Until recently, the existence of only eight love letters has been enough to sustain nine centuries of public conjecture over the tragic affair between...

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“Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography”

by James Burge

Harper San Francisco, 318 pp., $24.95

Until recently, the existence of only eight love letters has been enough to sustain nine centuries of public conjecture over the tragic affair between the controversial 12th-century French philosopher Abelard and his brilliant pupil, Heloise.

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Australian scholar Constant J. Mews’ recent discovery of more than a hundred additional letters exchanged between the lovers during the initial stages of their romance sheds new light on the subject, but his 1999 book, “The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard,” necessarily focuses on his argument for the legitimacy of the letters.

Now James Burge, a writer and producer for the BBC, has written the first biography that draws upon this newly discovered correspondence.

“Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography” develops a more thorough portrait of the lovers, and places them in the context of their tumultuous society.


Anyone familiar with the names of these two lovers knows that after the couple conceived a child out of wedlock and their affair was exposed, Abelard was ordered castrated by Heloise’s vengeful uncle.

His sexual appetite muted, Abelard became a monk and immersed himself in scholarship. Burge discusses his abrasive style and contentious career as a theologian — with or without his genitals, Abelard had an elephant-sized ego and was no stranger to trouble.

But even more interesting is the way the author fleshes out Heloise’s development from a precocious and romantic pupil into an influential abbess. Unlike Abelard in his later years, she refused to disavow her passions — carnal and otherwise.

An appendix contains selections from the recently discovered letters, but I suspect that most readers, after learning about these two forceful personalities, will find this sampling insufficient. To enjoy this biography fully, you should have Professor Mews’ book on hand as well for the full translations of all of the letters.