|Abelard and Heloise|
from a 14th century manuscript of Roman de la Rose
When I applied to grad schools, I only seriously considered attending two: UCL and York. Their programs were amongst the best in the country and, in the end, the thrill of being in London won out over the charms of the north. (King's has an amazing medieval history MA, too, but I can't remember why I didn't apply there. That's where Jon did his undergrad, by the way, and he told me that King's and UCL have a fierce rivalry! He used to say it made us star-crossed lovers. I'd remind him that Romeo and Juliet died at the end of the play.) Beyond the draw of the city, though, I was so excited by UCL's course offerings. I was the only student in the whole course who didn't sign up for paleography, but that's because I wanted to focus on my research modules: Identity and Power in Medieval Europe (AD 500-1300) and From Cloisters to Classroom.
I knew that second one would be my favorite because of my focus on religious history (both ecclesiastical and cultural) as an undergraduate; the class explored medieval scholarship as it developed from a theological base and then expanded into broader contexts. You see, scholars were almost exclusively monks in the Middle Ages and, until the first universities were founded in the late 11th and 12th centuries, monasteries were the primary centers of learning in Europe, so education really was grounded in theology.
My first paper for that class was on the Song of Songs, a book in the Old Testament that contains some of the bible's most beautiful verses. Some think that it was written by Solomon, others that the chapters are letters exchanged between lovers, and medieval Christians often ascribed authorship (or at least inspiration) to the Holy Spirit. Regardless, it's romantic and, in some places, it gets a bit physical. Because of that, The Song of Songs was a real challenge for the monks who studied it. Monks were sworn to celibacy, emulating the chastity of Christ, who taught that one must sacrifice earthly relationships in order to attain the Kingdom of Heaven. Monks and nuns were considered wedded to the Church - actually, in biblical exegesis from the time, Christ was understood as the bridegroom with his faithful, individual Christians, as his bride. That analogy was fine as long as the relationship was abstract, as it is for most of the New Testament, but when you throw in the blatant carnality of the Song of Songs... well, things got complicated given that finding pleasure in the flesh was strongly discouraged.
From that paper, I became fascinated with how medieval scholars, almost all of whom were celibate, thought and wrote about sexuality, sexual identity, and physical identity. Ideally, monastics weren't supposed to have any - no sex, certainly, but also no attachment to their bodies - though that was easier said than done.
I then studied the cura monialium, the duty of monks to care for nuns, and my next paper focused on how monks instructed nuns about the importance of virginity and chastity as their spiritual advisors, teaching both directly (by example) and indirectly (through written treatises on the subject). It was a natural progression from there to examining one of the most famous relationships ever between a monk and a nun.
|Abelard and his pupil, Heloise|
Edmund Blair Leighton (1882)
Abelard and Heloise, who are now thought to be buried together at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, caught the imagination of 18th and 19th intellectuals for their scandalous love affair. They are perhaps most famous these days for having been the subject of a 1717 poem by Alexander Pope, which portrayed them as ill-fated lovers in the most romantic sense. (The title of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from the poem, and there's a scene in the movie where Kirstin Dunst quotes a few lines.) However, their story isn't quite as poetic as we might like: Abelard was Heloise's tutor and they had an affair in 1115 or 1116 that resulted in a child, that much is true. It's also true that Heloise's family, upon discovering the relationship, had Abelard castrated, sending Heloise away to a nunnery. But I was fascinated by what happened after that...
Modern scholarship is somewhat divided over the nature of Abelard and Heloise's relationship; while the romantics claim that she was young and impressionable, seduced by her older well-educated tutor, it has also been suggested that the age difference between the two wasn't significant and that Heloise had already been recognized as a scholar in her own right. After they were separated by her family, Abelard and Heloise lost contact with each other for more than a decade, during which time Abelard became a monk, moving from cloister to cloister around France, and Heloise took the habit and eventually became an abbess in Champagne. Abelard published his memoir, Historia Calamitatum, around 1132, and in it told the story of his affair with Heloise. (The title translates to "story of my misfortunes," so you can guess how he felt about things.) When Heloise found out about the book, she wrote him an impassioned letter - the first of seven that they exchanged - full of love, confusion, and grief. (She begins, "To her lord, or rather father; to her husband, or rather brother; from his handmaid, or rather daughter; from his wife, or rather sister; to Abelard, from Heloise.” You can guess how she felt about things from that!) The first four letters are personal, containing intimate correspondence, and the last three are known as the Letters of Direction, in which she asks for (and Abelard supplies) instruction on how to lead the nuns under her care in living a spiritual life.
My dissertation focused on those letters, examining specifically Heloise's understanding of herself as a woman who had known physical love and as a woman now sworn to the church and married only to God. In theory, these two things were contradictory; one could not hold both identities concurrently because of the Church's emphasis on virginity, chastity, and a rejection of the flesh. However, as I wrote in my conclusion,
Heloise’s sense of self is apparent primarily in the content of her letters as she “insists on the body’s experience of its materiality.” Refusing to deny the physical, as medieval theologians encouraged women religious to do, Heloise maintains in her third letter that embodied physicality is the means though which a truly faithful life can be lived; furthermore, that it is the only way to be completely spiritual. While contemporary thought argued that through virginity and/or chastity women could “[transcend] femininity by renouncing the social bonds that sexual activity created for them,” Heloise embraced her femininity while overcoming these bonds.I absolutely loved researching and writing my dissertation - this stuff really got me fired up. It might be why I'm so enthralled by the ideals (and realities) of gender relations currently being debated in the modern evangelical church, actually - I've only just made the connection between my studies on physicality versus spirituality and these current issues. Though I'm not using my degree in any academic way, professionally, I do often wish I could go back to school just for fun to continue studying all of this. Who wants to audit a few classes with me?