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The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

by Pierre Abélard, Peter Abelard, Héloïse d'Argenteuil (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,199106,140 (3.85)41
The letters of Heloise and Abelard will remain one of the great, romantic and intellectual documents of human civilization while they, themselves, are probably second only to Romeo and Juliet in the fame accrued by tragic lovers. Here for the first time in Mart Martin McLaughlin's edition is the complete correspendence with commentary.… (more)

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» See also 41 mentions

English (8)  Swedish (1)  All languages (9)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Despite my interest in the middle ages, I avoided H&A for a long time. I was under the impression that it was all moaning about love and so on; but no! These letters are actually fascinating. Two incredibly intelligent people, neither of whom I'd want to spend too much time with, write to each other about their amazing lives (famous philosopher gets castrated, hounded by church, hated by monks; famous poet/composer/humanist falls dementedly in love, has a child with her lover, becomes powerful abbess), but mixed in are very, very smart philosophical, theological, and social debates and discussions.

It would be the 'right' thing to do here for me to complain about how Abelard was a misogynist and Heloise was a victim and how her fabulous emancipatory light has been hidden under his having a penis. But if you read these letters with any care, you'll recognize Heloise for what she is: someone who is simply too brilliant, and too strong willed, to live a life filled with anything but soap opera level drama. Abelard is less recognizable as a type, in part because although he seems to have been just like Heloise when younger, he resist her attempts to engage in that kind of behavior in his later years. Heloise might have been more oppressed, but Abelard certainly suffered more, and that seems to have mellowed his brilliance and will.

Rather than Heloise-as-hero or Abelard-as-villain, these letters are definitive proof that 'the renaissance' didn't spring fully loaded from the head of some ancient Greek statue. H&A both know and quote at length from the classics; they both assume that secular learning is important; they both conduct their lives as such. These letters put paid to the silly belief of many historians of the early modern period that their period was the first time that anyone was an individual, or had a conflicted relationship with religion etc... And they're just damn entertaining.

They're also enlightening. Abelard's 'biography', the first letter, is a fine piece of life writing; Heloise's request that Abelard compose a rule for the community she headed is deeply learned and hilariously precise (essentially, her letter is an exercise in close reading of the Rule of St Benedict, showing just how unsuitable it is for women, in gloriously fine detail); Abelard's rule is a perfect response (excepting the residual "weaker vessel" nonsense).

There's a problem with this edition, though: for some baffling reason, Abelard's letter to Heloise on the history of nuns is greatly abridged. Why? And if you don't find it odd enough to begin with, consider that it can't have been to save paper; the book ends with a few anonymous letters from the period that some enterprising historian decided, for no particularly good reason, had also been written by H&A.

Here's something from one of the original set of letters:

"Who is there who was once my enemy, whether man or woman, who is not moved now by the compassion which is my due? Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weight not what was done bu the spirit in which it is done. What my intention towards you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge. I submit all to your scrutiny, yield to your testimony in all things." Thus, Heloise to Abelard: introspective, philosophically sophisticated, conflicted.

Here's something from the unnecessarily appended "Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard":

"Since my mind is turning with many concerns, it fails me, pierced by the sharp hook of love... Just as fire cannot be extinguished or suppressed by any material, unless water, by nature its powerful remedy, is applied, so my love cannot be cured by any means - only by you can it be healed." Thus, we're asked to believe, 'Heloise' to Abelard: ignorant (lots of things extinguish fire), foolish (if your love can't be cured by any means, then it can't be cured by Abelard), dull. I guess at least we have evidence that even twelfth-century people (though not necessarily H&A) could write drivel under the 'inspiration' of love.

If I could do it all over again, maybe I'd read the Hackett volume, which includes some of the love letter drivel, but at least gives us all of Abelard's letter to compensate. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. Apparently, Peter Abelard was no exception. In addition too being one of the great scholars of his time, he was like all 4 of the
Beatles, his love songs to Heloise were heard in every street. No one seems to know how Heloise felt about that. Why, I'd rather have my phone number on the men's room wall, than...oh, never mind! Seriously, this great romance was in fact a deeply flawed relationship from the start, Abelard's sense of entitlement was so out of control, he felt entitled to the very best, and took it. What's love got to do with it? Nothing. Perhaps they did come to love each other in the end, when no more could be done about it. But this so-called great love was in fact an abusive relationship in the guise of many a tabloid romance. ( )
  translynx | Aug 5, 2018 |
  OberlinSWAP | Aug 1, 2015 |
Thanx for letting me read it!! :-) enjoyed! ( )
  jennifferhope | May 14, 2015 |
Ah, Peter Abelard. The only person in history to have become more of a dick because he lost his dick. (Though something tells me he was a pretty narcissistic jackass even before then.) As aware as I am that these letters are a wonderful historical source, rereading them only fills me with the urge to go back in time and punch Abelard in the neck. And then to take Heloise to one side, explain the concept of 'internalised misogyny' to her, fix her a strong drink and then talk her through why emotional abusers are bad for you. (Seriously, reading through these letters for the first time since the Twilight craze hit? Inspired some comparisons between Abelard and Edward Cullen.) ( )
3 vote siriaeve | Nov 15, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (200 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Abélard, Pierreprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelard, Petermain authorall editionsconfirmed
Héloïse d'ArgenteuilAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Bergh, BirgerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clanchy, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
De Devéria, LiloCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hawthorn, RaymondIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kurtén-Lindberg, BirgittaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McLaughlin, Mary MartinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Piron, SylvainEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pope, AlexanderTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radice, BettyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scerbanenco, CeciliaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stouff, LouisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tazelaar, ChrisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Oft sind es eher Vorbilder als Worte, die menschliche Leidenschaften entweder erregen oder besänftigen.
There are times when example is better than precept for stirring or soothing human passions; and so I propose to follow up the words of consolation I gave you in person with the history of my own misfortunes, hoping thereby to give you comfort in absence.
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At least some of these editions also include additional writings such as Historia calamitatum, and two hymns by Abelard: Sabbato ad Vesperas and In Parasceve Domini: III. Nocturno.
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The letters of Heloise and Abelard will remain one of the great, romantic and intellectual documents of human civilization while they, themselves, are probably second only to Romeo and Juliet in the fame accrued by tragic lovers. Here for the first time in Mart Martin McLaughlin's edition is the complete correspendence with commentary.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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