The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 4 One Nun Against God: The Human Tragedy of Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Where’s Dave? Tune in to the next episode of The Cartoon History of Humanism where Dave talks to Abelard about his irresistibly absurd life.

One Nun Against God: The Human Tragedy of Héloïse d’Argenteuil

“O vows!  O convent! I have not lost my humanity under your inexorable discipline! You have not made me marble by changing my habit.”  —Héloïse d’Argenteuil

So, you had this boyfriend. He was a divinity student, which was weird, but you fell in love with him anyway. Ridiculously, stupidly in love, and you got pregnant. Ordinarily, that’s fine, but this happened to be the twelfth century, so you got married. Your family was outraged by the whole scandalous affair, dealt with your husband in an appropriately medieval fashion, and then shut you up in a convent.

Now, what do you do with the rest of your life?

HeloiseFor most women of the time, there wouldn’t be much recourse but to sit in the nunnery and await death while slowly convincing oneself somehow in the ultimate goodness of God’s mysterious plan. But for one, who happened to be one of the most learned scholars of her age, it was the inspiration to speak out against the cruelties of the convent and for the embracing of pure, human emotion. She was Héloïse d’Argenteuil, famous now merely as half of the tragic lover’s pair, Héloïse and Abelard, but in her few surviving letters a powerful and challenging mind gleams forth, ready to challenge God himself if need be in pursuit of the personal attachments of our merely mortal life.

We know little of her origins. When Abelard met her, she was living with her “uncle,” a Notre Dame canon by the name of Fulbert who could very well have been her father. She was perhaps in her early twenties when Abelard entered her life, and was already renowned across France for the depth of her learning and insight. She knew Hebrew, Greek, and Latin fluently and was deeply acquainted with the philosophical works of antiquity, particularly the Stoic tradition.

Interestingly, she was among the last women in Europe to be allowed such a level of learning for a great while; after the 12th century, the Catholic Church reasserted its grasping stewardship of women’s personal development, taking particular aim at eliminating the grotesque affront of the female intellectual. It would take three hundred years for women of Héloïse’s education to be a semi-common presence in Europe again.

Abelard was, at the time, and pretty much at every time before and after, a cocky logician who thought that every woman loved him and every man stood in smoldering envy of his argumentative skills. His routine was to roam from one learned academy to the next, challenge the reigning lecturer, piss everybody off, and then flee before the consequences became dire. Looking past all of his overwrought egotism, however, one has to admit that he was indeed a startling and original thinker. His books were banned twice by Rome, and one of them, Sic et Non, had the temerity to carefully seek out and present all of the myriad instances of church fathers asserting diametrically opposed things about the big questions in religion. He claimed it was to help develop a higher logic that unified all of the clearly contradictory opinions of the past, but the end result was a catalogue detailing with excruciating clarity the absurd logical knots at the heart of Christianity.

He fell in love with Héloïse’s mind, and she with his (he was also apparently something of a looker, though on the stout side, and a musician to boot), and he somewhat brilliantly found a way to get her “uncle” to agree to his being her tutor. This gave the young lovers ample opportunity to have all manner of forbidden medieval sex, and Héloïse soon found herself with child. Abelard proposed that they get married, but Héloïse resisted.

According to Abelard’s self-serving account in the Historia Calamitatum, it was because she didn’t want to get in the way of his astounding career as a theologian. In her own letter to him, however, she points out a separate motive. “I was very unwilling to be necessitated to love always a man who, perhaps, would not always love me,” she pragmatically assessed, knowing Abelard’s reputation as a somewhat inconstant lover. She wanted to love him freely rather than be tied to a dubious relationship for the sake of societal convention. “Though I knew the name of Wife was honourable in the world, and holy in religion, yet the name of your mistress had greater charms, because it was more free.”

Let me reiterate that this was the 12th century, and here was a woman essentially arguing that her reproductive fate oughtn’t to dictate her personal freedom. It is an almost inconceivable leap forward in the concept of female agency, and it is far from the only such instance in the few letters of Héloïse that we possess. Raised on a steady diet of Seneca and the other philosophers of antiquity, she had an instinctual and profound respect for the dignity of human freedom and passion, broken eventually only after decades of isolation and Abelard’s studied cruelty.

As always, Abelard got his way, and the couple married. Héloïse’s family, however, were outraged by Abelard’s behavior subsequent to the wedding, and decided that the only way to finally solve the problem was to jump him in his sleep and castrate him.

So, that happened.

Abelard, emasculated, forced Héloïse into a convent out of jealousy. If he couldn’t have her, then nobody could. And she agreed, again, though every fiber of her person shrieked against the act. “It was your command only,” she wrote to him years later, “and not a sincere vocation, as is imagined, that shut me up in these cloisters. I fought to give you ease, and not to sanctify myself.”

“I am here, I confess, a sinner, but one who, far from weeping for her sins, weeps only for her lover; far from abhorring her crimes, endeavours only to add to them; and who, with a weakness unbecoming the state I am in, please myself continually with the remembrance of past actions, when it is impossible to renew them.” In Abelard’s responses, these blasphemies gain his full reproach, and he continually urges her to accept her fate and give herself up to the pain of existence, to “take the part of God against herself.”

He describes their love as an evil that must be replaced by penitence and silent service. She, however, evaluates the measure of man’s life with an irresistible bittersweet grace: “If there is anything which may properly be called happiness on Earth, I am persuaded it is the union of two persons who love each other with perfect liberty, who are united by a secret inclination, and satisfied with each other’s merit.”

Héloïse—trapped in a cloister against her choosing and reflecting on the happiness of human interaction and the primacy of liberty in matters of the heart and the head—became entirely too much for Abelard. After a serious illness weakened her resolve to resist her imposed life, Abelard struck, and hard.

Provoked at your contempt and ingratitude, God will turn his love into anger, and make you feel his vengeance. How will you sustain his presence when you shall stand before his tribunal? He will reproach you for having despised his grace; he will represent to you his sufferings for you. What answer can you make? He will then be implacable. He will say to you, “Go, proud creature, dwell in everlasting flames…. Go, wretch, and take the portion of the retrobates.”

And with that, Abelard signed off the last personal letter he would ever send Héloïse. He accused her of interfering with his salvation, and knew that he was interfering with hers, and refused to correspond further about anything but professional matters. The woman who once wrote, “I am no longer ashamed that my passion has had no bounds,” was battered at last into obedient compliance. She wrote theological questions to him, and he answered, and that was all. Abelard died in 1142 and Héloïse lived on until 1164 as the head of a cloister founded by Abelard. She was adored her charges and by Abelard’s students who saw in her a last connection to their master’s sparkling wit and knowledge. Whether she still carried that ember of resistance deep inside her we can’t know, but in that tragically small pile of letters we can see a fierce and confident spirit throwing out a challenge to society and God on behalf of her love and freedom, an example of defiance in the name of humanity so touching and powerful that its like would not be allowed again for centuries.

Further Reading

Héloïse’s letters are widely available, in both Latin and English translation. There are fewer than a half dozen personal letters between Abelard and Héloïse, with a few more letters about nunnery business beyond those. The latter make for quite tragic reading, as you watch Héloïse gut herself of anything smacking of her former, lustrous humanity in order to keep up any kind of communication with Abelard.