The Newly Discovered Love Letters of Héloïse and Abelard

Barbara Newman

These days, when two people are in love, they may send each other cute emojis or erotic text messages. But back in the Middle Ages, writing a passionate letter to your beloved was the way to keep the fire burning.

In our upcoming production, “Forbidden Love,” we will share segments of letters exchanged between Pierre Abelard, a 12th century philosopher, and his student, Héloïse, who became his lover.

For centuries, the tale of their passionate romance and subsequent separation became legend after seven of their letters were preserved in a thirteenth-century manuscript. These letters were written years after their physical affair had ended, when they were living as a monk and a nun.

In our production, we are excited to also be presenting excerpts from another set of anonymous letters, which Barbara Newman, a professor of English and religious studies at Northwestern University, argues were also written by Héloïse and Abelard, in her new book, Making Love in the 12th Century (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Newman says these anonymous letters were written when Héloïse and Abelard were still young lovers in Paris, and their prose and verse describe the lust and longing of a steamy love affair.

Here’s an excerpt from one letter that Newman believes Abelard wrote to Héloïse, translated from the original Latin:

Poets used to paint the limbs of Venus,
But did they ever paint your equal? I think not,
For goddesses themselves cannot compare.
Should I speak or be silent? By your grace, I will speak.
I will speak, for betrayers flee from words.
What is hidden beneath your clothes? —My restless mind!
How I long to caress what I imagine!
But fortune and modesty impede my will,
and public rumor, sweetest—which I dread.
If I could see you, dear, as often as I wish,
(Would it could be three times in every day!)
That night would be more radiant than noon.
Forgive me, I confess: I love not patiently.
You have vanquished me, whom none could vanquish,
And so I burn the brighter, for this is my first love:
Never before has the flame pierced to my marrow.
If ever I loved before, I was but lukewarm.

Newman says she first became interested in researching this collection of anonymous letters back in 1999, when another scholar, Constant Mews, published a book called The Lost Love Letters of Héloïse and Abelard, where Mews argued that a collection of 113 medieval love letters were actually those of the famous lovers.

“When I read the letters I thought, ‘There is something in this,’” Newman says. “I was intrigued.”

Mews’ theory was very controversial, so Newman set out to do her own translation of the letters to see if she could prove or disprove his theory. And once she had studied them herself, Newman became even more convinced.

“The correspondence is very unusual. It is the largest correspondence between any two people during the Middle Ages,” Newman says, adding that she found many similarities in their thought and use of language that mirrored the seven other letters from later in their life that made their story famous.

Newman says it makes sense that these earlier letters weren’t signed, because they wanted to keep their affair a secret. And she says the passion that comes through them is palpable.

“These are the letters of two lovers in the middle of an affair. I think you can see the points where they become infatuated with each other and where they become sexually involved,” Newman says. “You can see the raw emotion peering through the rhetorical brilliance.”

Newman, who is an early music fan and a long-time admirer of the Newberry Consort, approached Ellen Hargis and David Douglass about including some of these newly discovered letters in the Consort’s production when she first heard they planned to do a show around the theme of Héloïse and Abelard.

“I thought, ‘Oh wow! They need to know I just did this work,’” she says. “So I spoke to Ellen and David and I told them about this book and gave them a copy.”

After reading the book, Hargis agreed that the new letters would be perfect, and she, Douglass and Newman worked together on planning the program. “It’s been a lot of fun,” she says.

Purchase Making Love in the 12th Century by Barbara Newman. (Also, anyone who attends our upcoming concert will receive a special code to receive a discount on Newman’s book).

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