From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Volume I, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 13-19.
ABÉLARD, PIERRE, a noted French scholastic philosopher, teacher, and theologian; born near Nantes, 1079; died April 21, 1142. Lecturing on theology, he attracted students from all parts of Europe. Several of his disciples afterward became famous; for example, Pope Celestin II., Peter Lombard, Berengarius, and Arnold of Brescia. The story of his romantic and tragic love for Héloïise is told in his “Story of My Misfortunes:” in her first “Letter” to him on receipt of the “Story;” and in two “Letters” from her that followed. The poets have taken the loves of this unfortunate pair as the theme of their elegies in every age since the death of the lovers.
A LETTER of yours sent to a friend, best beloved, to console him in affliction, was lately, almost by a chance, put into my hands. Seeing the superscription, guess how eagerly I seized it! I had lost the reality; I hoped to draw some comfort from this faint image of you. But alas! — for I well remember — every line was written with gall and wormwood.
How you retold our sorrowful history, and dwelt on your incessant afflictions! Well did you fulfill that promise to your friend, that, in comparison with your own, his misfortunes should seem but as trifles. You recalled the persecutions of your masters, the cruelty of my uncle, and the fierce hostility of your fellow-pupils, Albericus of Rheims, and Lotulphus of Lombardy — how through their plottings that glorious book your Theology was burned, and you confined and disgraced — you went on to the machinations of the Abbot of St. Denys and of your false brethren of the convent, and the calumnies of those wretches, Norbert and Bernard, who envy and hate you. It was even, you say, imputed to you as an offense to have given the name of Paraclete, contrary to the common practice, to the Oratory you had founded.14
The persecutions of that cruel tyrant of St. Gildas, and of those execrable monks, — monks out of greed only, whom notwithstanding you call your children, — which still harass you, close the miserable history. Nobody could read or hear these things and not be moved to tears. What then must they mean to me?
We all despair of your life, and our trembling hearts dread to hear the tidings of your murder. For Christ’s sake, who has thus far protected you, — write to us, as to His handmaids and yours, every circumstance of your present dangers. I and my sisters alone remain of all who were your friends. Let us be sharers of your joys and sorrows. Sympathy brings some relief, and a load laid on many shoulders is lighter. And write the more surely, if your letters may be messengers of joy. Whatever message they bring, at least they will show that you remember us. You can write to comfort your friend: while you soothe his wounds, you inflame mine. Heal, I pray you, those you yourself have made, you who bustle about to cure those for which you are not responsible. You cultivate a vineyard you did not plant, which grows nothing. Give heed to what you owe your own. You who spend so much on the obstinate, consider what you owe the obedient. You who lavish pains on your enemies, reflect on what you owe your daughters. And, counting nothing else, think how you are bound to me! What you owe to all devoted women, pay to he who is most devoted.
You know better than I how many treatises the holy fathers of the Church have written for our instruction; how they have labored to inform, to advise, and to console us. Is my ignorance to suggest knowledge to the learned Abélard? Long ago, indeed, your neglect astonished me. Neither religion, nor love of me, nor the example of the holy fathers, moved you to try to fix my struggling soul. Never, even when long grief had worn me down, did you come to see me, or send me one line of comfort, — me, to whom you were bound by marriage, and who clasp you about with a measureless love! And for the sake of this love have I no right to even a thought of yours?
You well know, dearest, how much I lost in losing you, and that the manner of it put me to double torture. You only can comfort me. By you I was wounded, and by you I must be healed. And it is only you on whom the debt rests. I have obeyed the last tittle of your commands; and if you bade me, I would sacrifice my soul.15
To please you my love gave up the only thing in the universe it valued — the hope of your presence — and that forever. The instant I received your commands I quitted the habit of the world, and denied all the wishes of my nature. I meant to give up, for your sake, whatever I had once a right to call my own.
God knows it was always you, and you only that I thought of. I looked for no dowry, no alliance of marriage. And if the name of wife is holier and more exalted, the name of friend always remained sweeter to me, or if you would not be angry, a meaner title; since the more I gave up, the less should I injure your present renown, and the more deserve your love.
Nor had you yourself forgotten this in that letter which I recall. You are ready enough to set forth some of the reasons which I used to you, to persuade you not to fetter your freedom, but you pass over most of the pleas I made to withhold you from our ill-fated wedlock. I call God to witness that if Augustus, ruler of the world, should think me worthy the honor marriage, and settle the whole globe on me to rule forever, it would seem dearer and prouder to me to called your mistress than his empress.
Not because a man is rich or powerful is he better: riches and power may come from luck, constancy is from virtue. I hold that woman base who weds a rich man rather than a poor one, and takes a husband for her own gain. Whoever marries with such a motive — why, she will follow his prosperity rather than the man, and be willing to sell herself to a richer suitor.
That happiness which others imagine, best beloved, I experienced. Other women might think their husbands perfect, and be happy in the idea, but I knew that you were so and the universe knew the same. What philosopher, what king, could rival your fame? What village, city, kingdom, was not on fire to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not run to behold you? Wives and maidens alike recognized your beauty and grace. Queens envied Héloïse her Abélard.
Two gifts you had to lead captive the proudest soul, your voice that made all your teaching a delight, and your singing, which was like no other. Do you forget those tender songs you wrote for me, which all the world caught up and sang, — but not like you, — those songs that kept your name ever floating in the air, and made me known through many lands, the envy and the scorn of women?16
What gifts of mind, what gifts of person glorified you! Oh, my loss! Who would change places with me now!
And you know, Abélard, that though I am the great cause of your misfortune, I am most innocent. For a consequence is no part of a crime. Justice weighs not the thing done, but the intention. And how pure was my intention toward you, you alone can judge. Judge me! I will submit.
But how happens it, tell me, that since my profession of the life which you alone determined, I have been so neglected and so forgotten that you will neither see me nor write to me? Make me understand it, if you can, or I must tell you what everybody says: that it was not a pure love like mine that held your heart, and that your coarser feeling vanished with absence and ill-report. Would that to me alone this seemed so, best beloved, and not all the world! Would that I could hear others excuse you, or devise excuses myself!
The things I ask ought to seem very small and easy to you. While I starve for you, do, now and then, by words, bring back your presence to me! How can you be generous in deeds if you are so avaricious in words? I have done everything for your sake. It was not religion that dragged me, a young girl, so fond of life, so ardent, to the harshness of the convent, but only your command. If I deserve nothing from you, how vain is my labor! God will not recompense me, for whose love I have done nothing.
When you resolved to take the vows, I followed, — rather, I ran before. You had the image of Lot’s wife before your eyes; you feared I might look back, and therefore you deeded me to God by the sacred vestments and irrevocable vows before you took them yourself. For this, I own, I grieved, bitterly ashamed that I could depend on you so little, when I would lead or follow you straight to perdition. For my soul is always with you and no longer mine own. And if it is not with you in these last wretched years, it is nowhere. Do receive it kindly. Oh, if only you had returned favor for favor, even a little for the much, words for things! Would, beloved, that your affection would not take my tenderness and obedience always for granted; that it might be more anxious! But just because I have poured out all I have and am, you give me nothing. Remember, oh, remember how much you owe!
There was a time when people doubted whether I had given you all my heart, asking nothing. But the end shows how I began. 17 I have denied myself a life which promised at least peace and work in the world, only to obey your hard exactions. I have kept back nothing for myself, except the comfort of pleasing you. How hard and cruel are you then, when I ask so little and that little is so easy for you to give!
In the name of God, to whom you are dedicate, send me some lines of consolation. Help me to learn obedience! When you wooed me because earthly love was beautiful, you sent me letter after letter. With your divine singing every street and house echoed my name! How much more ought you now to persuade to God her whom then you turned from Him! Heed what I ask; think what you owe. I have written a long letter, but the ending shall be short. Farewell, darling!
To Héloïse, his best beloved Sister in Christ,
Abélard, her Brother in Him:
IF since we resigned the world I have not written to you, it was because of the high opinion I have ever entertained of your wisdom and prudence. How could I think that she stood in need of help on whom Heaven had showered its best gifts? You were able, I knew, by example as by word, to instruct the ignorant, to comfort the timid, to kindle the lukewarm.
When prioress of Argenteuil, you practiced all these duties; and if you give the same attention to your daughters that you then gave to your sisters, it is enough. All my exhortations would be needless. But if, in your humility, you think otherwise, and if my words can avail you anything, tell me on what subjects you would have me write, and as God shall direct me I will instruct you. I thank God that the constant dangers to which I am exposed rouse your sympathies. Thus may I hope, under the divine protection of your prayers, to see Satan bruised under my feet.
Therefore I hasten to send you the form of prayer you beseech of me — you, my sister, once dear to me in the world, but now far dearer in Christ. Offer to God a constant sacrifice of prayer. Urge him to pardon our great and manifold sins, and to avert the dangers which threaten me. We know how powerful before God and his saints are the prayers of the faithful, but 18 chiefly of faithful women for their friends, and of wives for their husbands. The Apostle admonishes us to pray without ceasing. . . But I will not insist on the supplications of your sisterhood, day and night devoted to the service of their Maker; to you only do I turn. I well know how powerful your intercession may be, I pray you, exert it in this my need. In your prayers, then, ever remember who, in a special sense, is yours. Urge your entreaties, for it is just that you should be heard. An equitable judge cannot refuse it.
In former days, you remember, best beloved, how fervently you recommended me to the care of Providence. Often in the day you uttered a special petition. Removed now from the Paraclete, and surrounded by perils how much greater my need! Convince me of the sincerity of your regard, I entreat you, I implore you.
[The Prayer:] “O God, who by Thy servant didst here assemble Thy handmaids in Thy Holy Name, grant, we beseech Thee, that he be protected from all adversity, and be returned safe to us, Thy handmaids.”
If Heaven permit my enemies to destroy me, or if I perish by accident, see that my body is conveyed to the Paraclete. There, my daughters, or rather my sisters in Christ, seeing my tomb, will not cease to implore Heaven for me. No resting-places is so safe, for the grieving soul, forsaken in the wilderness of its sins, none so full of hope as that which is dedicated to the Paraclete — that is, the Comforter.
Where could a Christian find a more peaceful grave than in the society of holy women, consecrated by God? They, as the Gospel tells us, would not leave their divine Master; they embalmed His body with precious spices; they followed Him to the tomb, and there they held their vigil. In return, it was to them that the angel of the resurrection appeared for their consolation.
Finally, let me entreat you that the solicitude you now too strongly feel for my life you will extend to the repose of my soul. Carry into my grave the love you showed me when alive; that is, never forget to pray Heaven for me.
Long life, farewell! Long life, farewell, to your sisters also! Remember me, but let it be in Christ!
(Translation of Dr. Samuel W. Duffield.)
OH, what shall be, oh, when shall be that holy Sabbath day,
Which heavenly care shall ever keep and celebrate alway,
When rest is found for weary limbs, when labor hath reward,
When everything forevermore is joyful in the Lord?
The true Jerusalem above, the holy town, is there,
Whose duties are so full of joy, whose joy so free from care;
Where disappointment cometh not to check the longing heart,
And where the heart, in ecstasy, hath gained her better part.
O glorious King, O happy state, O palace of the blest!
O sacred place and holy joy, and perfect, heavenly rest!
To thee aspire thy citizens in glory’s bright array,
And what they fell and what they know they strive in vain to say.
For while we wait and long for home, it shall be ours to raise
Our songs and chants and vows and prayers in that dear country’s
And from these Babylonian streams to lift our weary eyes,
And view that city that we love descending from the skies.
There, there, secure from every ill, in freedom we shall sing
The songs of Zion, hindered here by days of suffering,
And unto Thee, our gracious Lord, our praises shall confess
That all our sorrow hath been good, and Thou by pain canst bless.
There Sabbath day to Sabbath day sheds on a ceaseless light,
Eternal pleasure of the saints who keep that Sabbath bright;
Nor shall the chant ineffable decline, nor ever cease.
Which we with all the angels sing in that sweet realm of peace.
* For More on Abelard and Heloise, see the expanded version of this article in the companion series here.
For a longer essay on Heloise see Henry Osborn Taylor’s chapter from The Mediaeval Mind here.