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Heloise ( 1101 - 1162 )  Category ( women_in_history ) [suggest a correction]

HeloiseHeloise was a French medieval woman who is best known for her love affair, marriage to, and correspondence with philosopher Peter Abelard. Unlike many medieval women, she viewed herself as an independent woman and married only under pressure from Abelard. She was highly intelligent and regarded as a superior scholar of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Abelard referred to her as 'nominatissima,' or “most renowned” for her reading and writing abilities.

Very little is known of her early life and immediate family. By the time she was about twelve, however, she was known to be living with an uncle, who was a canon named Fulbert who lived in Paris. Hints in her letters suggest that she was from the lower classes, however her association with Fulbert suggests she came from a more prominent family. Some scholars have suggested that Fulbert was actually her father and that she was his illegitimate child.

Heloise became acquainted with Peter Abelard when she was thirteen. He was attracted to the brilliant young woman and secured a position in her uncle’s home as Heloise’s tutor. They quickly began a passionate affair, which was known to everyone but her uncle. When he discovered the relationship he banned the two from seeing one another. Heloise and Abelard continued to meet in secret. When she became pregnant he sent her to Brittany where she gave birth to their son, Astrolabe. Still fearful of Fulbert’s wrath, Heloise was sent to live in a convent while Abelard convinced Fulbert to allow the couple to marry secretly. Abelard felt the secretive aspect was necessary in order for him to continue his church career. Fulbert at last agreed, and the lovers were married in secret, but only after Abelard convinced the vehemently independent Heloise to do so. In the meantime, Fulbert broke his word to Abelard and publicly announced the marriage. When Heloise denied she had married Abelard, Fulbert again became angry, making the young woman’s life so miserable that she once again fled to a convent, assisted by Abelard. Fulbert interpreted Heloise’s escape as Abelard’s way of ridding himself of a now unwanted lover. Fulbert and others, working for him, exacted revenge against Abelard by breaking into his chamber one night and castrating him. This action effectively ended Abelard’s brilliant career in the church. Bitter and distraught, he took the vows of a monk and eventually persuaded Heloise to become a nun. She was opposed to a monastic life and scornful of organized religion, but once she made her decision she became a leader in the convent, eventually holding the position of Abbess at the Oratory of the Paraclete Abbey, an establishment founded by Abelard.

The two former lovers corresponded for years. Many of her early letters have tones of both romance and chastisement, blended with her skills of erudition. At one point Abelard insisted that they cease writing romantic letters, claiming that he had lusted for, but never loved her, and that their affair was a sin.

A collection of forty-two theological questions from Heloise to Abelard (and answered by him), entitled Problemata Heloissae (Heloise’s Problems), is, aside from their traditional correspondence, one of the more famous of Heloise’s surviving works.

Traditionally it is assumed that Heloise and Abelard rest side by side at the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. A monument erected to their memory is located at that site and is a popular destination for lovers, who often leave flowers. Scholars continue to debate the exact burial site of Heloise. What is agreed upon by nearly all, however, is that Heloise and Abelard are one of the earliest examples of romantic love in history.

Image: Heloïse imagined in a mid-19th century engraving.

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