Heloise (1101 - 1162)

Heloise was completely unlike my perceptions of what medieval women were like. I was under the impression that the women of this time period were weak in spirit, obedient, and usually chaste. I did expect that some women might have engaged in pre-marital sex, but I thought that these women would have regarded such behavior as a disgrace. Heloise completely changed my misconceptions of medieval women; she seems more like a twentieth century woman in her strength and personal characteristics.

While Heloise did succumb to her husband’s, Abelard, desire for her to join a convent, this action of Heloise’s does not exhibit weakness but rather is an indication of her innate strength. I believe a weak woman would have found another man, since Abelard was now unable to satisfy a woman physically. In joining the convent, Heloise proves that she was not a slave to human desires but was a slave, perhaps, to the man she loved unconditionally. This kind of love that Heloise had for Abelard is one that only people strong in spirit can have for another human being. Her love did not fade at all, even though they were separate for many years.

Heloise joined the convent for two reasons: Abelard wished for her to do it and she deemed it as retribution for Abelard’s castration. Abelard wrote in his Historia calamitatum that Heloise opposed their marriage and said “the world would justly exact punishment from her if she removed such a light [meaning Abelard] from its midst” (Abelard 70). It is obvious that Heloise viewed the convent as her punishment for marrying Abelard and his subsequent mutilation.

Many people might think that Heloise’s submission to Abelard is weakness but I do not. Heloise was a very intelligent and educated woman; her submission was the result of the love she had for him, not inherent weakness. It takes great strength of mind to put aside our own desires and put someone else’s wishes before our own. This is what Heloise did. She wrote in her letter to Abelard, “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours” (Heloise 113). To be so enamoured of someone requires tremendous strength.

Even though Heloise was extremely successful as a nun and an abbess and was praised by many, there is no indication that Heloise was completely in the service of God in her duties as a nun. Heloise wrote this to Abelard:

It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone, and if I deserve no gratitude from you, you may judge for yourself how my labours are in vain. I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him (Heloise 116).

Heloise viewed herself as a hypocrite; she said that men who did not know her secret longings praised her for her virtue. She wrote Abelard, “How can it be called repentance for sins, however great the mortification of the flesh, if the mind still retains the will to sin and is on fire with its old desires?” (Heloise 132). This sentiment proves Heloise never gave herself completely to God, because she always belonged to Abelard. To shut oneself in a nunnery when one’s heart is not in it requires enormous strength.

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This article also change my perception about women those days, I also thought they were weak and submisive, it is fascinating how we look back in history and see some of the same social trends that we have in the today's society.

Anne Gilbert said…
I agree with you that, in many ways Heloise must have been a very strong woman. For whatever reason she entered the convent, it was her reasons, not really somebody else's. If she truly loved Abelard(and I think she probably did), this was probably the best way she could stay, at least spiritually, "near" him. As for the perception of women being weak and spineless in the medieval period, there are plenty of not-so-weak women who had great influence, at least in their own circles and their own ways. I keep thinking of all those women who, for example, ran businesses of various kinds, or defended castles in their husbands' absence, and so on. Anybody who reads anything about the Middle Ages finds this out rather quickly.
Anonymous said…
I don't think women in medieval times, or any times, were any weaker than women are today. Their circumstances were different, and history seldom tells their stories ... not unlike the Muslim women of some countries today. But I expect if you could get to know them, you would find the same mix of traits of women you know. Along with enormous frustration.