Abelard and Eloise

March 4, 2005


I’ve heard about these two for so many years, but I never read their letters. They figured in the film “Being John Malkevich” – the J. Cusak character used the text as the salacious dialog for one of his marionette shows – and, of course, there’s Cole Porter:

As Abelard said to Eloise,
“Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please”
As Juliet cried, in her Romeo’s ear,
“Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear”It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings

A bit of a shock to find that the passion in the epistles is mostly a one-way affair, from her to him. He’s rather a drip, filled with self-pity, condescension, pedantry, and a desire to justify himself at length. As a sample of the heat generated by Eloise’s letters, I offer the following:

The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more I would please you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation. … God is my witness that if 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 honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Talk about being a love-slave! And this from a woman who was renowned for not only her beauty, but her incredible erudition, all the more remarkable in an age that did not look to her sex for intellectual guidance. Despite Peter’s unappealing correspondance, it is a great story, a love story the likes of which we can hardly imagine today:Peter was the intellectual superstar of his day, the late 11th century in France. When I say superstar, I mean it – crowds come to hear and see him engage in learned disputes with other theologians and philosophers. His pronouncements on logic were pored over by intellectuals everywhere. Someone had to worry about which was correct, nominalism or realism, right? And what of the status of universals? I can’t even remember which stands for what anymore! (I think that realists held that univerals did, in fact, exist. There IS a perfect triangle, somwhere. Nominalists held the reverse point of view.)

He grew rich from the largesse of his students and patrons, and this was before the founding of the great universities of Europe – he was a freelancer! Fair and handsome, a spellbinding speaker, he had the world at his feet. Then he encountered Eloise, a very lovely, and VERY smart young lady. He became her tutor and used his position to seduce her, though from many accounts, the desire for a liaison was mutual right from the start. She becomes pregnant, they marry secretly, although Eloise, slave to love and to Peter, consents only after extended argument. What does she care for marriage, convention, society? She is in love!

The whole business is discovered and publicized by Eloise’s uncle who becomes enraged, and sends his henchmen to castrate Peter. Yes, no holds barred in those days. Peter orders Eloise to become a nun, which she does, and he becomes a monk. This is the time during which their famous letters are exchanged. In her subsequent career as an abbess she is renowned for her administrative skill and intelligence – he lives on as an increasingly curmudgeonly, cranky, intellectual. Understandably, he could never quite live down the humiliation of his condition, and this in a time when such punitive barbarities weren’t that uncommon. [By the way, in case you are under the illusion that castration (after puberty) renders one impotent, guess again. Harem women were said to prefer sex with eunuchs – merely sterile – since they could hold erections longer, and, of course, there was no risk of pregnancy. See: Eunuch – Myths]