Historia Calamitatum (Story of My Misfortunes)

Author: Pierre Abélard

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Immortal Lovers: Abélard and Héloise


In the city of Paris dwelt a young girl named Hé1öise, Canon Fulbert’s niece. Her uncle’s affection for her was equalled only by his wish that she should receive the best possible education. Her exceptional beauty was graced by outstanding learning. This was the young girl with whom I determined to join in the bonds of love. Actually, this objective seemed to me easy to achieve. With my distinguished name and with advantages of youth and good looks, I had not the slightest idea that I would be rejected. Because of her knowledge of and enthusiasm for letters, I believed that I could win her consent all the more easily. Even if we were parted, written messages would bring us together in thought, and, were we to write more frankly than we could speak we could at all times live in joyous intimacy.

Utterly aflame with passion for this maiden, I sought means to speak with her daily and thereby win her consent the more easily. With this purpose in mind I persuaded her uncle to take me into his household (he lived close to my school) in return for a small sum which I was to pay. My excuse was that household cares handicapped my studies and amounted in fact to an expense far greater than I could afford. Doubly moved by avarice and his desire to advance his niece’s studies, he readily consented. He entrusted her wholly to my guidance, and begged me to instruct her whenever I might be free from school duties, whether by day or night, and to punish her sternly were she negligent in her work.

The man’s simplicity astounded me. I should not have been more amazed had he entrusted a tender lamb to the care of a ravenous wolf. He had given me free scope to satisfy my desires and offered me every opportunity, even if I had not sought it, to bend her to my will with threats and blows if I failed to do so with caresses. His own love for his niece and my reputation for continence served to allay his suspicions.

Need I say more? We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it. Pretending to study, we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and study provided us with the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the texts which lay open before us. Our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought each other’s bosoms far more than the book. Love drew our eyes together far oftener than the lesson drew them to the assigned pages. Yes, there were blows at times, but merely to avert suspicion. But these came from love, not anger, from a tenderness surpassing in sweetness the most fragrant balm rather than from wrath. Our passion ran the entire gamut of love’s progress. Could love itself conjure up any wonder yet unknown, we would have discovered it. Inexperienced in the delights of love, we were more ardent in the pursuit of them. Our thirst remained unquenched.

This passionate rapture consumed me more and more, and, consequently, I devoted less and less time to philosophy and school duties. School became loathsome and burdensome. Studying by day, giving my nights to vigils of love, I became careless and indifferent in my lecturing. I had become an uninspired reciter. When my students perceived my preoccupation they were filled with sorrow and lamentations.

Few if any were deceived save Fulbert, the girl’s uncle, who was impervious to hints. When, after several months had elapsed, he learned the truth, he was grief-stricken, and bitter was the sorrow of us lovers when we were forced to part. Each grieved most, not for himself, but for the other. The sundering of our bodies served only to link our souls closer together, and the fullness of that love which was denied us enflamed us more than ever, and left us more shameless than ever before. The poets tell how once Mars and Venus were caught together. And so it chanced with us.

Not long after this Héloïse found out that she was pregnant. She wrote to me exultingly and asked my advice as to the best course to pursue. One night, when her uncle was away, we carried out a predetermined plan. I stole her secretly from her uncle’s house and sent her to my own country, where she remained with my sister until she gave birth to a son, whom she named Astrolabe. When her uncle returned he was mad with grief. Pitying him and blaming myself for the suffering which my deception had brought upon him, I went to him to beg his forgiveness and promised to make amends. What had happened, I pointed out, could not seem incredible to any one who had ever felt the power of love. I offered to marry her whom I had seduced, provided that it be kept secret in order that my reputation should not be damaged. To this he readily assented. Pledging his faith, he sealed with kisses the pact I had made with him. All this he did in order the more easily to betray me.

Repairing at once to my own country, I brought back my mistress in order to make her my wife. But she violently disapproved on two grounds. She felt the plan was inherently dangerous and would bring disgrace upon me. Her uncle, she prophesied, would never be satisfied. Such a marriage, she asserted, would make the philosophers weep, for it was utterly unsuitable that I, whom nature had made for the whole world, should devote myself henceforth to one woman solely. Regarding this marriage as in every way ignominious and burdensome to me, she vehemently rejected the idea.

Héloïse, pursuing her arguments bade me consider the conditions of honorable wedlock. Could there be any possible concord between scholars and housekeepers, between writers and cradles, between books and distaffs, between the pen and the spindle? Can any man, engrossed in religious and philosophical meditations, endure the whining of children, the lullabies of the nurse, the noisy confusion of family life? The rich, with their palaces of many rooms, and with their wealth are freed of daily cares. But philosophers are not wealthy, nor can those whose minds are taken up with wealth and secular pursuits find the time for study.

"If you care nothing for your privileges as a cleric," she added, "the least you can do is to uphold your dignity as a philosopher. Remember the case of Socrates, chained to his wife. Jerome recounts the incident: Once when he was the target for a storm of reproaches which Xantippe was hurling at him from an upper story, he was suddenly drenched with foul slops. Wiping his head, he merely remarked. ’I knew there would be a shower after all that thunder.’ "

Finally, she warned that it would be dangerous for me to take her back to Paris. It would be far sweeter for her to be called my mistress, she asserted, than to be known as my wife, and it would be more honorable for me as well. For then love alone would hold me to her and we would not be constrained by the weight of the marriage chain. When all her arguments proved unavailing, she ended her resistance, tear-stricken and sighing heavily:

"Then there is no way out but that in our fate the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known."

As the world well knows, she did not lack the gift of prophecy. After the birth of our little son, we left the baby to the care of my sister and secretly returned to Paris. One early morning, a few days later, after a secret nocturnal vigil of prayer, we were united in wedlock in a certain church. Héloïse’s uncle was present, as were a few friends on both sides. Immediately after the wedding, we went our separate ways, and saw each other thereafter rarely and in private. While we concealed our act in every possible way, her uncle and his household began to divulge the story of our marriage, violating the specific pledge they had given me on this point. Héloïse denounced her kin as liars, and her uncle, aroused to fury, punished her repeatedly. As soon as I learned this, I sent her to a convent of nuns at Argenteuil, not far from Paris, where she had been reared as a young girl. I bade her put on all the garments of a nun appropriate to the life of a convent, save the veil.

The news convinced her uncle and his kinsmen that I had played them false and had abandoned Héloïse forever by forcing her to become a nun. They were violently incensed and plotted my ruin. One night, while I, all unsuspecting, was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they bribed one of my servants and broke in. They took vengeance upon me by inflicting a most cruel and humiliating punishment — one that shocked the whole world. They proceeded to cut off these parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their grief. Then they fled precipitately. But two of them—one of them my servant whose avarice betrayed me—were captured and suffered the loss of their eyes and genital organs.

The next morning the whole city was assembled before my lodgings. It is virtually impossible to describe with words their bewilderment, the cries they uttered, or the grief which heightened my own suffering. I suffered more intensely from their expressions of compassion than from the pain of my wounds. I felt the disgrace more than the bodily injury. The shame hurt more than the pain itself. So swiftly had an evil chance blotted out the renown in which I had taken such delight. God, I realized, had justly punished me in that very part of my body whereby I had sinned.

What road lay before me? When every linger pointed at me in scorn, when every tongue spoke my blistering shame, could I, a monstrous spectacle to all eyes, ever again hold my head up among men? I was overwhelmed by the recollection that God holds eunuchs in such abomination that they am forbidden to enter a church, even as the filthy and the unclean. Even beasts so maimed were not acceptable as sacrifices. Thus, in Leviticus (xxii, 24) it is said: "Ye shall not offer unto the Lord that which hath its stones bruised, or crushed, or broken, or cut." And in Deuteronomy (xxiii, 2), "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord."

I confess I was driven to seek the seclusion of the monastic cloister by the overwhelming sense of my disgrace rather than by a conversion to the religious life. At my bidding, Héloïse had already taken the veil. Thus we both put on the sacred garments, I in the abbey of St. Denis, and she in the convent of Argenteuil. When her friends sought vainly to deter her from submitting her fresh youth to the heavy and almost intolerable yoke of monastic life, she replied, sobbing and weeping, in the words of Cornelia:

". . . Why then was I wedded Only to bring thee to woe? Receive now my sorrow, The price I so gladly pay." Lucan, "Pharsalia," viii, 94.

With these words on her tips she stepped up to the altar, lifted up the veil which had been blessed by the bishop, and before them all took the vows of the convent life.

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Chicago: Pierre Abélard, Historia Calamitatum (Story of My Misfortunes), ed. Abélard in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 24, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RJ5C7PGRLI29KBH.

MLA: Abélard, Pierre. Historia Calamitatum (Story of My Misfortunes), edited by Abélard, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 24 Apr. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RJ5C7PGRLI29KBH.

Harvard: Abélard, P, Historia Calamitatum (Story of My Misfortunes), ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RJ5C7PGRLI29KBH.