It’s winter and the Père Lachaise Cemetery is awash in grays. The sky, the bare limbs of the trees, the pavers and the stone cladding the tombs coalesce into one monochromatic composition as I climb the hill. I walk along a path made knotty by the roots of trees as they attempt to nudge through the stones, the sign for Chemin d’Héloïse et Abélard coming into view just as the map said it would.
Disappointment rises as I spot the tomb. The petite gothic chapel made from fragments that Alexandre-Marie Lenoir collected from disintegrating medieval buildings is swathed in ugly scaffolding and construction netting. Hidden are the Corinthian capitals on the columns and the tops of the trefoil arches that create a lacy ornamentation on its scrim. At least the sarcophagus holding the remains of Héloïse and Abélard is visible, the color of the sepulcher mimicking the dullness of the cloud-choked horizon.
I am on a pilgrimage to see the resting place of this couple whose torrid love affair during the Middle Ages has remained a cautionary tale and an model for devotion for centuries. During the pious medieval era, calculated seductions such as theirs usually came with a high cost for those with little power. But this is not your normal exposé, as it was Abélard, the one with the most authority, who paid the highest physical price for their behavior.
He arrived in Parisin 1100 when it was still a relatively small medieval town in the process of spilling beyond its center on Île de la Cité to encompass both banks of the River Seine. It was growing into the theological center of France at the time, which drew students from all over Europe who were keen to study with the major thinkers of the day. Abélard was one of these acolytes who would eventually emerge as a popular teacher.
His lectures drew thousands of students, many of whom would end up in weighty positions—bishops, archbishops, cardinals and a pope were among his pupils. He was such a rock star that Joseph Barry calls him an “ecclesiastical prince” in his book French Lovers. This was the stature he had achieved by the time he came to know Héloïse, who was the niece of one of the canons of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
They met in 1115 when she was around 16 and he was close to 40. As a female who had received a first-rate education, she was a rare creature during her time, which this anecdote from Abélard’s autobiography Historia Calamitatum (A History of My Calamities) proves: “In her looks she was not the least of women, but in her learning she was supreme. As a gift for learning is so rare in a woman, it added all the more to her appeal and had already made her famous throughout the whole kingdom of France.” The likeness of her resting here—so serene with her hands folded in prayer—gives none of this away.
The coif and veil covering her head, which flow in folds toward the tasseled pillow, would skew her legacy away from intellect toward saintliness if the person looking on didn’t know her story. Abélard’s countenance reads as remarkably smug, which doesn’t surprise me given the arrogant tone of his memoir. I press my face into the wrought iron fence, my cheeks shocked as they touch the chilly metal, so I can memorize their expressions without the bars of metal being in the way.
They are so perfectly matched to the personalities that radiate from their letters to each other and from his Calamities, which he penned in order to tell their story from his point of view. The romantic tell-all in which he laid his bitter soul bare claims he was explaining the situation in order to console Héloïse. This makes no sense to a modern mind, but from reading her reaction in her letters, she was comforted by his confessions. He wrote the introduction as a letter to her, saying the book would prove her trials were slight compared to his, “or nothing at all.” After laying out his argument as to why his maneuvering would make her lot in life easier to bear, he launches into the story with, “To begin, then—”
He takes full responsibility for the seduction as he makes his case for the match: “I was famous myself at the time, young and exceptionally good-looking, and could not imagine that any woman I thought worthy of my love would turn me down.” He was seriously turned on by her knowledge of and love of letters, and he was determined to have her: “I was all on fire for the girl and needed a way I could get to know her on a private and daily basis to win her over. So I approached her uncle through some of his friends and arranged for him to take me as a lodger in his house, which was right next to the school; I would pay whatever he asked.”
His approach hinged upon her uncle’s two weaknesses: his love of money and his ambitions for his niece’s education. “Working on both, I easily got what I wanted, while he stood there gaping after my cash and imagining how much she would learn from my instruction.” The uncle then begged Abélard to take complete charge of Héloïse, to spend as much free time with her as he had, and to beat her severely if she ever slacked off her studies. “The simplicity of the man just staggered me,” he wrote. “It was as if he had sent a ravening wolf to watch over a lamb.”
The uncle’s love for his niece and Abélard’s reputation for self-restraint having opened the door, the besotted admirer slipped stealthily through it completely besieged by desire: “We left no stage of love untried in our passion, and if love could find something novel or strange, we tried that too. New at the game, we went at it with heat, and it never grew old for us.” Their ardor was cut short, in the truest sense of the phrase, when her uncle caught them as they “went at it” and launched a pay-back that resulted in Abélard’s physical castration.
With his sexuality stunted, the maimed man entered the Abbey of St. Denis, choosing a monastic existence for the rest of his life. Because he could not bear the thought of Héloïse being with anyone else, he convinced her to return to the convent near Argenteuil where she had been educated as a girl. She did as he wished, and for many years, contact between them was either minimal or non-existent. It wasn’t until Héloïse received a copy of Abélard’s autobiography that she was compelled to write a series of letters to him.
“Almost every line I noticed was filled with vinegar and gall,” she says to him, “as it told the sad story of our entrance into monastic life and the unending crosses which you, my only one, have always had to bear.” Anguish leaks from the sentences: “No one, I am sure, could read or hear it without tears, and my own grief became flesh with every detail…”
Cristina Nehring calls the level of passion they shared “a divine madness” that holds “ecstasy and injury, transcendence and danger, altruism and excess.” Their legend is so great, their story made the gravesite I stand beside a favorite meeting place for clandestine lovers when they were first interred here. I try to imagine how it would feel to experience lust in the presence of such a painful story when the drizzle that has been spritzing Paris all morning intensifies. The cold rain sliding from my umbrella makes me want to hurry through the last thing I came to do but I force myself to go slowly.
Pulling a silk pouch from the pocket of my raincoat, I empty it onto the ground next to the tomb, the ashes all that remain of the pages containing the most painful episodes from my love affairs. I’d ripped them from journals, burned them and reduced them to powder with the express purpose of leaving them at this altar to doomed love. Like these medieval paramours, my experiences held ecstasy and injury, transcendence and danger, and excess, but unlike Abélard I have no desire to leave evidence for future generations to debate.
As I leave the cemetery, the rain becomes a deluge. I am glad because this means the ashes will soon melt into the dirt. I walk to the Metro feeling a mix of relief and sadness. I had promised myself this would be closure; that I would move on. “To begin, then—”
*Footnote: If you want to read some of the most beautiful poems ever written about the couple, Tom Absher’s book Forms of Praise presents a powerful back-and-forth between the two. It is out of print now but the link leads to a downloadable PDF. The poems are in the last section of the book titled “Héloïse and Abélard.” Tom was one of my professors at Vermont College.
The Modern Salonnière and Calamities of the Heart © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose booksinclude Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is the co-founder of Sharktooth Press. You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page and find her essays on Medium.
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