Heloise and Abelard's Tumultuous Affair
The story of Heloise and Abelard sheds light on medieval society and the church in a way that few other stories do. Their drama captures not only deep emotion, but also the spirit of the times.
The first scene opens with Abelard, one of the most celebrated teachers and philosophers of the medieval world, pursuing his innocent teenage pupil. From there it chronicles a relationship pierced intermittently with lust, intrigue, and violence—all filtered through the curtain of the medieval church. In the words of Henry Adams, “The twelfth century, with all its sparkle, would be dull without Abelard and Heloise.”
Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was a brilliant young man who, by age 21 (before Heloise was even born), had gained such a reputation for scholarship and debate that he was able to set up his own school. In the years that followed, his teaching career expanded, as did his writing—but always in the midst of controversy.
His book Sic et Non (Yes and No) created an uproar. Here Abelard demonstrated his basic philosophical method: “The first key to wisdom is the constant and frequent questioning.… For by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.” Churchmen of the traditionalist mode were not ready for such skepticism.
But for all the criticism—and acclaim—that accompanied his brilliant career, Abelard is probably most remembered for his relationship with Heloise. Heloise was the niece of Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. She was probably only 14 or 15 (some scholars have suggested Heloise was 17 or older), more than twenty years younger than Abelard, when she first met him at her uncle’s home in Paris.
Act I, Scene 1—Seduction
Abelard was not a gentleman. Indeed, he admits in his autobiography that when ...