The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Disputed Issues

Attribution of Works

The authorship of the writings connected with Héloïse has been a subject of scholarly disagreement for much of their history.

The most well-established documents, and correspondingly those whose authenticity has been disputed the longest, are the series of letters that begin with Abelard's Historia Calamitatum (counted as letter 1) and encompass four "personal letters" (numbered 2-5) and "letters of direction" (numbers 6-8). Most scholars today accept these works as having been written by Héloïse and Abelard themselves, but some continue to disagree. John Benton is the most prominent modern sceptic of these documents. Etienne Gilson and Peter Dronke, on the other hand, have been particularly important proponents the mainstream view that the letters are genuine, both by offering explanations of the problems with the texts themselves and by arguing that the skeptical viewpoint is fueled in large part by its advocates' pre-conceived notions.[22]

More recently, it has been argued that an anonymous series of letters, the Epistolae Duorum Amantium, were in fact written by Héloïse and Abelard during their initial romance (and, thus, before the later and more broadly known series of letters). This argument has been advanced most forcefully by Constant J. Mews, based on earlier work by Ewad Könsgen. These letters represent a significant expansion to the corpus of surviving writing by Héloïse, and thus open several new directions for further scholarship. However, because the attribution "is of necessity based on circumstantial rather than on absolute evidence," it is not accepted by all scholars.[23]

There are similar scholarly disputes about other works attributed to Héloïse.

Relationship with Abelard

The great majority of scholars (as well as casual readers) have interpreted the story of Héloïse's relationship with Abelard as a tragic romance. However, in 1989, Mary Ellen Waithe argued that Héloïse was strongly opposed to a sexual relationship with Abelard; according to Waithe, she "withheld her consent [to sex] and physically and verbally resisted [Abelard's] advances to the best of her ability." Thus, in Waithe's view, Abelard's conduct amounted to abuse and rape.[24] Waithe's argument is based primarily on a sentence from the fifth letter, in which Abelard, in the context of arguing to Héloïse that their youthful sexual conduct was sinful and should be repented, not fondly recalled, writes: "When you objected to [sex] yourself and resisted with all your might, and tried to dissuade me from it, I frequently forced your consent (for after all you were the weaker) by threats and blows."[25]

While no other scholar has directly responded to Waithe's claim, other academics come to very different conclusions about the nature of Héloïse's relationship with Abelard. Their view is informed in large part by Héloïse's own writings (as opposed to Abelard's letters to her), in which she expresses a much more positive attitude toward their past relationship than does Abelard and does not "accept that his love for her could die, even by the horrible act of Abelard’s castration."[26] A more mainstream interpretation of those parts of Abelard's writing like the sentence Waithe finds so troubling is the one given by David Wulstan: "Much of what Abelard says in the Historia Calamitatum does not ring true: his arrogation of blame for the cold seduction of his pupil is hardly fortified by the letters of Heloise; this and various supposed violations seem contrived to build a farrago of supposed guilt which he must expiate by his retreat into monasticism and by distancing himself from his former lover."[27] In fact, even Waithe herself indicated in a 2009 interview with Karen Warren that she has "softened the position [she] took earlier" in light of Mews' subsequent attribution of the Epistolae Duorum Amantium to Abelard and Héloïse (which Waithe accepts), though she continues to find the passage troubling.[28]

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