From Virile Woman to Womanchrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

By Barbara Newman | Go to book overview
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2.
Authority, Authenticity, and the Repression of Heloise

In the annals of medieval scholarship, questions about the authenticity of sources are not rare. Few texts, however, have languished in the limbo of aporia as long as the letters of Heloise to Abelard. For two centuries now these three epistles have been subjected not only to suspicion, but to the most persistent and stubborn assaults on their authenticity, as well as the most spirited defenses. Whole forests have been felled in the quarrel over Heloise's writing, especially the first two letters that occupy a mere eleven pages in Muckle's edition.1 Yet still there is no consensus, for it is more than the solution of a textual crux, more even than entrenched academic pride, that is at stake. It is the very battle of the sexes, or what we are now pleased to call the "discourse of desire." As Linda Kauffman has written, Heloise's letters, like other epistolary texts that follow in their wake, "have aroused centuries of controversy concerning origins, authenticity, legitimacy, paternity," for such texts raise a most dangerous question: "What does it mean to 'write like a woman'?"2

In the unlikely event that my title has left any suspense, let me state my own parti pris at the outset. My intention in this chapter is twofold. First, I will try to dispatch once for all the old hypothesis that Abelard forged the letters of Heloise as part of a literary fiction. Then, after concluding this fervent but no doubt futile attempt, I will show how the same questions that have vexed the scholarly debate over Heloise -- questions of authority, authenticity, and repression of the female voice -- are precisely the questions that most vexed Heloise herself in her pious and amorous wars with Abelard. There is, in short, an uncanny resemblance between the debate about the text and the debate within the text.

What, Heloise asks herself as well as her beloved, is the authority for her monastic conversatio, for the austere and undesired life that she chose "freely at his command"?3 What kind of authenticity, given her undisguised lack of vocation, could she possibly aspire to or attain in that life? And

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