Love and Passion in the Christian World: Peter Abélard

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When Abélard met Héloise, more or less in 1117, he was at the summit of his career as both a philosopher and a teacher. He recalls, in his Historia calamitatum, that it was at this point in his life, that the seeds of his downfall were planted, and that, through the pleasures of the flesh.

Abélard’s Attitude:

Abélard believed very highly of himself. He claimed that he was young and very good looking, and because of his reputation and learning, the seduction of the young Héloise would be for him, a very easy success.

The initial stages of his seduction were very calculated. Abélard, through friends of her uncle Fulbert, convinced him to enter his home and become her private tutor. Fulbert, in his desire to increase her training, agreed to this arrangement and further added the full charge of his niece to Abélard; his goal had been fulfilled.

Evolving Passion and Growing Compassion:

Regardless of Abélard’s initial intention, soon after having seduced her, he had become completely involved. The desire he felt for the young woman had begun to overwhelm him; he was neglecting his studies, his students and his philosophy. The passion he was feeling towards her grew to a point that he decided to remove her from her uncle’s abode.

Although this decision seemed, at first, to be a good option for the two, it would, fatefully, prove to be catastrophic. Abélard moved her to the nunnery where she grew up in Argenteuil. The location was near enough to Paris that he could visit her, which he did, frequently, and still remain at his cathedral school.

It was in Argenteuil that, as he informs the reader in his Fourth letter to Héloise, the profanity and sinful lust he felt for her overwhelmed him to the point he blasphemed the Lord and His Holy Mother. He reminisces, painfully, those events:

“After our marriage, when you were living in the cloister with the nuns at Argenteuil and I came one day to visit you privately, you know what my uncontrollable desire did with you there, actually in a corner of the refectory, since we had nowhere else to go.”

Although, as alluded to in his letter, they had by then been married, the shameful act of fornication in the cloister was, in his mind, a deed too great. It shows, however, the passion that he felt, and also a very erotic and kinky attitude, one that is furthered in the next few lines:

“What wound do you suppose would satisfy God’s justice for the profanation such as I described of a place so sacred to his own Mother?”

And further:

“You know the depths of shame to which my unbridled lust had consigned our bodies, until no reverence for decency or for God even during the days of Our Lord’s Passion, or of the greater sacraments could keep me from wallowing in this mire.”

The act of profanation described was the sexual encounter in the church of the Holy Mother. The other blasphemy was the intercourse between the two during the Holy days, which even married lay folk were forbidden from undertaking.

The lines above demonstrate a man full of passion, erotic desire and, when examined more closely, growing affection and love. Abélard stated above that the two had married before he moved her to Argenteuil. This is significant.

By his marriage to Héloise, Abélard seemed willing to sacrifice any future career he had planned. It is important to note that for an educated man, during this period of history, there was no career outside that of the Church. Hence, his marriage would have acted as an impediment to any future goals he had. This demonstrates more than just lust or passion, this shows compassion and devotion.

The Bittersweet End to the Relationship:

All seemed well for the couple. Then, as Abélard stated, divine justice was pronounced against the pair in the form of Fulbert, Héloise’s uncle. Once Fulbert was made aware of the couple’s relationship, his fury was released. During a certain evening, while Abélard lay in his bed, Fulbert and some of his men entered the room of the former and proceeded to castrate him. It was a wound that Abélard would lament his remaining life.

From that moment, the relationship changed. It is difficult to understand the complexities; however, a clear shift from passion and desire is noticed in the letters. Abélard mentioned in his Historia, the shame he felt at being castrated. It was, he claimed, an act of God, a retribution for the sinful behaviour of the pair.

The tone of his letters to Héloise became far more direct, no illusion to love, their relationship or their past deeds; not even their son was mentioned. Abélard pleaded in a letter to Héloise to cease her romantic feelings. He could no longer tolerate such behaviour; all he could offer to her was guidance and wisdom. He argued, hopefully, that only the love of Christ could redeem them.

Although it may seem that Abélard had become cold towards her, or that the loss of his libido proves that his only interest was sexual, a deeper reading of his letters reveals another aspect. Abélard was both a devout Christian and a Stoic, philosophically. He blamed himself, entirely, for the issue of his life. His lament is personal. He thanked God for showing mercy and forgiveness. He felt he let himself and his God down through his actions.

Having felt such passion, such love and adoration, clearly left a mark on Abélard. He states in a letter the pain that he feels on a daily basis. The pain was not that caused to his body nor to his pride and ego, but to his very soul. He writes as clear as day:

“Surely, unless I am much mistaken, not that wound which was wholly beneficial was intended as a punishment for this, but rather the daily unending torment I now endure.”

Gutted from having lost his precious Héloise, we are left with an image of man tormented psychologically and spiritually. Such was love and passion in the Christian World.