Peter Abelard's Autobiography: Story of My Misfortunes

Categories: Love

The twelfth century was a period of revolutionary changes in religious, cultural, social, and intellectual life in Europe. The movement for the renewal of the marriage institution grew rapidly at that time. People awakened the question of the relevance of sexual and emotional aspects in marriage, and not only legal and religious views in the marital relationships. Peter Abelard was one of the greatest logicians and philosophers of the twelfth-century renaissance. Widely known to modern readers are his autobiographical Historia calamitatum ('History of my Misfortunes') and the exchange of letters which followed between him and his young student, Heloise, who became his lover, wife and sister in religion.

Abelard focuses on the nature of human and divine love in his writings; also, he shows us problems in relationships that were present in a society at his time in an attempt to find the resolution of the personal tragedy of both characters that are described in Historia calamitatum and personal letters. In general, the relationship between Abelard and Heloise illustrates the urgency of the question of marital values within the society of the twelfth-century.

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What was more important at that time: marriage or real love? I would say that marriage was more important. As the characters had different views of life from most of the people at that time, their difference brought them to the fatal ending of their relationships. We can analyze the love affair between Abelard and Heloise looking at their writings between each other. Was the feeling that tied the heroes together a real love or lust?

From the beginning of Abelard's Story of his Calamities he portrays himself as a strong individual.

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The oldest child in his family his life was intended for a military career, but as he tells us, he abandoned Mars for Minerva, denouncing the popular and glorious profession of arms for that of learning. In writing this he shows his clever and distinct way of thinking by referring to dialectic, the art of examining options or ideas logically, as a weapon of war. "I chose the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war." (p. 58). So, he became the brilliant student of the liberal arts, and won a fearsome reputation as a debater. He was considered as the smartest philosopher in Paris at that time. He agreed with the public thought that he was brilliant, and his confidence didn't let him to admit any flaws. He was proud and confident, and that was a reason for a lot of his misfortunes. He thought he could show his disrespect to teachers whose views he did not share. He writes about on of his teachers: "He had a remarkable command of words but their meaning was worthless and devoid of all sense."(p.62) Abelard decided not to attend lectures regularly because he considered himself smarter than his instructor. As he tells us later, the whole world was at his feet. In the Story of My Calamities, he confesses that at that period of his life he was filled with vanity and pride: "I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh." (p.65). Abelard was a very popular person at his time, and we can even draw parallels of his personality to today's celebrities. He knew he was brilliant and used it to get everything what he wanted.

Abelard was in his late thirties when he first met Heloise in Paris. Girl's knowledge gift for writing letters attracted Abelard to her. Heloise was about seventeen when she met Abelard, but the big difference in age didn't scare the girls as it was pretty common back then to have a big age difference in marriages. Heloise was considered atypical woman at that time because there were not a lot of educated women in Paris in twelfth century. So, we can understand why Abelard chose Heloise among a lot of other women. She was as superior in her kind as the brilliant professor Abelard was considered among the public. I can say that I admire the character of Heloise because of her strong will and a pretty good sense of logic, and these, at the same time, were the reasons that brought two successful people together. "In the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had won her renown throughout the realm." (p.66) This shows that Abelard valued individuality highly in others as well as in himself. Abelard had a deal with Heloise's uncle to educate her, and at the same time he gained full access to her pleasures. The relationship between two young people encompassed the maximum in personal freedom: "Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of our love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching."(p.67) In the history of his misfortunes Abelard writes that they were "united first under one roof, then in heart" (p.67) From this passage I can say that the famous philosopher felt something to the young and innocent Heloise. Indeed, at first their love was very passionate. Abelard could not concentrate on his work, but instead he started to write love songs. This means he liked the girl a lot while they had physical pleasures, and, unfortunately, it seems that passionate pleasures were the only thing that tied these two people together. Later Heloise became pregnant in a society that just could not accept a premarital sexual affair. So, Abelard could not successfully sidestep the rules of the society in that situation, and although everything was kept in a secret to the public the thought of the necessity of the marriage came to philosopher's mind.

Heloise and Abelard enjoyed each other both sexually and intellectually, just as how it's perceived in today's world, though Heloise's beliefs and attitude towards love and marriage were quite different from the other women of the twelfth century. She resisted the idea of marriage because she thought it was more of an economical and political idea than real love and that she would rather be called a whore or a mistress instead of a wife. In a result, Heloise's reputation was ruined because she was not in marital relationship, and the public found out about her love affair with Abelard. So, Heloise was in despair and made a conclusion: "We shall both be destroyed. All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been". This shows us her personality in the writings. Heloise went on a lot of risks for Abelard, and she was ready to do everything for him, but it does not seem to me that Abelard would do the same for his wife. We can analyze their relationship deeper by discussing their personal letters.

The personal letters of Abelard and Heloise are considered as not just letters, but as finished literary compositions for the audience. These letters show us the relationship between two characters on a very deep level, because any kind of message can not be more personal and full of feelings than the letter. The personal letters are written in a form of the philosophical dialogue filled with thoughts about love, marriage and religion. Abelard and Heloise were searching the reasons of their misfortunate love by analyzing their personal experience and the universal norms and dogmas. In the styles of writing of both heroes of the story we can distinguish difference in their attitude to their love affair. Abelard tends to buttress his exposition with accumulated Biblical citations when Heloise writes seemingly more spontaneously, and that shows her intimate feelings. From this I consider that Abelard and Heloise had different feelings to each other.

In every Heloise's letter I see sincerity of her words. She writes about her feelings openly, admits that all what she wanted in life was Abelard: "God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours."(p.113) She didn't want to be Abelard's wife or get anything from him, but she simply wanted to be with him because she really loved him. "Tell me, I say, if you can--or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love."(p.116) Heloise question Abelard what did he really feel, but at the same time she knows the answer. It seems that she is asking this and deeply in her mind she wishes him to say that she is wrong, and that it is not true. Unfortunately, I believe that was the exact description why Abelard was with Heloise. He simply used her for his pleasures. Later he even admits it in his letter to Heloise: "My love, which brought us both to sin, should be called lust, not love. I took my fill of my wretched pleasures in you, and this was the sum total of my love." (p.153) I admire Heloise for her brave and strong character. She was not even afraid to take all blame on her: "At least I can thank God for this: the temper did not prevail on me to do wrong of my own consent, though in the outcome he made me the instrument of his malice." (p.131) She says that it's all her own fault: "The sequel is a fitting punishment for my former sins, and an evil beginning must be expected to come to a bad end...I truthfully admit to the weakness of my unhappy soul, I can find no penitence whereby to appease God."(132) She did not blame Abelard, and did not have any complaints to him--this is an example of true and sincere love of an unselfish person. Heloise was, indeed, very unselfish because she would do anything for her lover not thinking about the risks that could destroy her life.

Abelard letters are different form Heloise's. He is not open in his letters, and does not answer directly on her questions. He cites a lot of quotes form Bible with an effort to answer on Heloise's questions. He is going on circles in the explanation of his feelings, and the question arises if he understands himself what he wants to say by his words. Abelard totally wants to trick Heloise, and says her that he still misses her prayers for safety: "But now I am not with you, there is all the more need for the support of your prayers, the more I am gripped by fear of greater peril." (p.124) I think this shows very selfish character of Abelard. He tries to make an impression that he cares about his wife, and that he wants only good to the woman whose life he destroyed. He says to Heloise not to love him because they are just friends: "There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends." (p.152) Abelard calls Heloise a sister and a friend, and that is when they are formally married. We can not consider these people as a family at all. Although they had a son they never really saw or spent time with him, and in the end they all were lonely.

I think it is very simple to understand what kind of relationship was between Abelard and Heloise. Confident and proud philosopher used young innocent girl to get the pleasures that he wanted while the girl felt "honored" to be with such a strong character as Abelard. To my mind, the man with such personality as Abelard did not really need anybody in his life as he had more than enough--himself, perfect and brilliant. In a conclusion, Abelard got what he wanted by lust and his personal charm, and as a result he didn't only ruin the life of the smart and intelligent woman, but also brought the tragedy of his own life.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Peter Abelard's Autobiography: Story of My Misfortunes. (2024, Feb 03). Retrieved from

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