The Letters of Abelard and Heloise recount the story of a great scholar in the Twelfth-century Renaissance, and his relationship with one of his pupils.
The letters reveal details about everyday life, and most appealing, the relationships, however, most importantly, the everyday communication and interaction between genders during this time period. With pre-existing knowledge of gender interaction during this time, we can infer that Abelard and Heloise showed characteristics that might deviate from the medieval norms of men and women. However, both of them seemingly fill their respective gender roles throughout the text.
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Heloise, the 12th century woman who, perhaps beyond all the other and many peculiarities of her life, is characterized by the sheer expansiveness of her figure. In her youth, she was a young woman “famed for the extent of her learning”. As a woman whose name will forever become associated with that of Peter Abelard, she was first known as the student seduced by her teacher, the lover whose name was on the lips of strangers by virtue of his love songs, the wife who caused the public sensation of his castration and humiliation, and finally the mother of a curiously named son, Astrolabe. It is known that there are many curiosities to be explained with the actions and words of Heloise. However, she conforms the medieval ideas of gender more often than not.
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Initially, it may seem as if Heloise is challenging Peter’s knowledge and emphasizing her precise points in her arguments, but inevitably, she accepts his conclusions, and continuously seeks his opinion and approval of the matter at hand. “Is it the general lot of women to bring total ruin on great men”? In her responses to Peter, she took the character of a devoted, submissive wife, which befit a good wife, to the point of taking religious vows. In this instance, Heloise conformed to the social norms of women being the “weaker” sex, began submission to Peter, and downplayed the woman gender as a whole. “It was the first woman in the beginning who lured man from Paradise…”.
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Perhaps the most surprising womanly characteristic of Heloise is her sexual appetite. Although Heloise claims it is out of love and devotion to her husband, she does not show the kind of reproach for their passions as Abelard does, and merely regrets that they were punished for their actions, not the actions themselves. “I did more, strange to say – my love rose to such heights of madness that it robbed itself of what it most desired beyond hope of recovery, when immediately at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and will alike”. This statement shows the submissiveness of women, and the conformity of Heloise to medieval ideals about genders. This attitude towards sex meets and contradicts with certain expectations of women. On one hand, women were expected to be chaste for both her God and her husband. At the same time, women were thought to be “rash”, more emotional than men, and weaker against resisting most types of temptation during this time period.
In many instances Heloise demonstrates her most feminine trait, “pure and natural compassion”, which was known to be endemic to women at this time. Heloise demonstrates this compassion through her worrying over Peter’s physical and mental well-being, as well as her ability to guide her sisters in a way in which Peter made clear he could not match with his monks. Heloise’s lustful and sexual nature also conforms to medieval ideas about her gender, because it is an indication of her “weaker” nature. Although she is not plagued by what Abelard calls a “bodily part of shame”, which is the source of male lust, she is more easily seduced by evil and power.
Heloise conforms best to the medieval woman role with her devotion as a wife. However, her utter submissiveness, and devotion to him as her husband is clearly emphasized throughout most of the text. She claims she has and would do anything for him, and that she claims, “I did more, strange to say – my love rose to such heights of madness that it robbed itself of what it most desired beyond hope of recovery, when immediately at your bidding I changed my clothing along with my mind, in order to prove you the sole possessor of my body and will alike”. It is truly this care and devotion, that fits Heloise into the gender role of a woman. Unlike men, the expectations of womanhood were broader, and as such, most of Heloise’s behavior easily fits into the expected, if not praiseworthy, female gender role.