History and literature — for the past couple of weeks I have written (almost) daily notes on what happened on this day in history (usually military) or in literature (a la Sherlock Holmes and A Farewell to Arms). Before I move to other fields and pastures, I wanted to bring up something a bit different – literature of romance, in history!

Romeo and Juliet did not invent romantic language but, rather, rediscovered it:

Throughout all Latinity, no phrase has yet been found that speaks clearly about how intent on you is my spirit, for God is my witness that I love you with a sublime and exceptional love. And so there is not nor ever will be any event or circumstance, except only death, that will separate me from your love.

Romantic expressions of this intensity were unknown in the Middle Ages, by anyone! This romantic expression, however, became immortal, because it was written by the niece of a bishop who had fallen in love with her teacher, a brilliant cleric in orders whose lectures on theology and philosophy were to become the very origins of the Sorbonne – University of Paris. A romance between them was so forbidden as to be unthinkable. The letters of the affair between Heloise and Abelard are the earliest romantic, indeed erotic, language in modern writing to search for descriptions of the passion of overwhelming romance.

This date, July 15, is given, (admittedly with some uncertainty), as the beginning of their affair. Paris was as intoxicating in 1115 as it is today, a city of hidden corners where lovers might linger, of vineyards and fields near St. Germain des Pres in which they could lie, of the luxurious home of her uncle where the affair was consummated in secret. (Quite a lot, as it seems). They used Heloise’s lessons as a pretext for privacy, for which Abelard would write in his autobiography that

“… Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, with our books open before us…. My hands strayed more 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.”

Their senses were more than mere physical passion, however, and it is from their softer expressions that we have inherited a language of romance:

Physicists say often that the moon does not shine without the sun, and that when deprived of this light, it is robbed of all benefit of heat and brightness and presents to humans a dark ashen sphere. Abelard to Eloise.

Know indeed that the midday sun has risen for you, that the chorus of birds is rejoicing over your health… And look too how, now that this slight snow has melted, all things flourish again, the seasons will smile on them and by the grace of God there will be for us a not unfamiliar joy. Eloise, in reply.

Heloise’s uncle was oblivious to what was happening under his nose (inside his own home, still there today on the Qaui Aux Fleurs behind Notre Dame). They hid their affair for almost a year but, perhaps inevitably, it became necessary to flee. Abelard and Eloise disappeared to Brittany, where they married in secret and where their child was born. When they were discovered, the child was taken, Heloise was packed away into a convent, and Abelard was taken back to Paris. Bishop Fulbert and his family took him back to the Quai, outside the door where he had violated their niece and their trust, and violated him back, throwing him onto the dock and castrating him.

Their fervent love letters continued until Abelard’s death in 1142. They had to be content with writing, however, because he and Heloise were never permitted to see one another, or their child, again. Romantics, historians, and most certainly, novelists, are indebted to them for the language of ideas they have given to nine centuries of lovers. Quid plura? (Need I say more?)

(The quotations are from Burge, Heloise and Abelard, [2003]).

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