The story of Peter Abelard and his wife Heloise is one of the saddest love stories of Western history. Abelard, who was born in 1079 AD, came to Paris as a young man and taught classes at the new Christian church school there. (This was just a few years after the Norman Conquest). Abelard was a very good teacher, and used logical methods to try to answer difficult questions about what God was really like. Students came from all over Europe to hear him lecture.
Abelard lived in a rented room in a house owned by a churchman named Fulbert. By now he was about forty years old. He fell in love with Fulbert’s niece, Heloise (HELL-oh-ees), who was about twenty years old. She was a pretty well-known scholar herself. When she got pregnant, Abelard wanted to marry her. At first she refused, because married men were not allowed to be churchmen, and so they could not be teachers. He was such a good teacher, she didn’t want him to have to stop. But if Heloise were not married before the baby came, she would be disgraced herself. So Abelard insisted on marrying her. Finally they got married secretly, telling Heloise’s uncle Fulbert but no one else.
But after the marriage, Fulbert told people about it anyway. Heloise, angry that her uncle had betrayed her secret, denied being married, and Abelard helped her move to an abbey where she would be safe from her uncle’s anger. But Fulbert thought Abelard was trying to get rid of Heloise, and he hired men to follow Abelard, beat him up and cut off his private parts. Abelard almost died. He retired to a monastery, and didn’t teach anymore, and never saw Heloise anymore either. But Heloise never married anyone else, and (because Abelard wanted her to) she became a nun. Apparently her family raised the baby.
Abelard and Heloise wrote letters to each other all through their whole lives. Eventually Abelard founded a convent (a home for nuns), and Heloise became the abbess of the convent. Abelard died in 1142 AD, when he was 63, and Heloise died in 1164, when she was 63.
Would we see this as a tragedy today? Well, we might sympathize more with Fulbert. Abelard was a lot older than Heloise. He left her in a pretty difficult position, when he really should have known better.