2006-11-23: The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard

The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard

Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth Century France (1999)

by Constant J Mews (1954-)

I came across a mention of this book somewhere on the Web, and a battered copy was in the local library system. This is a good follow-up to The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, which I read in 1996.

Here are the opening paragraphs of chapter 1:

Clairvaux, 1471. A young monk is rummaging through cupboards full of manuscripts. He is looking for examples of good Latin prose to include in an anthology of letters from Christian antiquity to the present that he is compiling. There is no complete inventory to help him find his way through the mass of parchment that has accumulated at the abbey during the three and a half centuries since it was founded by St. Bernard in 1115. Most of the official letters he finds begin with a standard formula: “To X, Y: greeting (salutem).” His eye then falls on the rhyming phrases of a very different kind of letter, one that does not identify the sender by name:

Amori suo predordiali omnibus aromatibus dulcius redolenti, corde et corpore sua: arescentibus floribus tue juventutis viriditatem eterne felicitates.

To her heart’s love, more sweetly scented than any spice, she who is his in heart and body: the freshness of eternal happiness as the flowers fade of your youth.

Who is this woman whose voice is preserved in an abbey to which women are denied access? Is she real, or is she the creation of a vivid literary imagination? Who is the man whom she imagines to be so wonderful? Is it not fiction to imagine that one can eavesdrop on a dialogue of the heart from so many centuries ago?

Mews goes on from here to make the case that this monk, Johannes de Vepria, has preserved part of the correspondence between Heloise and Abelard from the period before the ‘calamity’ that followed the discovery of their secret affair.  Along the way he shows how these letters complement the well-known correspondence to support the authenticity of those.

Mews’s views have moderated my own, and make the story of Abelard and Heloise more interesting. I would recommend anyone interested in the story to read this work immediately after reading the Letters.

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