Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of Two Lovers in Context

Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of Two Lovers in Context

Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of Two Lovers in Context

Making Love in the Twelfth Century: Letters of Two Lovers in Context


Nine hundred years ago in Paris, a teacher and his brilliant female student fell in love and chronicled their affair in a passionate correspondence. Their 116 surviving letters, some whole and some fragmentary, are composed in eloquent, highly rhetorical Latin. Since their discovery in the late twentieth century, the Letters of Two Lovers have aroused much attention because of their extreme rarity. They constitute the longest correspondence by far between any two persons from the entire Middle Ages, and they are private rather than institutional--which means that, according to all we know about the transmission of medieval letters, they should not have survived at all. Adding to their mystery, the letters are copied anonymously in a single late fifteenth-century manuscript, although their style and range of reference place them squarely in the early twelfth century.

Can this collection of correspondence be the previously lost love letters of Abelard and Heloise? And even if not, what does it tell us about the lived experience of love in the twelfth century?

Barbara Newman contends that these teacher-student exchanges bear witness to a culture that linked Latin pedagogy with the practice of ennobling love and the cult of friendship during a relatively brief period when women played an active part in that world. Newman presents a new translation of these extraordinary letters, along with a full commentary and two extended essays that parse their literary and intellectual contexts and chart the course of the doomed affair. Included, too, are two other sets of twelfth-century love epistles, the Tegernsee Letters and selections from the Regensburg Songs. Taken together, they constitute a stunning contribution to the study of the history of emotions by one of our most prominent medievalists.


Nine hundred years ago in the north of France, a man and a woman fell in love and began to exchange letters. the man was a philosopher, a famous teacher who, to the delight of his beloved, had also “drunk from the fountain of poetry.” the woman, his student, was in her lover’s eyes a great beauty. She was also eloquent, passionately devoted to her teacher, and morally earnest to the nth degree, inspiring him to call her “the only disciple of philosophy among all the girls of our age.” Teaching must have been a competitive sport in their milieu, for one of her letters is a victory ode, congratulating her lover on his academic triumph over a rival. the couple’s letters reveal little beyond this about their identity or individual circumstances, for they come down to us only in a single late, painfully abridged manuscript. We know the name of its compiler and scribe, but the lovers themselves remain anonymous, without even initials to hint at their names.

By reading these fragmentary letters in their historical context, we can glean a few more details. For instance, the woman had obviously been educated in a convent. She could have acquired her excellent Latin and her familiarity with classical authors, along with her deep knowledge of Scripture and liturgy, in no other milieu. Yet she was not a nun, far less a princess or lady of high rank—a fact that makes her unique among the handful of female correspondents known from this period. the discourse of virtue flows readily from her stylus, but one particular virtue—chastity—is nowhere mentioned. the only “vows” she acknowledges are those of love. She speaks constantly of amicitia (friendship) and dilectio (personal love), but also of amor (erotic love) and desiderium (desire) with its “flames.” Her teacher, though certainly a cleric, seems not to be a monk or priest. His biblical allusions are fewer than hers, but his citations of Ovid more frequent. the themes of the correspondence are those of lovers everywhere (praise of each other’s beauty and brilliance, cries of passion, fear of abandonment, professions of fidelity and eternal love), with a strong mix of period motifs (the duties of friendship, the danger of envious foes, the fear of scandal).

Despite the lovers’ florid mutual compliments, the course of their affair was anything but smooth. Judging from a poem the man composed to celebrate . . .

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