Making Love in the Twelfth Century

Can the Letters of Two Lovers be the previously lost love letters of Abelard and Heloise? Making Love in the Twelfth Century presents a new literary translation of the collection, along with a full commentary and two extended essays that parse its literary and intellectual contexts and chart the course of the doomed affair.

Making Love in the Twelfth Century
"Letters of Two Lovers" in Context

A new translation with commentary by Barbara Newman

2016 | 392 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents

—Making Love in the Twelfth Century: An Essay in the History of Emotions
—Abelard and Heloise? Some Frequently Asked Questions

Translations and Commentary
—Letters of Two Lovers
—Love Letters from Tegernsee
—From the Regensburg Songs
—"To a Fugitive Lover"

A. Keywords
B. Citations, Allusions, and Parallels
C. Salutation Types
D. Word Frequencies
E. Cursus and Rhymed Prose
F. Distinctive Features and Motifs
G. Abelard, Heloise, and the Paraclete


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Nine hundred years ago in the north of France, a man and a woman fell in love and began to exchange letters. The man was a philosopher, a famous teacher who, to the delight of his beloved, had also "drunk from the fountain of poetry." The woman, his student, was in her lover's eyes a great beauty. She was also eloquent, passionately devoted to her teacher, and morally earnest to the nth degree, inspiring him to call her "the only disciple of philosophy among all the girls of our age." Teaching must have been a competitive sport in their milieu, for one of her letters is a victory ode, congratulating her lover on his academic triumph over a rival. The couple's letters reveal little beyond this about their identity or individual circumstances, for they come down to us only in a single late, painfully abridged manuscript. We know the name of its compiler and scribe, but the lovers themselves remain anonymous, without even initials to hint at their names.

By reading these fragmentary letters in their historical context, we can glean a few more details. For instance, the woman had obviously been educated in a convent. She could have acquired her excellent Latin and her familiarity with classical authors, along with her deep knowledge of Scripture and liturgy, in no other milieu. Yet she was not a nun, far less a princess or lady of high rank—a fact that makes her unique among the handful of female correspondents known from this period. The discourse of virtue flows readily from her stylus, but one particular virtue—chastity—is nowhere mentioned. The only "vows" she acknowledges are those of love. She speaks constantly of amicitia (friendship) and dilectio (personal love), but also of amor (erotic love) and desiderium (desire) with its "flames." Her teacher, though certainly a cleric, seems not to be a monk or priest. His biblical allusions are fewer than hers, but his citations of Ovid more frequent. The themes of the correspondence are those of lovers everywhere (praise of each other's beauty and brilliance, cries of passion, fear of abandonment, professions of fidelity and eternal love), with a strong mix of period motifs (the duties of friendship, the danger of envious foes, the fear of scandal).

Despite the lovers' florid mutual compliments, the course of their affair was anything but smooth. Judging from a poem the man composed to celebrate their first anniversary, which falls about two-thirds of the way through the correspondence, they remained together for about a year and a half, though for much of that time they were separated and unable to meet. The woman seems to have found this long-distance relationship more troubling than her partner did, for she alternates between protesting her changeless constancy and accusing him of faithlessness—by which she means not loving another, but forgetting her and reneging on his promised visits. He defends himself fervently, insisting that his love has not changed except to grow even stronger—yet he admits to becoming more cautious as he tries to stifle dangerous rumors. After at least two bitter quarrels and hard-won reconciliations, the correspondence simply ends. We do not know how or why, for the exchange as we have it is maddeningly oblique. The sequence of letters in the manuscript does not preserve the order in which they were sent. Some are almost certainly missing, and a great many have been deliberately abridged, for the scribe makes it clear that his interest lies in fine specimens of epistolary style, not in the lovers' story. They were probably just as anonymous for him as they are for us. The manuscript from which he copied their letters, as any novelist could predict, has disappeared.

What happened to these lovers when their affair came to an end? Could some crime of passion have parted them? Did they marry each other? Or could they have entered religious life? One true, simple, and infuriating answer to such questions is "we don't know." A different answer—possibly true, not at all simple, satisfying to some but infuriating to others—is "yes" to all of the above.

Were the mysterious lovers, in fact, Abelard and Heloise?

Epistolae duorum amantium and the Second Authenticity Debate

The reader will guess that I am not the first to pose that question.

These letters are known to the scholarly world as Epistolae duorum amantium (EDA or Letters of Two Lovers) from the title given them by their scribe, one Johannes de Vepria or Jean de Voivre. A young humanist monk and librarian at the Abbey of Clairvaux, de Vepria copied the letters in 1471, having discovered their presumably much older exemplars while cataloguing the library for his abbot. The anthology he produced (Troyes, Médiathèque municipale MS 1452) is a summa dictaminis, a collection of model letters assembled to illustrate the fine art of letter writing, with samples ranging from late antiquity to his own day. Among his models, the EDA are the only ones that constitute an ongoing correspondence between two individuals, as opposed to the collected letters of a single writer. In the absence of identifying names or initials, de Vepria designated these correspondents with marginal notes: M for Mulier (Woman) and V for Vir (Man). The approximate date of the letters, along with the separate identities of Mulier and Vir, were established by their editor, Ewald Könsgen, in 1974. On stylistic grounds (to be explored below), Könsgen showed that the EDA could not have been the work of a single author, such as a dictator (teacher of letter writing) with interests like those of Johannes de Vepria himself. If we accept his conclusion that the writers were in fact two distinct historical persons, the EDA are extraordinary even if they must remain anonymous, because they represent by far the longest correspondence between any two individuals to survive from the Middle Ages.

Könsgen and his publisher may have aimed to tantalize readers by giving his edition the subtitle Briefe Abaelards und Heloises? But this was an honest question, for he concluded that the anonymous writers must have been a couple "like" Abelard and Heloise without presenting their authorship as fact. That would hardly have been prudent in 1974, even if he had been more confident of the ascription than he was, because medievalists at the time were embroiled in a bitter controversy over the authenticity of what I shall call the monastic or canonical letters of Abelard and Heloise. This debate grew indirectly out of a long-standing romantic fascination with the lovers. The editio princeps of their letters, published by François d'Amboise and André Duchesne in 1616, inspired numerous French adaptations, many of them more fanciful than accurate. Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717), an Ovidian heroic epistle—composed in the same genre that so deeply influenced the real Heloise—is but the most famous of the innumerable poems, songs, novels, plays, paintings, and more recently, operas and films inspired by the couple. In 1817, Josephine Bonaparte had their bodies transferred to the new Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where their tomb rapidly became a shrine. It was only natural that such a romantic legend should drive historians, fired by the new spirit of positivism, to take a more skeptical look at their Latin letters.

From the early nineteenth century onward, rumblings of doubt were heard from time to time, mostly from historians who suspected that Abelard had composed the entire correspondence as an exemplary fiction to illustrate the "conversion" of Heloise. At a time when the authenticity of virtually all writing by medieval women was being challenged, skepticism was fueled by disbelief that any twelfth-century woman could write such learned, eloquent Latin. In Heloise's case, another factor weighed at least as heavily: the conviction that no abbess as successful as she could possibly have committed such sensual, even blasphemous thoughts to parchment. The historian John Benton provoked a cause célèbre when, at a 1972 conference at Cluny, he proposed an elaborate forgery theory involving not one but two forgers working across two centuries. In the same year, the influential critic D. W. Robertson, Jr., published a book supporting the thesis of an Abelardian fiction. Heated controversy raged for more than two decades.

In addition to Robertson and Benton (who retracted his controversial view in 1979), Hubert Silvestre, Deborah Fraioli, and others argued against authenticity from a variety of positions, while other medievalists including Paul Zumthor, Georges Duby, and Peter von Moos adopted a stance of cautious but skeptical agnosticism. If positivist history had fueled doubts of one kind, poststructuralist thought now encouraged another—a belief that "the text carries its own meaning," as Zumthor put it, in some "utopic place" of pure textuality. Thus "it matters little whether it is a fictional narrative or an autobiographical account." The resurgence of feminism, on the other hand, made it possible to take historical women seriously again and sparked new interest in Heloise as both writer and abbess. From the 1970s through the '90s, medievalists such as Peter Dronke, David Luscombe, and I argued for authenticity, bringing new historical evidence and a wide range of methodologies to bear on the question. M. T. Clanchy made a decisive intervention by treating the letters as authentic in his 1997 biography of Abelard.

By the turn of the century, the First Authenticity Debate had subsided, with most participants either persuaded by argument or swayed by consensus—just in time to begin a Second Authenticity Debate over the Epistolae duorum amantium. This was provoked not by Könsgen's edition, which scandalously received only seven reviews (none of them in English), but rather by Constant J. Mews's boldly titled 1999 volume, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Equipped with an English translation and a reprint of Könsgen's text, the book makes a forceful case for ascribing the EDA to Abelard and Heloise. But even if the First Authenticity Debate, with some of its heat and rancor, seems to merge seamlessly into the Second, the two are not really parallel. In the first case, the burden of proof lay squarely on the skeptics, given a strong manuscript tradition attributing the letters to the famous couple, many other medieval texts (literary as well as documentary) confirming their story, a lengthy tradition of interpretation and commentary, and not least, a work rich in historical particulars that could be checked against known facts. With the Epistolae, on the other hand, we have an unsigned, fragmentary text in a single manuscript written more than 350 years after the letters' presumed composition. That text was carefully edited by its scribe to remove any factual details it might once have contained, and there is no history of engagement, skeptical or otherwise, with these previously unknown letters. So now, as Jan Ziolkowski has rightly said, the burden of proof must rest on those who would support the attribution. Moreover, as von Moos points out, the second debate only pretends to be about "authenticity." While a genuine authenticity debate asks a yes-or-no question ("Did Peter Abelard actually write the Historia calamitatum, which bears his name?"), the attribution of an anonymous text confronts us with a garden of forking paths. The EDA themselves make no claim to be the work of Heloise and Abelard or anyone else, so if the ascription cannot be sustained, they simply remain anonymous. Questions of "forgery" cannot arise.

It is now more than forty years since Könsgen first published the Epistolae, and more than fifteen since Mews threw down the gauntlet with his title. In the interim, an initial rush to judgment on both sides has been followed by thoughtful debate and steadily accumulating knowledge, but a fair-minded observer would have to say that the question remains open. Among Könsgen's earliest readers, the philologists Karl Langosch and Walther Bulst accepted the authorship of Heloise and Abelard, while Bernhard Bischoff and André Vernet were skeptical. Mews has continued to support and strengthen the attribution in a steady stream of articles, as well as a revised and expanded edition of his book. In 1999, the same year that The Lost Love Letters appeared, C. Stephen Jaeger published Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility, arguing independently in favor of Heloise and Abelard as the authors. He too has published additional articles on the Epistolae. Further support comes from Sylvain Piron, the French translator of the letters, both in his translation and elsewhere. The German and Italian translators take no stand on the ascription.

On the other side, Peter Dronke, one of the staunchest champions of the authenticity of the canonical letters, accepts Könsgen's early twelfth-century date for the EDA, but not the attribution to Heloise and Abelard. Jan Ziolkowski, Giovanni Orlandi, and Francesco Stella have presented stylometric analyses that arrive at various conclusions, but none support the ascription. Giles Constable makes a case for moderate skepticism, while von Moos has argued strenuously against the attribution, denouncing it as "the eternal return of hermeneutic naïveté." Elsewhere he offers a wide-ranging contextual interpretation of the Epistolae as a work of late medieval literary fiction. Considering the evidence more dispassionately, Anne-Marie Turcan-Verkerk and Jean-Yves Tilliette find the arguments so equally balanced that, in the absence of new discoveries, they can only justify an agnostic stance. Many others have joined what they take to be a growing consensus on one side or the other, but without expressly weighing the arguments.

A New Approach: The Epistolae, the Ascription, and the History of Emotions

My purpose in this book is not just to take sides (though I will do so) but still more to advance interpretation of the letters from three standpoints. First, while the pioneering English translation by Mews and his student Neville Chiavaroli has served scholarship well thus far, it is time now to correct its several inaccuracies and infelicities in the light of subsequent research. There is room for a translation with greater literary ambitions, especially with respect to the thirteen poems that nestle among the prose letters. In preparing my version, I have carefully studied Könsgen's text and the Mews-Chiavaroli translation, as well as the excellent French version by Sylvain Piron. I have also consulted the German of Eva Cescutti and Philipp Steger, the Italian of Graziella Ballanti, the partial French version of Étienne Wolff, and a superb partial English version by William Levitan. Since all four complete translations reproduce Könsgen's text, which has even been posted on the Internet, I have reluctantly declined to include it here. This omission makes room for a detailed, letter-by-letter commentary that aims to be at once narrative, interpretive, and textual, citing the Latin extensively.

In the second place, I have done my best to situate the Epistolae more precisely in their intellectual and rhetorical milieu. Thus my comment on each letter ends with a list of citations, allusions, and parallels. Like any such apparatus, this is a collaborative project; I have added my own discoveries to the extensive work already done by Könsgen, Mews, Piron, von Moos, and others. Electronic databases now constitute an invaluable tool for such research. I have made ample use of the online Latin Library, the Patrologia Latina database by Chadwyck-Healey, and the extensive BREPOLiS database, which includes the complete Monumenta Germaniae Historica—not to mention Google Books. Nevertheless, identifying allusions remains an art, not a science, and this is truer than ever in the digital age. Not every coincidence of two or three words denotes a deliberate allusion; my list could easily have been expanded with more generous criteria, or reduced with more rigorous ones. As von Moos remarks, a computer can only be a blunt instrument for intertextual studies "because computers work, as concordances once did, with the letter rather than the spirit." Whittling down a massive list of possibilities, Stella restricted his parallels to those involving "the exact coincidence of at least two terms, except for case endings—and possibly, if it's a question of poetry, in the same metrical position." Users of the apparatus should bear in mind that an "allusion" can range from the pointed, self-conscious citation of a biblical or classical text to the use of a familiar tag just because it comes readily to mind, to an elegant phrase tossed in for stylistic flair, to subliminal memories of some work studied long ago. In addition to identifying sources, I have noted parallels with other relevant letter collections from the twelfth century, mainly the Tegernsee love letters, the Regensburg Songs (Carmina Ratisponensia), and the letters of Abelard and Heloise. In these and many other cases, the parallels delineate not quotations but a shared intellectual or stylistic environment. Appendix B presents a summary of my results, which should be taken as one scholar's appraisal of the intertextual research to date. It makes no claim to be definitive.

Finally and most crucially, I want to ask what the Epistolae can tell us about the history of emotions, for which they are a uniquely valuable source. Here alone do we have a substantial dossier of letters exchanged in real time between two lovers, a man and a woman. None of the twelfth century's many fictional letters, verse epistles, troubadour and trouvère lyrics, goliardic songs, lais, or romances offer us a comparable opportunity to observe a real love relationship between two historical persons as it waxes and wanes, passing through every emotional phase from enchantment to disillusionment. The canonical letters of Abelard and Heloise come closest, but even though they are often called "love letters," that label is misleading. Exchanged between priest and nun, abbot and abbess, they dissect an affair that had long since ended, analyzing it within a context of spiritual formation and monastic direction. Whether or not the famous couple also wrote the Epistolae duorum amantium, the two exchanges are very different.

But the Epistolae cannot yield much insight if they are read naively as expressions of raw emotion, neglecting their status—especially on the Woman's side—as intensely rhetorical productions. So I will begin by situating them within a history of their genre. To accomplish this, I necessarily cross the often indeterminate boundary between models and genuine letters, that is, those that were actually exchanged. Dronke noted as early as 1976 that the EDA share a great deal stylistically with the so-called Tegernsee love letters. These are ten letters (divided into groups of seven and three) incorporated into the larger Tegernsee Letter Collection from the Bavarian abbey. The manuscript dates from 1160-86, but like other formularies (model letter collections), it contains older materials. In fact, the ars dictaminis, or art of letter writing, was an inherently conservative genre. Dictatores or teachers of the art theorized existing practice, rather than innovating, and they frequently recycled models that were decades or even centuries old, as did Johannes de Vepria. The ten Tegernsee letters, eight of which have female authors, were written and received by nuns (or perhaps canonesses) and later given to the monks of Tegernsee to include in their massive letter collection. Two of these letters end with passages in Middle High German, so they could not have circulated in France. But the Woman of the EDA might have known a similar collection, a formulary of letters by and for nuns, that does not survive. Given the intrinsic interest of the Tegernsee letters and their close relationship to the EDA, I have included a full translation along with a commentary on them. I have also translated a selection from the Regensburg Songs, a set of epigrams and verse letters exchanged between a teacher and his convent students in the early twelfth century. These straddle the boundary between school exercises and "genuine" exchanges, for they were both—illustrating a discourse of love and friendship quite different from what we find in the EDA.

Gerald Bond, C. Stephen Jaeger, Constant Mews, and Peter Dronke have all discussed the delicate flowering of love poetry exchanged between clerics and learned nuns in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. We have surviving evidence from only two centers, Bavaria and the Loire Valley. But our knowledge of this subculture, even in those centers, rests on a manuscript basis so thin that we can reasonably assume much more has been lost. The same Ovidian revival might have flourished in other places where (like much literary production by nuns) it has left no trace. Aside from the general paucity of early manuscripts and the brevity of that cultural moment, it is likely that much of this Ovidian poetry, seen as immoral and frivolous, was suppressed by monastic reformers of the next generation. We do, however, still have a small number of poems by nuns, novices, and convent students, though the supposed author of only one is known to us by name: Lady Constance, a nun of Le Ronceray in Angers. Together with the verse of their male friends, such as Baudri of Bourgueil and Marbod of Rennes, this poetry opens a unique window onto the state of Latin letters at the dawn of vernacular fin'amor.

I will consider such poetry as the artifact of an emotional community, one in which learning Latin, imitating Ovid, and cultivating a kind of high-minded but flirtatious cross-gender friendship went hand in hand. This emotional community was a fragile one, not sustainable over the long term, because it made such outrageously high demands. Its elite members were required to maintain their vowed chastity or virginity, devote their lives to the service of God, attest to the disinterested purity of their friendships, and at the same time engage in a playful and competitive literary game whose very essence was the composition of amorous verse. This was hard enough for young and middle-aged clerics. Many of them were rhetorically bisexual, addressing love poems to boys as well as women, and if self-discipline failed them, they could break their vows of chastity without getting caught. But for girls and young women—cloistered, at risk of pregnancy, and at even greater risk of damaging their vitally important fama, their reputation for virtue—the game was an emotional high-wire act that may have had more casualties than we know. From the Epistolae we learn that the two lovers were products of such a textual and emotional community, although they were not in religious vows at the time of their affair. Their letters reveal what could happen when the ground rules failed: an intense literary friendship, pursued in both prose and verse, gets out of hand and evolves into a sexually engaged, passionate, life-or-death love affair.

If the lovers were Abelard and Heloise, these early letters show how they reached the point where we meet them in the Historia calamitatum. If we should decide the lovers were only a couple "like" Heloise and Abelard, as Könsgen proposed, their relationship can still yield much insight into the dilemma faced by their more famous contemporaries.