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The Greatest Love Letters of All Time

alex atkins bookshelf literatureThe 20-year correspondence between Pierre Abelard (1079-1142), a medieval French scholastic theologian and philosopher, and Heloise d’Argenteuil (c 1090-1164), a French Latin and Greek scholar (and later a nun), are considered some of the greatest love letters of all time. The letters were originally written in Latin and first published in Paris in 1616 (one of very rate first editions is owned by the British Museum). However, it wasn’t until 1722 that the letters were finally published in English. Since then, more than 60 editions have been published. Nevertheless, the important point to make is that long ago, people did not share their affection with fleeting, impulsive texts, tweets, and emojis — they actually took the time to write thoughtful handwritten letters to one another, conveying their love with eloquence, romance, and profound depth of feeling. But you be the judge — compare this stunningly beautiful and eloquent passage from Heloise to Abelard, in which she extols the virtue of letters, with any text or tweets you have ever read:

“If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give  such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons them­selves were present; they have all the tenderness, and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.

We may write to each other; so innocent a pleasure is not denied us. Let us not lose through negligence the only happiness which is left us, and the only one perhaps which the malice of our enemies can never ravish from us. I shall read that you are my husband and you shall see me sign myself your wife. In spite of all our misfortunes you may be what you please in your letter. Letters were first invented for consoling such solitary wretches as myself. Having lost the substantial pleasures of seeing and possessing you, I shall in some measure compensate this loss by the satisfaction I shall find in your writing. There I shall read your most sacred thoughts; I shall carry them always about with me, I shall kiss them every moment; if you can be capable of any jealousy let it be for the fond caresses I shall bestow upon your letters, and envy only the happi­ness of those rivals. That writing may be no trouble to you, write always to me carelessly and without study; I had rather read the dictates of the heart than of the brain. I cannot live if you will not tell me that you still love me; but that language ought to be so natural to you, that I believe you cannot speak otherwise to me without violence to yourself. And since by this melancholy relation to your friend you have awakened all my sorrows, ‘tis but reasonable you should allay them by some tokens of your unchanging love.” [From Letter II, The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise edited by Honnor Morten, 1908]”

The remarkable story of forbidden love begins when Abelard and Heloise first met. At that time, Abelard, 37 years old, was the Professor of Logic and Canon at Notre Dame. He was one of the most celebrated men of his day — a brilliant, respected intellectual and teacher. Heloise, 19 years old, was his student, a Latin and Greek scholar. Initially Abelard was her tutor, but they fell deeply in love and continued their affair for some time at the home of her uncle and guardian, Fulbert. Marriage was out of the question since it would have prevented Abelard’s advancement in the Church and caused a scandal at the university. Nevertheless, they consummated their passionate love and had a child out of wedlock (a son, named get this — Astrolabe, after the scientific instrument that measures the altitude of a celestial body). To avoid Fulbert’s wrath, Abelard married Heloise, something she resisted. But she humiliated her uncle when she repeatedly denied the marriage and preferred to be called Abelard’s mistress. To protect her from her uncle, Abelard suggested that Heloise hide at a convent at Argenteuil where she had been brought up (although she lived there, she had not taken vows). Fulbert was incensed and wanted to punish and humiliate the professor. Filbert hired some thugs to storm into Abelard’s chambers and castrate him. Disfigured and fearing for his life, Abelard (now 40) fled the university and became a monk at the Monastery of St. Denis. He also encouraged Heloise to take vows as a nun, so that she was safe and no man could have her. She initially protested but eventually consented, and at the age of 22, took her vows. Fast forward ten years. Heloise received a letter from Abelard in which he discussed his unhappiness. She wrote back, revealing the pent-up passion from a decade of restraint. The lovers subsequently exchanged four letters after that and then, suddenly, the letters stopped. Abelard died of scurvy, at the age of 63, in 1142 at the priory of St. Marcel. Twenty years later Heloise, who had become the head of a convent, died. They were buried next to one another. Almost 600 years later, Josephine Bonaparte was so moved by their story, she ordered that their remains be moved to the Pere Lachiase Cemetery in Paris, where lovers from all over the world come to pay tribute to the famous couple by leaving letters at the tomb. The most passionate and romantic love stories of all time is also immortalized in Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem, “Eloisa to Abelard.”

In the introduction to the 1908 edition, Honnor Morten describes the legacy of Abelard and Heloise this way: “Abelard, the great leader and logician, his treatises are forgotten, his fame as a philosopher is dead — only his love letters live. And Heloise, the beautiful and the learned, who stands second to Sapho, is known merely as an example of the passionate devotion of woman. So they remain to us, the typical lovers; he with man’s mania to master, she with woman’s one desire to submit. No love letters that have ever been written but have contained phrases common to one another and to be found here; but no love letters that have ever been published have equalled these in the old passionate tale of the struggle to forget — to sink the love of the human in the love of the divine.”

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