Welcome to Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to depart a bit from the normal Designing from Bones and share a love story from the distant pages of history.
Eloisa and Abelard
Peter Abelard (1079 – April 21, 1142) was a master philosopher, theologian and logistical mind that challenged the thinking of French society. Peter received his education at Notre Dame de Paris under a leading proponent of Realism (the primary philosophy of the day and one Abelard opposed). In his early twenties, Abelard rose to fame debating against the philosophical leaders of his day, defeating them one my one, including his former mentor and establishing himself as a preeminent thinker and teacher in Paris.
Eloisa (Heloise) d’Argenteuil (1101 – 1164) was a brilliant scholar from early in life winning renown for her knowledge of classical writings by her teen years. She lived with her uncle, a priest (canon) remembered only as Fulbert who ensured that she had the best of everything.
Having heard of Eloisa’s brilliance (and great physical beauty) Abelard desired to be near her and convinced her uncle to allow him to instruct her in philosophy and theology. Furthermore, as his living conditions at the time were poor, Peter gained the uncle’s ascent to move into their house to ensure proper study conditions. Talk about a player.
These two brilliant minds met and merged in a love affair both physical and intellectual without the knowledge of her uncle. However, Abelard boasted of his conquest to others which, of course, reached Fulbert who removed Abelard from his house. So strong was the
lust attraction of the two lovers that they continued to meet in secret until a pregnancy resulted.
Fearing Fulbert’s response, Eloisa fled his house to stay with Abelard’s sister while the older philosopher attempted to patch things up with Fulbert. To the traditional mind, marriage was the only option. Abelard asked Eloisa to marry him but at first she refused fearing that it would ruin his reputation to publicly reveal the affair with his much younger student. Different era, different social moors than today. Eventually, Eloisa agreed and the two were married in a secret ceremony after the birth of their son, Astrolabe, but never made knowledge of this fact public.
When Fulbert made a public declaration of their marriage, Eloisa denied it. Deciding that a change of location was needed Eloisa left Astrolabe in the care of Abelard’s sister at her husbands bidding, and went to stay with the nuns of Argenteuil.
Fulbert discovered the departure and assumed that Eloisa had been “put off” by Peter (sending her away in disgrace). Fulbert acted with vehemence. He gathered several family members, bribed Abelard’s house servant and after breaking into the house had Abelard held down and castrated. Justice was harsh and direct in the Middle Ages. Fulbert then forced Eloisa to join the Sisters of Argenteuil as penance for her sins.
In grief, Abelard fled to the Abbey of Saint-Denis and became a monk but found little comfort and moved about from priory to monastery for many years, taunting the monks and coming under repeated charges of heresy for his philosophies. At one point he even attempted to make himself a cabin of stubble and reeds but no sanctuary brought him peace for long and relocation became his only constant.
Abelard spent many years in silence while writing about the trials of his life and philosophies in the Historia Calamitatum. However, distance, castration and lives of religious servitude could not stop the two and Eloisa responded to Peter’s work reinitiating contact and for a time they wrote passionate letters to each other.
Eventually the stresses of Abelard’s life wore down his resolve and he wrote her accusing himself of forcing his attentions upon her and suggesting that he had never truly loved her and that she commit herself to the path of Christ and forget him. Some scholars believe this was Abelard’s way of trying to spare her heart and indeed Eloisa eventually became the Abbess of Argenteuil – the love affair disintegrating into one of cold professionalism until Abelard’s death in 1142.
While everyone is warmed by a good love story, it is important to remember that there are many kinds of romantic tale. Tragic love reminds us of how grateful we should be for the dedicated and passionate partners that walk beside us. Stories of tragic love also serve as lessons in how to guard and protect oneself from foolish and dangerous affairs of the heart. Be it happily ever after or unrequited tragedy such as with Eloise and Abelard or Romeo and Juliet, romance has much to teach about life and we would do well to fall in love with both.
What type of romance story do you find the most entertaining? Instructive? What is your favorite tragic love story from history, story, theater or film? I’d love to hear your thoughts.