From New World Encyclopedia

The young Heloise with her teacher, Abelard.

Heloise (1101 - 1162), the famous lover of Peter Abelard (Abélard), was a writer, abbess, teacher, and author of a long-standing tradition governing the lives of religious women. Her name is also spelled Héloise, Heloïse, Hélose, Heloisa, and Helouisa and Eloise. Of the greatest women of her age, she was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and had a reputation for intelligence and insight.

Heloise was the ward of an uncle, a canon [1] in Paris named Fulbert, and by the age of 18 she had become the student of Abelard, one of the most popular teachers and philosophers in Paris. Abelard seduced Heloise into one of history's most famous romantic relationships. As a result, she gave birth to a son, Astrolabius. She and Abelard married but sought to keep their relationship secret and lived separately to protect his reputation and his work as a scholar. Her uncle came to believe that Abelard had abandoned her and had Abelard forcibly castrated in revenge. After this, Abelard became a monk, and Heloise entered a convent in Argenteuil at Abelard's urging.

At the convent Heloise eventually became prioress, but she and the other nuns were turned out when the convent was taken over. Abelard arranged for them to enter the Oratory of the Paraclete[2], an abbey he had established, and Heloise became the abbess there. It is from here that her lasting contributions to monastic life for women were made. Many of the letters between Abelard and Heloise have been preserved, as well as his own account of their tragic romance. The story of Heloise can only be told within the context of her love relationship with Abelard.

Early Life

Heloise imagined in a mid-nineteenth century engraving

Heloise was probably raised in the nunnery of Argenteuil, where her mother, Hersinde, lived. There is no record of her father or of her birth. Her mother could have been married, a widow, a formal concubine, or simply an unwed mother.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, male primogeniture was established. This allowed the eldest son to inherit all the property instead of cutting it up among all the offspring including daughters, thus keeping it intact for the family. Other sons were then sent off to soldiering or scholarship or monastic life, daughters were married off or sent to a nunnery. In this period, many wealthy women chose to live in monasteries, where they could receive education, while other institutional structures increasingly denied them this opportunity up until the late nineteenth century.

The extent of Heloise's education is uncertain, but even in her youth she was considered a prodigy. Her fame was already known before she moved to Paris, and this is one of the attractions that brought Abelard to arrange to become her tutor. From Heloise's letters we can see that she was well versed in the secular Latin poets and the classical philosophical traditions. She loved Cicero and Latin rhetoric, and deeply appreciated the fourth century Church father St. Jerome.

Seduction by Abelard

In 1116 Heloise left the abbey in Argenteuil and moved to the home of her uncle, Fulbert. He lived very near St. Etienne, which was later replaced by the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was in her uncle's home that her life began its most famous episode.

Heloise and Abelard discovered by her uncle Fulbert.

Abelard was the most popular philosopher and teacher in Paris, he was respected above all others and many flocked to hear his lectures at the cathedral school of Paris. Abelard had heard of Heloise before he met her; he wrote: "A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had won her renown throughout the realm." Abelard says in his Historica clamitatum (The Story of My Calamity), that his pride led to experiment with sexual subjects. He laid a plan to become Heloise's tutor and seduce her. He arranged to actually move into the home of Canon Fulbert, claiming that his own home was too noisy.

Abelard writes about the development of the affair with Heloise:

Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts. (Gollancz, Historica clamitatum: a letter to his friend Philintus, 9)

When Heloise became pregnant, Abelard fled with her to his family home where he intended to marry her, overcoming her protests that their marriage, unnecessary to her, would ruin his reputation. His work, in her mind, was far more important than her life and pregnancy. Heloise saw most contemporary marriages as distasteful commercial transactions. She argued that the daily family life was a burden, noisy, costly, and dirty and would burden Abelard's important work.

Abelard returned to Paris with her and did in fact marry her, with her uncle present, having left their son to be raised by Abelard's family. She lived for a time with her uncle, trying to keep the marriage a secret. Abelard visited her in her uncle's home. This arrangement, however, did not placate her uncle's sense of dishonor, nor was it kept secret. Fulbert "heaped abuse on her on several occasions," and she followed Abelard's instruction to go back to Argenteuil as a lay guest, instead of living with him openly as his wife or mistress in Paris.

Abelard's castration

When Heloise moved to the abbey in Argenteuil, her uncle, believing that Abelard had abandoned her in shame, became vengefully furious and had Abelard castrated as he slept in his bed. The castration was scandalous, and as a result, Abelard removed himself from public life in shame. Heloise felt robbed of the most important thing in her life, yet her love for Abelard remained, she reconfirms her absolute dedication:

I love you more than ever; and so revenge myself on him (Fulbert). I will still love you with all the tenderness of my soul till the last moment of my life. If, formerly, my affection for you was not so pure, if in those days both mind and body loved you, I often told you even then that I was more pleased with possessing your heart than with any other happiness, and the man was the thing I least valued in you. (Gollancz, 30)

Separate lives

Heloise enters the convent at Abelard's urging, by Angelica Kauffmann

Abelard took vows as a monk and left public life. He asked Heloise to enter a convent and likewise take vows. She protested, but he insisted. Perhaps he feared that she would marry someone else. He insisted that he would henceforth relate to her only as the "beloved of Christ."

In 1121, Abelard's intellectual rivals, primarily Bernard of Clairvaux, were determined to crush Abelard's rationalism,[3], pushed to have his book on the Holy Trinity condemned. A Church council at Soissons [4] did so, and Abelard was forced to quit teaching and become a monk at the abbey at St Denis. His time at the royal abbey near Paris also ended, due to his contentious attitude and denial of the miraculous events that founded the abbey. This led him to found a new religious community, which he called the Oratory of the Paraclete, fifty miles north of Paris. Once again his popularity drew crowds, and so in fear of new persecution he left. He moved to the undisciplined monastery of St. Gildas in a remote area of Brittany, but the monks there reportedly hated him, so that he left there, too, after ten years.

Later, Abbot Suger [5] of St. Denis took over the control of the old women's monastery of Argenteuil, where Heloise was abbess, and expelled all the women. Heloise and her nuns, to whom she was probably teaching Abelard's doctrines, were without a home. Abelard invited them to the empty Paraclete and turned it over to Heloise's control. He acted as a spiritual guide to the new community.

It was at about this time the surviving correspondence between the two former lovers was conducted. Heloise encouraged Abelard in his philosophical work, and he dedicated his writings to her. Heloise lamented her loss of Abelard's love, both sexual, and intellectual.

Heloise found the Historia of Abelard passed to her hands. Originally written to his friend, Philintas, she complained he should have written it to her as she was his wife and needed his company. She also asked him to move to the Paraclete and live with her. But he replied that it would be scandalous and they could no longer be considered as married. Her following letter disagreed with his argument, and his reply countered her argument. These two letters reveal their ideas about guilt and the danger that women pose to great men of the church. Although she initially urged him to live with her, it is Heloise who is the more adamant about the dangers of women, pointing to the guilt she felt at his sorry state.

Their Struggle to Accept Their Fate

The lovers Abelard and Heloise.
Abelard and Heloise as pictured in the manuscript Roman de la Rose, fourteenth century.

Heloise and Abelard struggled to accept their forced separation and their challenges to find devotion to the monastic life were clearly revealed in their eloquent letters to each other.

Abelard to Heloise:

If my passion has been put under a restraint my thoughts yet run free. I promise myself that I will forget you, and yet cannot think of it without loving you. My love is not at all lessened by those reflections I make in order to free myself… Till after a multitude of useless endeavors I begin to persuade myself that it is a superfluous trouble to strive to free myself; and that it is sufficient wisdom to conceal from all but you how confused and weak I am.

Heloise wrote to Abelard:

Even during the celebration of Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers…
God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore. (Gollancz, 51-52)

Perhaps it was Abelard's conscience or simply the reality of their situation that made him answer Heloise's first letter, writing that there was no reason to see each other. He directed that their marital love should now be transformed into a love of God. Heloise's second letter strongly disagreed:

But if I lose you what is left for me to hope for? What reason for continuing on life's pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you, and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?… (Gollancz, 65)

Abelard's reply indicated his desire to be joined with her in Christ:

I had thought that this bitterness of heart… had long since disappeared… If you are anxious to please me in everything, as you claim, … you must rid yourself of it. If it persists you can neither please me nor attain bliss with me. (Gollancz, 79)

Heloise obeyed her husband. She wrote a third letter in which after the opening, she spoke only in request as an abbess for specific guidance for a practical Rule to guide the life of the nuns under her care. During this time Abelard was excommunicated and his books were ordered burned. Her third letter opens:

I would not want to give you cause for finding me disobedient in anything, so I have set the bridle of your injunction on the words which issue from my unbounded grief… I will therefore hold my hand from writing words which I cannot restrain my tongue from speaking; would that a grieving heart would be as ready to obey as a writer's hand… And yet you have it in your power to remedy my grief, even if you cannot entirely remove it.

In resignation she writes:

And so all we handmaids of Christ, who are your daughters in Christ, come as suppliants to demand of your paternal interest two things which we see to be very necessary for ourselves. One is that you will tell us how the order of nuns began and what authority there is for our profession. The other, that you will prescribe some Rule for us and write it down, a Rule which shall be suitable for women….(Gollancz, 93-94)

In the end Abelard agrees to write a Rule for her nuns. There followed some letters of spiritual and institutional direction and 93 hymns for a year-long liturgy. This sealed their final relationship of monk and abbess.

The personal letters of Heloise and Abelard were discovered later in the Paraclete and translated into French by Jean de Meun, a Parisian cleric. His book The Romance of the Rose (ca. 1280), shows an unusual support for Heloise's tragic story, which he saw as profoundly moral.

However, this series of letters and the entire exchange between the two lovers is remarkable in history, a first person account of the joy and sadness of their love and the evolution of their personal love to the spiritual.

Contributions to Women's Monastic Life

Heloise had an urgent need to reform monastic life to accommodate the new and expanding community of women. The Benedictine Rule concerning monastic life had lasted throughout the centuries and had been adequate for the lives of men, but women's bodies were different with physical needs that were not adequately dealt with in that Rule.

The Problemata (Heloise's Problems) are a collection of 42 theological questions directed from Heloise to Abelard at the time when she was abbess at the Paraclete, together with his answers to them. From this discourse came a Rule that allowed Heloise to guide her women's abbey and establish a standard for all other abbeys. Abelard suggested a basic standard of dress, which Heloise adjusted. It included a chemise dress of lamb's skin, a robe, sandals, a veil with a rope girdle and a mantle in the winter. Nuns slept in their habits and at Heloise's insistence "to keep vermin away," they had two sets of clothes.

Their diet consisted of mostly vegetables, and they ate no meat. Wine was used only for the ill. Those who ventured out of the monastery against the rule were punished for a day with a diet of bread and water only and were isolated in their room. Any woman who violated her vow of chastity was severely beaten and could never again wear the veil.

The Problemata not only produced a Rule for the women's monastery, but also resulted in Heloise applying Abelard's innovative dialectical method of approaching theological and other questions. This became a model for education that she maintained in her spiritual community. Thus, his spirit lived on in the intense study in which every woman at the Paraclete was required to participate.

For 20 years after the death of Abelard she successfully ran the Paraclete and maintained good relations with the male-run monasteries, political leaders, and even Abelard's enemy Bernard of Clairvaux. Heloise also established six sister abbeys around Paris.


Composite image of the tomb of Abelard et Heloise.

Heloise's actual resting place is a question of controversy. It is agreed that Abelard's body was brought from Cluny to the Paraclete at Heloise's request. She was buried there with him.

From there, they were reportedly moved to a local church of Saint-Laurent at Nogent-sur-Seine. In 1804 their bones were brought to the gardens of the Elysee in Paris, where Napoleon and Josephine paid tribute to their shrine. In 1817 their final resting place became Père-Lachaise cemetery where, upon their raised tomb, two full-length figures of a monk and a nun rest atop the sarcophagus. A Gothic-revival enclosure protects them from sun and possible damage. The American musician, Jim Morrison, is buried nearby.

The Oratory of the Paraclete, however, claims Heloise and Abelard are still buried at the Paraclete and that what exists in Père-Lachaise is merely a monument. There are still others who believe that while Abélard is buried in the crypt at Père-Lachaise, Heloise's remains are elsewhere.


In the obituary created by her nuns, Heloise was called their "brilliant mother." Her pioneering contributions to the Rule guiding the lives of nuns, set the standard for all nunneries and lasted until the French Revolution when the Paraclete was closed.

In recent years, as scholars sift through history looking for women of note to balance the male-dominated record, Heloise has been rediscovered. Not only has Heloise the lover come into sharper focus, but Heloise the leader has emerged more clearly as a woman of power and insight, especially during the time after Abelard's death.

The story of Abelard and Heloise captured the imagination of many throughout history. Chaucer knew of their story; Alexander Pope wrote Eloisa to Abelard in 1717; Rousseau composed La Nouvelle Heloise; and Mark Twain wrote about Heloise's "self-sacrificing love," although he said this wasn't "good sense."

The love story of Abelard and Heloise also inspired the poem "The Convent Threshold" by the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti. The play Peter Abelard which was adapted from Helen Waddell's novel, was performed on stage in the late 1960s where a sometimes nude, Diana Rigg, played Heloise. In 2002 this play became an opera in New York. The 2004 movie entitled, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carey and Kate Winslet, takes it's title from the 1557 epistle by Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard. Howard Brenton's play In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise premiered at Shakespeare's Globe in 2006.


  1. A clergyman serving in a cathedral or collegiate church
  2. a Greek word meaning "Holy Spirit"
  3. Bernard was involved in the personal lives of several famous medieval women. He was the cleric who supported Hildegard of Bingen's visions as authentic prophesy, and was also involved in several aspects of Eleanor of Aquitaine's life. While he disapproved of Eleanor's stylish southern French dress and great influence over her young husband, he did inspire King Louis VII, king of France and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine to go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Also, Eleanor and Louis were present at Abelard's condemnation by Bernard.
  4. Attended by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband Louis VII, King of France
  5. Suger later became the adviser of Louis VII.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Burge, James. Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography (Plus). HarpersSanFrancisco, 2006. ISBN 9780060816131
  • Clanchy, Michael, Betty Radice, trans. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Revised edition, Penguin Classics, 2004. ISBN 978-0140448993
  • Dronke, Peter. Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1976.
  • Gollancz, Israel, and Honnor Morten, ed. (anonymous translation). The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (first French translation ed. 1616), Aldine House, London: M. Dent & co., 1901. Online at www.sacred-texts.com.
  • Mews, Constant J., Neville Chiavaroli, trans. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialog in Twelfth-Century France (The New Middle Ages). Palgrave Macmillan; new ed. 2001. ISBN 9780312239411
  • Wheeler, Prof. Bonnie. Medieval Heroines in History and Legend. The Teaching Company, 2002. ISBN 156585523-X

External links

All links retrieved December 14, 2017.


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