how Heloise’s uncle discovered their affair and how Abelard attempted to placate him by marrying Heloise. But in vain: the uncle’s hired thugs attacked Abelard one night and violently castrated him. Thereafter he willingly sought monastic retreat; Heloise, with all her passion intact, was more reluctantly compelled to undertake the same religious (and celibate) life, and became Abbess of the Paraclete, the monastery Abelard himself had founded. It was there, many years after they had last met, that Abelard’s Historia came into her hands, and prompted the beginning of an exchange of letters between the two. In these extracts from her first letter to Abelard, Heloise reminds him of how much she has sacrificed for him.

Mark Walker

Domino suo immo patri, coniugi suo immo fratri, ancilla sua immo filia, ipsius uxor immo soror: Abaelardo Heloisa.

Missam ad amicum pro consolatione epistolam, dilectissime, vestram ad me forte quidam nuper attulit. Quam ex ipsa statim tituli fronte vestram esse considerans, tanto ardentius eam coepi legere, quanto scriptorem ipsum carius amplector ut, cuius rem perdidi, verbis saltem tamquam eius quadam imagine recreer. Erant memini huius epistolae fere omnia felle et absinthio plena quae scilicet nostrae conversionis miserabilem historiam et tuas, unice, cruces assiduas referebant …

Nihil umquam Deus scit in te nisi te requisivi, te pure non tua concupiscens. Non matrimonii foedera, non dotes aliquas expectavi, non denique meas voluptates aut voluntates sed tuas, sicut ipse nosti adimplere studui. Et si uxoris nomen sanctius ac validius videtur, dulcius mihi semper exstitit amicae vocabulum aut, si non indigneris, concubinae uel scorti ut quo me videlicet pro te amplius humiliarem, ampliorem apud te consequerer gratiam et sic etiam excellentiae tuae gloriam minus laederem …

Per ipsum itaque cui te obtulisti Deum te obsecro, ut quo modo potes, tuam mihi praesentiam reddas, consolationem uidelicet mihi aliquam rescribendo hoc saltem pacto ut sic recreata divino alacrior vacem obsequio. Cum me ad turpes olim voluptates expeteres, crebris me epistolis visitabas, frequenti carmine tuam in ore omnium Heloisam ponebas. Me plateae omnes, me domus singulae resonabant. Quanto autem rectius me nunc in Deum quam tunc in libidinem excitares? Perpende, obsecro, quae debes, attende quae postulo et longam epistolam breui fine concludo: Vale unice.

Abaelard and Heloïsa, surprised by Master Fulbert, Excerpt

To her master, or rather father, to her husband or rather brother, your servant or rather daughter, his wife or rather sister: Heloise to Abelard.

The letter you sent as consolation to a friend, dearly beloved, by chance someone recently brought to me. Observing immediately from the very inscription on the front that it was yours, I began to read it so much the more eagerly as the more dearly I embrace in my heart the writer himself so that, [although] I have lost his physical presence, by his words at least I am revived as if by some likeness of him. Nearly everything I recall of this letter was filled with bile and wormwood, namely those things which related the unhappy story of our conversion and, my only love, your unremitting torments …

God knows I never expected anything of you except yourself, desiring you unconditionally not what is yours. I did not expect treaties of matrimony, not any dowries, in short I did not devote myself to fulfilling my pleasures or desires, as you yourself know, but yours. And if the name of wife seems more holy and wholesome, the term mistress always appeared to me sweeter or, if you do not take offence, that of concubine or whore, so as no doubt the more I humbled myself for you, the more I sought gratitude in your eyes and thus also injured less the glory of your pre-eminence …

And so by that God to whom you have offered yourself I beg you that in whatever way you can you give back to me your presence, namely by writing some consolation to me, so that by this means at least having had my strength renewed I can the more readily devote time to divine service. When formerly you sought me out for disgraceful pleasures, you visited me with frequent letters, with many a song you placed your Heloise in everyone’s mouth. With my name all the streets, with my name each house resounded. But how much more properly you should now rouse me for God than then for lust? Consider, I beg, what you owe, heed what I ask, and I conclude a long letter with a brief finish: Farewell, my only love.


Chosen and translated by Mark Walker (www.pineapplepubs.co.uk).


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