Mount TBR 2# Forbidden Fruit: From the letters of Abelard and Heloise

I’m including this book, which I bought Many Many Moons ago as part of a Penguin ‘Great Loves’ set that was going cheap on TheBookPeople, in my Once Upon A Time Reading Challenge. Although technically not a folktale, as Abelard and Heloise did actually exist, the story of their great forbidden love affair shaped the Medieval Courtly Love tradition and influenced songs and culture across Europe for hundreds of years. To be honest, I was shocked they were French, having believed for years that this was an English love story, which shows how cultures shape each other and how little I actually know about where the stories come from.

Peter Abelard was the eldest son of a Bretton knight, who gave up his rights of inheritance to study and became one of the most respected, if controversial, philosophers of 12th century Europe. Heloise was his pupil, and later his lover. When the affair was discovered, Heloise’s uncle, Abelard’s patron, forced them to marry before sending his men to castrate Abelard in the night. The lovers separately joined religious orders, and Abelard continued to teach and publish his writings. He was accused variously of heresy and stirring up trouble within the Church, exposing corruption in the religious houses he belonged to and questioning the Holy Trinity. He was tried for blasphemy and his works were burned in front of him. Eventually he was forced to flee the religious community he had set up, asking Heloise, who was now a prioress, to run it for him. He remained on the run from authority for the rest of his life.

The letters in this abridged text are written firstly from Abelard to ‘a friend’ whilst he is on the run, describing his life’s history, the affair with Heloise and it’s aftermath, and his trials and tribulations. There then follow a series of letter between Heloise and Abelard in which she begs him for comfort and he tells her to pray for him, as he is sure to die. I read this book in a day, sitting in various pubs, and had a great time doing so, as the three pints of porter only aided my utter utter hatred of Abelard and disgust at the text; if I’d had anyone to rant with, I’d have been ranting my brains out.

Firstly; Abelard is a knob. He could be the dictionary definition for the opposite of self effacing. He repeatedly showers himself with compliments and his apparent wisdom and logic knows no bounds. He excels at everything; when an adversary points out he is arguing about a text he has not studied his answer is that it doesn’t matter, because he is so incredibly clever he doesn’t need to study everything. He reads the entire Bible in a week and is suddenly the world’s greatest Spiritual Scholar. The man is infuriating and also a massive racist, I don’t give a shit if he’s a 12th century monk.

His opening description of Heloise starts promising, she is up there on beauty but top of the league on intelligence. He likes her for her brain. This pleased me muchly until I realised that he actually likes her for her reputation, having never met the woman. He has decided that he might has well be shagging somebody and she sounds like a safe bet. PLUS he comes with an arrangement with her Uncle that he can be given sole charge of her education, including punishing her. So even if she doesn’t want him back, he can beat her into submission! Nice!

And Heloise puts up with this shit. She goes on and on and on about how unworthy she is of him, how marrying her will damage his reputation. There is one very slight girl-power moment where she argues against the chains of marriage, and that’s all well and good, but she repeatedly asks him to confirm that he loves her, rather than just lusts after her which is what everybody thinks and what he obviously does, and then continues to put up with his crap years after they’ve stopped being together! It’s like, girl, I know you’re options are limited and all that, but you’re a very very clever, powerful woman who rules your own religious community. Cut your ties and be done with it!

He writes her love songs, he makes her name famous, he ruins her reputation, and then he fucks her over for his precious career. And this is the greatest love story of the middle ages? Purlease, give me the She Wolf of France ANY day of the week!

I suppose this shows that you can’t look at something 700 years old with modern eyes without being frustrated. Is there such a thing as hindsight privilege? All I know is, if this is the great love we’re all supposed to aspire to, I’ll stick to being single thanks!

Purchased: The Book People, at some point in 2009.


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