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The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

by Peter Abelard, Héloïse d'Argenteuil (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,038105,920 (3.85)40
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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English (9)  Swedish (1)  All languages (10)
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
A fascinating insight into Medieval life, "The Letters" are the real-life correspondences between Peter Abelard, an arrogant (and apparently handsome) monk and writer, and the beautiful young lady, Heloise, whom he seduced. Her subsequent pregnancy caused a scandal for them both, leading to her becoming the Abbess of a convent.

In truth, the story of these people is more interesting than the letters. Heloise is the more fascinating, as she clearly still has feelings, yet has begun to question the wisdom of their relationship, and whether Abelard ever cared for her. Abelard, meanwhile, disguises his arrogance and lack of forethought in his writing, but it's there clearly. Things become interesting as a paranoia evolves around him, although his writing suggests that he is clearly either delusional or, more likely, attention-seeking.

Despite the fascinating story - which is chronicled in detail in the introduction - the letters are more about religion than love, which is understandable due to the time. What makes them a worthy read is just as often the insight into the lives of these people. If you're looking for powerful letters of two star-crossed lovers, you're in the wrong place. I'll admit I was a little disappointed by this. Yet, I'm still happy to have read the letters, if only because - despite the trappings and religion orientation of those involved - many of the feelings and thoughts echo down the centuries, so familiarly.

The translation is very strong, as is the depth of the notes and introduction. Wonderfully, the intro even investigates the possibility that the letters were faked. The most likely option is that they are real, but some academics have suspected that Abelard may have written all the letters - either to better create Heloise's real thoughts, or as a kind of Ancient Greek philosophy exercise.

The appendices include a series of much more powerful letters, from around the same time, written between two unknown lovers. The book suggests that they may be the "lost love letters", although there is no real reason to assume this, but these letters are actually a really affecting read. ( )
  therebelprince | Nov 15, 2020 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (116 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Abelard, PeterAuthorprimary 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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