Ideas and stories have always competed for longevity, prestige and popularity. Like seeds, some fall on the side of the road to die before they can germinate; others germinate but don’t grow; others grow and change the landscape completely.
To judge from the story of Abelard and Heloise, it seems that the academic journal will always be beaten by the glossy magazine. While everyone who’s been more or less educated in the West has heard of the 12th-century French Abelard who seduced his pupil Heloise to the great wrath and vengeance of her uncle, few will know Abelard the great thinker whose life and work contributed so much to the making of the modern world. In the 21st century, Abelard the transgressive lover and victim of patriarchy is saved. But Abelard the immense philosopher is lost. Scholarship never sells as well as the presse de scandale.
That Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, another transgressive couple, proved such an enduring story was to be expected. In many ways, the two Dantean Italian lovers, about whom nothing else is known from other sources, resemble the French amants. But history chose to reduce Paolo and Francesca to the title of lovers, whereas Abelard and Heloise resist, thanks to the surviving record, such reductionism. Abelard wrote profusely, and so did Heloise. Abelard’s thinking is well documented, as is Heloise’s, evidenced by the body of her letters which, despite the vicissitudes of history, have come down to us. But the final word belongs to gossip and sensationalism. Abelard the philosopher and Heloise the avid letter writer are solely to be found in richly-footnoted, strictly peer-reviewed, but ultimately ensconced articles and books circulated and read by a tiny minority of scholars and medieval-history buffs. The long shadow cast by the renowned couple doesn’t extend very far on the modern stage.
Abelard and Heloise did far more than fall for each other at the wrong moment at the wrong time. Heloise’s letters exhibit such sensibility as to disarm even the staunchest modern cynic. Abelard’s broad-minded ideas proved extremely influential. He empathised with the oppressed Jews of Western Europe by giving voice to a Jew’s dirge in his writings, something never before attempted. He broke new ground wherever he walked. A towering figure of 12th-century Europe, he rose above the constraints of his age and paved the way to new horizons. As for Heloise, she wasn’t just a strong woman whose name disturbed the almost all-male pantheon of her generation. She was one of the first of a long list of female writers who carried the delicacy and tenderness of European letters on their shoulders.