Do you think Abelard’s read The Book of Wicked Wives?

OK, so since this is a blog post, and blogs are frequently used to rant, then rant I shall:

After having read Abelard and Heloise’s correspondence, I sincerely hope there is, if not the Christian Heaven, then some sort of conscious after-life wherein the dead are privy to the goings-on of the living solely in the vain hope that he can see these following words:

Abe, if you’re out there, listen carefully: fuck you.

You had me alternately sympathizing and condemning you throughout your absurdly named Historia calamitatum, but your continued obstinacy against Heloise’s emotional pleas throughout your seven letter correspondence sufficiently thwart any compassion I might have had. There is a reason Heloise constantly expresses that she is owed something from you (attention, management of your Paraclete, direction, etc.): you owe her everything. Everything. Her very life, from the moment you slithered into it onwards.

In fact, let’s talk about that for a second. Let’s hear a quote, straight from your own hand:

All on fire with desire for this girl I sought an opportunity of getting to know her through private daily meetings and so more easily winning her over… Fulburt dearly loved money, and was moreover always ambitious to further his neice’s education in letters, two weaknesses which made it easy for me to gain his consent and obtain my desire… This led him to make an urgent request which furthered my love and fell in with my wishes more than I had dared hope; he gave me complete charge over the girl, so that I could devote all the leisure time left to me by my school to teaching her day and night, and if I found her idle I was to punish her severely. I was amazed by his simplicity – if he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf it would not have surprised me more. In handing her over to me to punish as well as to teach, what else was he doing but giving me complete freedom to realize my desires, and providing an opportunity, even if I did not make use of it, for me to bend her to my will by threats and blows if persuasion failed? (10-11, emphasis mine)

Abe, this is disgusting. Yes, I know, times have changed, but you must understand that in your lamb/wolf analogy here you are the ravening wolf, the villain. And I also get that this is supposed to be a lamentation of sins, so that maybe aligning yourself with a ravening wolf is a sort of mental flagellation, but that does absolutely nothing to justify your later abdication of responsibility.

So OK, you were sort of a mentally abusive manipulator with rape as a trump card, but you got what you wanted and Heloise seemed fine with it. But then you got her pregnant (Astralabe?!) and you became part of a public scandal, the resolution of which, eventually, led to both of you taking the cloth. Well and good. And hey! When you found out Heloise and her nuns had been evicted you gave her your wilderness philoso-shack, where you abandon her again through a silence of non-correspondence.

And that, right there, is why I hate you. Not because you trashed another person’s life to fulfill your own desires, but that you scurry away from her like a squirrel until she is forced to take matters in her own hands. When she finally reaches out to you, you have this to say: “If since our conversion from the world to God I have not yet written you any word of comfort or advice, it must not be attributed to indifference on my part but to your own good sense, in which I have always had such confidence that I did not think anything was needed” (57). Hey, fuck you buddy. Just… fuck you. Heloise converted from the mortal world to God, making the best of what she had. You spun monasticism into another opportunity to inflate your already bloated ego and reputation. And you have the gall to chastise Heloise for being concerned for you. She’s the goddamn saint here, still loving you after all those years in spite of what you did to her. I would never normally consider castration a light punishment, but I sincerely hope that if you are seeing this, it’s on a virus-plagued Gateway computer stuffed into a particularly uncomfortable section of Hell, where you’re forever only allowed a 56K modem speed.

OK. Rant over. You know what I found really interesting? The discussion in letters 4 and 5 of letter formality concerning whether Abelard or Heloise should be the first name addressed. Let’s talk about that. What do you guys think? Do you buy Abelard’s justification, especially in light of his assertion that women, being the weaker sex, do a worse job of governing the nunnery than a priest of equal rank?

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7 thoughts on “Do you think Abelard’s read The Book of Wicked Wives?

  1. Let me just say: wow!!! I had some very similar feelings about Abelard and his high and mighty personality where he spends the majority of his writings justifying his actions in such a sly way as to critique himself but still come off as sympathetic. However, the time he spends admitting his wrongs, he is doing the same thing and acting completely hypocritical. I found it so interesting that he thought it acceptable to treat Heloise the way he wanted to, (punish her for his own sexual gratification)m but it seems like because he admitted it, he feels he has repented in some sick masochistic way. He gets pleasure from the pain he inflicts and mistakes he has made, (maybe that’s why he takes his castration so “lightly). That being said, and as frustrating as I found Abelard, while still curiously sympathizing with him at the same time, I think Heloise is underestimated. It seems that she has a great deal of control over Abelard and is in a way, (forgive the language) “running the show”! She seems to calculate everything and has the power to dictate Abelard’s actions and responses to her. She is not shy in directly chastising him and also it seems, in a public manner. She is controlling the conversation more than he realizes. Anyways, I could rant about the power dynamic between these two forever…..

    Which leads me to the next point and to address your question of the formality concerning who should be addressed first. I’m so glad this was brought up because I was confused, frustrated, and annoyed at Abelard’s continuos ramblings about the female being the weaker sex. I don’t understand how he seems at one point to value the female being, and in the next page condemn her as inferior to Man and to God. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this except that the catty back and forth trivial nature of this discussion between them in letters four and five, seem to speak to the power that Heloise truly holds over Abelard and that she is in fact, manipulating him and calling into question his own contradictions that are made. There seems to be so much more here that I can’t quit wrap my head around…

  2. Love the Historia Irae, Jerimiah! I’m glad that someone addressed Abelard’s arrogance, which is often overpowering, and sometimes just simply ridiculous. Imagine for a moment that you have a friend who has just suffered some calamity. Would you write them a letter that basically tells them, “You think you have it bad. How about this . . .?” It’s a kind of “misery loves company” one-upmanship. Not the kind of “compassion” I want from a friend.

    As Penelope notes, Abelard has some great moments, particularly when he lays out the history of women in the early church or when he’s making some brilliant theological point, but this is often overshadowed by his self-importance and self-centered perspective. As for the “weaker sex” business, my suspicion is that this is for his larger audience (i.e. fellow monks), who at all times are looking for reasons to expel his intolerable butt from the church. I have a feeling that Abelard was brilliant, but very difficult to like. I’m sure I would have a hard time with any student who made it his career goal to refute all of my teachings. . .

  3. When Abelard opens a school he names it “the Paraclete” (30), which means the “Comforter” and yet he cannot offer comfort to Heloise. I truly share in some of your strong feelings against Abelard, Jeremiah, and I really feel no sympathy for the guy.

    Letters 4 and 5 are really interesting (and I have to admit they are my favorite letters) and I agree with Penelope in that there’s a type of power play happening in which Heloise is wining. At first I didn’t like either of them (I found it really tough to get into these letters) and I though Heloise was downplaying herself too much and she didn’t deserve it. Later though, re-reading some of her letters I would now argue that Heloise’s downplaying of herself is actually her making a case for herself and for women in general. But then again I still don’t know what to make of Heloise. There’s one moment when she says “It was then that you [Abelard] alone paid the penalty in your body for what we had both done equally” (66), but what about her having her son? And what is more, what about her having to abandon her son? Maybe she says such things to make Abelard think beyond himself, and if she does then she’s pretty clever indeed.

  4. Let him have it Jeremiah! But!!! As I’ve alluded to in my other responses, there was a child! The harsh criticism directed at Abelard is warranted, but I cannot get past Heloise’s total lack of remorse nor her total lack of acknowledgment of this child.

    Letter 4, upon my first reading of it, is beautifully written. Heloise writes, “what adulterous women have brought upon their lovers, your own wife brought upon you” (66). She adds further, “may I have strength to do proper penance, so that at least by long contrition I can make some amends for your pain from the wound inflicted on you” (67). She is placing the blame on herself and making Abelard appear the victim who has suffered. And she suffers too. “But for me, youth and passion and experience of pleasures which were so delightful intensify the torments of flesh and longings of desire, and the assault is more overwhelming as the nature they attack is weaker” (69). This is what she has had to sacrifice! Or at least this, her sin, she is seeking forgiveness from the Lord.

    Having read through the letters and having time contemplate them some more, Ive become aggravated.

    She has sacrificed a son. She has given him up and she does this for Abelard. Abelard has sacrificed his body as well, but not by his choice. Are Abelard and Heloise making Christ-like martyrs of themselves by accepting these bodily sacrifices they have endured as a sign of their love to one another? (Pardon the sacrilege, but “this is my body, it will be given up for you”). Is this their way of rationalizing away their child? Heloise may be bright, but I firmly believe her lamenting over the sacrifice of lust and desire would certainly be superseded by her giving up the child she carried and gave birth to. And all this presumably with the man she loved.

    To add to what Jeremiah said, f—’em both!

  5. I had a hard time getting into the letters at all, and unfortunately that has not really changed by the end. I just really do not understand their relationship at all. What drew them to each other? For him was it just the convenience of living together? Or her higher intellect than other women?

    Then they part and correspond by letter. Which seems like the way to go, but why does Abelard write at all when he misses compassion for Heloise. After just those seven letters he does not want her to reply any more because the communication “make our penances of nought avail” (letter V). I am not sure if I agree with his reasoning that they “retire[…] from the world to purify” themselves. Maybe he should have thought about that before bedding Heloise, getting her pregnant, and overall messing up her life (and his?).

    Like Art, I have thought a lot about their child. Astrolabe – really? Why did they both not acknowledge that poor child more? Isn’t a child supposed to be the manifestation of love in a relationship? Maybe not.

  6. Jerimiah,
    I too find Abe to be a bit slimey, selfish, and really unappreciative towards Heloise. He almost reminds me of that cliche` frat-boy that goes away to college and leaves his devoted girlfriend behind, while he’s away he sleeps with anything and everything with boobs and she stays at home wondering why he hasn’t called but still loves him! It’s gross and unfortunate but obviously this relationship dynamic has been around quite some time. In thinking about what motivates men, like Abelard, to treat their doting darlings in such a manner, I arrived at the intersection of Derrida and Freud.

    I think Freud’s Pleasure Principle is applicable to a lot of Abe’s actions. That is, the obtaining of pleasure is what motivates Abe. He is simply trying to find pleasure in his life, and pleasure alone. When Heloise’s uncle gives Abelard “complete charge over the girl,” (10) he agrees to take her as a student simply because he can do with her what he wants. This power gives him pleasure, or an opportunity “giving me complete freedom to realize my desires” (11). Having complete control over Heloise gives Abelard pleasure, probably because he has the power to “bend her to my will” (11). He can shape Heloise into the devoted and obedient student, lover, concubine or whore because he is allowed to exert complete control over her. Also, Abelard’s unwillingness to marry Heloise when he learns of her pregnancy furthers his quest for pleasure without consequence. Although Abelard initially does want to make Heloise his wife, she denies in order to protect her teacher and lover to which she is so wholly devoted. Is it possible that it is Abelard’s own philosophies and domination over Heloise’s mind that influences her ultimate decision to reject his marriage offer?
    Heloise argues against the marriage because, “the disgrace to myself” (13) or the disgrace to Abelard. She is so devoted to ensuring Abelard’s happiness and pursuit of pleasure that she does not even consider herself or her unborn child in rejecting the marriage. Furthermore, it is clear that Abelard’s teachings have instilled in Heloise’s mind that monogamy and marriage goes against the very pleasure principle that rules Abelard so strongly. This is clear in her justification for rejecting the marriage in page 13, “what honour could she win, she protested, from a marriage which would dishonour me and humiliate us both? The world would justly exact punishment from her if she removed such a light from its midst. Think of the curses, the loss to the Church and grief of philosophers which would greet such a marriage! Nature had created me for all mankind – it would be a sorry scandal if I should bind myself to a single woman and submit to such base servitude.” Note that this passage on page 13 is Abelard recalling Heloise’s justification for rejecting the marriage. It should not go unnoticed that Abelard is literally penning the words in which he had instilled in his obedient student’s mind. He is speaking for her literally and figuratively by writing the words that she spoke, but those words are the philosophies he has instilled in her regurgitated in a conversation. Heloise will go to great lengths to ensure that Abelard can find and maintain pleasure in his life because he has taught her to do so.
    Heloise clearly demonstrates that marriage would cause Abelard a great amount of suffering. Marriage for Abelard would also deny him of pursuing pleasure in his life. What then does having this baby out of wedlock mean for Heloise? A great amount if suffering, in the name of obedience and devotion to her teacher and lover that doesn’t love her back, but loves that he can control and manipulate her into ensuring that he maintain pleasure in his life. So, can we consider Abelard and his brain washing of Heloise as the epitome of Freud’s pleasure principle? After all, he seeks only what gives him pleasure with out consequence.

    I hoped to discuss in depth the Derrida and Freud pleasure principle and wanted to try and connect the actual written correspondence between Heloise and Abelard to the pleasure principle, but I realized as I am writing this on the train that I forgot my Derrida book at home. However, I do feel like connecting Abelard’s character and actions to the pleasure principle will suffice for now.
    See you all at the BPL later!
    -Samantha

  7. I like to think maybe, in your proposed-for-the-sake-of-vengeance Christian Heaven and/or 56k modem afterlife, that Abelard and Heloise are reading your blog post and laughing because it was a fictionalized exchange. Wasn’t that one of the theories about its composition put forth in the introduction? Or, actually, I’d sort of prefer if it were just Heloise who made the entire thing up (though I guess all the actual theories would pin it on Abelard or maybe a genuine collaboration. Nope, though. I want it to have been Heloise.)

    That aside, I think the order-of-address point in letters 4-5 is a really interesting one. Abelard’s address to Heloise in letter 3 (“To Heloise, his dearly beloved sister in Christ, from Abelard, her brother in Him”) is — well, it’s certainly colder than hers to his, and certainly dutifully religious, but there’s ALMOST a spark of something more there, something not quite warm but maybe…courtly? And she’d notice, of course, and demand a justification for that, compared with the muffled platonic blandness of the rest of the tone. I like how she addresses him as “my only love” while lecturing him on a point of letter-writing convention. And how she puts woman/man and wife/husband as the first two dichotomies on the list before, say, abbess/abbot.

    And I just thought to check something: Peter the Venerable’s letters to Heloise seem to put her name first as well (unless the translation just reordered things arbitrarily.) Is Heloise just making things up or are both men extending the same unusual, uncustomary courtesy to her? Is this maybe a clash between “natural convention” and their potentially unusual situation of writing to a woman not only literate but educated beyond most men? Might her education have something to do with it, in other words — or could it be a stirring of courtly chivalry that wandered a bit out of place? I suppose we’re a century or two too early for that. It does almost feel like flirting after we’ve read Heloise calling it out.

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