Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages

By Jane Chance | Go to book overview

1
Muliebriter: Doing Gender in the Letters of Heloise

Catherine Brown

" HELOISE, concubine and later wife of Peter Abelard, nun and later prioress of Argenteuil, and finally abbess of the Paraclete, has made herself too talked about not to deserve a somewhat lengthy article in this work." Thus begins the entry devoted to this twelfth-century writer in the Dictionnaire historique et critique of Pierre Bayle ( 1647- 1706), published in the final years of the seventeenth century.1 Evidently, Heloise has long been making people talk--enough to generate not only Bayle's gossipy essay, but also, in the years to follow, a generous number of fictional retellings of her tale, among them the Lettres portugaises, La Nouvelle Héloïse, and Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard."2 And she still makes herself talked about, enough to merit a place in the present collection.

Heloise's dramatic story certainly lends itself to repetition. Born probably around the year 1100, she was educated at the convent of Argenteuil outside Paris. When she was in her late teens, her uncle Fulbert engaged the philosopher Peter Abelard to be her tutor. Teacher and student soon became lovers, parents, and, despite Heloise's resistance, husband and wife. Their marriage was kept secret to protect Abelard's reputation; so secret, in fact, that Fulbert, thinking Abelard meant to cast Heloise aside, avenged his family honor by arranging the philosopher's castration. Shortly thereafter, both Abelard and Heloise took vows as Benedictines.3 Heloise died in 1163 or 1164, after some thirty years as abbess of the Paraclete, governing according to a revision of the Benedictine Rule written by Abelard at her request and to her specifications.

The tale itself has been retold so often as to be comfortably, if still sensationally, familiar. Heloise's writing, however, is a different matter. Five texts bear her name in the manuscript tradition: three letters and a set of theo-

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