HELOISE & ABELARD by James Burge


A Twelfth-Century Love Story
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New insight into the story of the definitive star-crossed lovers, drawing on a trove of recently discovered correspondence.

Neatly reversing the order in which the lovers’ names usually appear, Sunday Independent columnist Burge also pays much due to the young Heloise, hitherto considered a misguided girl once “preoccupied with erotic thoughts, who becomes eventually the sensible abbess” of history. Not quite, as an expanded epistolary relationship between the two reveals. But first Burge does a solid job of dealing with a complicated backstory, in which the handsome and near-gigantic Pierre Abelard, scion of Breton aristocracy, arrived in Paris at the age of 21 “to indulge the first great love of his life—logic.” A prizefighter of the syllogism, unafraid to come to metaphorical (and even real) blows with intellectual opponents, Abelard would meet Heloise a decade later, after he had made plenty of influential enemies, including the future saint Bernard of Clairvaux, “who willingly misinterpreted his every word and tried to spread it about that he was some kind of deranged sorcerer.” Abelard, Burge notes, was even a renowned author, whose Dialectica he likens to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, “hard to understand but a best-seller nonetheless because of its apparent promise to give the reader an insight into fundamental truth.” Heloise’s entrance onto the stage yielded tragedy in due time: after marrying and producing a child, the two separated, even as Heloise’s uncle belatedly decided to punish Abelard for his premarital affair with her. That punishment took the form of a careful, near-surgical castration that Burge describes in rather too much detail for the squeamish; Heloise was hustled into a nunnery; and a famed correspondence between the two gathered heat, as Abelard tried to shift responsibility for just about every misstep onto others and Heloise lamented the fact that “while we . . . abandoned ourselves to fornication . . . we were spared God’s severity” but were undone when the two dared follow the rules and marry.

Burge’s interpretations are sound, his uses of the correspondence effective. A classic story, of course, and well worth remembering.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-073663-1
Page count: 288pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2004


by Genie D. Chipps