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Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography (Plus) Paperback – January 24, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

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 Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Plus
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; Reprint edition (January 24, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060816139
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060816131
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #799,791 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

JAMES BURGE is an award-winning television director who also writes popular books about the Middle Ages. His interest in Dante dates from a dramatised version of the Divine Comedy which he directed for BBC Television in the nineties, filmed, as he puts it, on location in Hell and Heaven. His acclaimed biography of Heloise and Abelard was published in 2003. He also writes the 'Absolom' historical detective series, articles and reviews for the Literary Review, the Independent on Sunday and History Today. He still makes the odd television program.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Megan on November 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Forget Romeo and Juliet... this is the real deal.

A brilliant up-and-coming philosopher is hired to tutor the equaly brilliant young niece of a powerful man... what should ensue but a story that involves love, romance, a nighttime escape with both lovers dressed as nuns, the birth of a child, and a brutal act of revenge that will make men everywhere wince.

Anyone who studied medieval history in college knows of the letters of Abelard and Heloise... the research for this book is based upon not only the original 8 that made their story famous, but also upon what the author believes to be a newly discovered cache of letters between the lovers. He makes a convincing case for the legitimacy of these new letters, and offers a much more thorough analysis of the story, the characters, and the major events of the period than exists elsewhere.

The author does a wonderful not only telling the story, but also putting it into historical context. This is a truly powerful story of unrequeited love that has fascinated historians and lay people alike for centuries, but it is also a very interesting history of a crucial period in Church history and in the history of Western Europe. The first whispers of the reformation are being heard, the Church is starting to punish heresy in very serious ways, and many of the social, religious, and educational institutions are being questioned. The modern reader might be particularly interested in the life that Heloise makes for herself: her career trajectory might come as a surprise to those who think that, except for the occasional queen, women were completely powerless in medieval European society.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By ilmk on November 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
James Burge's uptodate examination of the lives and letters of the twelfth century tragic lovers, Heloise and Abelard, is a superb piece of scholarship. With an examination of both the original attributed letters and the excerpts now identified as from their original love letters collated by Johannes de Vepria and first revealed by Constant Mews in 1999, Burge takes us through the known lives of the two ill-fated lovers whilst continually instructing the reader on twelfth century european monastic life and the firm secular power that the Church weilded through its canonical law.

The story of Abelard and Heloise (he the greatest logiical philosopher of his age, she a brilliant classical scholar some ten years his junior) who fall in love whilst she studies under him in Paris, their subsequent hasty and secretive marriage, the birth of their child Astralabe, Aberlard's subsequent castration by Heloise envious uncle, Fulbert and their enforced separation to the Orders and literary reconciliation, has echoed down the ages.

The Romeo and Juliet of its time, the erudite, first hand accounts of an altogether human love between two great intellectuals opens up the world of twelfth century europe to us in a way that is priceless. As Burge correctly comments fairly early in the text, the concept of the period being part of the medieval ages and pre-renaissance is farcical in the evidence of the Parisian centres of learning that Abelard founded and taught at.

Drawing heavily on the texts, Burge gives us an insight into the personalities of both, showing Abelard as that brilliant, yet socially aggressive, scholar, Heloise as his intellectually equal, yet through what modern terms would denote as `true love', utterly under his charming spell right to the end.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Shakespeare immortalized the fictional lovers Romeo and Juliet, but for historic doomed lovers, readers have always gone to the story of Heloise and Abelard. The letters between them, written in twelfth century France, are flirtatious, intellectual, dramatic, tragic, and erotic. The world for centuries has been fascinated by the eight letters exchanged by them when they were forced to be apart, but then a few years ago emerged a cache of letters they sent each other while they were also having passionate physical and intellectual exchanges. James Burge has drawn upon the letters old and new to produce _Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography: (HarperSanFrancisco) which is a genial guide to the classic story, a thoughtful and affecting work that explains the times, religion, and politics of a vastly different age. No American reader, however, will come away without thinking about the current influence of conservative or restrictive religious ideals, or of the continued desire of those in power to impose moral values.

In 1115 Abelard was 36 years old, a teacher of logic and master of the Cathedral School at Notre Dame in Paris. Heloise was fifteen years younger when they met. She was the niece of a local Parisian canon named Fulbert, and she came to the attention of Abelard because of her learning and her desire to learn. She became Abelard's pupil, and then his mistress. Even though they spent a lot of time in personal tutorials, they wrote letters to each other. Abelard wrote, "Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new we welcomed it." Heloise was consumed as well; this couple enjoyed their intellectual exchanges, enjoyed romance, but they really enjoyed sex. At least one time they made love in the refectory of a church.
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