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17.02.07, Newman, ed., trans., Making Love in the Twelfth Century

17.02.07, Newman, ed., trans., Making Love in the Twelfth Century

Love is never easy to talk about, whether in the present or in the past. Love letters from the medieval period are particularly difficult because they present such major questions of interpretation and authenticity. This is very much the case with a collection of one hundred and thirteen messages in prose and verse (more, depending on how one breaks them up), preserved in a manuscript copied around 1471 by Johannes de Vepria, then librarian at the abbey of Clairvaux. These epistolary fragments, titled by the scribe Ex epistolis duorum amantium [EDA], were edited by Ewald Könsgen in 1974, but languished largely unstudied until 1999, when they were considered by C. Stephen Jaeger within Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) and myself in The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York: Palgrave, 1999). This volume by Barbara Newman looks afresh at what must surely count as one of the most enigmatic Latin letter collections of the twelfth century. She provides an eloquent fresh translation of these letters, each with commentary, as well as translations of three other exchanges or letters about love from the same period, namely the Tegernsee Letters, the Regensburg Songs, and a versified letter, "To a Fugitive Lover." The title Newman has chosen for this volume does not commit itself to any argument beyond claiming to offer a literary context for the love letters. Yet it does not take long for a reader to realise that an argument does emerge by the end of her important introduction, that while the case for arguing that the EDA are written by Abelard and Heloise remains unprovable, it is "highly probable" (78).

In many ways, the question of the authorship of this unusually protracted exchange, which Könsgen initiated in 1974 by declaring that it issued from a genuine exchange by two individuals, "like Abelard and Heloise" (without establishing the issue any more precisely), is not as important as the larger issue they raise about the twelfth century as much more than an aetas Ovidiana. As Newman rightly observes, it was "an age of love." The particular context that she investigates is that of comparable intimate exchanges between men and women (although in one celebrated case in the Tegernsee Letters, between two women). She succeeds brilliantly in capturing the astonishing literary and imaginative vitality of the letters of two lovers, without glossing over the enormous questions of interpretation that they offer, occasioned by the fact that Johannes de Vepria chose to exclude any humdrum detail from these letters, so as to preserve those passages that struck him as of the greatest literary significance. In doing so, he made it hard for later readers to establish what is going on at any moment within these letters, as well as to evaluate what may have been their original sequence.

Newman reviews the academic debate about their authorship provoked since 1999 with fair-minded balance. As she acknowledges, the love letters are written in such a different literary genre from any of the other known compositions by Abelard and Heloise, that it is very difficult to come to firm conclusions based on literary style. The Man opts for a swift, plain style, without the evident mannerism of the Woman, who clearly puts much more effort into her choice of imagery and fusion of classical and scriptural ways of thinking about love. The lack of coherence between certain parts of the exchange is the strongest evidence against the entire exchange being a literary fiction, as has been claimed. Newman's strongest suit is in the way she presents the close identity between the way the Woman thinks and Heloise's reflection on her past relationship in her response to Abelard's Historia calamitatum. Particularly significant is her suggestion, made within the comment on the Woman's letter 25. that her sense of an unending debt of love, continued in the famous letters of Heloise, is inspired by St Anselm's Cur deus homo. One could also observe, however, that the EDA share a broader debt to St Anselm, namely in the salutations and reflections on love in his letters to monastic friends. Given that St Anselm rejected any notion of the devil having any legitimate rights over humanity, and argued we all have a debt to God and our friends, one could argue that the young Heloise was simply extending Anselm's sense of the obligation of intimate love into a new direction, outside the homosocial world of the monastery. Abelard would take these arguments even further in his theological writing.

Only one relevant item is missing from the bibliography, namely a second edition (2008) of The Lost Love Letters, containing an additional chapter by Mews reviewing debate on the EDA. It included further evidence I had not realised in 1999, that in Letter 24 the man quotes the one phrase of Cicero's De amicitia that Abelard included within Sic et Non 138.21. There is also a further parallel between the Woman's Letter 25 and an original reflection on love, falsely attributed to Jerome in Sic et Non 138.7. Newman's major focus is more on literary than scholastic context. Thus she dwells at length on the parallels between the EDA and the Tegernsee Letters, to consider how all these women shared an elite literary culture, but in the case of the EDA it was inflected by a self-reflectivity that goes beyond any other exchange.

Perhaps the most potentially controversial decision Newman makes in this volume is to change the sequence of prose and verse letters in the EDA, although (thankfully) not their numbering. Thus she transfers to the beginning of her translation the poem (113) that closes the exchange: Urget Amor sua castra sequi. Her second item is 112, the only letter from the Woman that addresses her beloved in a formal way, as her teacher, in which she says she has been raised to the third heaven by his letters. She declares that she has no doubt that he has a great career ahead of him, but that for the present she cannot find words to express her joy in reaching the haven of his love, "confident yet not ungrateful." This letter closes with her reflecting that while she cannot repay the love that is his due, she "longs with great longing to devote myself unfailingly to you." The effect of placing 112 as the second item in the exchange, is that it is hard for the reader to understand what are the letters by which she has been raised to the third heaven, as our only insight is provided by a poem (113) in which the lover complains that he has been vanquished by love, and that he is impeded by fortune, modesty and public rumor (a theme that otherwise surfaces only late in the correspondence). While it is quite possible that the Woman consciously placed 113 to provide a coda to the exchange, we have no way of knowing of when it was produced. The decision to place 112 at the beginning, without warning, implies that it is an opening gambit in an exchange which otherwise begins (1-21) with a competition between their salutations. In Newman's sequence, the exchange ends with 112a, introduced by a marginal note, Ex alia epistola: "I am weary now and cannot reply to you, because you take sweet things as painful and so fill my mind with sorrow. Farewell." If this was the last item in the exchange, some unexplained crisis has intervened. Taking 113 away from the conclusion removes the coda that the Woman might have introduced to create a sense of closure to an exchange that leaves so many questions unanswered.

One of the great enigmas of this exchange is that we do not know what kind of document or documents de Vepria was copying from. Newman suggests that there may be others (such as 109-110) which she identifies as early, because they do not refer to the troubles that seem to become increasingly a problem as the exchange develops. Yet, if these messages were all originally exchanged on wax tablets, the manuscript de Vepria copied must itself have been an edited collection. It seems most unlikely that these letters were preserved only on scraps of parchment. Rather, they must have been edited to tell a story before de Vepria culled from them. Readers of the correspondence can only imagine what might have been their original sequence and context.

Nonetheless, Newman has performed a great service in re-asserting the literary fascination of this exchange. While the man's verses are not always of equal merit, Newman does bring out their occasional boldness, as well as their fascination with imagery from the sky, as in one of his early poetic efforts (20): "Starlight patterns the sky, the moon silvers the night, / But the star that ought to guide me is growing dim." The verse brings to mind Carmina burana 169 (Hebet sidus) as well as the name, Astralabius, that Heloise chose for their child. She can reply with equal power (92): "To her most radiant light, her solstice that never slips into shadow, but always brings shining color, from her for whom no sun burns by day nor any moon by night except by you." Newman brings a literary elegance to these letters that can help bring them to wider attention. She decided against reproducing the Latin text, a choice that Latinists may regret. If she can stir a new generation to discover not just these letters, but other fascinating exchanges about love from the twelfth century, she will have done a great service. For this, she is to be profoundly thanked.