Background on Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard:
Nine hundred years ago, a celebrity philosopher fell in love with his star student and seduced her. Peter Abelard’s once brilliant lectures grew tepid, while his love songs placed the name of Heloise on every tongue. Passionate letters flew, and the Parisian gossip mill went into overdrive – until pregnancy, as so often, betrayed the secret. Much against Heloise’s will, Abelard insisted on marriage to soothe her enraged uncle Fulbert, and spirited their child off to his sister’s farm in Brittany. The pair married secretly at dawn, then went their separate ways. A resentful Heloise denied all rumours of the marriage, so Abelard, to protect her from Fulbert’s wrath, clothed her in a nun’s habit and hid her away at Argenteuil, the convent where she had been raised. This proved to be the last straw for Fulbert, whose hired thugs surprised Abelard in his sleep and ‘cut off the parts of [his] body whereby [he] had committed the wrong’. For want of a better option, the eunuch philosopher turned monk, while Heloise became a nun in earnest, prefacing her vows with a public lament.
The couple believed in “what philosophers call the ethics of pure intention: it is not the real or even the foreseeable consequences of an act that make it good or evil, but solely the intent of the agent”:
Since only God can discern intentions, however, that position complicates any attempt to render moral judgments. While many thinkers have adopted mitigated versions of the premise, Heloise was ruthless in its principled application. Thus she judged her exemplary religious life worthless in the eyes of God because she had done everything for Abelard’s sake, nothing for God’s. On the other hand, she held her love affair morally blameless because she had loved Abelard purely for himself, without regard to material advantage. Every inch the stylist, she shocks and thrills readers with the deliciously hyperbolic way she conveys that boast: ‘if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would seem to me dearer and more honourable to be called not his empress but your whore.’ Not mistress or girlfriend, but whore – Heloise used the coarsest Latin words she could find (meretrix, scortum) to make her point. What is more, she went on to argue that the real prostitution is marriage itself, since women enter it for property and money rather than love. Such sentiments would have been radical even in the 18th century, let alone the 12th.
(Image of 14th-century depiction of Abelard and Heloise via Wikimedia Commons)