Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mastered

Abelard and Heloise
from a 14th century manuscript of Roman de la Rose 
Okay, so we left off last week - as I regaled you with the story of how I came to study the history of medieval Christianity - when I headed to grad school in London.  Shall we continue?  I know you just want to hear the smutty stuff from my dissertation!  We'll get there by the end of the post, I promise.

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?
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31 comments:

  1. Betsy, I just love your description of your Master's project: so romantic! Sounds like it was a joy to research. Also, it's interesting, the ways we use the skills from our Humanities degrees in our professional life.

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  2. I'll audit classes with you anytime! This is absolutely fascinating.

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  3. Jess Gerrow / The Stroke BlogNovember 12, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    Fascinating! Where are the letters between Abelard and Heloise held now, and how did they come to be preserved?

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  4. The Pope poem is absolutely beautiful - you can read it here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174158 if you want - but it definitely takes poetic license :) the original letters are just a juicy!

    and, despite the title of this post, I'm really not a master of anything. there's still SO much more to learn!

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  5. I got SO into it! though I did get really annoyed by all the scholarship from the past 30 years that basically said ALL NUNS ARE LESBIANS. like, really? that's not vey nuanced.

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  6. This is so interesting! Thank you for sharing!

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  7. Fascinating. Please share SO much more of this. I'm fascinated by both theology and human sexuality, but I never got a chance to study either...I double majored in Dance and Global Studies, and there wasn't any time left. If you ever want to recommend a text on either subject, I'd love to hear about it!

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  8. Interesting that you say that about Queer theory... I took an Early Modern Prose (ie. Milton without the Paradise Lost) class as part of the MA I'm currently in, and we learned about how some recent scholarship is trying to research from the perspective that the supernatural was very much real in the lived experience of Early Modern people, so just saying "well, we all know that ghosts/witches/etc. didn't exist" doesn't cut it anymore! It's like these scholars are trying to read empathetically, instead of, as you say, projecting their 21st century theories onto these old texts.

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  9. I would absolutely love to audit some classes. I so miss reading academic material, whether it was in my British Literature class or in my history class on Abraham Lincoln. I just miss learning in general!

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  10. This is so fascinating! I'm intrigued by this part: "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." Can you say more about that? I want to read these letters!

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  11. I remember being fascinated by Abelard and Heloise in my medieval lit class. Then we watched the film interpretation, and it kind of ruined it for me...ick. But what a story!

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  12. I am LOVING your posts on your Master's, Betsy. I am finishing my undergraduate degree in English Literature right now and am facing some decisions about post-graduate studies. I too love learning and feel invigorated and excited by it, but sometimes doing an M.A. seems like a stupid idea when one considers the current economic climate. I'm not sure if it's something you really have an opinion on, but I would be interested to know your thoughts about your M.A. in relation to your career and your job search (both right after your M.A., and more currently).

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  13. that's true! I think the shame aspect for Christianity stems from the New Testament understanding of original sin...

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  14. UGH - I just found a blurb from an edition of the letters on Amazon:

    Abelard and Heloise are nearly as famous a pair of tragic lovers as the fictional Romeo and Juliet, and their story (as revealed in "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise") remains one of the world's most dramatic and well-known love affairs. Their shared passion for knowledge, religious faith, and one another sealed their destiny. Abelard was a well-respected, 12th-century Parisian philosopher and teacher, and Heloise was his gifted young student. Through their impassioned writings unfolds the story of a romance, from its reckless, ecstatic beginnings to the public scandal, enforced secret marriage, and devastating consequences that followed. These eloquent and intimate "Letters of Abelard and Heloise" express a vast range of emotions from adoration and devotion to reproach, indignation, and grief, and offer a fascinating insight into religious life in the Middle Ages. Their ardor is unmistakable; as Abelard writes to his love, "So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we blush even to name, above God as above myself..." When their hidden marriage could no longer withstand the challenges in its path, each lover sought refuge in the church--Abelard became a monk and Heloise an abbess. Their correspondence continued as both achieved success in their new careers but continued to struggle with their feelings for one another. "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise" powerfully articulate the wide range of emotions they experienced. So timeless is their love story that--after eight centuries--their passion, their devotion, and their struggle still resonate with readers.



    THIS IS NOT A MILLS & BOON ROMANCE, YOU IDIOT.


    UGH.

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  15. the letters are available online! and I can send you my bibliography if you want :P

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35977/35977-h/35977-h.htm

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  16. oh me too! I really miss essays - can you tell from some of my posts? haha

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  17. ooh what's Global Studies? I like the sound of that! and I'll email you with some of the more recreational books from my courses, if you want :)

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  18. oh YAY I'm glad it's of interest to you guys!

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  19. The letters were found and copied in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria, and then they were rediscovered in the 1980s by a professor named Constant J. Mews, who published the first modern edition of the letters. Abelard and Heloise were known of otherwise, but this opened up so many new avenues for exploration for scholars!

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  20. I'm happy to email you about it! What's the best address to use?


    (thank you!)

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  21. That would be awesome, Betsy! kaitlyn.sykes@me.com would be best :)

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  22. What a fascinating piece of history! I've never heard of either of them before but it sounds like a great dissertation! I took one class with a medieval lit professor in college and I wish I had taken more!

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  23. Um, yes please. Global Studies was sort of an international relations major. Very interdisciplinary, super fun.

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  24. Jess Gerrow / The Stroke BlogNovember 13, 2013 at 3:14 AM

    Did it ever! I think historical correspondence is endlessly interesting, and exciting, since the impact its had on how we understand history still hasn't been fully realized.


    I do hope you'll continue writing about your MA/medieval history. I love learning about this 'niche' topic - your enthusiasm is infectious!

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  25. I would happily audit classes with you! While I wouldn't consider myself religious, I do love the history of religion.

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  26. True. There was a lot of fire and brimstone and cleaving unto people in the Old Testament. The New Testament has such a profoundly different tone and profoundly different message.

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  27. I would LOVE to just audit classes and be an eternal student! I was always fascinated by medieval history (Art History Pt I was one of my favorite classes ever), and I wish I had studied more, but I tried to stick with a more practical major (ironically, that was psychology, and I'm definitely not using that degree these days).

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  28. I wanted to post on this before, but disqus was being ornery. Anyway, LOVE this post. I totally want to audit some classes with you. My interest doesn't really run into the religious variety, but I'll totally do the medieval history courses with you. I seriously meet with my students and get so jealous of all their history choices. I wish I would have known about this little interest of mine when I was in college.


    On a random note, have you seen that show Reign on the CW? I've only watched 2 episodes. Part of me loves it because you know, it's royal history. The other part of me despises it because it is so historically inaccurate. The dress and the hair. Wow. But it is the CW so you know. Whatever goes.


    On another note, I love that you post things like this and your blog is totally your own. I get so mad when I read blogs about how to have the best blog and they say things like you need to have memes for everything and keep it light. I mean sure I like those posts too, but variety is the spice of life. Loving this.

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