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THE SCANDALOUS LOVE OF HÉLOISE AND ABELARD
LOCATION: 9–11, Quai aux Fleurs, Notre-Dame Cathedral Close
The passion of Héloise (1095/1100–1163) and Peter Abelard (1079–1142) caught fire here, on Quai aux Fleurs next to the Seine, on the eastern tip of the Île de la Cité, and soon, raging beyond the controls of secrecy, was exposed, then cruelly punished, as if in the end the ice of winter had become the main character in their lives. But it is the passionate lovers—the Seine in summer—that the city’s collective memory embraces to this day.
They wrote their story into the many letters1 they exchanged during their affair and about fifteen years later, after they’d been separated: the ecstasies, despair, then Abelard’s—but not Héloise’s—repentance for his sins of lust. “Héloise is worth a thousand Abelards,” said Henry James.
In 1115 Canon Fulbert, a cathedral staffer, gave some rent-free rooms to teacher/theologian Peter Abelard in exchange for his services as a tutor to the canon’s intellectually precocious niece, Héloise. She read French, Latin, and Greek; she wanted to learn Hebrew; she was interested in Abelard’s unorthodox philosophical project: to use dialectics to understand the ambiguities and contradictions of religious faith. Orthodox scholars refused the very notion of ambiguity and contradiction. Absolutism—religious, moral, political—defined the very ground of being.
Abelard at thirty-five was the master teacher of Paris, at the school of Notre-Dame first, and later, to escape the clerical censure at the Cathedral school, at the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève on the hill of the Left Bank’s Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. His students adored him, his shocking humanism and open-mindedness freed them to think outside the prescribed boxes. Abelard, for instance, was the defender of sexual pleasure, rejecting the bachelor theologians’ dogma that marital intercourse is always sinful. Saint Augustine had preached that pleasure itself is a sin; Pope Gregory the Great echoed him: “There can be no sexual pleasure without sin.”
Abelard also dissented from the hatred of Jews. He criticized the First Crusade’s slaughter of Jews en route to Jerusalem. He discussed Judaism with the rabbis from the Île’s synagogue that dated back to the Roman occupation.
Héloise, like Abelard, had studied classical literature (they both could quote long passages of Ovid’s erotic poem, the Metamorphoses). Having no living parents, she was raised by nuns in the convent at Argenteuil, a few miles downstream from Paris. She moved to Paris in 1115 (as a teenager or twenty-year-old) to continue her studies under the protection of Uncle Fulbert, her mother’s brother, or maybe, according to some, her father. Uncle or father, Fulbert was notoriously jealous when it came to his beautiful black-haired, dark-eyed niece. (What was he thinking, installing the handsome, sexy, intellectual star of Paris under the same roof with his stunning niece?)
The lovers met in the dawn of the twelfth-century French Renaissance, which blossomed more than a century before Dante was even heard of. In the words of Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris, it was a time that (except for the celibate clergy and hierarchy) “had little difficulty in squaring love of God with love of worldly beauty and of the sensuous world.” Like Héloise and Abelard, this era of beatitude would come to a bitter end. From their secret sanctuary on the Seine, where to the sound of the flowing river they consummated and reveled in their love, they could look across the river at the marshy Right Bank, its Place de Grève almost directly opposite, not yet feared by Parisians as the place of public execution. Many writers believe that had the free-spirited Héloise lived in the thirteenth century or later, she, for refusing to repent of her love of Abelard as well as to deny their mutual sexual pleasure, would have been convicted of heresy and burned alive on the Right Bank.
Abelard’s academic reputation suffered once he and Héloise became lovers. Their letters reveal they became more and more sexually insatiable, ignoring texts for the pleasure of their bodies (once Uncle Fulbert was out of the house). The master teacher became absent or unpunctual on the Petit Pont, his lectures stale and repetitious. As he remembered those nights and mornings in a confessional letter, written many years after their catastrophic breakup:
with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed more often over the curves of her body than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts.
Nothing compared with Héloise. Novelist Helen Waddell, in her book Peter Abelard, describes these two as “drenched with love as the air is drenched with light.”
Most of the letters Héloise wrote in the course of their two-year affair have the same erotic charge as Abelard’s.
To one flowing with milk and honey, the whiteness of milk and the sweetness of honey, I send the flood of delight and the increase of joy.… I give you the most precious thing I have—myself, firm in faith and love, steady in desire …
She called him “my only love,” whom, she wrote in a later letter, she loved more than God. They wrote to each other every day.
When Héloise became pregnant, Abelard disguised her as a nun and took her north to his native Brittany where their son, Astrolabe, was born. Later, on a return trip to Paris, he convinced her to marry him, to placate the insanely angry Fulbert who felt betrayed. In the Chapel of Saint-Aignan, Héloise, very reluctantly, whispered her marriage vows: “I looked for no marriage bond. I never sought anything in you but yourself.” She believed, rightly, that a married cleric could not rise in the Church, that their marriage, kept secret or not, would ruin his brilliant career. Nor was she drawn to the constrictions of married domesticity: she preferred “love to wedlock and freedom to chains.” Both lovers were aware of the Church’s esteem for clergy and monks as an elite body on the ground of their celibacy.
What happened after their marriage is confusing. Refusing to ruin Abelard’s career, Héloise either withdrew to or was urged to retreat to the convent she grew up in. Abelard followed her there, and later revealed that they made love in the only private space available, the convent refectory. Fulbert, however, presumed that Héloise’s disappearance from Paris meant that Abelard had abandoned her and planned to divorce her (for the sake of his career in the Church). Late one night, the crazed uncle (or father) sent his hired thugs to Abelard’s rooms to avenge Héloise’s humiliation. They castrated her lover, husband, father of their child.
The confusion of the historical record continues, but a few facts are clear. Abelard, impotent, left Paris, where overnight he’d become an object of pity, to become a monk at the Abbaye de Saint-Denis (now the Basilica of Saint-Denis), in northern Paris.
Héloise, fully aware of her hypocrisy, professed her religious vows in the convent that had been her childhood home. She was no nun. Always her heart and soul would belong to Abelard. “It was your command, not love of God, that made me take the veil.”
Fifteen years later, she came across a letter written by Abelard to a friend in which he recounts the joys and torments of his life. The letter of twenty thousand words—Historia Calamitatum Mearum (The Story of My Misfortunes)—is often referred to as Abelard’s autobiography or Confession. He writes about his passion for Héloise, the details of their lovemaking, the birth, the marriage, his castration, and their separation, Abelard retreating to the Saint-Denis cloister where he repented his sins of lust, Héloise to a convent where she, too, according to Abelard, had found comfort in religion. The passionate girl of the Quai aux Fleurs was now the abbess of her convent, highly respected by bishops.
Héloise’s response, in her first letter to Abelard since their separation, sets him straight. For her, nothing has changed since their ecstatic nights and days in Paris. She is possessed not by religion but by anguish and longing for him:
God is my witness that if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me forever it would be sweeter and more honorable to me to be not his empress but your whore.
In her next letter, the Abbess Héloise repeats that her sexual self is still her most essential self:
Even at Mass,… lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my prayers. Everything we did, and also the times and places, are stamped on my heart along with your image … I live through it all again with you.
The lovers of the Quai aux Fleurs ended as victims of the Church’s law of celibacy already on the books of canon law, its violation by a cleric a mortal sin, the penalty eternal hellfire. At the time that uncle Fulbert had Peter Abelard castrated, it was not clear whether Abelard had decided to choose the priesthood instead of Héloise. After the tragedy, the shamed husband’s only refuge seemed to be a celibate monastery.
For the rest of his life as teacher and writer, he was attacked and persecuted by jealous mediocrities, theologians, ambitious clerics, fanatics (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux) who convicted him of heresy and made him burn one of his own books. Abelard was lucky. A century later, he himself would have gone up in flames.
Héloise never wavered. To the end, she was a woman in love. No law or tradition or vow could crush her passion for Peter Abelard. Her intelligence, her refusal to be bullied into a fake repentance or conversion, and the intensity and warmth of her writing, place her front and center in a long line of bold, self-possessed French women, women who loved unconditionally. To this day she is a heroine of France.
For the Traveler
Go at night. After nine or ten o’clock as the tourist crowds thin to nothing. Exit the Cité métro and from the Parvis, the vast plaza in front of the cathedral, walk straight toward it and then bear left along rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame—the cloister walk. The souvenir shops on your left will be closed or closing. Bear left again into the narrow winding side streets. Within this labyrinth is the oldest part of the Île de la Cité: the Celts or Gauls (the tribe Parisii) lived here, long before the Roman conquest in 52 BC and the first Roman streets. In the Christian Middle Ages, these cathedral precincts were the heart of Héloise and Abelard’s world.
Along rue Massillon, and then rue Chanoinesse, the main artery of the Close, you pass low-slung lintels and doorways leading into ancient sloping courtyards, shadowy buildings that huddle together. The very narrow rue des Chantres and rue de la Colombe (with its mark of the old Roman wall high on no. 6) and the sunken rue des Ursins (with its delicate small doorway of medieval tracery at the east end), each street winds at last into the clearing of Quai aux Fleurs. At night no cars and few people move along the cobblestone streets. From this northside edge of the Île de la Cité, you see, from the quay’s embankment, the river Seine gleaming in the moonlight. “Paris is a gift of the Seine,” said the old mapmakers. In prehistoric times the river was one hundred feet higher than it is today.
The contrast of seasons on the river—the calm flow of summer, the tempestuous current under the wind of winter—suit the love story of the Quai aux Fleurs.
The medallions set above the doors of the tall double house at nos. 9 and 11 on Quai aux Fleurs identify their residence, now much restored but still on the site of the home of Fulbert.
Bisecting the Île from the Le Grand Pont on the north side to the Petit Pont on the south side was the old Roman road spanning the two channels of the Seine, leading to rue Saint-Martin in the north and rue Saint-Jacques to the south. In Héloise and Abelard’s time it was known as the rue de la Juiverie (the street of the Jews, now La rue de la Cité) where the synagogue, the Jewish market, and houses stood midway between the two bridges, a lively district crowded with knights on horses, merchants, a market, pilgrims, rabbis and their community. This Jewish quarter of Paris was mentioned in 1119, but the first Jews had come north to Paris with Caesar, settling on the Left Bank. Abelard wrote about Judaism with respect in his book Dialogue Between A Philosopher, A Christian, and A Jew. A celebrity, with a huge student following, he got away with all of it.
A true Renaissance man, Abelard also composed ballads and songs which he and his students sang in the taverns, around the Petit Pont, and along the narrow muddy streets of the Close. He had a thrilling powerful voice. No doubt his stirring choruses carried to the Quai aux Fleurs where Héloise awaited their rapturous tutorials.
His students listened to his lectures inside the Close, or on rue du Fouarre (see here) or on the Petit Pont which was crowded with students, jugglers, canons, singers, dog and bear trainers, and pickpockets. (It has been rebuilt fourteen times.) Abelard’s controversial ideas, shouted above the bridge traffic—“The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.… I said, Ye are gods…”—attracted students from all over Europe. The debates that enlivened the Île de la Cité, the Left Bank—especially rue du Fouarre and the hilly vineyards rising on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève—marked the beginnings of the University of Paris. But it was Abelard’s music and his lusty singing that first caught the attention of Fulbert’s niece.
You can wander the streets of the early university, now the heart of the Latin Quarter (so named for the language spoken and written by the scholars): walk the quays below the Petit Pont; climb the slopes of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève (one of the lovers’ hideaways), best accessible from rue des Écoles, up rue de Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, bearing left at the fountain, then past Jardin de Navarre (a sprawling vineyard in 1120 and later, when Henri IV was a boy in Paris, the campus of the Catholic College of Navarre he attended). At the top of the hill turn right into rue Clovis. Abelard lectured in this area, the site of the ancient Abbaye-Sainte-Geneviève, now the campus of Lycée Henri IV (see here).
Descending in the direction of the Île de la Cité, you can visit the churches the lovers would have known—Saint-Julien le Pauvre, Saint-Séverin (a ruin in 1115, soon to be rebuilt), Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a short walk west along boulevard Saint-Germain—as the story goes, the handsome theologian and the beautiful student made love in these churches in the evenings, when they were empty and dark.
A remnant of the Chapel of Saint-Aignan is believed to stand today within the Close as one stone wall in the rear courtyard of a medieval inn on 24, rue Chanoinesse, “Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole.” (Open every day except Saturday lunch.) The manager makes no claims for the wall’s authenticity but graciously points your way, beneath the very low ceilings of the dimly lit old dining room, and out into a mysterious rear courtyard. At night this ruin of a wall and its ancient setting make a spell-binding impression. The wall of Saint-Aignan is also accessible from 19 rue des Ursins, except that the gate leading to the courtyard is usually closed. A famous statue from this chapel, Virgin of Paris, stands now in the south transept of Notre-Dame, to the right of the main altar, with its “elegant lassitude,” according to one art historian, a reminder of Héloise’s indifference to the sacrament of matrimony and motherhood.
Héloise and Abelard were buried together on the grounds of Héloise’s convent, the Paraclete: a large cache of their letters was found in the Paraclete archive after Héloise’s death. In the nineteenth century, their remains were transferred to Père Lachaise where they rest beneath an ornate stone canopy near the southern entrance.
MÉTRO: Père Lachaise; Gambetta; Philippe Auguste
ENTRANCES: Boulevard de Ménilmontant; avenue du Père Lachaise; rue de la Roquette
HOURS: Easter–Sept, 8–6; Oct–Easter, 8–dusk
CRYPTE ARCHÉOLOGIQUE DU NOTRE-DAME At the edge of the Parvis (entrance on rue de la Cité; 10–6, closed Mon) descend into the Crypte where architectural remains as well as wooden models, dioramas, and maps of various periods help us imagine the looks of early Paris and how it evolved. In the years of Héloise and Abelard’s love affair (1114–1117) the Cloître and the maze of the cathedral precincts were studded with the church spires of the Île’s fourteen parishes. Deep in the shadowy Crypte you can imagine the church bells ringing from bell towers, the sounds of the cathedral choir practicing chant and hymns in the cathedral school (still in existence, in a newer building), the music filling the narrow streets of tall wooden houses lit with torches. (Fires were frequent.) The old maps show the bishop’s palace, to the right of the cathedral, then as now hugging the southern border of the Île, rebuilt after it was torn down in a riot.
The Crypte shows the identity of Paris as formed by the river, geography, the weather, invasions, the changing topography, and the life histories of people—Héloise and Abelard—who entered the city’s soul.
LE MARCHÉ AUX FLEURS The Flower Market along Quai de la Corse, behind the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, built on the site of the razed twelfth-century Jewish community.
LA MÉMORIAL DES MARTYRS DE LA DÉPORTATION Off Square de l’Île de-France, the eastern tip of Île de la Cité. Cross Quai Archévêque and enter the small rose garden surrounded by the Seine and facing Île Saint-Louis. Beneath the garden, down a narrow staircase, the writings on the walls of the memorial to the 76,000 French Jews, the martyrs of the Nazi/French Deportation, are by Saint-Exupéry, Aragon, Éluard, Sartre. Tues–Sun, 10–12; 2–7.
LA FOURMI AILÉE Left Bank, 8, rue du Fouarre, paris.resto.com. Open seven days from noon to midnight. A students’ café, good food, atmosphere, service. Rue du Fouarre was originally named rue des Écoliers (street of the scholars); then it became rue Feurre which means paille—straw—after the bales of straw the students sat on to hear the lessons of their masters. La rue du Fouarre, the site of the first University of Paris, was celebrated by Dante, Petrarch, and Rabelais. The southern part of the street was renamed rue Dante after he visited here at the end of the thirteenth century.
SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY Left Bank, 37, rue de la Bûcherie 10–11, seven days. An English-language bookshop packed with customers and from floor to ceiling with new and used books, the descendant of the original shop in rue de l’Odéon where owner and publisher Sylvia Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. A fun place on Bloomsday, June 16, with readings and wine-tasting upstairs. There’s a good selection of books about Paris, French writers, and history plus a new café.
ABBEY BOOKSHOP Left Bank, 29, rue de la Parcheminerie, firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally rue des Écrivains in 1273, named for the scribes who were the heart of the book trade. Just south of the front entrance of Saint-Séverin, the street is now named for the bookbinders and illustrators who worked here from the twelfth century. Its owner, Brian Spence, can put his hands on any title you request.
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Cahill
Photographs copyright © 2017 by Marion Ranoux