Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Helöise: Scholar, Writer, Abbess, Administrator

Helöise of Argenteuil, abbess of the Paraclete (died 16 May 1164)


Helöise's name is most often paired with that of Peter Abelard, the entirety of her life thus reduced to that connection. And while their story is certainly unforgettable, I'll focus more in this post on Helöise herself.

The pairing of Abelard and Helöise
began early, as this fourteenth-century
manuscript picture of the two illustrates
First, the story of their "love tragedy": Helöise is a beautiful young girl, a promising scholar whose her uncle provides her with a tutor, the theologian and scholar Abelard. They begin a sexual relationship, and Helöise becomes pregnant. Abelard sends her to his sister in Brittany, where she gives birth to a son.

Meanwhile, Heloise's uncle Fulbert, an influential canon in Paris, pressures Abelard to marry his niece, and Abelard agrees, though to maintain his prospects for career advancement in the church, he stipulates that the marriage must remain a secret.

Helöise returns to Paris, and she and Abelard do marry secretly. In order to protect her reputation, Abelard returns Helöise to the Benedictine convent of Argenteuil, where she had spent the first years of her life.

Convinced that Abelard is abandoning Helöise, Fulbert and his followers ambush Abelard and punish him by castrating him. Shamed and humiliated, Abelard becomes a monk and then insists that Helöise, now separated from him, follow him into the religious life and become a nun. She eventually becomes the prioress of the convent of Argenteuil; later, she and her nuns move to the Oratory of the Paraclete, far from Paris, in Champagne.

For centuries, the story of this doomed relationship was the single most significant thing about Helöise, and it is an amazing story. But there is a great deal more to be said about her.

She was born at some time between 1090 and 1100; there is much heated debate about her age, with the later date, suggesting that Helöise was a young girl when she met the much older Abelard, seeming preferable because it makes for a better (?) love story. But the earlier date corresponds more closely with the evidence of those who corresponded with Helöise, making her a more equal partner to Abelard when their relationship began.

While the date of her birth is thus uncertain, her parentage and social status are equally unknown. What is clear about her childhood is that she had been raised and educated by the Benedictine nuns of Argenteuil before she joined her "uncle" Fulbert in Paris (I've used the quotation marks here because some suggest that he may have been her father). 

By all accounts (and there is contemporary testimony) she was a gifted and accomplished scholar, one who studied Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, rhetoric, and theology. Her accomplishments were many even before Abelard became her tutor--he writes that she is was already described as nominatissima, "most renowned," before he met her. While the first of the letters she would later exchange with Abelard seems to relay the real intensity of her passionate attachment to him, her despair, and her longing, her letters ultimately move away from that emotional content to wide-ranging philosophical, doctrinal, and administrative exchange. Her letters establish her as a thoughtful, independent thinker and reveal her as an inventive, sophisticated stylist--Barbara Newman regards her as "one of the supreme stylists of the Golden Age of medieval Latin."

(I've taught Helöise's letters, the first of which is, she writes, triggered by her reading of Abelard's account of their relationship in his Historia calamitatum [History of My Calamities]--while students clearly see that Abelard's story is a literary construct, the "Abelard" of his account a created narrator, they tend to read Helöise's letters as a naive outpouring of emotion, a reading that needs to be carefully reconsidered. Her letters are as subtly crafted as Abelard's, with many scholars reading them as modeled on Ovid's Epistolae Heroidum [Letters from Heroines].)

It is important to note that Helöise spent more than twelve years in the convent of Argenteuil after her separation from Abelard before she began her correspondence with him--twelve years where she struggled with her confinement as a nun, but where she grew into her role as the institution's prioress. Once the "personal" letters have been exchanged, Helöise's letters change their focus. From her years at Argenteuil, she has come to realize that the Benedictine monastic rule needs to be reconsidered in order to accommodate the physical and spiritual needs of communities of women. In her role as prioress at the convent of Argenteuil, she seeks a rule from Abelard; their exchange on the way of life for the nuns is called the "Letters of Direction." She also poses a series of forty-two questions about the interpretation of Scriptural passages, the "Problems," with this letter written after the community had been relocated to the Paraclete. 

Beyond the exchange of letters with Abelard, Helöise's correspondents include a number of important church figures survive, including Peter the Venerable and five (!) popes. 

Helöise lived for more than twenty years after Abelard's death, as abbess of the Paraclete; under her direction, six daughter houses were established. While her relationship with Abelard may have gained her a measure of fame, it should not be our only reason for remembering the accomplished, creative, and dedicated Helöise.

For an engaging introduction to both Abelard and Helöise, you might enjoy the BBC In Our Time podcast which features several eminent medieval scholars. There are many readily available editions of the letters, but I recommend the Penguin edition that includes much new biographical information and newly discovered texts. Her letters are available online at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters; you can access them by clicking here.

If you would like to read further, I suggest Constance Mews's The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France and Bonnie Wheeler's collection of critical essays, Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman.

Abelard was buried at the Paraclete. The site of Helöise's burial is not known. Now there is a very popular tomb at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where their remains were "reburied" in 1817 by Josephine Bonaparte.