Héloïse (variously spelled Helöise, Héloyse, Hélose, Heloisa, Helouisa, Eloise, and Aloysia, among other variations) was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and had a reputation for intelligence and insight. Abélard writes that she was nominatissima, "most renowned" for her gift in reading and writing. Not a great deal is known of her immediate family except that in her letters she implies she is of a lower social standing (probably the Garlande family, who had money and several members in strong positions) than was Abélard, who was originally from the nobility, though he had rejected knighthood to be a philosopher.
What is known is that she was the ward of an uncle, a canon in Paris named Fulbert. By some point in her life, she was renowned throughout Western Europe for her scholarship. By the time she became the student of Pierre Abélard (Peter Abelard), who was one of the most popular teachers and philosophers in Paris, she was already a reputed scholar. Educated by Abelard in medicine and other traditional subjects taught in higher education at the time, Héloïse gained quite a reputation as a physician in her role as abbess of Paraclete.
In his Historia Calamitatum, an autobiographical piece written around 1132, Abélard tells the story of his seduction of Héloïse, whom he met when in 1115 he himself, like Fulbert, became a canon in Paris.
It is unclear how old Héloïse was at this time. She is described as an adolescentula (young girl), and so it is often assumed that she was about seventeen at the time, having been born in 1100–1. More recently, however, Constant Mews has suggested that the age of seventeen is a seventeenth-century fabrication with no supporting contemporary evidence, and that she was probably in her early twenties at the time. The main piece of evidence for this is that in a later letter, Peter the Venerable writes to Héloïse that he remembers her when he was a young man and she was a woman; this, Mews suggests, implies that Héloïse was at least as old as, and possibly older than Peter. Given that Peter was born in 1092, it would mean that Héloïse would have been in her early twenties at the time of the affair. Mews suggests that this makes more sense of Abelard's later comment that he sought to seduce Héloïse because she was the most famous woman in France for her studies – because, as he suggests, she would have been unlikely to have acquired this reputation by the age of 17. More tentatively, the extent of Héloïse's accomplishment in Greek and Hebrew, and her mature response to the relationship, might indicate someone older than 17.
Abelard tells how he convinced Fulbert to let him move into his house, telling Fulbert that he could not afford to live in his current house while studying, and offering to tutor Héloïse in return. Abelard tells of their subsequent illicit relationship, which they continued until Héloïse became pregnant. Abelard moved Héloïse away from Fulbert and sent her to his own sister in Brittany, where Héloïse gave birth to a boy, whom she called Astrolabe. It is almost unknown what happened to Astrolabe in later life. He is never mentioned by Héloïse in her letters to Abelard, and Abelard's only reference to him outside the Historia Calamitatum is in the verses of advice addressed to him, and thought to have been written about 1135. His death-day is recorded in the necrology of the Paraclete as 29 or 30 October, but no year is given. He is mentioned only once in a later letter, when Peter the Venerable writes to Héloïse: "I will gladly do my best to obtain a prebend in one of the great churches for your Astrolabe, who is also ours for your sake".
Abelard agreed to marry Héloïse to appease Fulbert, although on the condition that the marriage should be kept secret so as not to damage Abélard's career; Héloïse was initially reticent to agree to the secret marriage, but was eventually persuaded by Abelard. Héloïse returned from Brittany, and the couple were secretly married in Paris.
Fulbert, however, began to spread news of the marriage, in order to punish Abelard for the damage done to his reputation. Héloïse attempted to deny this, but this ongoing situation eventually caused Abélard to place Héloïse for her own safety in the convent of Argenteuil, where Héloïse had been brought up. Fulbert and his friends, however, believed that Abelard had simply found a way of getting rid of Héloïse, by making her a nun. So, to punish Abelard, a group of Fulbert's friends broke into Abelard's room one night and castrated him.
After castration, filled with shame at his situation, Abélard became a monk in the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. At the convent in Argenteuil, Héloïse took the habit at Abelard's insistence and much against her own wishes. She eventually became prioress there, but she and the other nuns were turned out in 1129 when the convent was taken over by the Abbey of St Denis. At this point Abélard arranged for them to enter the Oratory of the Paraclete, a deserted building near Nogent-sur-Seine in Champagne which had been established by Abelard himself in 1122 (though he had subsequently moved to become Abbot of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Lower Brittany). Héloïse became abbess of the new community of nuns there.
About this time, correspondence began between the two former lovers. What exists today consists of seven letters (numbered Epistolae 2–8 in Latin volumes, since the Historia Calamitatum precedes them as Epistola 1). Four of the letters (Epistolae 2–5) are known as the 'Personal Letters', and contain personal correspondence. The remaining three (Epistolae 6–8) are known as the 'Letters of Direction'.
Héloïse responded, both on the behalf of the Paraclete and herself. In letters which followed, Héloïse expressed dismay at problems that Abélard faced, but scolded him for years of silence following the attack upon him, since Abélard was still wed to Héloïse.
Thus began a correspondence both passionate and erudite. Héloïse encouraged Abélard in his philosophical work, and he dedicated his profession of faith to her. But there is an underlying tenor of despair on Héloïse's part. She reminds him that she did not want to marry him, that she preferred to be his whore rather than his wife, preferring freedom to chains. Abélard insisted that he had never truly loved her, but only lusted after her, and that their relationship was a sin against God. He then recommended her to turn her attention toward the only one who ever truly loved her, Jesus Christ, and to consecrate herself fully from then on to her religious vocation.
At this point the tenor of the letters changes. In the 'Letters of Direction', Héloïse writes the fifth letter, declaring that she will no longer speak of the hurt that Abelard has caused her. The sixth is a long letter by Abelard in response to Héloïse's first question in the fifth letter about the origin of nuns. In the long final, seventh letter, Abelard provides a Rule for the nuns at the Oratory of the Paraclete, again as requested by Héloïse at the outset of the fifth letter.
The Problemata Heloissae (Héloïse's Problems) is a letter from Héloïse to Abélard containing 42 questions about difficult passages in Scripture, interspersed with Abelard's answers to the questions, probably written at the time when she was abbess at the Paraclete.
Beyond the love story they tell, Héloïse's letters contribute one of the earliest, most radical feminist philosophies of not only the 12th century, but even today. Héloïse plainly writes of her disdain for marriage and even feminine life, stating in her first letter, "I preferred love to wedlock, freedom to a bond." She is also later quoted with her famous lines, "What man, bent on sacred or philosophical thoughts, could endure the crying of children…? And what woman will be able to bear the constant filth and squalor of babies?" She goes so far as to define marriage as the ultimate form of prostitution, a brash statement for a female in 12th century France. She states, "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." Although her exceptional and different "pure love" for Peter Abelard provides the contextual backdrop for her brash statements, she is essentially calling marriage contractual prostitution. It is clear that Héloïse meant for this philosophy to be heard because Peter Abelard himself reproduces her arguments in The Story of His Calamities.
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.
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.
There are similar scholarly disputes about other works attributed to Héloïse.
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. 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."
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." 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." 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. According to William Levitan, fellow of the American academy in Rome, "Readers may be struck by the unattractive figure [the otherwise self praising Abelard] cuts in his own pages....Here the motive [in blaming himself for a cold seduction] is part protective...for Abelard to take all the moral burden on himself and shield, to the extent he can, the now widely respected abbess of the Paraclete--and also in part justificatory--to magnify the crime to the proportions of its punishment." Thus Heloise's motive in responding to his letter was to set the record straight, that she had been if anything the instigator of their courtship.
Héloïse's place of burial is uncertain. Abelard's bones were moved to the Oratory of the Paraclete after his death, and after Héloïse's death in 1163/64 her bones were placed alongside his. The bones of the pair were moved more than once afterwards, but they were preserved even through the vicissitudes of the French Revolution, and now are presumed to lie in the well-known tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris. The transfer of their remains there in 1817 is considered to have considerably contributed to the popularity of that cemetery, at the time still far outside the built-up area of Paris. By tradition, lovers or lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt, in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love.
This remains, however, disputed. The Oratory of the Paraclete claims Abélard and Héloïse are buried there and that what exists in Père Lachaise is merely a monument or cenotaph. Others believe that while Abelard is buried in the tomb at Père Lachaise, Heloïse's remains are elsewhere.