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00.01.06, Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard

00.01.06, Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard

Ewald Könsgen's edition of the twelfth-century Latin text he titled Epistolae duorum amantium: Briefe Abaelards und Heloises? (Leiden: Brill, 1974), could not have appeared at a worse time. Scholars had been debating the authenticity of Abelard's famous exchange with Heloise for almost a century, but that controversy, after remaining at a simmer for decades, had just reached the boiling point. At a conference at Cluny in 1972, John Benton had proposed that the entire correspondence was forged in the late thirteenth century to influence a disputed election at the Paraclete. In the same year, D. W. Robertson argued in Abelard and Heloise (New York: Dial Press, 1972) that the real forger was Abelard, who created the literary fiction of Heloise's letters as part of an exemplary treatise on conversion. Peter von Moos published his skeptical Mittelalterforschung und Ideologiekritik: Der Gelehrtenstreit um Heloise (Munich: Fink, 1974) in the same year as Könsgen's edition, deflecting attention away from the contested letters to the ideological stakes of the argument. Other influential medievalists, from Georg Misch to Georges Duby to Paul Zumthor, likewise aligned themselves with the skeptics.

In such a climate, no scholar could have been expected to stake his credibility on the anonymous love letters discovered by Könsgen in a late 15th-century manuscript from Clairvaux. Könsgen himself, after all, appended a question mark to his title, arguing only that the letters must have been composed in the Ile-de-France in the early twelfth century by two people "like" Abelard and Heloise. Even Peter Dronke, the staunchest defender of Heloise's writing, did not want to connect the famous lovers with this newly edited correspondence. Such an ascription would have seemed literally too good--or too self- interested--to be true. So Könsgen's edition attracted little notice and vanished without a ripple.

A generation later, the tables have turned and the majority of scholars now accept the established letters as authentic, thanks to Dronke's efforts as well as the broader transformations wrought by feminist scholarship. Thus the time is ripe at last for a thorough, sympathetic appraisal of the Epistolae duorum amantium. In The Lost Love Letters, Constant Mews provides such an appraisal and goes a step further than Könsgen, demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the authors of these letters were indeed Heloise and Abelard. Mews argues on both textual and contextual grounds, providing evidence that: (1) learned women did exchange Latin poems and letters with their male admirers in the early twelfth century; (2) the fragmentary narrative that emerges from the recently discovered letters is consistent in all particulars with what we know of Abelard and Heloise; and (3) most important, the philosophical vocabulary, literary style, classical allusions, and contrasting positions on love apparent in Könsgen's letters are so thoroughly consistent with the known writings of Heloise and Abelard that the supposition of their authorship is simpler than any alternative hypothesis. Mews supplies six chapters of stylistic and historical analysis, followed by a reprint of Könsgen's edition with a facing-page translation of the letters.

It is no small irony that this correspondence should have been preserved at Clairvaux, the home of Abelard's nemesis, even if St. Bernard eventually came to be on cordial terms with Heloise. No one knows how the twelfth-century letters originally reached Clairvaux. But the sole extant copy (now Troyes, Bibl. mun. MS 1452) is signed and dated: it was produced circa 1471 by Johannes de Vepria, a young humanist monk who was compiling an anthology of model letters from Christian antiquity to the present. This scribe gave the letters their manuscript title, Ex epistolis duorum amantium; we do not know whether he was unaware of their authorship or deliberately suppressed it. In any case, the monk's primary interest seems to have been stylistic, and for this reason he copied only excerpts from the letters--some lengthy, others confined to their remarkable salutations and closings. Scribal punctuation, honest but maddening, indicates Johannes de Vepria's ellipses. Thus we know that the lovers quarreled from time to time, but not why; we know that the "envious" tried to separate them, but not how; and if they ever named any names--other than the likes of Ovid and Cicero--these elude us still. In short, the Troyes manuscript contributes no previously unknown facts to our knowledge of Abelard and Heloise's affair, if they are indeed its authors. On the other hand, the 113 letters and fragments are rich in affective nuance, probing reflections on the nature of love and friendship, and supremely eloquent Latin.

Könsgen initially connected these letters with Heloise and Abelard because of certain striking parallels in the lovers' situation. In letter 49, the woman praises her beloved as a great and celebrated teacher: "a teacher of virtue, a teacher of character, to whom French pigheadedness (francigena cervicositas) rightly yields and for whom at the same time the haughtiness of the whole world rises in respect" (p. 229). The specificity of francigena is important because Abelard, then teaching in Paris, was not French but Breton. In response, the teacher addresses his student and lover as "the only disciple of philosophy among all the young women of our age, the only one on whom fortune has completely bestowed all the gifts of the manifold virtues" (no. 50, p. 231). Equally notable is one of the woman's poems, in which she attests the supreme value of love with the boast that "if I could have all that Caesar ever owned, / Such wealth would be of no use to me. / I will never have joys except those given by you" (no. 82, p. 261). This proud claim recalls Heloise's assertion that even if the emperor of the world proposed marriage to her, she would rather be called Abelard's whore than Caesar's empress.

Of the two lovers, the woman's style is the more humanistic and polished. She writes in artistic rhymed prose, interspersed with leonine and elegiac verse; her syntax is studied and ornate, and her letters replete with biblical allusions, as well as reminiscences of Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Jerome, and Boethius, along with lesser-known authors like Persius and contemporary writers such as Marbod of Rennes and Baudri of Bourgueil. Her vocabulary is recherché, favoring rare words and neologisms: cervicositas (no. 49), superciliositas (no. 49), vinculamen (no. 55), scienciola (no. 62), nimietas (n. 79), inepotabilis (no. 86), scibilitas (no. 53, a philosophical term developed by Abelard and used in his epitaph). All these are well-established and distinctive features of Heloise's style. Her literary reputation in her own day, which was considerable, is mentioned by several writers: William Godel, Peter the Venerable, and Abelard himself in the Historia calamitatum. Another contemporary, Hugh Metel, praised the abbess's style especially for her knack of "making known words new" (nota verba novando) and generating unexpected phrases (nova junctura). Like Heloise, too, both the woman and the man in the Troyes letters are fond of referring to their love as "unique," "singular," or "special," playing on the philosophical connotations acquired by those terms in the debate over universals.

One of the most celebrated features of Abelard and Heloise's monastic correspondence is the stylized, densely significant exchange of views conveyed by their greetings. The salutations in the Troyes letters are similarly artful, supple, and inventively responsive to one another. Consider the following:

Woman: "Amori suo precordiali omnibus aromatibus dulcius redolenti, corde et corpore sua: arescentibus floribus tue juventutis, viriditatem eterne felicitatis." (no. 1)

Man: "De die in diem dulciori et nunc quam maxime dilecte et semper super omnia diligende, singularis eius . . . " (no. 4)

Woman: "Hucusque dilecto semperque diligendo: tota sua re et affectu . . . " (no. 7)

Woman: "Par pari, rubenti rose sub immarcido liliorum candore: quidquid amans amanti." (no. 18)

Man: "Lilio suo, non illi lilio quod marcescit, sed quod odorem mutare nescit, cor eius: quantum tota vi corporis et animi valet." (no. 43)

Woman: "Amans amanti: amoris viriditatem." (no. 48)

Beyond purely rhetorical similarities, the woman of the Troyes letters simply sounds like Heloise and like no other medieval Latin writer known to us. Her letters display the distinctively Heloisan idea of love, fusing intense passion (amor) with the Ciceronian ideal of pure, disinterested friendship ( amicitia) and the Christian, indeed Cistercian, concept of a spiritual love based on free will and ethical choice ( dilectio). Mews points out that, although both lovers speak frequently of amor, the woman uses dilectio, as well as affectus and amicitia, far more often than the man. While he repents at one point for having "compelled [her] to sin" (no. 59) and often appears torn between love and shame, she acknowledges no conflict whatsoever between the love of God and the love of her teacher. In fact, she not only calls on God to witness her sincerity, but uses the most fervent biblical and mystical language to protest the depth of her love: "tu solus michi placebas supra omnem dei creaturam, teque solum dilexi, diligendo quesivi, querendo inveni, inveniendo amavi, amando optavi, optando omnibus in corde meo preposui, teque solum elegi ex milibus, ut facerem tecum pignus" (no. 84). There is no hint of irony, no playful flirtation with sacrilege in this: the woman is in deadly earnest. Amid her pledges of unswerving devotion, she (like Heloise) expresses a sense of love's duties as inexhaustible debt (no. 25); she presents herself, again like Heloise, in the guise of an Ovidian heroine (no. 45); and she is not infrequently angry. In response to one accusatory missive, her penitent lover writes, "Vale martyr mea" (no. 96).

Though I have emphasized the affinities between Heloise and the female lover, Mews devotes at least as much space to echoes of Abelard's philosophical ideas in the man's letters. In one important respect, the Troyes letters not only confirm but also problematize the account given by Abelard in the Historia calamitatum. Heloise as abbess of the Paraclete still gloried in remembering the love songs Abelard used to write for her, some of which we can now read. In the Historia, however, he recalled both those songs and the affair itself as shameful aberrations from his formerly chaste life as a philosopher. Thus writers who carelessly designate their monastic correspondence as "love letters" err, for only Heloise's first two letters can be described as such. His convey remorse and spiritual exhortation, not passion or erotic nostalgia. From the Troyes letters, however, we learn that Abelard at the time of his affair with Heloise was not the cold-blooded seducer he later made himself out to be, but a literary lover just as intensely (though less idealistically) committed to the relationship. On Mews's reading, Abelard as autobiographer, like Augustine before him, exaggerated his past sins of unchastity to show how far he had distanced himself from them.

Lengthy as this review has become, I have still not done justice to the richness of Mews's argument. In closing, however, I must dissent from his interpretation of one especially puzzling feature in the Troyes letters. Johannes de Vepria's manuscript ends very strangely. Letter 112, from the woman, begins with a surprising formality and addresses her correspondent for the first time not as lover, but as teacher: "Magistro suo nobilissimo atque doctissimo: salutem in eo qui est salus et benedictio." She goes on to express her pleasure and astonishment at receiving a letter (evidently in verse) from her revered teacher, naming him uncharacteristically as "your nobility" and herself as "my insignificance." This letter, heavily abridged by the scribe, is followed by a fragment (no. 112a) in which the woman briefly reproaches her lover for "taking sweet things as burdensome" (p. 287). Finally, letter 113 is a poem in elegiacs by the man, strongly Ovidian in substance and style, with the incipit, "Urget amor sua castra sequi, sua jura vereri." In a rather conventional way, the lover asserts that his beloved is more beautiful than the goddesses and expresses a fervent, impatient desire for her.

Given that these two letters appear at the end of the manuscript, Mews interprets them as representing the breakdown of the relationship. In the deleted portions of no. 112, he speculates, Heloise imparted the joyful news of her pregnancy; but Abelard, as we know from the Historia, took it badly. Thus "in his final poem (113), Abelard falls back on a traditional view of amor as an insane passion provoked by fascination with external beauty" (p. 147). If these were indeed the final letters in the exchange, it would be difficult to avoid such a reading. It seems more likely, however, that there was some defect in Johannes de Vepria's exemplar. I suggest that, after he had finished copying the bulk of the correspondence, he came upon a loose or misbound leaf that contained not the last, but the first two letters exchanged by the couple. Thus Abelard's lyric (no. 113) is no backhanded attempt to distance himself from his pregnant lover; rather, it is the Ovidian seduction poem he wrote in his first attempt to win her--just as he recalled in the Historia calamitatum. Letter 112 would be her initial response, jubilant but formal, in which she naturally addresses him as her teacher because he had not yet become her lover. The fragment 112a clearly belongs to a later stage of the correspondence, attesting to some confusion in the manuscript at this point. This reading deprives us of the closure Mews seeks to demonstrate in the Troyes manuscript, but it makes far better sense of the last two letters.

By restoring this magnificent literary dialogue to its rightful place in Latin letters, Mews has performed a signal service not only for scholars of Abelard and Heloise, but for all who love literature. The translation, by Neville Chiavaroli in collaboration with Mews, is more than adequate--yet no English can convey the shimmering beauty, intensity, and intellectual excitement of the original letters. Let us hope they will inspire a new generation of students to pore over their grammar books, for as the peerless Heloise wrote, "Ubi est amor et dilectio, ibi semper fervet exercicium" (no. 112a).