From Publishers Weekly
The romance of Héloïse and Abelard remains one of the greatest love stories of all time—one of forbidden love; the eventual lifelong separation of the lovers, cloistered in a monastery and convent; and the vengeful castration of Abelard by Héloïse's uncle. More tantalizingly, we know of the affair only from eight surviving letters between the couple. But British Sunday Independent
columnist Burge draws on 113 recently translated letters that have been attributed to the lovers. Based on all of these letters, Burge analyzes the feelings and states of mind of the correspondents, and he can be a bit pedantic at times. But who can fail to be moved by the passion expressed in the letters? "Even during the celebration of the Mass," Héloïse famously wrote, "when our prayers should be purest, lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take... a hold on my unhappy soul...." Burge relates Abelard's theological struggles with the medieval Church, especially with the powerful Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux. Unlike in previous biographies, Héloïse emerges as a leader, too, in her role as abbess of the Paraclete, which she developed into a substantial institution. A complex woman, she sought a unified sense of self that would incorporate both her sexuality and her religious faith. Readers new to this medieval drama will be drawn to this vivid account. B&w illus., maps.
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Burge draws heavily on historical sources and the letters of Heloise and Abelard to recount the lives of the famous lovers. Besides the letters long known and used, he refers to recently discovered letters (originally copied in the fifteenth century by Johannes de Vepria) that have been attributed to Heloise and Abelard, presenting compelling evidence for accepting the ascription. After establishing the new letters' credibility, Burge gives the reader a detailed description of the political, social, and religious setting in which the couple's romance blossomed. The two met in 1115, when Abelard was an outspoken philosopher and Heloise was a promising student. Their affair was conducted virtually under the nose of Heloise's uncle, who was enraged when he learned the truth and eventually had Abelard castrated. Thereafter, the couple turned to religious life, but their passion never abated. Burge skillfully brings to life both lovers through their passionate, beautiful letters and the climate in which they lived. As in all the best biographies, the writing is lively and engaging. Kristine HuntleyCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved