- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

James Burge has written a thoughtful and affecting book describing the famously doomed 12th century lovers Heloise and Abelard. In the centuries since their courtship and the consequences that followed from it, the world has known them by eight extraordinary letters exchanged while they were forced to be apart. Candid and passionate, these letters revealed a remarkable bond forged in the face of an awful circumstances.

When a cache of 113 earlier letters between the lovers was identified by a scholar a few years ago, Mr. Burge, a producer and director of documentaries for the BBC and the Discovery Channel, decided that this was the time to remind 21st century readers of the lovers’ story, examine what we might learn from the new letters and underscore the point that even 900 years ago, sex could send gossips, family members and (probably) jealous persons of authority into acts of horrific violence.

Heloise and Abelard met in 1115 when Abelard was the master of the Cathedral School at Notre Dame in Paris. At the time of their meeting, the 15-years-younger Heloise was well aware of the renowned philosopher’s stature. The eager, intelligent student soon caught the eye of the temperamental master in spite of the fact that his prestigious post came with a requirement (and pledge) of celibacy.

It was not long before the 36-year-old Abelard discovered a way to find lodging in the household of Heloise’s uncle Fulbert. What began as tutoring sessions quickly became something more. When Fulbert caught the pair making love, he demanded that they marry. The ceremony was held in secret, but word of the union soon spread throughout Paris. In order to protect Abelard’s career, Heloise, when confronted with the fact of the marriage, denied it was so.

Fearing for her safety, Abelard sent Heloise to a convent outside of the city. Fulbert, still fuming and not happy with this presumed assault on the family’s honor, had Abelard castrated. From that point, Abelard, who survived the attack, entered a monastery. Fifteen years later, the correspondence which earned them a place in history was begun.

Mr. Burge draws a distinction between the eight letters that came out of that period of separation and the earlier, newly discovered letters. It is not always easy to discern how Mr. Burge chose the letters he did (not all eight are represented) or why the later letters appear most frequently in the early part of the book and the early letters later. Nevertheless, this is a work of rigorous scholarship, brimming with insights about a time and culture nine centuries away.

Mr. Burge is careful to set the lovers’ circumstances and their letters — all of the ones now available — against the backdrop of the prevailing world of ideas that both defined Abelard’s career and supported the lively correspondence that was not always (though frequently) about sex. Particularly informative are the passages that deal with Abelard’s ongoing theological arguments with other teachers, particularly Bernard of Clairvaux, the eloquent defender of orthodoxy. Mr. Burge takes care to consider trends in philosophical discourse that included the use of dialectics to sort out problems of reason, and he spends some time mapping Abelard’s pursuit of intellectual honors that made him the star he was in his day.

Careful consideration of Abelard’s book “Sic et Non” (“which can be translated as ‘Yes and No,’ or ‘On the one hand … On the Other Hand.’”) helps readers understand the fine and finely trained mind of the unlucky lover. But the best letters, not surprisingly, are the personal ones, and from these emerges portraits of two very passionate and admirable people in love. And of these, it is those of Heloise that are more passionate and immediate. Consider the words of Heloise’s first letter, sent after their separation:

You are bound to me by an obligation that is all the greater for the further close tie of marriage sacrament uniting us, and are deeper in my debt because of the love that I have always borne for you, as everyone knows, a love that is beyond all bounds. (Heloise, First Letter.)

Letters such as this one, more than anything else, keep the reader transfixed. Though Mr. Burge is at pains to contextualize them, variously explaining why certain translations from the Latin were used or why a boast or rhetorical whim of Abelard’s should be taken with a grain of salt, the explications inevitably pale beside the vivid and moving language of the letters themselves.In that vein, probably the biggest mistake the author makes is trying to prove just how “modern” Heloise and Abelard were.

It is not difficult to see that when an author puts together a book these days that includes sex, job loss and spoiled reputations there is no way around saying hey, they were just like us. And in terms of the lovers’ heart-rending humanity, their profound sense of what matters in life, their searching for God and universal truths. it cannot be denied that the best of our modern selves inevitably finds kinship with theirs. But it’s a dicey speculative game to cross over centuries, and it becomes possible then for the strange and strangely hilarious to enter the discussion. At this point I’ll digress in order to illustrate my point.

Books that are submitted for review often come with prodigious piles of supplemental information from publishers that are intended to attract reviewers to the books and, one supposes, enhance their understanding of them. In the case of Mr. Burge’s “Heloise & Abelard,” a supplement came with the book that was eye-poppingly odd. Printed on a few sheets of bright yellow paper was a full transcript of an episode of “The Sopranos.” Carmela Soprano, it seems, is cheating on Tony and the implied association is that her anguish and delight mirrors the dilemma of Heloise and Abelard, two lovers whose story, it turns out, she knows.

Yes, one can extrapolate that in the sad tale of Heloise and Abelard, lust and yearning and law intersect in a way not so different from that which befalls the Sopranos. But my vote is with the scholarship of this fine book and the extraordinary letters that bring it to life.

HELOISE & ABELARD: A NEW BIOGRAPHY

By James Burge

HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95, 319 pages, illus.

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