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

By Barbara Newman | Go to book overview

1.Flaws in the Golden Bowl: Gender and Spiritual Formation in the Twelfth Century

In the early 1130s Peter Abelard received three letters from Heloise, once his mistress and wife, now his sister and daughter in religion. The first two made such painful reading that he must have thought twice before scanning the third, in which Heloise resolutely turned from the subject of tragic love to the minutiae of monastic observance. For romantic readers, the correspondence lapses from titillation into tedium with this epistle. But Abelard was no doubt immensely relieved. Laying aside her griefs, Heloise now wrote to him as abbess to abbot, asking for only two things: a treatise explaining "how the order of nuns began," and a rule for her daughters at the Paraclete. Although they were already observing the Benedictine Rule, she complained that as it "was clearly written for men alone, it can only be fully obeyed by men," because it is not fair to lay "the same yoke of monastic ordinance on the weaker sex as on the stronger."1Heloise went on to specify several concrete areas of concern, such as the use of meat and wine, the dangers of hospitality, the practice of manual labor, and the liturgical role assigned to the abbot. To underline her point, she even observed that the regulation underwear prescribed in the Benedictine Rule is not suitable for women because "the monthly purging of their superfluous humours must avoid such things."

Abelard responded with alacrity to Heloise's plea. But although he produced the desired rule, he began with an almost brusque dismissal of her chief concern. For his rule states at the outset that there is virtually no difference between monks and nuns: "as in name and profession of continence you are one with us, so nearly all our institutions are suitable for you."2 And in reply to her conventional remarks about "the weaker sex," he wrote in his letter on the dignity of nuns that if "the female sex is weaker, their virtue is more perfect and more pleasing to God."3 Moreover, most of this long epistle is devoted to proving that throughout the Bible and Chris-

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