It was winter in Paris and the Père Lachaise Cemetery was awash in grays. The sky, the bare limbs of the trees, the pavers and the stone cladding the tombs coalesced into one monochromatic composition as I climbed the hill. I walked along a path made knotty by the roots of trees as they attempted to nudge through the stones. The sign for Chemin d’Héloïse et Abélard came into view just as the map said it would.
Disappointment rose as I spotted the tomb. The petite gothic chapel made from fragments that Alexandre-Marie Lenoir collected from disintegrating medieval buildings was swathed in ugly scaffolding and construction netting. Hidden were the Corinthian capitals on the columns and the tops of the trefoil arches that created a lacy ornamentation on its scrim. At least the sarcophagus holding the remains of Héloïse and Abélard was visible, the color of the sepulcher mimicking the dullness of the cloud-choked horizon.
I was on an intentional pilgrimage to pay homage to this couple whose torrid love affair during the Middle Ages has remained a cautionary tale and, oddly enough, a model of devotion for centuries. During the pious medieval era, calculated seductions such as theirs usually came with a high cost for those with little power, and though this story could serve as a rallying cry for feminists, it was Abélard, the man and, therefore, the one with the most authority, who paid the highest physical price for their behavior in the end.
He arrived in Paris in 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 the left and right 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 the 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. This anecdote from Abélard’s autobiography Historia Calamitatum (A History of My Calamities) proves just how unusual she was: “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 on the tomb—so serene with her hands folded in prayer—gave none of this away. The coif and veil covering her head, which flowed in folds toward the tasseled pillow, would skew an onlooker’s impression away from intellect toward saintliness if the person didn’t know her story. Abélard’s countenance read as remarkably smug, which didn’t surprise me given the arrogant tone of his memoirs. I pressed my face into the wrought iron fence, my cheeks shocked as they touched the chilly metal, so I could memorize their stony expressions without the bars of metal slicing through the scene.
From the personalities evident in their letters to each other, they were perfectly matched. But the tone of his Calamities, which he penned in order to tell their story from his point of view, is a romantic tell-all in which he lays his bitter soul bare. He claimed he was explaining the situation in order to console Héloïse, which makes no sense to a modern mind. Gauging from her reactions in her letters, she was, at times, comforted by his confessions; but they also caused her anguish. He wrote the introduction to the treatise 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 reasoning for writing his Calamities, he launched into the story with a straightforward phrase: “To begin, then—” First, he took full responsibility for plotting the seduction: “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 sexually aroused 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 greed for 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 could spare, 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,” launching a payback 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. For many years contact between them was minimal to non-existent. It wasn’t until Héloïse received a copy of Abélard’s Calamities that she was compelled to write a series of letters to him.
“Almost every line I noticed was filled with vinegar and gall,” she said, “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 leaked from the sentences: “No one, I am sure, could read or hear it without tears, and my own grief became flesh with every detail…”
In her book A Vindication of Love, Cristina Nehring calls the level of passion they shared “a divine madness” that held “ecstasy and injury, transcendence and danger, altruism and excess.” Their legend is so great, their story made the gravesite I stood beside a favorite meeting place for clandestine lovers when Héloïse and Abélard were first interred in the cemetery. I was trying to imagine how anyone could experience lust in the presence of such a painful story when the drizzle that had been spritzing Paris all morning intensified. The cold rain sliding from my umbrella made me want to hurry through the last task I had planned but I forced myself to go slowly because it was the point of my journey.
Pulling a silk pouch from the pocket of my raincoat, I emptied it onto the ground next to the tomb, the ashes all that remained of my journal pages containing the most painful episodes from a misguided love affair. I’d ripped them from the notebooks and burned them to reduce them to powder with the express purpose of leaving them at this altar to doomed love. Like these medieval paramours, my experience held ecstasy and injury, transcendence and danger, and excess, but unlike Abélard I had no desire to record any evidence for future generations to debate.
As I left the cemetery, the rain became a deluge. I was glad because this meant the ashes would soon melt into the dirt. I walked to the Metro feeling a mix of relief and sadness. I had promised myself this would be closure; that I would move on. Saying aloud the mantra Abélard had used as he launched into his Calamities, I descended the stairs to the train feeling determined to let go. “To begin, then—” I whispered.
Calamities of the Heart in Paris © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. This essay is included in my latest book The Modern Salonnière. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.by