Heloise & Abelard by James Burge

Heloise & Abelard by James Burge: A Review

Heloise & Abelard by James Burge: A Review

Heloise and Abelard are among history’s most famous lovers, and their lives together – and apart – represent what is perhaps history’s greatest love story.  Author James Burge, through meticulous research, unimpeachable scholarship, and with the help of a 13th century poet and a 15th century monk with a penchant for letter-writing propriety, recounts, in entirely readable fashion, this immortal tale from the decidedly mortal perspectives of the tale’s two protagonists.  Please enjoy the following RGG review of Heloise & Abelard by James Burge.

So, I’m finding myself reviewing a 20-year-old book about a 900-year-old romance, and I’m assuring you that there’s absolutely nothing old-hat about any of it.  The book remains as fascinating and informative today as it was when it was first written, and the romance is timeless.  Said romance, that of Heloise and Abelard, is among the most celebrated and legendary love stories in history, and the author of Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, James Burge, is ideally suited to the task of relating all of its hard facts, along with all of its evocative nuances.

The love story involves the extraordinary relationship of Peter Abelard, one of the twelfth century’s most gifted and celebrated thinkers, and his one-time student, Heloise, or Héloïse (no evidence of her surname is known to exist, but she’s sometimes referred to as Héloïse d’Argenteuil, or Héloïse du Paraclet), a brilliant woman of letters and a well-respected abbess, some fifteen years Abelard’s junior.  From the pair’s first meeting, through their courtship, marriage, tragic (yet largely self-imposed) separation, and the continued, legendary life-long passion between them, their story comes down to us through history in the purest of forms: their recorded correspondence in the form of personal letters.

If it weren’t for the existence of these letters, as author Burge assures readers, an entire dimension, if not all of Heloise and Abelard’s collective mythos would be unknown today.  Although Abelard’s renown as a writer, thinker, and philosopher is indisputable, and his contributions to philosophy, logic, and modern thought are widely acclaimed, the only real insight to his personality – to his nature – without the existence and discovery of the letters between Heloise and him would undoubtedly come almost solely from the established fact that his ideologies ended up seriously pissing off some of the most powerful clerical figures of the Middle Ages.  And Heloise, though a respected and substantially powerful clerical figure in her own right, and a woman far ahead of her time in terms of her ability and willingness to publicly – and assertively – wield the heft of her own prodigious intellect, would be virtually anonymous and essentially inconsequential as a medieval historical figure.  It’s here that James Burge steps in and employs his considerable skills as a writer and acclaimed producer and director of documentaries (among many others, Strange Landscape, a BBC series about medieval society and culture), and his own near-mythic personal fascination with the Middle Ages, to resurrect this ancient love story, and interweave it with elemental threads of the story behind the story: namely, the two discoveries, separated by eight centuries, of the two illuminating collections of letters between Heloise and Peter Abelard.  And it’s also at this point that Burge, using those amazing storytelling/moving-picture-making chops, and his encyclopedic knowledge of all things medieval, beautifully adorns his two subjects with the poignancy of thinking, feeling humanity with such subtlety, that the reader doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.  Heloise and Abelard by James Burge, coming in at a svelte sub-350 pages, manages to be a history textbook (though the author maintains, in an early footnote, that the book cannot be regarded purely as an academic work), a romantic biography, and a virtual stethoscopic account of the protagonists’ nearly millenium-old beating hearts, all rolled into one engrossing read. 

Peter Abelard was born in 1079, in le Pallet, Brittany.  From an early age, he demonstrated an incredible intellect and appetite for knowledge.  He became renowned throughout France as a logician and teacher, and is considered, to this day, possibly the greatest thinker of the 12th century.  Through his teachings and written works, Abelard became the leading proponent of, what were at the time, some of the Western World’s most groundbreaking – even radical – schools of thought.  He was also a respected theologian and cleric, and his embrace of certain religious dogmas would ostensibly remain at odds with many of the theories he espoused in his secular teachings and writings.  Yet his well-documented logical arguments in defense of his adherence to often seemingly mutually exclusive tenets and principles afforded these positions credibility and verisimilitude.  In addition to his fame as a thinker and educator, Abelard was also a highly regarded poet, composer, and musician.  His intellect and protean proclivities made him a famous figure in 12th century France.

Heloise was born circa 1095, just outside of Paris.  There are no existing records of her exact date of birth (but scholars generally agree that 1095 is accurate).  What is known of Heloise (almost entirely as a result of her love affair with Abelard, and the subsequent public, written divulging of its details) is that her intellect was astounding, her skill as a writer was remarkable, and her charisma was undeniable.  She was to become one of the most powerful female clerical figures of 12th century France as the abbess of the convent of Paraclete, located near the town of Troyes.

The pair first met when Abelard was retained by Heloise’s uncle and guardian, the Canon Fulbert, as a tutor for the then 16-year-old girl.  What followed was their courtship, the birth of their child, their semi-clandestine marriage, their self-imposed separation, the imagined assault by Abelard of Fulbert’s family honor, Fulbert’s brutal attack of Abelard (resulting in Abelard’s castration), Abelard’s persecution by such powerful members of the Catholic clergy as Bernard of Clairvaux and Henri Sanglier (Archbishop of Sens), and the years of the two lovers’ separation continuing through the time of Abelard’s death. 

The tale of Heloise and Abelard is one characterized by inflamed passion and undying love between intellectual equals, and plaintive longing in the face of sustained misfortune and oppression, and what might be considered needless separation.  And again, as James Burge accurately asserts and goes on to beautifully demonstrate in Heloise & Abelard, the story’s full nature and scope – the factual details of the couple’s relationship, and especially their human-ness – is known to history solely as a result of the discovery and publication of the two collections of remarkable letters.

Burge begins Heloise and Abelard with a simple yet surprisingly loaded chronology of the lives of his two main characters.  His documentary-making skills are evident as he takes this first step in establishing the foundation of historical perspective for his readers.  This chronology is deceptively effective as a foreshadowing mechanism.  It’s a list of dates with accompanying notations among which are embedded random ingots of shocking and tantalizing info.  A simple list of dates getting a reader hooked on this story?  Who’d have thunk it?  It goes without saying that, for me, the chronology was also an amazingly helpful reference.

Burge discusses the nature of those two collections of illuminating letters – the basis of the telling of Heloise and Abelard’s love story – and their respective discoveries and subsequent dissemination in the book’s introduction.  The history of these collections, and the means by which they were brought into the light of academic scrutiny, would make for a fabulously compelling book in their own right.  The first group of letters – eight in all – had comprised, until relatively recently, the sole public historical record of the relationship of Heloise and Abelard.  These letters, or a manuscript comprising their exact contents, found their way into the hands of the poet Jean de Meung, who made them public, in written form, in 1275, less than a century after the deaths of Heloise and Abelard.  Burge proposes an educated explanation of de Meung’s acquisition of the letters’ contents, and he refers to the eight letters themselves as “the source of the knowledge of the bones of the story.” 

The true nature of the second group of letters – 113 in all – was revealed in The Lost Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise by the scholar Constant Mews in 1999.  Mews is widely credited with being the first to unabashedly recognize the letters for what they truly were.  He’d initially come across them in an obscure Latin manuscript written by a monk named Johannes de Vepria.  This particular work contained what de Vepria had evidently considered to be examples of excellent letter-writing form, and was essentially a textbook intended to teach students the finer points of letter composition propriety and form.  He included, in his book, a section which was filled with material that was definitely of a less formal and much more passionate bent.  Mews, through his remarkable research and scholarship, was able to identify the contents of this particular section of de Vepria’s book as 113 separate written love letters between Heloise and Abelard.  These are the letters which author Burge identifies as the collective illumination of the intense power of Heloise and Abelard’s legendary love affair, and the means by which history has come to know the two lovers’ true respective personalities, and their individual capacities for this epic passion.  And, as he does with de Meung’s acquisition of the earlier discovered eight letters, Burge offers a reasonable and well-informed hypothesis for de Vepria’s possession of these 113.

The revealing quality of both groups of letters as it pertains to history’s knowledge of Heloise and Abelard is undeniable.  The letters speak for themselves and provide ample insight – particularly the much more recently discovered batch of 113 – into the hearts and minds of the storied lovers.  And it is James Burge’s adroit treatment of this astounding insight, I believe, that makes his Heloise & Abelard such an enjoyable, beautifully readable book.

The letters constituting the story of the relationship of Heloise and Peter Abelard do indeed speak for themselves, and this fact is not lost on James Burge.  I think of Burge’s treatment of this subject matter as something of a written version of a filmed documentary.  Through carefully placed references to a particular quotation from a given letter, and ingeniously posed questions (asked in almost rhetorical fashion in certain instances) in response to this referenced content, Burge further accentuates the passions which obviously inform that particular letter.  Engaging the reader’s mind with the fathoming of a question about Heloise or Abelard’s particular intent is a wonderfully effective device for evoking emotion and eliciting interest from a reader (and would work to similar effect with the viewer of a filmed documentary).

Burge uses his vast knowledge as an historian to lend background and enhanced readability to an already mesmerizing love story.  As a writer, he recognizes the importance of integrating explanations of the prevalent sociopolitical and ecclesiatical conditions (each of which would make an entertaining work of fiction in its own right), at this particular time in France’s history, as a means of lending intrigue and literary “tenebrism” to this exquistely intimate story.  An excellent example of Burge’s adept implementation of his knowledge of medieval history involves his recounting of the events that unfolded at the Council of Sens (1140-1141), where charges of heresy were leveled against Abelard.  Burge’s relating of the events that took place read almost like a modern courtroom drama.  His conversational knowledge of those times, and their various corresponding protocols and mores, allows for an incredibly enthralling re-telling of a humiliating and salient point in the elderly Abelard’s life.  You’ve gotta know your history if you’re going to talk about all of the ins and outs, so to speak, of this particular love story.  James Burge knows his history.

The cadence and structure of Heloise & Abelard has been intelligently orchestrated by Burge to maximize its readability.  The author carefully includes excerpts from the all-important letters, and any relevant corresponding historical data, according to a timeline that’s simple to follow and that accurately follows the measure of the decades of Heloise and Abelard’s lives.  This is such a rich story, and the time of the physical actualization of the protagonists’ passion is so brief (only about two years), that a simple chronology would not have been sufficient to capture the tale’s full depth and breadth.  By picking and choosing the points of introduction of certain of the story’s elements, James Burge endows Heloise & Abelard with a level of readability and an entertainment quotient far exceeding that of a purely academic historical recounting.  I consider this to be “a big book trapped in a little book’s body” – historical drama at its finest and easiest to read.

In terms of added goodies, the book contains twenty-five remarkable images (photographs, manuscript and drawing reproductions), an appendix containing a sizable selection of the 113 love letters, or portions thereof, of Heloise and Abelard (each entry’s original latin text is included, as well as the corresponding English translation), and finally, Burge’s inclusion in the book of a section entitled “The Story of Heloise & Abelard: Notes and Suggestions for Discussion.”  This last section (as is so often the case with the epilogue of a well-executed filmed documentary and its audience) leaves the reader with some wonderfully thought-provoking questions and ideas to chew over.  Here, the reader is challenged to consider the actual character of each of the book’s protagonists, the validity of some of the story’s original relevant letters/documents, a potential indictment of contemporary social structure, and a really interesting hypothetical anachronism.

Heloise & Abelard by James Burge
There are twenty-five remarkable, highly-illustrative images included in the book.
Heloise & Abelard by James Burge
In the appendix to the book, author James Burge includes selections from the 113 love letters of Heloise and Abelard, in both their original Latin, and English translations.

For me, a history text book is a reference book.  When I’m looking for hard facts, nothing beats one of those.  But history text books can be onerous and, at those times when my eyelids are drooping even the slightest bit, hypnotically sleep-inducing.  When I can get my history from a book that manages to read like a work of fiction, presents unquestionably reliable facts, and is as much fun to read as watching a fab documentary, I consider this a big win.  The love story of Heloise and Peter Abelard has fascinated me for as long as I can remember.  Heloise & Abelard by James Burge presents this fabled story in historically correct fashion, and with all of the subtleties, nuances, and vicissitudes inherent in all real-life matters of the heart.  This is one informative, entertaining read.  I highly recommend it.

Please feel free to order Heloise & Abelard right here, directly from Amazon.  For more info, or to order, please click the Amazon #advertisement link.

Heloise & Abelard Paperback Edition

Click here to learn more or to order


Heloise & Abelard by James Burge
My own beat up copy of Heloise & Abelard. (I swear, I sleep with these things.)

For more book reviews here on The Renaissance Garden Guy, feel free to visit Books and Literature.  There you’ll find reviews by yours truly, as well as some amazing RGG guest writers.  Have a look.

Thank you, my dear readers and subscribers, for sticking around.  As always, your interest and readership are dearly appreciated.

Cheers, and Happy Gardening!

The Renaissance Garden Guy is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program.  As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Please click here to view The Renaissance Garden Guy Disclosure page.

12 thoughts on “Heloise & Abelard by James Burge: A Review”

  1. I guess I don’t have enough books in my collection. This is a Must Have.

    Thank you for this excellent review.

    You’re the Best – as always

    1. Wow, Annie – thank you so much! This really is a wonderful book. I haven’t found a more reader-friendly book about this incredible true story than Burge’s. He relates the nuances and realities of the tale in perfectly comprehensible, and evocative fashion. I do believe that you’d thoroughly enjoy this one. Thanks once again, Annie!

    1. Thank you for reading the review, Kevin. It is an amazing story. The fact that it comes down through history in the form of firsthand accounts from the protagonists themselves makes it particularly remarkable and poignant. Thanks again for reading the review, Kevin, and of course, thank you for your kind thoughts.

  2. Absolutely amazing review 🙏🙏🙏
    I will definitely read this beautiful, passionate love story, thank you for sharing it🌺❤️

    1. Thank you so much for reading it, Roxxy – I’m so glad you liked it! It’s an absolutely riveting story. The fact that all of the details come directly from the two protagonists is amazing. This particular book is really a terrific read. James Burge does a beautiful job of telling the story in very informative and entertaining fashion. Thanks once again, Roxxy. Your kindness and interest, as always, are dearly appreciated.

    1. Thank you for reading the review, Rick. And yes, the tale of Heloise and Abelard is amazing, made even more so by the fact that it’s true. The intensity of their passion, and the heartache of their life-long separation make for a profoundly tragic juxtaposition.

    1. Thank you so much, Mary! I’m glad the review was helpful. I am certain that you’re going to love this incredible story. James Burge is an excellent writer, and the story is truly timeless. Thanks once again!

  3. Well John, after that I will be ordering this wonderful and interesting story.Your description and enthusiasm is infectious,and as always, your writing is exceptional.

    1. Thank you for reading the review and, of course, thank you for your kind words, Tina. I truly do appreciate it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the book. It’s such a fascinating read. James Burge is an excellent writer and very thorough researcher. With this book, he’s written a completely engrossing story. I absolutely loved it! And I really do think that you’ll love it, too! Thanks once again, Tina!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You cannot copy the content of this page.