Malcolm Tattersall

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This story has got the lot: a clever, beautiful, loyal heroine, the downfall of a famous and powerful intellectual, a passionate illicit affair, a secret marriage, cruel vengeance, and love finally conquering all obstacles. No wonder it has survived nine hundred years.

Abelard and Heloise lived in France around 1100. Their story, as deduced from a group of letters they wrote twenty years after the crucial events, was first published one hundred and fifty years later and has been in circulation ever since.

Briefly, Peter Abelard, the most brilliant and controversial philosopher of his time, fell in love with his most able student, Heloise, when he was thirty-five and she was about fifteen years younger. After the birth of their child, a brutal attack on Abelard by Heloise’s guardian brought their affair to a catastrophic end. Heloise entered a convent and Abelard a monastery; both eventually became respected members of their religious communities. When they did meet again after a long separation, they built on the ruins of their affair to become friends and colleagues.

The lovers wrote each other letters on a daily basis in the heat of the affair and a long series of them has recently, against all probability, been discovered. They had been preserved in an obscure fifteenth century book but were unrecognised until Constant Mews, a young New Zealand scholar now working at Melbourne’s Monash University, identified them. James Burge draws on this new evidence, which enriches the older material but does not substantially alter it, for his historically careful but very approachable book.

Abelard emerges as a very recognisable type – intellectually arrogant and so sure he is right that he alienates those around him without caring or even noticing – and Heloise as an intelligent and courageous woman whose only mistake was to love such a difficult man.

It is a great story in its own right, but Heloise & Abelard will also appeal as a complement to the Brother Cadfael fictions, set in England in exactly the same period, or Eco's The Name of the Rose, set in a very similar community a couple of centuries later.

Mews, meanwhile, has followed his scholarly translation of the 'new' letters with his own account of the lovers' lives, Abelard & Heloise. It is described by his publishers (OUP) as 'an intellectual biography.' Most readers will prefer Burge’s accessibility and readability, and his emphasis on the personalities rather than the philosophy.

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Revised and added June 2005
(originally published Dec 2004)
Page updated May 2008