Friday, March 12, 2010

Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography by James Burge

"Indeed your words are few but I have made them many by rereading them." Abelard to Heloise

In medieval Paris for about two years around 1115 to 1116, the philosopher Peter Abelard and his student Heloise became impassioned lovers. Abelard even sweet-talked his way into residency in Heloise's uncle's compound to more easily continue the secret affair. (Uncle Fulbert was her guardian.) Even in such close proximity, the couple wrote each other daily letters (in Latin which the letter carrier could not read) praising their love. Amazingly, some of these letters which were lost for nearly 900 years were identified in the 1990s. Using these and the better known letters the couple wrote long after their affair, James Burge has written Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography.

Readers get a sense of both these remarkable people in this intimate dual biography. Abelard was a brilliant academic who believed fervently in logic. He was able to win almost any debate. What he lacked was any tact and an ability to curb his own arrogance. He needlessly made many jealous enemies, lost many teaching positions, and was often charged as a hertic. When Heloise's uncle discovered the betrayal of his hospitality and that Heloise was pregnant, the old man was livid. Abelard married Heloise, took her to Brittany out of the uncle's reach, and returned to teach in Paris. When his guard was down, Abelard was attacked in his bed and castrated by the uncle's men.

Heloise was one of Abelard's best student, grasping complex philosophical ideas and a master of languages. Her origins are not certain. She may have been the illegitimate daughter of a nun. After Abelard's castratation and his becoming a monk, she became a nun, eventually becoming the much honored abbess of an order.

In this book, I think Heloise outshines Abelard. He was really too devoted to himself and always needed someone to defend him. She fended for herself quite well. I most like that she refused to ever bow to Abelard's request that she feel remorseful for their joint "sin." She enjoyed the "sin" and would always love Abelard.

Readers of Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography also learn quite a bit about twelfth century church controversies and French history. Eleanore of Aquitaine even show up at the end of the story. I recommend the book to history and biography readers.

Burge, James. Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. ISBN 0060736631.

1 comment:

Keanan Brand said...

I like good stories, and I like history, but rarely is history presented in anything but dry text. However, I bought this book shortly after it was published, and read it in a remarkably short time. Very well written, though there were a couple of places where I distinctly sensed unwanted and unwarranted author intrusion into the material. However, on the whole, the book is an enjoyable read.