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The little known Great Love Story

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Heloise and Abelard may be the greatest love story that most people have never heard of. All I knew about Heloise and Abelard was that they were twelfth century lovers, who’s romance ended in tragedy. Oh and their joint grave site is right next to Jim Morrison’s in Paris. I knew that they had to more to their story then just tragedy if 900 years after their death, we are still talking about them. So, I was very excited to read James Burge’s book Heloise & Abelard: a New Biography. In the interest of full closure, I am a history student so I find these types of books fascinating. I know they can be boring but Burge is able to work through the material and make it read like a novel. He allows the reader to get involved in their love affair. A nice departure from the usually history literature fare.

Heloise and Abelard romance plays out against the background of twelfth century Paris. Abelard was the star of the intellectual community. A wunderkind, who out debated his teachers and set up his own school before the age of thirty. Heloise was the niece of a Bishop in Paris. She was raised in a convent and was educated. She was fluent in Latin and well versed in classical works. It is unclear how they met but Abelard moved into Heloise’s Uncle’s house and began to tutor her. They soon fell in love and began writing each other. Their letters will filled with they lusts and passion and even details of their sexual activity as well as they philosophical discussion. After two years of keeping their love affair a secret, Heloise became pregnant. Heloise’s Uncle was obviously unhappy and took his revenge by hiring men to castrate Abelard. So that is one way to end a love affair or at least the physical aspect of it. Heloise and Abelard both entered monasteries and did not talk to each other for fifteen years. It took Abelard to write his own autobiography to get them to start to write each other again. Even after all they went through and their distance, their love was still present. Their story will make any cynic become a romantic.

Burge, a historian himself who had study their letters for many years, analyzes and picks them apart and puts into context of their time. When he describes Paris around 1100 A.D., I could picture it in my head. I imagine the busy streets around the Cathedral of Notre Dame, filled with students, clergymen, royalty and merchants selling their wares. Burge does his best to trace their relationship through they letters. From the first to the last and where the letters leave off, Burge fills in the blanks with his well researched material on the couple and the people around them. My only complaint about the book, I can not blame on the author, for I know he exhausted all his outlets. I wish more time was spent on Heloise outside of their relationship. Sadly, Heloise is victim of the gender bias of history. Documents on women were rarely made and kept and if they do still exist are scarce and usually incomplete. There is no record of her birth or where she lived before she moved in with her uncle. All that is known is that she was raised in a convent outside of Paris. She probably would have been lost to history completely if it was not for her affair with Abelard and for that I am grateful. Other then that, Heloise & Abelard was a fun and interesting read.

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About Beth Donelson

  • tom

    excellent job, look forward to reading more from you.

  • Thanks for the comments. No I haven’t read other of those authors. I will have to put them on my list. Lately, I have been reading books on Latin America for a class. I read an excellent novel, The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela. It is about the Mexican Revolution. It’s historical fiction but a pretty good description of the people who fought in the war.

  • Thanks for the review. I have often wondered about those two, but never got round to checking them out.

    Being a fan of historical novels, I think that those set in Paris or London have an edge on all the others. The two cities are just so evocative, old cathedrals, mist on the river, mobs and royals and republicans… Do you like Ackroyd’s books about London, or Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (about the French Revolution)? They’re both great too.

  • This is interesting. I was just preparing to jump into the food fight between A.J. Jacobs, who read an encyclopedia and wrote a book about it (*The Know It All*) and his NYT reviewer Joe Queenan.

    Queenan criticized Jacobs for, among other things, being “unaware that the story of Heloise and Abelard is not some obscure medieval tidbit but an insanely famous love story.”

    I was ready to side with Queenan, but I will reconsider.