Heloise's First Letter to Abelard

(a selection)

To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother; from his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to ABELARD, from HELOISE.

And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if you be not ashamed, concubine or whore. To wit that the more I humbled myself before you the fuller grace I might obtain from you, and so also damage less the fame of your excellence. And you yourself were not wholly unmindful of that kindness in the letter of which I have spoken, written to your friend for his comfort. Wherein you have not disdained to set forth sundry reasons by which I tried to dissuade you from our marriage, from an ill-starred bed; but were silent as to many, in which I preferred love to wedlock, freedom to a bond. I call God to witness, if Augustus, ruling over the whole world, were to deem me worthy of the honor of marriage, and to confirm the whole world to me, to be ruled by me forever, dearer to me and of greater dignity would it seem to be called your strumpet than his empress.

For it is not by being richer or more powerful that a man becomes better; one is a matter of fortune, the other of virtue. Nor should she deem herself other than venal who weds a rich man rather than a poor, and desires more things in her husband than himself. Assuredly, whomsoever this concupiscence leads into marriage deserves payment rather than affection; for it is evident that she goes after his wealth and not the man, and is willing to prostitute herself, if she can, to a richer. As the argument advanced (in Aeschines) by the wise Aspasia to Xenophon and his wife plainly convinces us. When the wise woman aforesaid had propounded this argument for their reconciliation, she concluded as follows: "For when you have understood this, that there is not a better man nor a happier woman on the face of the earth; then you will ever and above all things seek that which you think the best; you to be a husband of so excellent a wife, and she to be married to so excellent a husband." A blessed sentiment, assuredly, and more than philosophic, expressing wisdom itself rather than philosophy. A holy error and a blessed fallacy among the married, that a perfect love should preserve their bond of matrimony unbroken, not so much by the continence of their bodies as by the purity of their hearts. But what error shows to the rest of women the truth has made manifest to me. Since what they thought of their husbands, that I, that the entire world not so much believed as knew of you. So that the more genuine my love was for you, the further it was removed from error.

For who among kings or philosophers could equal you in fame? What kingdom or city or village did not burn to see you? Who, I ask, did not hasten to gaze upon you when you appeared in public, nor on your departure with straining neck and fixed eye follow you? What wife, what maiden did not yearn for you in your absence, nor burn in your presence? What queen or powerful lady did not envy me my joys and my bed? There were two things, I confess, in you especially, wherewith you could at once captivate the heart of any woman; namely the arts of making songs and of singing them. Which we know that other philosophers have seldom followed. Wherewith as with a game, refreshing the labor of philosophic exercise, you have left many songs composed in amatory measure or rhythm, which for the suavity both of words and of tune being oft repeated, have kept your name without ceasing on the lips of all; since even illiterates the sweetness of your melodies did not allow to forget you. It was on this account chiefly that women sighed for love of you. And as the greater part of your songs descanted of our love, they spread my fame in a short time through many lands, and inflamed the jealousy of many against me. For what excellence of mind or body did not adorn your youth? What woman who envied me then does not my calamity now compel to pity one deprived of such delights? What man or women, albeit an enemy at first, is not now softened by the compassion due to me?

And, though exceedingly guilty, I am, as you know, exceeding innocent. For it is not the deed but the intention that makes the crime. It is not what is done but the spirit in which it is done that equity considers. And in what state of mind I have ever been towards you, only you, who have knowledge of it, can judge. To your consideration I commit all, I yield in all things to your testimony. Tell me one thing only, if you can, why, after our conversion, which you alone did decree, I am fallen into such neglect and oblivion with you that I am neither refreshed by your speech and presence nor comforted by a letter in your absence. Tell me, one thing only, if you can, or let me tell you what I feel, nay what all suspect. Concupiscence joined you to me rather than affection, the ardor of desire rather than love. When therefore what you desired ceased, all that you had exhibited at the same time failed. This, most beloved, is not mine only but the conjecture of all, not peculiar but common, not private but public. Would that it seemed thus to me only, and your love found others to excuse it, by whom my grief might be a little quieted. Would that I could invent reasons by which in excusing you I might cover in some measure my own vileness.

Give your attention, I beseech you, to what I demand; and you will see this to be a small matter and most easy for you. While I am cheated of your presence, at least by written words, whereof you have an abundance, present to me the sweetness of your image. In vain may I expect you to be liberal in things if I must endure you niggardly in words. Until now I believed that I deserved more from you when I had done all things for you, persevering still in obedience to you. Who indeed as a girl was allured to the asperity of monastic conversation not by religious devotion but by your command alone. Wherein if I deserve nought from you, you may judge my labor to have been vain. No reward for this may I expect from God, for the love of Whom it is well known that I did not anything. When you hastened to God, I followed you in the habit, nay preceded you. For as though mindful of the wife of Lot, who looked back from behind him, you delivered me first to the sacred garments and monastic profession before you gave yourself to God. And for that in this one thing you should have had little trust in me I vehemently grieved and was ashamed. For I (God knows) would without hesitation precede or follow you to the Vulcanian fires according to your word. For not with me was my heart, but with you. But now, more than ever, if it be not with you, it is nowhere. For without you it cannot anywhere exist. But so act that it may be well with you, I beseech you. And well with you will it be if it find you propitious, if you give love for love, little for much, words for deeds. Would that your love, beloved, had less trust in me, that it might be more anxious! But the more confident I have made you in the past, the more neglectful now I find you. Remember, I beseech you, what I have done, and pay heed to what you owe me. While with you I enjoyed carnal pleasures, many were uncertain whether I did so from love or from desire. But now the end shows in what spirit I began. I have forbidden myself all pleasures that I might obey your will. I have reserved nothing for myself, save this, to be now entirely yours. Consider therefore how great is your injustice, if to me who deserve more you pay less, nay nothing at all, especially when it is a small thing that is demanded of you, and right easy for you to perform.

And so in His Name to whom you have offered yourself, before God I beseech you that in whatsoever way you can you restore to me your presence, to wit by writing me some word of comfort. To this end alone that, thus refreshed, I may give myself with more alacrity to the service of God. When in time past you sought me out for temporal pleasures, you visited me with endless letters, and by frequent songs did set your Heloise on the lips of all men. With me every public place, each house resounded. How more rightly should you excite me now towards God, whom you excited then to desire. Consider, I beseech you, what you owe me, pay heed to what I demand; and my long letter with a brief ending I conclude. Farewell, my all.

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Source: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated from the Latin by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, (New York: 1925). Made available by Miss MariLi Pooler, Brooklyn NY.  Language modernized slightly by myself.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. 
Available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/heloise1.html.
© Paul Halsall December 1997.