Abelard and Heloise: The Standout Love Story of the Middle Ages

The tale of Abelard and Heloise is the standout love story of the middle ages. Despite the trials posed to them throughout their life in the church, their love triumphed.

Aug 17, 2023By Faith Lee, BA Medieval Studies & BA French Literature

abelard and heloise


Throughout the Middle Ages, piety functioned as an integral aspect of society’s fabric. Adherence to the Christian doctrine was a way to safeguard one’s own status in this life and the next. For those with no prospects of inheriting land from their family, monastic life in particular offered social mobility previously unattainable in a feudal system.


Against a backdrop of this immense religiosity and restraint — the love of Abelard and Heloise flourished. Even after being separated, their letters continued. This love story survives today thanks to an extensive written record,  and it remains as intriguing as any tale of ill-fated love can be. The theologian and the abbess show us that no matter what, love finds a way.


Love Through the Ages: Abelard and Heloise Endure

Abelard presenting Hymen to Heloise, by Angelica Kauffman, c. 1780, via Burghley House Collections


Love evolves with society. Looking back over the course of history, it’s easy to analyze love through a modern lens. In the 21st century, commitment and partnership may be a cornerstone of a successful marriage. For modern couples, it’s completely normal to pursue happiness on our own terms. Choices like home ownership, career, and having children are seen as intrinsic rights of the individual.


At the height of the Middle Ages, much of the populace was illiterate, so fewer diaries and personal letters find their way into archives. As modern readers, our own vantage points can eclipse the lived experiences of the medieval masses. If Henry VIII is any example, we see how different the landscape of partnership and marriage was. For Abelard and Heloise, however, their love can make even a modern reader swoon.

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The Landscape of Forbidden Love

Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, by August Bernard d’Agesci, c. 1780, via Art Institute Chicago


Forbidden love captivates readers. As obstacles wedge lovers even further apart, their connection and desire for each other only grows stronger. Tales of star-crossed love are some of the most well-known. In overcoming obstacles, readers feel assured that their love, too, can endure beyond the happily ever after. The characters from many classic texts endure tremendous physical suffering in order to be with the one they love. For Romeo, sipping poison is a small sacrifice to pay in order to accompany Juliet in the eternal afterlife. For Heathcliff, his hunger strike only affects the physical body; his soul is able to reunite with Catherine. For both couples, the body is a vessel.


While we may struggle to consider such unions happy, they continue to draw intrigue. The stories of Abelard and Heloise also have parallels. While they married in secret and sired a son, both end up taking monastic oaths instead of living together. For Abelard and Heloise, the relationship went beyond physicality. They hoped to help each other’s souls continue to grow through theology and piety. Through abstinence and restraint, they continued to kindle the flame of their love.


A Brilliant Scholar and Renowned Teacher

Abélard et Héloïse, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1882, via Aix-Marseille Université


Abelard and Heloise first met in 1115. Abelard was already in his late 30s, at the peak of his career teaching theology and philosophy. Smitten with Heloise, he asked her uncle if he could serve as her tutor. Heloise was brilliant in her own right, fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which was very uncommon for the time. Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, was likely flattered by Abelard’s request to take on his niece as a pupil. In exchange for Abelard’s services, he was given lodgings in the same house.  However, it seemed that Abelard seldom prepared new lessons and predominantly focused on poetry.


As the two spent more time together, the extent of their affair also deepened. They were wanton, slowly becoming more and more daring in expressing their affections. Her uncle could no longer ignore the love that had blossomed between the two.


Heloise would be brought to Abelard’s sister’s house to deliver their son. He would be named Astrolabe, which was a multipurpose astronomical tool that measured the location of the sun, planets, and stars. This name is ripe with metaphorical resonance, suggesting that the pair took some time to consider their son’s name. For much of his life, Astrolabe’s primary caregiver would be Abelard’s sister. His parents would return to their careers in the church.


The Fallout

Illuminated Manuscript of Origen Castrating Himself before a Nun from Roman de la Rose via the University of Iowa


As Abelard was an immensely high-profile figure in the Middle Ages, their child born out of wedlock would have severe repercussions. Heloise’s uncle was furious and viewed castration as the only suitable option. Abelard also begged to marry Heloise but she was strongly against the union. Abelard and Heloise’s idols were philosophers, who often led celibate lives. Marriage, in many ways, would only further hinder their respective careers as scholars. Ultimately, they married in secret. The driving motivation for this union is the subject of speculation but perhaps their marriage was for their son’s sake.


Abelard would eventually be castrated, and Heloise would be banished to a nunnery. Castration as a punishment was fairly common. Another early Christian scholar, Origen, would famously castrate himself to further align himself with an ascetic life. In fact, it was typical for some sects of monks to isolate themselves by choice and be immured. Essentially, the greater one’s feelings of being deprived, the closer one was to abandoning the physical body and polishing the soul for ascension to heaven. In one manuscript, we even find a nun bearing witness to a castration. Her hands make us wonder if she’s in prayer or in shock.


Monastic Life

Manuscript of Abelard and Heloise from Roman de la Rose via the University of Iowa


Heloise would become a nun in Argenteuil, and Abelard would be a monk in Saint-Denis. It is during their years apart that we have the largest record of their continued correspondence. The two continued to write to one another, although some letters were lost throughout the course of history.


A famous illumination also depicts Abelard and Heloise together. It can be found in the Roman de la Rose, which tells an allegorical tale about a lover who is attempting to pluck a single petal from a rose. The rose is kept within a walled garden, and the protagonist must overcome obstacles such as slander, fear, and forced abstinence to reunite with his love. The poem focuses on the reckless naivety of lovers caught up in their own all-consuming desires. The above photo, however, depicts Abelard and Heloise enjoying one another’s company, talking perhaps. Heloise, dressed as a Benedictine nun, appears jovial. The creator may be attempting to juxtapose the pitfalls of obsessive love with the enduring partnership of Abelard and Heloise.


Eloise Reading a Letter from Abelard, by Angelica Kauffman, 1779, via Princeton Art Museum


From their letters, we can discern that Heloise and Abelard continued their correspondence throughout their life. Heloise would rise through the ranks of the monastery, even requesting Abelard to share texts for her scholarly pursuits. Both paramours would continue to have successful careers in their respective fields, as well as the lifelong support and companionship of one another.


Abelard and Heloise Memorialized

Tomb of Abelard and Heloise, by W.D. Fellowes (William Dorset), C. 1800, via Library of Congress


Abelard would eventually be taken in by Peter the Venerable, and live out the last years of his life in Cluny Abbey. He would be buried at Paraclete, where Heloise was abbess. She would also write a letter to Peter the Venerable, ensuring Abelard’s soul had been completely exonerated, and inquiring about a role for their son in the church. Heloise would pass away about twenty years later. Today, the two call Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris their final resting place; Abelard and Heloise are buried side-by-side.


One of Abelard’s final works comes in the form of his autobiography. Titled, Historia Calamitatum, it takes the form of a long letter that functions as a self-portrait, drawing on Augustine’s Confessions. In his letters, he reflects on how much he had neglected philosophy as he was consumed with adoration for Heloise. It would seem clear that both remained enamored with one another until the very end.


Abelard and Heloise Surprised by the Abbot Fulbert, by Jean Vignaud, 1819, via Joslyn Art Museum


For so many couples, “till death do us part” signifies the ultimate commitment. Through their extensive writings and well-documented life, we can look back through time and imagine their affections for one another. We can see how the love of Abelard and Heloise endured, despite the obstacles. It is, certainly, a love story for the ages.

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By Faith LeeBA Medieval Studies & BA French LiteratureFaith is a graduate of Rutgers University, completing a Bachelor’s with dual-majors in French Literature and Medieval Studies and an M.Ed in language education. Seeing language as the key interface through which we understand and make sense of human life, her interests focus on historical and contemporary language attitudes. She is currently based in Singapore, where she enjoys crossing paths with stray cats.