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Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography - James Burge Heloise and Abelard have endured these 900 years because they wrote letters, lots of letters, and theirs is a great love story unto itself. But what most intrigues me is its personification of the struggle between the human and the divine that culminated in the Renaissance. Though they died long before the Renaissance, I see Heloise and Abelard everywhere in the paintings of that era.

In Botticelli’s Spring, the Three Graces and the guises of Venus seem the very human aspects of Heloise beckoning a divinely distracted Abelard, who can’t decide whether to pluck the fruit or keep reaching for heaven, and seems likely to never make up his mind. Perhaps “taunting”is better than “beckoning.”

“Hey buddy, over here, look around would you, you’re about to miss the point.”

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Meantime, the dark apparition of dogma is moving in on the right, threatening to snatch the lovely lot away before a clueless Abelard comes to his senses. The senses being the point. Not just the basic five, but the sense of human worth that depends upon appreciating the feminine. And I use the term “feminine” in the broadest sense, pun intended, to denote female worth in general.

Literally for centuries (and in some minds and places to this day) woman amounted to a pathology defined by a deviation from maleness. The female body was messy and weak, and at best a necessary evil. Its usefulness amounted to bearing and raising a man’s children; the rest was little more than temptation made flesh. Female beauty could be admired only when it exemplified virtue; otherwise, like Satan’s, it was all deception, and a man proved his devotion to God by refusing it.

Early paintings of the adoration of Mary (and there are a lot of them) make for a dark contrast to the lively Renaissance visions of Venus and the graces. Mary is cloaked beyond recognition – if not for the baby on her knee you’d hardly know she’s female. In van der Goes version below, I imagine the irreverent bearded guy at the back thinking, “Really? Not my idea of a woman,” as he recollects a wanton lover. And I suspect the couple beside him is peeved over the guilt Mary's making them feel about the sex required to make their own baby.

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In 12th century France a renowned cleric named Fulbert began toying with these conflicting notions by way of educating the niece he had been called upon to raise. Her name was Heloise. Fulbert proposed to demonstrate the extent of God’s grace through its capacity to enlighten even a woman. It helped that Heloise was naturally bright as well as beautiful, the outcome being that she spoke, read and wrote at least three languages fluently, enjoyed politics and mathematics, and was admired for her wit and beauty.

Fulbert solicited the instruction of the greatest philosopher and teacher in France at the time, Abelard. Being a woman, Heloise was forbidden to attend classes, but Abelard might teach her at home, Fulbert suggested, and even invited Abelard to live with them. Philosophers and teachers, like clerics, were beholden to the church and celibate. This meant Abelard had no personal obligations to prevent him accepting the offer, which he did. A passionate and clandestine love affair soon commenced, born in a meeting of like minds, provoked by the sexiest bit of all anatomy, the brain.

Every couple has its issues, and for Heloise and Abelard it was reconciling the demands of the divine with the desires of the flesh. Abelard reveled in the relationship but remained conflicted about it, the point of celibacy being to prevent a woman usurping God's place in man's heart. Heloise, a holistic thinker, saw no reason for a dichotomy. Shamelessly appropriating attributes of heaven and the Lord from the book of Psalms, she wrote: "I am the whiteness of milk and the sweetness of honey and I send the outpouring of every delight and the joy of redemption. I hope with the greatest intention of my heart that you may always fare well and live in this sweetness, the most precious thing I have to give you, myself, firm in faith and love, stable in desire for you and never changeable."

Dropping the sacred allusions, she frankly concluded: "If there is anything that may properly be called happiness here below, I am persuaded it is the union of two persons who love each other with perfect liberty, who are united by a private inclination and satisfied with each other's merits...Even during the celebration of Mass when our prayers should be purest, lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of my prayers. Everything we did, and also the times and places, are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you.”

And she refused to regret it. Abelard, a professor of logic, appreciated the logic in her arguments but suffered guilt nonetheless; perhaps Heloise's intellect was sharper owing to her emotional mettle, giving her an advantage in matters of the heart. She attempted to understand but never condoned his guilt because it made no sense; humans had to start making their own way at some point to realize their God-given potential.

In Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, a break with tradition is clearly underway, the party has gotten out of hand, the crowd is cutting loose from the anchor that is an increasingly overshadowed Jesus. The color and movement say it all, and the sky, not the church, is the limit.

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This is the colorful and wide-open world to which Heloise aspired long before it emerged from Medieval darkness. The extent of her aspirations was best kept from Uncle Fulbert, but alas was fully revealed when he found her in bed with Abelard.

Enraged and humiliated, Fulbert had Abelard castrated. It’s a gruesome object lesson in what happens when dogma and pride best reason and love, and were it up to Abelard at that point, there would have been no Renaissance. He relinquished his mutilated flesh to the vengeful God so insistent upon taking it, and succumbed to a warped perspective of sexuality intent on denying all physical pleasure. I see Abelard's defeated psyche repeatedly in the perverse soulscapes of Bosch, particularly in Death of the Reprobate.

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Heloise had become pregnant, but rather than live with her as husband and father Abelard sent their son away to be raised by his sister, retired to a monastery, and insisted Heloise enter a nunnery. Their only hope of redemption, according to Abelard, was denial of the flesh and devotion to God. "Farewell, Heloise,” he wrote, “this is the last advice of your dear Abelard; for the last time let me persuade you to follow the rules of the Gospel. Heaven grant that your heart, once so sensible of my love, may now yield to be directed by my zeal. May the idea of your loving Abelard, always present to your mind, be now changed into the image of Abelard truly penitent; and may you shed as many tears for your salvation as you have done for our misfortunes.”

Heloise complied with the directive out of proclaimed devotion to her lover, but she was furious. The sarcasm and resentment are unmistakable: “Pardon me, Abelard, pardon a mistaken lover. I must no longer expect from you that vivacity which once marked your every action; no more must I require from you the correspondence of desires. We have bound ourselves to severe austerities and must follow them at all costs. Let us think of our duties and our rules, and make good use of that necessity which keeps us separate. You, Abelard, will happily finish your course, and Heloise must weep, she must lament forever without being certain whether all her tears will avail for her salvation.”

But Abelard continued to write letters, and she always wrote back.

Burge’s book is the result of a recently discovered cache, controversial because some doubt its legitimacy. Burge is more journalist than scholar on the subject, but I enjoy agreeing that the correspondence is authentic and appreciate his recognition of Heloise as the real teacher here.

Unlike many interpreters of the relationship, Burge doesn’t blame her for a devotion that betrayed her own strengths and enabled Abelard’s defeat. Instead, her compliance with monastic life seems the shrewd and only means to a rational end: Continued correspondence through which Abelard might come to his senses, while she encouraged deeper inquiry by women at the nunnery into the issues at hand. Though incredibly manipulative about it, as any smart woman had to be to influence authority, she proved more successful than not in making the best of a very bad situation.

Abelard admitted: “Your letters have indeed moved me; I could not read with indifference characters written by that dear hand! I sigh and weep, and all my reason is scarce sufficient to conceal my weakness from my pupils. This, unhappy Heloise, is the miserable condition of Abelard. The world, which is generally wrong in its notions, thinks I am at peace, and imagining that I loved you only for the gratification of the senses, have now forgot you. What a mistake is this!”

A welcome mistake, because whatever humanity Abelard retained is evidently all thanks to his ongoing correspondence with Heloise. For me, she personifies qualities of self-awareness, determination and compassion that led to the Renaissance; without them, humanity, like Abelard, hadn't a chance.