Gender Roles and Sexual Relationship Rules in the Letters of Abelard and Heloise
Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil engaged in an illicit relationship over 900 years ago in medieval France. Abelard was a scholastic philosopher of notable prominence in Paris, who was taken in by a canon named Fulbert to educate his niece, Heloise. She had a reputation for being both well-learned and beautiful, two attributes that undoubtedly attracted the older Abelard. Their interactions went from being that of a scholastic nature to an intimate one, whereupon they were discovered by the Canon Fulbert after some time and separated. In time, Heloise discovered she was pregnant, after which she and Abelard made an escape to Brittany and a child named Astralabe was eventually born.
A secret marriage was proposed to appease Fulbert and prevent scandal, however, Heloise argued that disgrace was inevitable and Fulbert would not be satisfied. The marriage did occur, but only after some coercion on Abelard’s part. Heloise refuted being married to him after Fulbert’s public unveiling of the marriage. Fearing Fulbert’s retribution, Abelard had Heloise sent away to a nunnery in Argenteuil, northwest of Paris. Fulbert’s reaction to this relocation was that of anger, as he thought it was done by Abelard in an effort to extricate himself from Heloise. His response was violent as he ordered the castration of Abelard. Soon after, Abelard became a monk at Saint-Denis, north of Paris, while Heloise became a nun in Argenteuil. The correspondence between the two main characters entailed in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise took place approximately a decade and a half after their separation. Nearly every action taken by the two lovers as detailed in the letters was powerfully influenced by religion since it was of tremendous importance in the 11th and 12th centuries. Religion shaped the rules of living in every facet of people’s lives from birth to death. Gender roles and sexual relationship rules were both strictly molded by the Christian faith, as interpreted by the church, and this unquestionably comes through in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. I will discuss many examples in the upcoming paragraphs.
Cristina Nehring in a New York Times review said it best when she stated that Heloise was no feminist heroine. The fact that Heloise was a very well-educated woman of the times did not mean she evolved beyond the submissive, weak female role. She was the ward of her uncle, Fulbert, and he was both possessive and protective of her as she was staying in his care while the Abelard affair developed. As Letter 1, the Historia Calamitatum, details Fulbert’s revenge upon Abelard in the form of castration, it is a rather patriarchal response, for he has been scandalized and a victim of shame due to his female ward being taken without permission; Fulbert’s power was taken from him and the castration was a way to take some power back. It could be argued that Heloise’s role in this scenario was that of weak, female property.
Both Abelard and Heloise made multiple references to women being the weaker sex in their letters to each other. Detailed in Historia Calamitatum, Abelard describes them as being “more pitiable in a state of need” (p.36) and “needs the help of the stronger” (p.39). Further, in Letter 5, Abelard discusses having power over Heloise due to her “weaker nature”, using “threats and blows” to coerce her into sexual activities (p.81). However, in Letter 7, Abelard does state “their virtue is more pleasing to God and more perfect” in spite of their weakness, for which he faults Eve (p.118). As for Heloise, her references to women being the weaker sex are frequent, particularly when asking for direction of the Paraclete. She cited Pope St. Gregory in Letter 6, saying “men are to be admonished in one way, women in another; for heavy burdens may be laid on men and great matters exercise them, but lighter burdens on women, who should be gently converted by less exacting means” (p.96).
Heloise also reflects in Letter 6 how canon law has also taken into consideration the alleged female weakness and that women should not be deaconesses before the age of 40, unlike men, who can be deacons at age 20 (p.99). She does not appear to question this age gap’s legitimacy but does note that women cost less to maintain since they consume less food and alcohol and are far less likely to be gluttonous due to this fact. Overall, both Abelard and Heloise both appear to have the notion imbedded in their minds that the female sex is weaker and therefore only able to accomplish certain things.
In the twelfth century, female sexuality was highly regulated by the Church. The sacredness of virginity was of immense importance for one, as were the rules of sexual relations. Both aspects had one focal point and that was God. In Letter 3, Abelard states “The more God is pleased by the abstinence and continence which women have dedicated to him, the more willing he will be to grant their prayers” (p.59). In Letter 4, Heloise has a slightly different view of chastity, saying “They (men) consider purity of the ﬂesh a virtue, though virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul” (p.69). Their opinions differ in having lustful thoughts as well. Abelard’s opinion in Letter 5 is that “foolish virgins who pride themselves on purity of the ﬂesh or an outward show of self-denial, and then wither in the ﬁre of temptation” (p.74). This line seems directed at Heloise as she admits openly to lustful thoughts in her letters.
As for the church’s stance on sexual relations: they were only acceptable within marriage and not during certain holy days. There were many sources of guilt between Abelard and Heloise, but their pre-marital sexual relations were likely the greatest source and they expected punishment. In Letter 5, Abelard agonizes over their transgressions, particularly since some them occurred on the holy days of Lent (p.81). He felt that he deserved castration since this part of his anatomy was the source of lust and removal would end that insatiable desire. In Letter 4, Heloise also agonizes over their transgressions, saying “I yielded long before to the pleasures of carnal desires, and merited then what I weep for now” and “the sequel is a fitting punishment for my former sins, and an evil beginning must be expected to come to a bad end” (p.67). However, Heloise protests in Letter 4 that it was strange that punishment did not occur before they were married, but after, stating “when we amended our unlawful conduct by what was lawful, and atoned for the shame of fornication by an honourable marriage, then the Lord in his anger laid his hand heavily upon us, and would not permit a chaste union though he had long tolerated one which was unchaste” (p.65).
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Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil engaged in an illicit relationship over 900 years ago in medieval France. Abelard was a scholastic philosopher of notable prominence in Paris, who was taken […]