Today, a story about passion, logic, and creative
self-mastery. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
So what became of
Héloïse? We read much about her husband
Abélard -- the great 12th-century
philosopher. We read how Héloïse's
uncle's men emasculated Abélard as
punishment for keeping their marriage secret. We
know they became monk and nun -- then abbot and
abbess. Abélard's greatest worldly
distraction had been eliminated. But what about
Here's a letter by this brilliant analytical
scholar. She's thirty-two. It's thirteen years
since she took the veil. She's now prioress of a
new cloister -- one that Abélard
She and Abélard have been out of touch.
She's just read about his first turbulent years as
a contentious monk. She writes him. The letter is
shocking and uncompromising. She entered the
cloister out of love for Abélard, not the
love of God. He hasn't written in years. She lives
in an agony of sexual frustration. She dissects the
situation with logical detachment.
"Talk to me," she cries. "If you can't ease my pain
by worldly means, at least write to me."
Abélard is rightly jolted. It seems he has
no corner on suffering. He writes back. At long
last he comes to grips with what has happened to
After that, they quickly settle down to business.
Now their letters deal with management, the
exchange of text material, theological issues. They
speak of their love with objective candor. It is a
disarming fusion of head and heart.
If Héloïse's first letter makes us
wonder what she was doing in a cloister, we miss
the point. Héloïse and Abélard
hewed to a philosophy of near-Vulcan logic. Each
had an eerie ability to face facts. Both were
powered by furious emotional forces.
The letters flowed for nine years -- until
Abélard's death at sixty-three.
Héloïse lived twenty-one years more.
She also died at 63. During those years she built
the cloister up. She set its philosophical
underpinnings. She juggled complex boundary
disputes and legal questions. She became an engine
of human compassion. The cloister is still there.
Héloïse had become an important
intellectual leader in the Medieval world.
And in her we meet the hard edge of creative
motivation. Which of us doesn't need a lens to
focus our intentions? A locus of emotional
intensity, however painful, can open our minds to
possibilities we'd miss in a more settled world.
Héloïse was an exemplar of candor,
directness, logic, and compassion. She mastered
pain by meeting it head-on. She empowered herself
to heal others. She showed us how we can master
ourselves -- if we can just let heart and head
serve one another.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Radice, B., The French Scholar-Lover:
Héloïse. Medieval Women
Writers. (K.M. Wilson, ed.) Athens, Georgia:
The University of Georgia Press, pp. 90-108.
HELOÏSE TO ABELARD
To her master, or rather her father, husband, or
rather brother; his handmaid, or rather his
daughter, wife, or rather sister; to
Not long ago, my beloved, by chance someone
brought me the letter of consolation you had sent
to a friend. I saw at once from the
surperscription that it was yours, and was all
the more eager to read it since the writer is so
dear to my heart. I hoped for a renewal of
strength, at least from the writer's words which
would picture for me the reality I have lost. But
nearly every line of this letter was filled, I
remember, with gall and wormwood, as it told the
pitiful story or our entry into religion and the
cross of unending suffering which you, my only
love, continue to bear. ...
It is always some consolation in sorrow to feel
that it is shared, and any burden laid on several
is carried more lightly or removed. And if this
storm has quietened down for a while, you must be
all the more prompt to send us a letter which
will be the more gladly received. But whatever
you write about will bring us no small relief in
the mere proof that you have us in mind. ...
... God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor
of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with
marriage and conferred all the earth on me to
possess for ever, it would be dearer and more
honourable to me to called not his Empress but
your whore. . . . Every wife, every young girl
desired you in absence and was on fire in your
presence; queens and great ladies envied me my
joys and my bed.
Tell me, I say, if you can -- or I will tell you
what I think and indeed the world suspects. It
was desire, not affection which bound you to me,
the flame of lust rather than love. So when the
end came to what you desired, any show of feeling
you used to make went with it. This is not merely
my own opinion, beloved, it it everyone's. There
is nothing personal or private about it. . . . I
wish I could think of some explanation which
would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you
hold me cheap.
... And so, in the name of God to whom you have
dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your
presence to me in the way you can -- by writing
me some word of comfort, so that in this at least
I may find increased strength and readiness to
serve God. ...
(tr. by Betty Radice)
For Abélard's autobiography, see the
And for more on Abélard, see Episode
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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