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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide


John Hill, engraver, William Dorset Fellowes, artist. Tomb of Abelard and Heloise. [between 1800 and 1830]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Heloïse (1098-1164) was one of the brightest minds of her time and the first medieval female scholar to critically discuss feminist issues such as marriage and motherhood. Usually associated with the tragedy of her love affair with the brilliant scholar and philosopher Peter Abélard, she was a writer, abbess and teacher. After her uncle entrusted her education to the renowned Abélard, the pair quickly fell in love. Heloïse bore him a son and they were married secretly. In order to preserve the reputation of Abélard, they lived separately. However, due to a miscommunication, the family of Heloïse took revenge upon Abélard and had him forcibly castrated. Both Abélard and Heloïse sought sanctuary from the tragic event by entering into religious life. Heloïse received some assistance in this regard from Peter and eventually became an abbess at the Oratory of the Paraclete.

Something of a real-life Romeo and Juliet, their story has inspired countless books as well as theater and film adaptations such as Heloïse et Abélard (1973) and Stealing Heaven (1988). There was more nuance and conflict to the back and forth between these two lovers than just sorrow at being parted. The complexity of the emotions indicates the shame that Abélard felt at being castrated. This seems to have prompted him to explicitly shut down any romantic feelings and hopes that Heloïse harbored. And as for Heloïse, she wrote candidly of her opposition to their hasty marriage, voicing concern that the mundane aspects of life would distract him from his true vocation as a scholar. She was critical of marriage and had radical views on being a mistress as well as on the impossibility of being both a scholar and a mother. She influenced many of the views of Abélard in this arena. Abélard continued to teach theology but his unorthodoxy led him into conflict with St. Bernard of Clairvaux and ultimately he was condemned by the Church. Meanwhile Heloise became abbess of the convent of Paraclete. She became a legend among those who knew her and was recognized for her musical abilities, her poetry and her general guidance for women living a monastic life. In her Problemata, she asks Abélard 42 questions about the daily lives of nuns and how to adapt monastic regulations (established for men) to better suit women's needs including different clothing and diet. She developed good relations with both her superiors and her pupils and established six sister abbeys around Paris. Much has been written and performed about Heloïse and Abélard, but perhaps the most compelling account of this lifelong relationship is apparent by simply reading the heartfelt exchanges of their own correspondence in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise External.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Medieval Women.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Héloïse, approximately 1095-1163 or 1164--Correspondence

Print & Digital Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.