Jack’s Naughty Bits: Peter Abelard, Historia calamitatum (The History of My Misfortunes)

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Jack's Naughty Bits

The way it’s normally told, it’s as sad a love story as Romeo and Juliet: Peter Abelard, the foremost philosopher of twelfth-century Europe, has a secret love affair with a brilliant young girl named Heloise, until one day her father finds out, has his servants castrate Abelard and sends Heloise to a nunnery, never to see Abelard again. From that point on, they exchange letters on the poignancy of their love for each other and their sadness at each other’s absence. This is the way you normally hear about them, but the facts of the matter are a bit different. Abelard was castrated, but Heloise had already been sent to the convent to hide from her father the fact that she was pregnant. And though she wrote Abelard, he didn’t answer her for over twenty years, and when he did, his letters were emotionally glacial and chastisingly pious. He claimed that their sufferings were God’s retribution for their sexual sins (including boffing in the convent’s refectory) and more or less told her that his love for her had been replaced by his love for God. Ouch.


Heloise, however, remained steadfast. That’s why I’m in love with her — or one of the reasons. It’s not that I believe she should have stayed true to Abelard after so much neglect — the twelfth was quite a progressive century, after all — it’s more that her letters display a level of passion, maturity and understanding that I find fantastically compelling. It is clear that Heloise had perspective both on herself and on the personal and psychological factors that motivated Abelard’s silence. And she forgave him — that’s why I love her. She was able to see all of his frailty, all his emotional weakness, and feel for him just the same. I empathize with Abelard’s inability to act responsibly, I can even understand his aggressive religious defense in the face of his own shame. Many of us are unready for true love when it falls into our laps, and, until we can develop our hearts, we can only hope for a Heloise to forgive our trespasses.


Unfortunately, in Heloise’s letters we have no particularly good record of the details of their initial seduction. In Abelard’s we do. He tells the story in his Historia calamitatum, a letter ostensibly written to a friend but clearly intended for a larger audience. It eventually made its way to Heloise, prompting her to write Abelard again, and initiating the exchange of letters that is their famous correspondence. It’s a paradigmatic tale of mind versus body: the smartest man seeks out the smartest woman, and, finding her, ends up in such a rhapsody of the flesh as to give up the mind entirely. Isn’t that how it should be?

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From Historia calamitatum (The History of My Misfortunes) by Peter Abelard

Translated by Betty Radice

There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of Fulbert, one of the canons, and so much loved by him that he had done everything in his power to advance her education in letters. In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had won her renown throughout the realm. I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at that time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love. Knowing the girl’s knowledge and love of letters I thought she would be all the more ready to consent, and that even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages in which we could speak more openly than in person, and so need never lack the pleasures of conversation.


All on fire with desire for this girl I sought an opportunity of getting to know her through private daily meetings and so more easily winning her over; and with this end in view I came to an arrangement with her uncle, with the help of some of his friends, whereby he should take me into his house, which was very near my school, for whatever sum he liked to ask. As a pretext I said that my household cares were hindering my studies and the expense was more than I could afford. Fulbert dearly loved money and was moreover always ambitious to further his niece’s education in letters, two weaknesses which made it easy for me to gain his consent and obtain my desire: he was all eagerness for my money and confident that his niece would profit from my teaching. This led him to make an urgent request which furthered my love and fell in with my wishes more than I had dared to hope; he gave me complete charge over the girl, so that I could devote all the leisure time left me by my school to teaching her by day and night, and if I found her idle I was to punish her severely. I was amazed by his simplicity — if he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf it would not have surprised me more. In handing her over to me to punish as well as to teach, what else was he doing but giving me complete freedom to realize my desires, and providing an opportunity, even if I did not make use of it, for me to bend her to my will by threats and blows if persuasion failed? But there were two special reasons for his freedom from base suspicion: his love for his niece and my previous reputation for continence.


Need I say more? We were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts. To avert suspicion I sometimes struck her, but these blows were prompted by love and tender feeling rather than anger and irritation, and were sweeter than any balm could be. In short, our desires left no stage of love-making untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more eagerly for our previous inexperience, and were the less easily sated.


Now the more I was taken up with these pleasures, the less time I could give to philosophy and the less attention I paid to my school. It was utterly boring for me to have to go to the school, and equally wearisome to remain there and to spend my days on study when my nights were sleepless with love-making. As my interest and concentration flagged, my lectures lacked all inspiration and were merely repetitive; I could do no more than repeat what had been said long ago, and when inspiration did come to me, it was for writing love-songs, not the secrets of philosophy.

© Betty Radice