History of Single Life

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The saying “pride goes before a fall” was popular even in the Middle Ages, and Peter Abelard proved it true in dramatic and gruesome fashion. One of the most brilliant and arrogant men of the era, Abelard was born in 1079, the eldest son of Berengar, lord of the village of Pallet in Brittany. He was destined for knighthood, but decided on an academic career instead. His choice of the pen over the sword didn’t abolish his love for jousting, though; Abelard questioned all aspects of Christian doctrine, and his willingness to debate anyone — even his teachers — resulted in his ejection from several universities. This didn’t stop the egotistical young man from making his way to Paris, though, where he set up his own school before teaching theology at the cathedral school of Notre Dame in 1113.


Aberlard’s reversal of fortune began in 1118, when he became smitten with Heloise, the nubile niece of a Parisian priest named Fulbert. Heloise’s uncle wanted to ensure that she had an excellent education — which, in turn, made it easy for Abelard, who was acknowledged as one of the most brilliant minds in Paris, to get himself hired as her tutor. In short time, Abelard was neglecting his work expounding on the mysteries of the Holy Scriptures in favor of expounding on Heloise. Their affair soon became the scandal of Paris, a town that, even in those days, was not easily shocked.

Fulbert might not have been the sharpest quill in the scriptorium, but when his eyes were finally opened to Abelard’s trickery, he flew into a holy rage. Fulbert’s revelation wasn’t the only thing that came late, though: Heloise was pregnant. In a panic, Abelard spirited her away to his home village in Brittany, where she gave birth to their son, who would bear the unfortunate name of Astrolabe. Leaving the

Abelard’s lifestyle, understandably, changed after his castration.

child to be raised by his sister, Abelard returned to Paris to try to make amends with Fulbert. According to his memoirs, he offered to marry Heloise if the marriage could be kept secret, so he wouldn’t lose his teaching position. (Professors had to be clergy, and, thus, celibate.)

Heloise, however, wasn’t so inclined to tie the knot. Foreshadowing the concerns of modern young professionals who put their careers ahead of their personal lives, she argued that philosophy and family didn’t mix. How was her husband supposed to comment on Aristotle while she was rocking a crying baby in the same house? He was obviously a man destined to change the world — why should he give up his future on her account? Abelard, however, being a medieval man, wasn’t about to let his woman tell him what to do. He was determined to fulfill his promise to Fulbert by making an honest woman of Heloise, and the two were secretly wed.

Unfortunately, Fulbert (according to Abelard) couldn’t keep his end of the deal. Whether he had realized that the real difference between matrimony and living in sin is what the neighbors say, or whether he was deliberately trying to ruin his new relative’s career, or whether he was simply pleased at having such a luminous in-law, Fulbert was soon trumpeting news of the marriage all over Paris. There was nothing for Abelard to do but dress Heloise as a nun and send her to a convent to hide out, while he remained in Paris to try to quiet things down. What seemed to Fulbert a public spurning of his niece and a grave insult to his family proved to be the last straw — family, and family honor, always taking pre-eminence over individual happiness. One night, his men broke into the secret room in Abelard’s house where he slept and, in Abelard’s own words, ” . . .amputated from my body those parts with which I had done what they complained of.”

Abelard and Heloise’s essential dilemma remains familiar today.

Abelard’s lifestyle, understandably, changed after his castration. He gave up his teaching position and retired to the monastery of St. Denis, north of Paris, where he became a Benedictine monk. Yet he remained as argumentative as ever. The monks of St. Denis eventually kicked him out for trying to prove that their church had not, in fact, been founded by St. Denis; he went into the wilderness to found his own school, the Abbey of the Paraclete, but was called away from it to reform the monastery of St. Gildas-de-Rhuys; the monks at St. Gildas, more used to living with their concubines than according to the Benedictine Rule, tried to poison him, and he was several times put on trial for his unorthodox ideas, even being forced to burn his own works.

Abelard died in 1142 at Cluny, in the middle of a feud with the powerful abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, and was buried at the Abbey of the Paraclete. (Today, they are in the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris.) Heloise, who had become a nun at the convent of Argenteuil after Abelard’s castration and had later taken over the Paraclete when he was called to become the abbot of St Gildas (double monasteries of monks and nuns were not unknown), was buried with him in 1163. But, having tasted sexual passion, she was not always content in the convent — in her first letter, she wrote to Abelard that if she can not be his wife, she would rather be his whore than his spiritual sister. She was remembered as an able administrator and a brilliant mind, and the letters she and Abelard wrote to one another have consoled those who live in the ivory tower ever since.

Though academia today doesn’t require a vow of celibacy, Abelard and Heloise’s essential dilemma remains familiar. The ambitious who seek success through years of grad school, slaving away at low-paid jobs in high-status fields, or waiting for their big break while waiting tables, are also de facto required to eschew traditional family life. How are you supposed to record a demo with your band when it’s your turn to watch the kid, or write that Ph.D. dissertation while working to afford a home in a good school district? The result is, as Fulbert saw, immorality — or, more concretely, a lack of commitment to traditional relationships. Hip singles living in rookeries for the unmarried such as Brooklyn and the Bay Area may prize creativity and self-expression, but it’s no surprise that so many of us fall by the wayside as we age into our thirties and realize just how lonely the journey is down the road less traveled.  

©2007 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.