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Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography    by James Burge order for
Heloise & Abelard
by James Burge
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

Heloise and Abelard have to be one of history's greatest pair of lovers. Their story is retold here by James Burge, bringing us new insights into their life-long love affair and friendship. The author includes excerpts from their own letters, that were written so long ago. Some of these were only discovered recently.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was one of the greatest philosophers of his time, but was also rather argumentative. He managed to make enemies his whole life, which greatly contributed to the fate of these star-crossed lovers. Heloise was herself unusual – she was an educated young woman at a time when women rarely had that opportunity. Heloise was Abelard's most gifted student, and their mutual respect turned into a steamy affair. When the pair could not be together they wrote to each other. In the Middle Ages this was no easy task since wax tablets had to be warmed before writing on them, and the recipient then had to 'erase' the letter before responding; in order for Heloise to keep track of their correspondence (and who does not have 'love letters' tucked away somewhere?) she must have painstakingly copied both her own letters and Abelard's replies.

As happened countless times before and after these two, their sultry affair resulted in pregnancy and several difficult decisions: Abelard, as a master of a cathedral school, was expected to be celibate, and Heloise's uncle Fulbert insisted that they marry. Marry they did, but Heloise kept their union secret to protect Abelard's career. Since rumour was rife, Abelard moved Heloise to a convent to protect her. But this only incensed her uncle the more; he set thugs on Abelard and they brutally castrated him. After this attack, Abelard also repaired to a monastery, believing that Heloise was happy in her service to the Lord. After many years of silence, the lovers resumed their letter-writing, in which we hear directly from Heloise that, although she lives within the convent walls, she cannot forget Abelard ... 'Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purest, lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of my prayers. Everything we did, and also the times and places, are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you.'

The most striking thing about this love story is that it survives to this day, retold as folklore and legend, but also backed up by the lovers' own correspondence. James Burge has written an excellent account of Abelard and Heloise's lives, and their eventual eternal rest side-by-side. After several moves their remains are now located in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, Paris.

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