Ex Abaelardi epistulis ad Heloisam

The well known story of Héloïse d’Argenteuil tells us about a young brilliant woman of the 12th century remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew, and her passionate love with her professor Abelard. The affair interfered with Abelard’s career and once it was found out, the two lovers were separated, nevertheless they continued to meet in secret. Héloïse became pregnant and was sent by Abelard to be looked after by his family in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son. Abelard proposed a secret marriage so as not to mar his career prospects. Héloïse initially opposed it, but the couple were married. The marriage was eventually disclosed, and Abelard sent Héloïse to the convent at Argenteuil, where she had been brought up. Héloïse dressed as a nun and shared the nun’s life, though she was not veiled. After being castrated by Heloise’s uncle, Abelard decided to become a monk at the monastery of St Denis, near Paris.Before doing so he insisted that Héloïse take vows as a nun. Héloïse sent letters to Abelard, questioning why she must submit to a religious life for which she had no calling. Despite her intelligence, culture and passion, it seems like Heloise was not free to decide for her own life, a common condition for young women not only in the Middle ages. In the text, from The letters to Heloise written by Abelard, we can see the very beginning of their love from Abelard’s point of view.

  • 1079 AD
    Abelard, originally called “Pierre le Pallet”, was born in Le Pallet, in Brittany, He was the eldest son of a minor noble French family. His father, Berengar was a knight. He encouraged Peter to pursue his scholarly leaning: he received early training in letters. He studied with enthusiasm dialectic and latin by following the logic of Ar- istotle and became an academic. Abelard wandered throughout France, debating and learning. He first studied in Loire under the tutelage of Roscellinus of Compiegne, a famous French theologian and philosopher who is considered founder of nominalism and then he attended William of Champeaux’s lectures, and entered into debate with William over the problem of universals. Abelard bested his teacher in debate, and gained his reputation as a dialectician of note, teaching at several schools. He grew to see himself as the only “undefeated” philosopher in the world.
  • Beginning of 12th century
    Abelard set himself up as a lecturer, first at Melun and then at Corbeil, competing mainly with William of Champeaux (his ex teacher). He became a famous philosopher, logician and poet. During this period Abelard’s health failed, and he returned to Brittany for several years.
  • 1108 AD - 1113 AD
    Abelard returned to Paris with his health restored and his ambition intact. Abelard decides to study theology.
  • 1113 AD
    stored and his ambition intact. Abelard decides to study theology. He sought out the most eminent teacher of theology of his day, Anselm of Laon, and became his student. It was not a good choice: Anselm’s traditional methods did not appeal to Abelard, and, after some time, Abelard returned to Paris to continue on his own. That was the last time he studied with anyone.
  • 1116 AD
    Upon returning to Paris, Abelard became scholar-in-residence at Notre Dame, a position he held until his romantic entanglement with Héloïse.


Erat quippe in ipsa civitate Parisius adolescentula quaedam nomine Heloisa, neptis canonici cuiusdam, qui Fulbertus vocabatur. Qui eam quanto amplius diligebat, tanto diligentius in omnem – quam poterat – scientiam litterarum promoveri studuerat. Quae cum per faciem non esset infima, per abundantiam litterarum erat suprema. Nam quo bonum hoc (litteratoriae scilicet scientiae) in mulieribus est rarius, eo amplius puellam commendabat et in toto regio nominatissimam fecerat. Hanc igitur omnibus circumspectis, quae amantes allicere solent, commodiorem censui in amorem mihi copulare; et me id facillime credidi posse. Tanti quippe tunc nominis eram et iuventutis et formae gratiā praeeminebam, ut quamcumque feminam nostro dignarer amore, nullam vererer repulsam. Tanto autem facilius hanc mihi puellam consensuram credidi, quanto amplius eam litterarum scientiam et habere et diligere noveram; nosque etiam absentes scriptiis internuntiis invicem liceret praesentare (...) In huius itaque adolescentulae amorem totus inflammatus occasionem quaesivi, qua eam mihi domesticā et quotidianā conversatione familiarem efficerem et facilius ad consensum traherem. In qua re quidem quanta eius simplicitas esset, vehementer admiratus non minus apud me obstipui, quam si agnam teneram famelico lupo committeret. Primo domo iungebamur, deinde animo. Studium commune potestatem nos videndi nobis dabat. Magis magisque studium cum amore miscebamus. Dum cuncti nos litteris studere putant, occulte nos amori dedebamus. Itaque, postquam libros aperuimus, plura verba de amore quam de litteris faciebamus. Plura erant oscula quam sententiae; Saepius manūs ad sinum quam ad libros adducebantur; crebrius oculi cupidi ad oculos alterius quam ad scripta dirigebantur. Quid denique dicam? Nos ita cupidi eramus, ut nullam partem amoris omitteretur. Quidquid amor fingere potest, fecimus. Et quod ea gaudia antea nesciebamus, eo magis ardebamus. Et quanto magis haec voluptas me ceperat, tanto minus scholae operam dare po- teram. Molestum mihi erat in scholam ire. Labor magnus erat nocte amori et diebus studio me dedere.

Lectio Restituta (German Group)
There was in Paris a young girl called Héloise, granddaughter of a cleric, who was called Fulbert. And the more diligently he had applied in advancing her in all the knowledge of literature--as far as possible--the more he loved her. And although her appearance wasn’t the worst, she was the best thanks to her extensive knowledge of literature. In fact, this good thing (which means the science of the letters) is so rare in women, that it gave her more prestige, and she was the most famous girl all over the kingdom. Therefore, considering all things which are used to attract lovers, I thought it was more convenient to unite her to myself in love; and I believed that I could do this very easily. Since at the time I was so famous and I sparkled so much thanks to youth and good appearance, that no matter what kind of woman I felt worthy of my love, I was not afraid of being rejected by any. Instead, the more I believed that this girl would easily indulge me, the more I noticed that she loved and knew the science of the letters; and even when we didn’t see each other it was possible to exchange written notes. Therefore, all immersed in the love of this young girl, whom I made familiar to me during domestic and daily conversations, I waited for the occasion to bring her more easily to consent. In this circumstance, I was very surprised and no less amazed at how simple the situation was, as if a tender lamb was offered to a hungry wolf. We stayed together at home first, then we joined in the soul. Studying together gave us the chance to see each other. We kept mixing together study and love more and more. While others thought we were studying, we secretly abandoned ourselves to love.Therefore, since we opened the books, we talked more about love than about literature. Kisses were more than words. Hands were more often carried to the chest than to the books; the eyes full of desire went towards the eyes of the other more frequently than to the books. What else can I say? We were so in love that no part of love was left out. We did whatever love can imagine. And, since we didn’t know those joys before, we burned even more. And the more this pleasure had taken me, the less I could devote myself to studying. It bothered me to go to school. It was a great toil to dedicate myself to love at night and to study during the day.

Bernard de Ventadorn, Can vei la lauzeta mover, 12th century

Bernard de Ventadorn was a French troubadour who lived in the 12th century. He was active among 1147 e il 1170. He wrote about forty-five compositions (including nineteen melodies). In his poems Bernard de Ventadorn contemplates female beauty and sensuality, alternating with meditations on the passing time and the fading of youth. “Can vei la lauzeta mover” is one of the most popular Bernard’s songs (Dante himself paraphrased its opening in his Paradiso). The song begins with a natural image in which the poet compares himself with a skylark (bird). The poet impersonates the character of the unhappy lover (typical of Provencal poetry) because of his beloved who does not correspond to his love. At the end Bernard condemns all women for their lack of piety and he comes to the conclusion that love does not elevate the soul but destroys it. The original song includes seven strophes composed of eight alternating rhyming verses ABABCDCD and four-part leave. The melody used for each strophe is usually determined by the form of the stanza, in that phrase length often corresponds to line length and melodic and lyrical cadences tend to coincide.

Miniature from “Codex Manesse”, 14th century

The miniature represents Horheim Bernger Von Horheim (late 12th century), a German poet of the court of Henry IV. In this image the poet is depicted with his beloved holding a dog in her lap, a symbol of fidelity, while he holds a sword, symbol of the ‘armor of the spirit’. Their hands join in the tree that seems to bloom upon their contact. It comes from “Codex Manesse”, also known as the “Great Heidelberg Book of Songs” (around 1300). It is the most comprehensive collection of ballads and epigrammatic poetry in Middle High German language which includes many miniatures.