Correspondence of Abelard and Heloise

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Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Though Abelard and Heloise are described in the writings of their contemporaries, they are best known to us through their letters, considered to be the earliest documented examples of romantic love. Seven of the eight letters which come down to us form a correspondence between Abelard and Heloise, but the letter which is traditionally placed first, titled the historia calamitatum, does not seem to have been addressed specifically to Heloise.

The letters offer a surprisingly frank discussion of their relationship, and some scholars, scandalized by the candor of the letters, have expressed doubts about their authenticity. The letters' authenticity has also been questioned because of the undeniable erudition of Heloise, as witnessed by her letters. Further study, however, has found little evidence for these claims.

More recently, yet another collection of passionate love letters has been found which dates to the time of Abelard and Heloise. These letters do contain strong evidence which points to their identification as being between Abelard and Heloise, although the issue has not yet been definitively proven.

The Letters

The historia calamitatum

The correspondence of Abelard and Heloise

Scholarly Issues Surrounding the Letters

The Manuscript Tradition

In reading the letters of Abelard and Heloise, it is worth noting that the letters themselves are no longer extant, and our copies of the letters have been redacted into book form. This might have been done at the Paraclete, the convent where Heloise was abbess. The earliest surviving copy is from around 1280.[1]

The Question of Forgery

Though doubts about the letters' authenticity have been expressed as far back as the early 20th century, they were articulated most strongly by John F. Benson in 1972. Benson proposed that the letters are an elaborate hoax, begun in the 12th century with a fabricated historia calamitatum, and continued in the 13th with the composition of the remaining letters. The chief rationale for Benson's claims lies in the many years of monastic service of both Abelard and Heloise. His interpretation offers a picture of them which is different from that portrayed in the letters, and also brings the complimentary letters of Peter the Venerable to bear. On the other hand, Benson's interpretation significantly downplays the colorful contemporary descriptions of Abelard.

Benson did not formulate a plausible explanation of who might have forged the letters of Abelard and Heloise. In 1985, Hubert Silvestre argued that Jean de Meun, the 13th century writer who translated and popularized the letters, had in fact composed them himself. On the one hand, this jibes with our sense of Jean as someone who was deeply concerned with romantic love. On the other hand, and probably fatally for Silvestre's argument, the letters contain a wealth of accurate detail about the lives of Abelard and Heloise and are linguistically accurate.[2]

In general, the arguments of the forgery theorists rest upon implausible assumptions and have not been borne out by the weight of the evidence. Most scholars today believe that the letters of Abelard and Heloise are authentic.

The de Vepria Letters

  1. p. lxviii, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, trans. Betty Radice, rev. ed. M.T. Clanchy. Penguin Books, New York: 2003.
  2. p. lxviii-lxvix, Letters.