Art by Elin Denise (tumblr)
Although she was a powerful abbess, Héloïse d’Argenteuil is best known as half of a tragic love story. Héloïse was already an exceptionally learned young woman when she met Peter Abélard, a famous teacher. Peter was attracted to Héloïse from the start and he convinced her uncle and guardian Fulbert to lodge him in exchange for tutoring Héloïse. A clandestine sexual relationship developed and Héloïse became pregnant. To appease Fulbert, the couple agreed to marry but demanded the marriage be kept secret so it would not harm Peter’s advancement in the Catholic Church.
The couple covertly married and Peter’s sister adopted their son Astrolabe. Héloïse went to stay at a convent which led Fulbert to believe she had been cast off by Peter. Enraged, Fulbert and his friends broke into Peter’s room as he slept and castrated him. Traumatized and shamed, Peter fled Paris and joined a monastery in Saint-Denis. Although Héloïse did not feel called towards the religious life, under pressure from Peter, she took holy orders and became a nun.
For ten years there was no communication between the two as Peter advanced as a scholar and Héloïse rose to the rank of prioress. In 1129, Héloïse’s group was forced out of their convent at Argenteuil. Peter offered them the Oratory of the Paraclete, site of his former monastery, to start a new convent. The two began a correspondence. Héloïse’s letters were passionate and plaintive. Peter’s responses encouraged her to direct her fervor towards God. Eventually their correspondence lost its deep emotion, focusing more on the Héloïse’s role as abbess.
Peter’s career as a scholar ebbed and flowed over the years. He was controversial enough to be briefly excommunicated before his death in 1142. Héloïse became abbess and eventually grew her convent to include six daughter houses. She died in 1164. There is a monument to the couple at Père-Lachaise, although some believe one or both is buried at the Oratory of the Paraclete. The fate of their son Astrolabe is almost entirely unknown, but a letter from Peter the Venerable to Héloïse suggests Astrolabe may have also joined the Church.
Notes: The couple is usually referred to as Héloïse and Abélard, but as Cool Chicks from History always uses first names the couple is referred to here as Héloïse and Peter. For centuries Héloïse was believed to be 17 years old at the time of the affair while Peter was 36. More recent scholarship suggests Héloïse was closer to age 27 when the affair began.