Humanities, Medieval

Wholly Guilty and Wholly Innocent: Heloise, Sin and Intention

By Diana Jeske


During her lifetime and beyond, Heloise captured hearts. Her intellectual brilliance in life attracted the love of the most famous philosopher of the day, Peter Abelard, and the passion revealed in her later letters to him has captivated scholars, from Petrarch to twenty-first century academics, ever since.

Born, most likely, in the closing decade of the eleventh century, Heloise is a woman about whom very little is known and yet, whose character is intimately revealed to any reader of her famous letters. Educated in her youth at the convent of St Marie de Argenteuil, Heloise was living in Paris with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame, when Abelard took up the position of master of the Paris cathedral school. According to Abelard she was already famous for her learning throughout France when he first met her. A controversial and famous philosopher himself, Abelard became captivated by her intelligence. He manipulated Fulbert into becoming Heloise’s tutor and the two soon became lovers. A melodramatic story followed, including an illegitimate child and secret marriage, before an outraged Fulbert arranged to have Abelard castrated. Filled with shame and confusion Abelard became a monk at the royal abbey of St Denis and arranged to have Heloise take the veil at Argenteuil. In 1129, he gave Heloise the oratory of the Paraclete, which he had built but was forced to abandon on accepting the abbacy of another monastery. As abbess of the Paraclete, Heloise built a thriving community, with four daughter houses, by her death in 1163.

Historically Heloise has often only been studied within the life and thought of Abelard. Recently, however, scholars have begun to recognize her as an original thinker in her own right, deserving of independent investigation. In 2000, a collection of essays, focusing solely on Heloise and her contribution to the medieval world was published under the title Listening to Heloise. More recently, Mews published Abelard and Heloise, as part of the Great Medieval Thinkers series, with a strong emphasis on the influence of Heloise’s thought on Abelard’s philosophy and theology. It is becoming increasingly clear that a strong intellectual partnership existed between the two, with many of Abelard’s ideas regarding ethics, sin, and love echoed in Heloise’s writings. In particular her strong commitment to the importance of intentionality in determining sinfulness of action, which features so prominently in Abelard’s ethical treatise Know Thyself, resounds throughout her letters. It is this aspect of Heloise’s thought that I wish to explore further.

The literary exchange between Heloise and Abelard is full of passion. Heloise’s first two letters in particular reveal an intelligent woman wrestling with strong emotion. Her philosophy of the importance of intention in determining the sinfulness of action is manifested in her outpouring to Abelard of the pain she has suffered since his castration and their enforced separation, the ethical legitimacy of which causes her much distress. In her letters Heloise is honest about her actions, her motivations, and the relationship she feels she can have with God as a result. Her unwavering commitment to justice and truth forms the bedrock of her philosophy. Her ethic of intention is most profoundly demonstrated in her remarks upon this subject. She proclaims that ‘wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it was done.’

Heloise feels a sense of guilt and responsibility for what happened to Abelard, but while likening herself to various women mentioned in the Bible who manipulated men into sin, she remarks that ‘the tempter did not prevail on me to do wrong of my own consent… though in the outcome he made me the instrument of his malice. But even if my conscience is clear through innocence, and no consent of mine makes me guilty of this crime, too many earlier sins were committed to allow me to be wholly free from guilt.’

She is very careful to distinguish the limits of her culpability for what occurred to Abelard. While believing he alone paid a penalty for sins they had both committed, her strong belief that because her intention toward him had always been pure she cannot be held by God to be responsible for his castration.

Her self-reflection leads her to have a very honest attitude about her relationship with God. She is open about the fact that she entered religious life to please Abelard and not God and therefore she ‘can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that [she had] done nothing yet for love of him.’

She freely admits that she cannot repent of her sins with Abelard, as the memory of them is too sweet for her. She still feels desire for him and remarks that ‘it is easy enough for anyone to confess his sins… but it is very difficult to tear the heart away from hankering after its dearest pleasures.’

Referring to her great public reputation for piety and chastity she remarks, ‘men call me chaste; they do not know the hypocrite I am. They consider purity of the flesh a virtue, though virtue belongs not to the body but to the soul. I can win praise in the eyes of men but deserve none before God, who searches our hearts and loins and sees in our darkness.’

She does not expect God to reward her for her religious activity because in her heart she cannot repent of her former sins and wishes to please Abelard rather than God in all she does. Her commitment to the idea of intention determining sin extends beyond merely reflecting on her own behavior. She feels all people should examine their intentions that lie behind their actions, for only thus can they begin to learn when they sin, even if their outward behavior seems perfectly innocent and good. Her most famous example of this is of women who marry for money rather than love. To Heloise such women are prostitutes. She remarks ‘a woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale.’

Intention then is the key to sin. It can render even marriage, a sacrament, sinful if the intention behind it is less than pure. It can preserve innocence when, to all outward appearances, actions seem sinful. Heloise has impacted generations of scholars because of her letters’ brutal honesty. She does not shrink from admitting her own weaknesses and the consequences she feels she can expect from them, yet, at the same time, she is strong enough to recognize her innocence as well as her guilt. Her self-reflection is characteristic of the growing tendency in the twelfth century to internalize religious experience and place the focus on an individual’s direct relationship with God. Her ethic of intention marks her as a progressive thinker of her day. Determined, honest, and passionate Heloise is a most poignant medieval figure. With more scholarship on her life and thought emerging, she is certain to continue to excite in the world of medieval history. She is no longer merely an appendage to the life of Abelard; standing alone as a remarkable medieval thinker.

Dronke. P, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete. (Cambridge, 1984)
McLaughlin. M, The Letters of Heloise and Abelard: A Translation of the Their Complete Correspondence. (New York, 2009)
Mews. C, Abelard and Heloise. (Oxford, 2005)
Mews. C, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. (New York, 1999)
Radice. B, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. (London, 1974)
Wheeler. B, Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman. (New York, 2000)

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