Friday 27 June 2014

Forbidden Fruit; Letters from Abelard and Heloise

Reading this little book took far longer than I expected, not due to any issues with the book itself; it is a lovely addition to the 'Penguin Great Loves' collection. My problem came largely in the character of Abelard himself. I thought I knew and understood the tragedy of this story of love denied, and was really looking forward to reading the letters between the two lovers for the first time. However I had to put this one down for extended periods of time as I am getting too annoyed with the way in which Pierre Abelard presents himself. I am not sure that I didn't prefer the romantic illusions I had previously had about this 'great lover'. Reading his actual letters he come across as a deeply unpleasant, arrogant prat largely; he seems to have spent his early life making enemies mainly by humiliating as many learned men as he possibly could. It also seems that he set out to seduce Heloise, in order to prove that he could have the wisest woman in Christendom, not due to any grand overwhelming passion but just 'coz'. If I'm honest the more I read of this self satisfied idiot the more understanding I have of Fulbert's decision to castrate Abelard! 
In the end I struggled through the destruction of my romantic illusions about the pair and ended up giving the book a three star review. These three stars were for Penguin's lovely little edition of these letters and for the contribution of Heloise to the canon of medieval female literature. Abelard is the reason why this book could only get three stars.
Ever since I first heard the story of Abelard and Heloise as a romantic early teen I have wanted to read more than just extracts from the letters of these two. Usually when you come across extracts you will find that they come from letters written by Heloise, and I had always assumed that in order to inspire such devotion and such adoration Abelard must have had something pretty damn special to say too. How wrong I was, and how glad I am that I waited this long to be disillusioned about the 'romance' which evidently was Heloise adoring Abelard and Abelard adoring Abelard.
Judging from his written record Pierre Abelard was an egotistical and arrogant pr**k who spent his who time rushing around Paris pissing people off with his absolute and total disregard for the learning of anyone other than himself. If his letters are to be believed he decided, much like a medieval Valmont, to worm his way into Canon Fulbert's household simply so he could seduce Heloise, not due to any great passion for her (he decided on the seduction prior to having met her her it would seem) but simply because she was a young woman who was known for her learning and her virtue. Basically he wanted to prove that not only was he this 'great' philosopher but also a bit of a proto Casanova. Having read Abelard's letters I am suddenly left feeling a whole lot more sympathetic of Fulbert's revenge of a beating and castration. I have the feeling that many father's and guardians would feel the same way even today towards an arrogant creature like this having his way with a family member. So thanks Abelard, you have shattered one of my early romantic ideals :P!! Incidentally Heloise is now believed to have been around 27 years old at the time she met Abelard, not 15 as the biography given at the start of this edition would have us believe. The idea of her youth seems to have been introduced many centuries after the events and are not supported either by accounts of her age at death or by her being renowned as a great mind in medieval Paris, this change in understanding of her age is the one thing here that works in Abelard's favour, he may have been a prat, but at least when he decided to seduce someone it was a grown woman and not essentially a child.

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