Designing from Bones – A Story of Tragic Love

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

Eloisa and Abelard at study and love

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.

Medieval painting of Eloisa and Abelard

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.

Tomb of Eloisa and Abelard; Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

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.

Peaceful Journeys!

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About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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16 Responses to Designing from Bones – A Story of Tragic Love

  1. Wow! Castrated? eek…. I find sick and twisted romances to be my favorites.. True Romance, Kalifornia, the diner scene in Pulp Fiction…

    Great post, Gene.

  2. Love rarely has a smooth road, or a happy ending. Its the tragedy that keeps us interested.

  3. What a story, eh?! I am a sappy, old happily ever after story lover. I know…so tame…so predictable but there’s something about it that just warms my heart and soul.

  4. I admit I hate reading tragic love stories (though this one was very interesting from a historical viewpoint). I guess I just like to read about happily ever after because in reality love is often so difficult and painful. It’s nice to read something uplifting and hopeful.

  5. Eden says:

    Part of what fascinates me about romances is the way we always interpret them according to our own desires. Like Shea noted “happily ever after” is desirable because it’s so rarely true, but Mary Jo is spot on when she says the tragedy holds our interest. We like to see people succeed against adversity, but we want it to actually be somewhat adverse… While we’re awed when someone gets things easily… we’re not as happy usually. We want characters we can relate to, and that includes having ones that have to work as hard (and often harder) than we do, to achieve their dreams.

  6. Patricia says:

    My goodness, we’ve come so far in our society. But love never fails apparently!

    I’m a sucker for a “happily ever after” romance but I do also like some tragic love stories. Gone With the Wind always makes me frustrated when Scarlett is deliriously sick and calling for Ashley when Rhett is in the room, but then calling for Rhett when no one hears her. Despite their flaws, I always pulled for Scarlett and Rhett to live happily ever after. Such was not the case, but that is one of my favorite “love” stories.

    Unrequited love is also sad, but makes for a really good story. I almost cried for the poor girl with the dragon tattoo at the end of that movie.

    This was an interesting post on human nature. Thanks for sharing it, Gene.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  7. Sherry Isaac says:

    Gene, I love stories like this. Matters of the heart bring the players and the times they lived in to life in a way the pages of a history book never can.

  8. Catie Rhodes says:

    What an interesting story. I had never heard of this before. My favorite kind of romance story–the one where the hero is an outlaw. Barbarosa (movie), Magdalene (song), or Boyd and Ava on Justified (TV). My favorite tragic love story–Bonne and Clyde? LOL

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Darlene: Love pulp fiction and the entire dinner sequence from pickup until the adrenaline shot is hilarious and intense 🙂

      Mary Jo: Watching a train wreck is indeed compelling and something most of us have seen or lived through which is an essential element of strong fiction.

      Natalie: Nothing wrong with being sappy, what speaks to ones heart speaks to ones heart and no apology is ever needed for that 🙂

      Shea: Agreed, love is often a difficult and treacherous road, which is why I think that there is such a fantastic draw to happily-ever-after romance. Enjoy them 🙂

      Eden: I think your comment sums up much of what the others are saying. My thought: We all look for the side of romance we’ve either experienced the least or are the most fascinated by. If love has been tragic for us then we’re looking for happy endings to fill the void and if we’ve experienced great love and still holding it then perhaps tragedy is a greater draw. The purpose of fiction is to live vicariously through the story and thus find those things we wish for, dream about and seek but cannot find in our real lives. Great comment, thanks 🙂

      Patricia: Love never fails, individually, is perhaps a better way to sum it. We each can decide to love and continue to love regardless of the occurrences of our lives – good or bad. We also can decide not to love or choose to love in a dangerous fashion, such as in the story of Eloisa and Abelard. By the way, I felt genuine sadness for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the end of that movie, a great story threaded through with many forms of tragic love.

      Sherry: Nothing is more personal than matters and affairs of the heart and I think this is why romances have such a strong draw – we all have experienced the roller coaster of love and all yearn for it no matter what our outer masks might show.

      Catie: Bonnie & Clyde, yes, a true classic tragic love and completely fitting for you. For me it is Lancelot and Guinevere.

  9. Ali Dent says:

    Gene, the story you shared is one thing but your commentary is quite another causing me to stop and reflect on the value of real romance entangled with ups and downs but commitment always and the love of romance in a story.

  10. Oh, I’m just a sucker for any romance. The time period of this post is one of my favorites. I think it’s a past life thing. It just resonates with me. I love hearing about the past. Thank you so much for this great post!

  11. Ouuuuuch. Man, that was one pissed off uncle. Great stories as always ROWbro. ~clink~

  12. Marcia says:

    I love any romance but especially tragic stories. All real-life love stories have their tragic moments and I prefer a story with more “real” than “fantasy” to it.
    I’d say castration is more than harsh! Interesting bit of history, Gene. Thanks for bringing it to us!

  13. Debra Eve says:

    Gene, this is one of my favorite stories of all time. There was a movie in the ’80s called “Stealing Heaven” that covered it well. I think Astrolabe changed his name when he became an adult 🙂

  14. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Oh, wow, castration! I wasn’t expecting that. I’m glad the uncle didn’t hurt the baby. Forbidden love, I guess Abelard and Eloisa were risk takers and liked playing with fire. Came back to bite them in the butt – worse for Abelard. My favorite tragic love story is Romeo and Juliet, but I, too, love the happy endings much better. Love this post and reading about these two lovers, real life figures. Perfect for a Valentine’s Day post!

  15. Pingback: Mind Sieve 2/27/12 « Gloria Oliver

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