A Story of True Love: Héloïse and Abélard

Abelard and Heloise

 

This Valentine’s Day, do you want to be reminded of the nature of true love? Then don’t miss our concert Feb. 16 to 18, where we will present a concert inspired by the true story of Pierre Abélard, a 12th century philosopher, and his student, the brilliant and beautiful Héloïse.

Their tale begins in 1115 in Paris, where is Abélard is a renowned scholar and teacher at the cathedral school at Notre Dame and Héloïse is living nearby with her uncle, the secular canon Fulbert.

Abélard wants to become acquainted with Héloïse, one of the best-educated women of her time, so he seeks to become her tutor. Her uncle agrees, and shortly after Abélard begins to teach her, the two begin a passionate love affair. When her uncle finds out, he separates the two, but they continue to meet in secret.

Soon, Héloïse becomes pregnant, and Abélard suggests that she move to his family home in Brittany to escape her uncle’s punishment. She does, and gives birth to a son.

The two marry in secret despite Héloïse’s reservations about marriage. Soon after, her uncle publicly discredits their marriage and Abélard decides to send Héloïse to a convent at Argenteuil to protect her from her uncle. Furious and intent on revenge, Fulbert retaliates by plotting to have Abélard castrated in his sleep.

To escape his shame, Abélard decides to become a monk, and he encourages Héloïse to become a nun. After being separated almost a decade, the two begin writing letters to each other, filled with frank and sensual language, but also of philosophical and theological questions. Of these, seven have survived, four of which are known as the “Personal Letters” and three that are known as the “Letters of Direction.”

The letters offer us a rare glimpse into the lives of these two lovers, and also give us insight into their philosophical thoughts.

For example, the letters reveal that Héloïse was a radical feminist thinker and a keen social critic. She considered marriage an institution akin to prostitution. And she is quoted as despising child-rearing, as well: “What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children…? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?”

It is these letters that have kept Héloïse and Abélard’s love story alive through the ages, although their story was not well known during its day. In fact, their letters weren’t published until 1616, and it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that Héloïse and Abélard became revered as tragic lovers who were separated for years and finally reunited in death.

In our show, two costumed actors will portray Héloïse and Abélard, bringing their romantic story to life through reading excerpts from their letters aloud, as the consort performs medieval love songs and musical settings of poetry of courtly love from the 14th century, including music by Machaut, Cordier, Senleches, and others. We hope you’ll join us!

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