Monday, May 7, 2018

On Abelard and Heloïse

James Carroll's 2018 novel The Cloister retells the story of Abelard and Heloïse as seen by a fictional Jewish scholar who died in the Holocaust. This article focuses only on the fictionalized retelling of the 12th-century history and not of the 20th-century story. The newer part of the story picks up on Abelard's defense of Jews that was rejected by Catholic hierarchy and resumes with an imagined 20th-century Jewish scholar's attempt to revive it, receiving similar pushback from Catholic academics, resulting in scholarly eradication.

"Only eunuchs would think they [romance and theology] are unrelated."

Peter Abelard was the son of a knight. As a teenager, he was expected to fight in Baldwin's army in Pope Urban’s war for Jerusalem, but instead he became a tonsured monk. He maintained an unpopular position: that Jews do not go to hell. This made him foes with the White Monk, Bernard of Clairvaux. What he is more famous for, however, is falling in love with his pupil Heloïse, which came to light because Heloïse became pregnant.

In the novel, Heloïse says she fears that the baby will be deformed as a punishment. “If the child is whole," she warns, "the Church will seize him as its slave. Filius nullius. The son of one tonsured is the ‘son of no one.’ He will be a thrall, and you’ve seen even here how such poor bastards are treated.” In this novel, Canon Fulbert often takes his personal thrall to bed "for the fondling he was taught to perform as a very young boy," and this unfortunate servant is the one who will exact punishment on Abelard:

“Of the several figures closing on him, one carried himself in a familiar stoop — Fulbert’s thrall. Peter Abelard’s half-aware mind failed to register the intruders as his mortal enemies until too late, when they had pinned his arms and legs to the frame of the pallet. He never saw the blade with which, in one cut, his penis and scrotum were severed from his body. The pain was as brief as it was intense, because he lost consciousness. With blood rushing out of the gash between his legs, he began to die.”

He survived. Thus, his famous letters to Heloïse. Heloïse, too, was forced to become a nun, eventually being elected Prioress. The letters were sent in Latin. (They likely spoke Old French.) In the novel, a character explains: “These letters show a great contest between two people, but also a contest of the two people against the whole rest of their age. They are humanists. The first humanists. But also mystics. The two things feed each other.”

Theobald, a former student of Abelard and heir to the House of Blois, saw Abelard carried to the physician after his injury. Theobald would, later, be in a position to offer asylum to Abelard. Years later, Abelard admitted, “I wear underwear, needing it," unlike women, "more than once a month," for his incontinence.

Though Heloïse was separated from Abelard and out of contact with him for years, she never fell out of love with him. When she finally saw him again, many years later...

"The door frame made him stoop. She had always imagined seeing him at this moment as if he were young, his expression glad with the fervor of their just-finished play. But his mouth was unhappily clenched, his skin was blotched, and the dust of an unforgiving conscience, like an unkind wind upon the sea, shuddered across the pool of his eyes. ... His brow was lined, and the dark stain of weariness made hollows of his eye sockets. Time had touched him roughly."

Because of his castration, Abelard could no longer see himself as belonging affectionately to Heloïse. He told her it was "God’s just punishment. I was torn asunder so that our marriage would be torn. Our marriage was false. It was a sin." Heloïse said she disagrees.

”Peter turned his face to the wall. ‘But, living, I am punished in the offending part. I am disqualified now from being yours, a fate that is meet and just.’

’The only fate meet and just is what befell my villain uncle’s henchmen.’

’Ah, so now my own lads have joined in the evil. Eye for eye, blade for blade. Manhood for manhood.’


"Peter was speaking out of an abyss of despair. 'Have you troubled to take notice of my condition? I am a eunuch now.'

'Not to me! Never to me!'"

Then he says, “You should have let me die,” and faced the wall.

Heloïse was only attentive to his castration in the symbolic sense as it applied to the intellect. When Abelard said, “I am accused of preferring thought to faith — and of that I am guilty. I presume to contradict the great Anselm, who has become holy writ. But I must do it from afar,” Heloïse was disappointed with his timidity, thinking, “The great man of her youth — still emasculated?”

At age 61, he was excommunicated as a heretic by Pope Innocent II. He took refuge in Cluny and died within the year of illness.


James Carroll. The Cloister. Nan A. Talese, March 6, 2018.

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