Heloise, who has been immortalized by Rouseau, as well as rendered infamous by her unfortunate love for Abelard, was born in 1101, and died in 1164. Her parents are unknown, but she lived with her uncle, Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. Her childhood we passed in the convent of Argenteuil, but, as soon as she was old enough, she returned to her uncle, who taught her to speak and write in Latin, then the language used in literary and polite society. She is also said to have understood Greek and Hebrew. To this education, very uncommon at the time, Heloise added great beauty, and refinement, and dignity of manner; so that her fame soon spread beyond the walls of the cloister, throughout the whole kingdom.
Just at the time, Pierre Abelard, who had already made himself very celebrated as a rhetorician, came to found a new school in Paris, where the originality of his principles, his eloquence, and his great physical strength and beauty made a deep sensation. Here he saw Heloise, and commenced an acquaintance with her by her letter; but, was impatient to know her more intimately, he proposed to Fulbert that he should receive him into his house, which was near Abelard’s school. Fulbert was avaricious, and also desirous of having his niece more thoroughly instructed, and these two motives induced him to consent to Abelard’s proposal, and to request him to give lessons in his art to Heloise. He even gave Abelard permission to use physical punishment towards his niece, i she should prove rebellious.
“I cannot,” says Abelard, “cease to be astonished by the simplicity of Fulbert; I was as much surprised as if he had placed a lamb in the power of a hungry wolf. Heloise and I, under the pretext of study, gave ourselves wholly to love; and the solitude that love seeks, our studies procured for us. Books were open before us; but we spoke oftener of love than philosophy, and kisses came more readily from our lips than words.”
The canon was the last to perceive this intimacy, although he as less often told of it, and heard daily the songs that Abelard composed for Heloise sung through the streets. When he did discover the truth, he was deeply incensed, and sent Abelard from the house. But he contrived to return, and carry Heloise to Palais, in Brittany, his native country. Here she gave birth to a son, surnamed [sic] Astrolabe from his beauty, who passed his life in the obscurity of a monastery.
The fight of Heloise and Fulbert to the highest degree; but he was afraid to act openly against Abelard, lest his niece, whom he still loved, might be made to suffer in retaliation. At length Abelard, taking compassion on his grief, sent to him, implored his forgiveness, and offered to marry Heloise, if the union might be kept a secret, so that his reputation as a religious man should not suffer. Fulbert consented to this, and Abelard went to Heloise for that purpose; but Heloise, unwilling to diminish the future fame of Abelard, by marriage, which must be a restraint upon him, refused to listen to him. She quoted the precepts and the example of all learned men, sacred and profane, to prove to him that her uncle’s reconciliation was merely too easily obtained, and that it was but a feint to entrap him more surely. But Abelard was resolute and Heloise returned to Paris. There they were soon after married.
Fulbert did not keep his promise of secrecy, but spoke openly of the marriage, concerning which, when she heard of it, a protest came from Heloise that it never took place. This made her uncle treat her so cruelly, that Abelard, either to protect her from his violence, or to prove that the announcement of the marriage was false, took her himself to the convent of Argenteuil, where he ordered her to take the veil.
Twelve years passed without Heloise ever having mentioned the name of Abelard. She became prioress of Argenteuil, and subsequently lived a complete life of retirement. Abelard, hearing of her homeless situation, left Brittany and went to place Heloise in the little oratory of the Paraclete, which had been founded by him. Here Heloise exerted herself to the utmost to build up a convent, and was rewarded with unusual success.
She rarely appeared in public, but devoted herself almost wholly to prayer and meditation. She died May 17, 1164.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.