From Man to Monk, Woman to Nun

The Power of Abelard and the Desire of Heloise



The story of Peter Abelard and his pupil and wife, Heloise, is essentially the story of “correspondence between a castrated man and a concupiscent nun” (Chance 26).  As told in Letter I, Historia Calamitatum, Abelard was a twelfth century scholar, philosopher and teacher who fell in love with his student, Heloise.  He had sexual relations with Heloise while her Uncle Fulbert thought he was tutoring her; she later got pregnant and, after running from Paris to Brittany, they married secretly, so they would not put Abelard’s professional reputation at risk.  The marriage, arranged by Fulbert, was seen to be “a marriage which [Abelard] believed had made amends for all previous wrongdoing” (Radice 66), but the couple soon realized that Fulbert had no intention of forgiving them for their tryst and they separated, Heloise going to Argenteuil and Abelard back to Paris.  In Paris, Abelard was attacked by Fulbert’s henchmen and castrated.  This castration signals the end of Abelard’s lustful feelings toward his wife, and the beginning of a more intellectual, religious and spiritual life.  “[After his castration, Abelard] preached a sermon on how monks were spiritual eunuchs; a monastery was therefore an appropriate sanctuary for a castrated fugitive like himself” (Clanchy 4-5).  While Abelard sought refuge in a monastery, essentially a same-sex community in which he would be shielded from carnal temptations, at the same time he made Heloise enter the convent, exercising his power over her.  “[Abelard] is ambushed and castrated by another man, who wants to stop his sexual liaison with a young woman they both love. The young woman, as a result of that castration of the man she loves, withdraws from the heterosexual economy” (Taylor 40-41). 

The convent, being a same-sex community similar to that of a monastery, serves as a detriment to Heloise’s still raging sexual desires.  Heloise’s separation from her husband and from sexual activity is a form of forceful abstinence, but cannot be physically equated with Abelard’s castration.  On the other hand, Abelard seems to think their situations are the same in that he wants Heloise to devote her life to God as he has after his castration.  In his view, their sexual desires are renounced and they both end up in same-sex communities, through no choice of their own.  Where Abelard’s castration, in Heloise’s words, is “supreme treachery of the mutilation of [his] person” (Radice 47), Abelard does not see Heloise’s new life as an abstinent nun in quite the same way.  In fact, he pleads with her to only seek out his company if she “feel[s] that [she has] need of [his] instruction and writings in matters pertaining to God” (Radice 56).  Through God and spirituality, he tries to make Heloise as comfortable in her same-sex community as he seems to be.  But throughout their correspondence, Heloise refuses to try to forget or bury her sexual desire for Abelard.  In a way, she resists Abelard’s own method of a kind of emotional castration. 

Abelard’s intellect is what gave him his power before his castration; however, after his castration, his absence of sex, or his indeterminacy, deprives him of sexual control and power, and instead makes intellect, and control of the woman’s intellect, all-important.  Before, when he was having the affair with Heloise, he was initially attracted to her intellect and intelligence. “A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her most renowned throughout the realm.  [Abelard] considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to [his] bed…” (Radice 10).  It is only logical that once he is deprived of the desire to have sexual relations with Heloise, he still wants to have some kind of power over her.  This power comes in the form of instruction.  Abelard is the kind of man who needs to be the most important.

What gives zest to Abelard’s ‘history of calamities’ is the way he writes as a great hater as much as a great lover.  He presents himself as a complete egoist:  everything he does is of the utmost importance and interest, in his own opinion, and everyone he meets – including Heloise – exists only in the light of his own brilliance. (Clanchy 2)


Such an important man must need to have some kind of power over those close to him.  His castration forces him to turn to another source for that power.  He first retains power over Heloise sexually.  Abelard himself marvels at how easily her uncle puts her in his charge when he asks, “In handing her over to me to punish as well as to teach, what else was [Fulbert] doing but giving me complete freedom to realize my desires, and providing an opportunity … for me to bend her to my will by threats and blows if persuasion failed?” (Radice 10-11). He was already planning to have this young girl sexually and knew that he would have the power to convince her, if need be.  Before his castration, sex weakens his love for the intellectual, putting it second.   “Now the more I was taken up with these pleasures, the less time I could give to philosophy and the less attention I paid to my school.  It was utterly boring for me to have to go to the school … when my nights were sleepless with lovemaking” (Radice 11).  Post-castration, when he is no longer able to put sex before his studies,  he moves away from the sexual and finds a way to move closer to the intelligent and the spiritual, and hopefully retain some kind of power.   “To be sure, since his castration, [Abelard] has noticed that his intelligence has become keener; his teaching and his fame have benefited” (Leclercq 484).  Instead of using his intellect, his reputation and his sexuality as a man to exercise a certain amount of power over Heloise, he must use his intellect, his reputation and his spirituality.   He even offers his services to her, religiously, when he says,

[I] propose to instruct your way of life through the many documents of the holy Fathers and the best customs of monasteries, gathering each blossom as it comes to mind and collecting in a single bunch what I shall see will accord with the sanctity of your calling.

(Radice 131).


Abelard’s power comes from his ability to instruct others, whether it be in matters of sex, philosophy or religion.

Castration as Punishment

Abelard’s castration was a shocking experience, and caused “traumatic effects,” some of which “made him in the most literal sense a different man” (McLaughlin 467).  He  describes his castration as poetic justice in his autobiography when he says,, “…they cut off the parts of my body whereby I had committed the wrong of which they complained…just a judgment of God had struck me in the parts of the body with which I had sinned … just a reprisal had been taken by the very man I myself had betrayed” (Radice 17).  This is reminiscent of the Bible:  “…you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).  By taking away Abelard’s manhood, Fulbert has transformed him into what could be construed as a eunuch; Abelard turns to God.  “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:12).  So, “although [Abelard] admits that this was not among the remedia amoris [cure for love] he would have chosen” (Dinshaw 29), he does accept his role as a monk and he says “[I] recognize[d] that the hand of the Lord had touched me for the express purpose of freeing me from the temptations of the flesh and the distractions of the world so that I could devote myself to learning, and thereby prove myself a true philosopher not of the world but of God” (Radice 19).   With his sexual desires eliminated, he is free to pursue God’s work without distraction.  Or, it could have just been that “The trauma of the castration … disgusted him with sexuality and distorted his memories” (Clanchy 151).

Although the castration might assault the sensibilities of a modern lawmaker, there are quite a few examples of castration being used as punishment for deviant sexual behavior during this time period.  “Even Abelard admitted that his castration was not an act of mindless violence, but a punishment” (Clanchy 197), obviously for his lechery and deceit concerning the young girl, in his scholarly charge, that he was having a lustful affair with.  Heloise makes it sounds like castration was only a punishment for adultery when she says, “The punishment [Abelard] suffered would have been proper vengeance for men caught in open adultery” (Radice 66),  but this kind of affair was considered to be deviant, as was homosexuality, sodomy, and often, heresy, and so Abelard sees his punishment as God’s way of showing him the other side of life.  While he could no longer have sex he says he “could … minister to the needs of women, as [he] was certainly well able to do, if only through [his] preaching” (Radice 36).   Around two centuries after Abelard’s castration, a man named Sir Hugh Despenser was accused of being King Edward II’s lover and a deviant heretic.  His punishment was reminiscient of Abelard’s in that is was considered to be God’s justice. In Conor McCarthy’s Love Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages, he quotes John Boswell as saying Despenser’s punishment was “the common French punishment for sodomy”  (McCarthy 156), described  as follows:

            First, he was dragged on a hurdle through all the streets of Hereford, to the sound of horns

            and trumpets, until he reached the main square of the town … There he was tied to a long

            ladder, so that everyone could see him … When he had been tied up, his member and his

            testicles were first cut off, because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said,

            with the King, and this was why the King had driven away the Queen on his suggestion

            (McCarthy 156).


Just as Abelard’s punishment fit his crime, Despenser’s punishment was symptomatic of the wrongs he had committed.  On the other hand, there are some laws that suggest Fulbert’s order to have Abelard castrated may have been considered rash and unjustified.

There is a lawbook from England, the Laws of Henry I, which is contemporary with Abelard’s castration and which has connections with France, as it was probably written by a Norman.  Its chapter on rules for conducting feuds throws some light on Abelard’s case.  A man is entitled to fight (i.e. to use force), the author says,  against anyone he finds with his wife, daughter, sister or mother within closed doors under the same bedcover.  It was when Fulbert discovered Abelard and Heloise clasped together … that Abelard had taken flight and abducted Heloise.  But the Laws of Henry I strictly limit the aggrieved man’s rights of retaliation:  he has to have discovered and warned the fornicater three times before proceeding; he has to have seen the couple’s genitalia actually joined in sexual intercourse…  (Clanchy 198)


These two examples prove not that Fulbert was right in his punishment of Abelard, but that he was not the only one to exact that kind of punishment on a sexual offender. 

Abelard’s state of mind before his castration is that of a man who is confident in his actions.  He does not feel that he has done anything wrong.  “I had done nothing unusual in the eyes of anyone who had known the power of love, and recalled how since the beginning of the human race women had brought the noblest men to ruin” (Radice 13). He is blaming the woman and the power of love for his sexual downfall, therefore making himself not responsible for his actions.  We can recall that in the Bible, when Eve gives Adam the apple from the forbidden tree, she insures God’s wrath, and her punishment also involves the body parts that aid in reproduction.  God said to Eve, “I will greatly increase your pangs/in childbearing;/in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).  At this point, Abelard thinks that he has done nothing wrong; he is just a victim of feminine lust.  However, in the eyes of the law, he is committing a kind of sexual deviancy, for which punishment must be given. 

Biblical Examples of Castration

The Bible plays an important role in Abelard’s power over Heloise, and includes several stories of men who were castrated for want of their power.  Not only did Abelard live by the words in the Bible, but he forced Heloise to live by them as well, again exercising his power.  We can assume that, in castrating Abelard, Fulbert sought not only to keep Abelard away from his niece, but to strip him of the power he had over her.  “Castration is … a well-documented motif in ancient stories of the usurpation of … power” (Bassett 236).  There are two somewhat well-known stories of castration in the Bible, the first being that of Noah and the second, Samson.

The story of Noah’s castration is one of much speculation.  The actual text of The New Oxford Annotated Bible is as follows: 

Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.  He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.  Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid in on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan;/lowest of slaves shall he be to/his brothers.’/He also said,/Blessed by the Lord my God be/Shem;/and let Canaan be his slave’ (Genesis 9:20-26).


This passage has been viewed by some to be Ham’s castration of Noah, and the curse that follows, Noah’s curse of Ham’s son.   Noah has power because he is the one who “pronounces judgment upon the individual who sins against him” (Steinmetz 200).  The violation of Noah’s manhood comes from his kin, with denotes the power of hierarchy.  This is different from Abelard’s sexual power, but again, we are faced with someone who is powerful being stripped of his manhood, as “to ‘uncover’ nakedness is [a] …term which the Bible uses to describe sexual immorality” (Steinmetz 199). 

The story of Samson and Delilah in the Bible is also a story of a man’s power.  Samson says, “If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else” (Judges 16:17).  Then, Delilah, learning the secret of his power, “let him fall asleep on her lap; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of [Samson’s] head.  He began to weaken, and his strength left him” (Judges 16:19).  To many, the loss of Samson’s hair has been seen as similar to castration, because it is his power that is being stripped from him.  In “Magical Hair,” E.R. Leach describes the beliefs of Dr. Charles Berg, a psycho-analyst.  “Relying in the first place on clinical material, [Berg] concludes that head hair is universally a symbol of the genital organs.  Hair cutting and shaving are thus to be understood as symbolic ‘castration’” (149).  In both the case of Abelard and of Samson, a man has been attacked by hired men, on behalf of their wives, and power has been lost.  

            Samson has been described as “generally motivated by his lusty appetites and his determination to avenge himself for personal injuries, rather than by any larger purposes” (Kahr 282).  This description is very similar to that of Abelard, who says that when he was with Heloise “more words of love than [their] reading passed between [them]” (Radice 11). But then there are the differences.  For one, Heloise’s “anguish at being the instrument of [Abelard’s castration] leads her to attack women” and to point out that, “unlike … Delilah, [she] never participated willingly in his fall”(Ferrante 58).   Also, unlike Samson, Abelard did not seek revenge on the person who orchestrated his castration.  Rather, the act of castration itself was Fulbert’s revenge on him.  But regardless of who is specifically seeking revenge, castration, in all three instances, is one man stripping another of his manhood and/or power.  Does Abelard follow in Samson’s footsteps, eventually going blind and dying while trying to commit one final act of revenge?  It seems as if Abelard’s ignorance of Heloise’s pleas for love after his castration can be construed as a kind of blindness – blindness that prevents him from seeing how the miseries of his own life have ruined the life of his wife and love.  His power, just as Samson’s was, is most important.  Abelard’s power over Heloise begins in his loins and moves onto his spiritual instruction of his wife.  Samson’s power is through his hair.  Dr. Berg found that “the ritual cutting of hair is a substitute for human sacrifice … the hair being appropriate for the purpose because the head is the seat of the soul (Leach 149), so it can be said that Samson’s sexuality was being sacrificed for his own good, just as Abelard’s was sacrificed for his own good and for the good of young Heloise.  All of this proves that castration was not an uncommon punishment for one’s sins, and was often used to strip another man of his power. 


The Eunuch

            Ironically, the eunuch can be seen as a sexual deviant as well and also both as a servant of God and as a harmless acquaintance. As Abelard pointed out,  “My present condition removes suspicion of evil-doing so completely from everyone’s mind that men who wish to keep close watch on their wives and employ eunuchs” (Radice 37).  But even though he seemed to be confident in the fact that he would be seen as no threat to anyone after his castration, he also laments that “a eunuch is such an abomination to the Lord that men made eunuchs by the amputation or mutilation of their members are forbidden to enter a church as if they were stinking and unclean, and even animals in that state are rejected for sacrifice” (Radice 18).  This, however, did not turn out to be completely true, as he soon sought  “shelter in a monastery cloister” (Radice 18).  These are two different views of the eunuch.  The third is, as mentioned previously, that of a sexual deviant. 

            Sexual deviancy of the time period was characterized by reproduction.  . “’Natural’ sexual acts … are those that lead to reproduction.  ‘Unnatural’ acts are those that do not” (McCarthy 9). As a victim of castration, it would be impossible for a eunuch to aid any woman in reproduction.  In late antiquity, it is said that many eunuchs “had given up reproduction, family and extended familial ties in order to become perfect servants” (Farmer and Pasternack 81).  Castration insures that “a eunuch might be able to get an erection, but he will never be able to reproduce” (  In essence, then, any time a eunuch might have chosen to have sex after his castration, he would have been participating in an ‘unnatural’ sexual act.  This, then becomes a sexual deviancy. Also, the eunuch, who cannot be categorized as he does not fit into either gender neatly, cannot be controlled because he cannot be labeled.  So, it seems that there are three views of a eunuch.  The first view, that of a eunuch as a servant of God, applies to Abelard only post-castration.  His attitude, at first, is not the attitude of a devoted servant.  “I had scarcely recovered from my wound when the clerks came thronging round to pester the abbot and myself with repeated demands that I should now for love of God continue the studies which hitherto I had pursued only in desire for wealth and fame” (Radice 18).  It seems that a devoted servant of God would not think that requests for him to prove his love for God and his religion were annoying.  The second view of the eunuch, that of a harmless acquaintance, is one that Abelard tries to conjure up later, through his letters to Heloise, but he never actually succeeds in making her think of him only as a friend and a fellow servant of God.  She complains, “While I enjoyed with you the pleasures of the flesh, many were uncertain whether I was prompted by love or lust; but now the end is proof of the beginning.  I have finally denied myself every pleasure in obedience to your will, kept nothing for myself except to prove that now, even more, I am yours” (Radice 54).  Heloise obviously still longs for this man and so it would be impossible for him to be seen as a harmless acquaintance of the nun.  The third view, of a eunuch as a sexual deviant, is credible because

the eunuch was notorious (and repulsive to many) because he had dared to shift the massive boundary between the sexes.  He had opted out of being male.  By losing the sexual ‘heat’ that was held to cause his facial hair to grow, the eunuch was no longer recognizable as a man.  He was a human being ‘exiled from either gender.’ (Brown 169)


A person “exiled from either gender” is a sexual deviant of sorts because he cannot be placed into the male or female category.  However, Abelard does end up devoting himself to God.  He was more a sexual deviant before his castration, as he was having forbidden sexual encounters with a younger woman.  Later, he defends the process of his castration as something that was done for a good reason and didn’t even hurt.  “…it happened to me through no fault of mine, but so that I might be set free for a similar work [of the Lord]; and with all the less pain for being quick and sudden, for I was asleep when attacked and felt practically nothing” (Radice 37).  This is a far cry from his attitude directly after the act when he is humiliated by his condition and asks, “How could I show my face in public, to be pointed at by every finger, derided by every tongue, a monstrous spectacle to all I met?”(Radice 18).  Has his involuntary castration forced him to succumb to God’s rules – the same rules that he broke in having an affair with Heloise in the first place?

Abelard:  Before and After

            There is quite a difference between Abelard before his castration and after, in terms of his spiritual life and his connection to elH

Heloise.  Spiritually, he becomes more devoted after the loss of his manhood.  By all accounts, it seems that Abelard’s spirituality serves as a kind of substitute for the pleasures of the lust he felt for Heloise.  It has been previously stated that Abelard was an arrogant person who needed his work to be all-important.  It is because of this very important trait that, previous to his castration, Abelard thought of himself as “the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so [he] yielded to the lusts of the flesh” (Radice 9).  At this time, he was an academic – a man who held great respect amongst his peers for his thoughts and ideas.  He was a man who was having a sexual affair with a girl half his age, attracted to her for her love of academia and her undeniable skill for learning.  “He describes his love prior to his castration as sensual, selfish, calculating, basely seductive, aggressive, insatiable” (Leclercq 484).  Obviously, in describing his relationship with Heloise in such a way, he was not considering God or chastity. 

“According to his ‘history of calamities,’ Abelard had two great loves in his life and he aspired to a third” (Clanchy 149).  The first was that he had a great love for education, and he was “so carried away by [his] love of learning that [he] renounced the glory of a military life … and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be educated in the lap of Minerva” (Radice 3).  The second great love of his life was for Heloise and “finally, after his castration and conversion to monasticism, he aspired to a broader and supposedly higher Christian love” (Clanchy 149).  The difference in him before and after his castration is greatly important not only to understanding his place in history and the church, but also in understanding what happens to Heloise simultaneously.  Of course, before his castration, Abelard was in love with education.  Heloise’s love of the same is what attracted him to her in the first place.  Although she was about twenty years his junior, she was an intellectual.  And, as stated previously, his castration allowed him to continue pursuing an academic life, giving him the power to appeal to Heloise intellectually and spiritually instead of sexually.  Can we say then, that more than love or sex or even a spiritual love for God, the most constant and important aspect of the relationship between Abelard and Heloise is power?  Although she is not a completely passive woman, Heloise does allow for Abelard to have this power, and most of the time, when she does disagree with him, nothing comes of it.  She, unfortunately, succumbs to his wishes a number of times, feeding his need for power and even participating in her own figurative castration – her entrance into the convent.   

Heloise:  Woman, Wife, Abbess

            Heloise was a woman who loved the concept of love and enjoyed sex.  “The evidence points to a Heloise who is all lover, who is an incarnation of the pure essence of love to the exclusion of everything else” (Gilson 87).  This is one of the reasons that it is so interesting that she agrees to enter a convent and become chaste.  She is attracted to Abelard even after his castration, and complains in her letters of the sacrifices she has made for him. 

You alone have the power to make me sad, to bring me happiness or comfort; you alone have so great a debt to repay me, particularly now when I have carried out all your orders so implicitly that when I was powerless to oppose you in anything, I found strength at your command to destroy myself.  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 my will alike. (Radice 51)


His power over her is that which convinces her to enter the convent and give up the engrossing love that she speaks of. 

            “The first and overwhelming fact about Heloise is that she never attempt[s] to obliterate or neutralize the reality and force of her original and enduring desires” (Partner 436).  Even as a nun, she still has desire for Abelard.  She feels very badly about the pain and humiliation Abelard has had to endure as a result of their relationship, which we can see when she tells him in one of her letters, “You alone paid the penalty in your body for what we had both done equally.  You alone were punished though we were both to blame, and you paid all, though you had deserved less, for you had made more than necessary reparation by humbling yourself on my account” (Radice 66).  But is she not going through the same thing emotionally, as she is now unable to have sex as well?  Even though she does feel badly about what happened to her ex-lover, she also feels that he has dumped her in a convent.  There are many different reasons he could have done so.  Perhaps he did not want to be tempted by Heloise any longer, or he did not want to disappoint her with his absent sexual drive.  Or, it is possible that he wanted to clear his name and embark on a more spiritually devoted life, but he still wanted to retain power over Heloise.  This seems to be the most plausible explanation.  Whatever the reason, she feels that Abelard has neglected her since her entrance into the convent. 

…after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone…I [have] been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence … It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love.  So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. (Radice 53)


These are the words of a heartbroken woman who feels abandoned in her current place, and left alone to live a religious life that she had not planned for. 

            Although Heloise did not enter the convent of her own accord, her entrance itself was not necessarily uncommon at the time.  In the Middle Ages, there were quite a few reasons for women to enter into these same-sex communities.   Of course, there was the most widely known reason, which was to show one’s devotion to God and the Church.  In addition, many lower-class women were able to find a better way of life.  For upper-class women, the convent could be seen as a path for women who either could not find husbands or women who did not believe in marriage or want to marry at all.  Also, “the nunnery was a refuge of female intellectuals, as was the monastery for a male” (Gies 64).  Again, the subject of intellectual ability is brought into the picture.  It is implied here that intellectual people would need a refuge.  Why?  In Heloise’s case, her husband needs the refuge after his manhood is brutally attacked and stripped from him, and so she is forced, by his power over her, to take refuge as well. 

Heloise: Before and After

            One might say that Heloise does not change much after Abelard’s castration.  After all, she continues to yearn for him sexually even after she enters the convent, and so it seems that the Church has not touched her in the way it has touched her husband.  The only reason that she enters the convent is because Abelard wishes her to.  In his Historia Calamitatum, he says, “Heloise had … agreed to take the veil in obedience to my wishes and entered a convent” (Radice 18).  The most significant aspect of Heloise’s continued desire is that she is resisting her own “castration” in that Abelard cannot tamp down her sexual longing.  She finds it difficult to end her desire and complains that  “it is very difficult to tear the heart away from hankering after its dearest pleasures” (Radice 68). Whereas Abelard’s sexual desires do not consume him any longer, hers are still alive and well.   She does not feel that she has gained anything but rather, she says, “…when I thought how much I had lost, my consuming grief would match my crushing loss, and my sorrow for what was taken from me would be the greater for the fuller joy of possession which had gone before; and so that the happiness of supreme ecstasy would end in the supreme bitterness of sorrow” (Radice 65).  Heloise does not feel as though she has gained the love of the Lord, but rather that she has lost the love of her husband.  After her entrance into the convent, she continually “rebuke[s] Abelard for his slack and convenient willingness to accept her outward role, The Abbess, as the totality of her identity” (Partner 435).  She still wants to be seen as a woman, not just a servant of God.

            Joan Ferrante offers an insight into Heloise’s emotions. After her entrance into the convent, although Heloise still harbors sexual and romantic feelings for Abelard, she does understand that her intellect is what attracted Abelard to her initially, and learns to use it to her advantage.  Before his castration, Abelard

admits that his intentions in tutoring Heloise were to use her literary interests to seduce her; knowing her knowledge and love of literature, he thought she would be all the more ready to consent and that they could enjoy each other's presence even when apart by an exchange of letters in which they could speak more openly than in person.  But she would later use those same interests to seduce him intellectually into writing a series of works, most of his extant output, for her and the nuns of the Paraclete (28).


Heloise understands her place in Abelard’s life, and somehow learns to separate her intellect from


her love for him in order to get what she wants.    Anyone can see how hard it would be to separate the two, as their lustful feelings toward one another were totally built on their intellect, or as Ferrante puts it, “the mutual stimulation of exceptional minds” (30).  The two kinds of feelings were intertwined with one another.  Their affair was once “based on deep affection and trust and mutual respect. But they certainly were nourished in large part by the shared intellectual excitement of working out philosophical, theological, and textual problems together” (Ferrante 30).  After the castration, Abelard wants to separate the elements of their relationship.  Once his sexual drive is omitted from the equation, he is available only as an academic and/or spiritual entity to his wife. 

            Heloise cannot stop referring to their lovemaking and their past together.  However, by doing so, she

was not refusing to be ashamed of what he and the Church called ‘lust’.  She was saying only that she could not feel ashamed yet, since God had not ‘cured’ her in the way He had cauterized Abelard.  But Heloise had forseen that Abelard would be incapable of responding to these admissions, as he could not renew physical intercourse with her and neither could he change her mind.  Ungenerously perhaps she used his castration as a way of humiliating him and she remained dominant in their relationship henceforward (Clanchy 154).


Just because she is in a convent after her husband’s castration, that does not necessarily mean


that she is devoid of sexual desire.  As previously stated, she does not enter the convent of her

own accord, but because of her husband’s wishes.  Later, in one of her letters to Abelard, she points this out to him when she writes, “You made me put on the religious habit and take my vows before you gave yourself to God” (Radice 54).  But aside from her complaints of being made to enter the convent and give up sex, she also works to maintain some kind of upper hand in her relationship with Abelard.  Intellectually, he has always held the power, but she understands that he cannot have sex with her anymore and still brings it up, embarrassing him and making her more dominant in those moments when she is challenging his manhood.

Same-Sex Communities in the Middle Ages

            Although it was Abelard’s castration that drove him to the monastery, it was not necessarily a bad thing.  “Young men who found it difficult to marry … gravitated in increasing numbers toward the clergy” (Brown 191), and it was considered quite respectable to be an abbot.  “Monks were among the most admired and influential men in Medieval society.  Or rather, abbots were.  They usually had no superiors and spent much of their time outside their monasteries, spreading God’s word to the rich and powerful who were their patrons and protectors” (Clanchy 220).  So, was the monastery just a useful tool to Abelard – a way for him to live a chaste life and still be respected as an intellectual?  He says, “I … felt the misery of my mutilation less than my shame and humiliation” (Radice 17).  It is obvious that he was humiliated directly after the castration and so, was his entrance into a same-sex, religious community his way of offsetting that humiliation and getting back his respect and worth as a thinker? 

            Although eunuchs were many times seen as servants of God, according to the Kanonikon, dated between the seventh and tenth centuries, if boys who wished to enter a monastery “had been sexually abused … even if they were too young to be held responsible, if their ‘vessel’ was ‘broken’ they were ‘useless’ for the priesthood” (Boswell, Same-Sex Unions 224).  Therefore, Abelard can be seen, not only as a man who had an illicit affair with a young girl, resulting in a child, but also as a broken entity.  He makes his way into the monastery in spite of his handicap, and is not only accepted, but revered as a thinker and a philosopher. 

            Same-sex communities in the Middle Ages were places where it was accepted to be homo-social.  If a community is homo-social, it caters to affectionate relationships between men and women that are not acted upon sexually.  Interestingly enough, John Boswell explains how, in the fourth century, Saint Basil

did not consider erotic attractions between males ‘unnatural’; he assumed that the men to whom he was writing were susceptible to the physical charms of other men.  Because the persons in question were following a monastic ideal of celibacy, he cautioned them strongly against succumbing to these charms. (Boswell, Christianity… 160). 


So, the monastery is not necessarily an escape from the sexual for Abelard, or even a substitute.  Apparently, sexual attraction still existed, but the monks were forbidden from acting on these feelings.  Even though Saint Basil makes his point hundreds of years before Abelard’s entrance into the monastery, it would be completely illogical to assume that these same-sex attractions did not also exist in Abelard’s time. However, they were not forbidden from engaging in homo-social relationships, which most monasteries build their communities on anyway.  Current examples of homo-social communities include, of course, the monastery, and also sports teams/locker rooms, women’s book clubs, weekly poker games, and even beauty pageants. 

In these same-sex communities, it is easy to imagine that a certain amount of sexual tension might exist.  After all, even though Abelard’s sex drive has supposedly been eliminated by his castration, Heloise’s, as mentioned earlier, is still alive and kicking when she enters the convent.  Would she turn to another woman to satisfy her longing, or was her longing specific to her husband?  In late antiquity, “penalties for lesbian activities … appear to have been aimed entirely at nuns, and were surprisingly mild … if two women slept together and one caressed the other’s breasts and ‘rode her,’ forty days of penance were prescribed” (Boswell, Same Sex Unions 244).  So, Abelard’s entrance into a same-sex community can be construed as escape, refuge, and also as a chance for him to engage in homo-social relationships with other monks as a substitute for his relationship with Heloise.  For Heloise, though, the entrance into this community is forced upon her, so it is not unthinkable for one to assume that she engages in homo-social relationships with the other nuns as well, and that the opportunity for more exists in the world in which she lives.  The convent was a way for Heloise to depend on someone besides herself and Abelard, especially after he abandons her for his religious studies.


Abelard’s power over Heloise changes throughout their relationship, but it is always there, whether in the form of the sexual, the intellectual or the spiritual.  Before his castration, Abelard has lustful feelings for Heloise, and they act upon them.  At one point he says, “We became … abandoned as we lost all sense of shame, and, indeed, shame diminished as we found more opportunities for lovemaking” (Radice 12).  Here, the Church is completely separated from their sexual relationship – at the time, he felt that there was no guilt or shame in what they were doing.  Many factors present themselves to prove that, not only did Abelard change significantly after his unmanning, but also that he retained power over his wife even without sexual relations.  It is necessary first, to take a look at the eunuch and how the eunuch was treated during Abelard’s lifetime.  Because of the place of a eunuch in society at the time – a harmless friend or protector, as opposed to a sexual deviant – it was easy for Abelard to retain control after his castration, regardless of what he was being punished for.  Abelard makes a seamless transition into the life of a religious man, while Heloise has trouble adjusting to her new place in life.  Her sexual desire for her husband, at this time, has not diminished.  Moving into homo-social communities such as the monastery or the convent was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, and Abelard chooses the convent for Heloise – he chooses the life of an abbess for his love, even though she does not want to end their physical relationship. 

The Bible is one source, of many, that shows us how Abelard’s castration was not at all uncommon in the beginnings of Christianity or in the Middle Ages.  Both the attack on Noah by his son and the attack on Samson by someone sent by Delilah have been construed as castrations over the centuries.  Each of these men held power over others.  The source of their power is cut off, as is Abelard’s.  It can be assumed that Abelard’s power, before the castration, was sexual, in that he was able to engage in an affair with such a young and impressionable woman.  However, after he is attacked and his manhood is taken away from him as a result of this relationship, there is a shift in power.  He must now instruct Heloise in spiritual ways and continue with only religious and intellectual teachings mostly because of his physical condition but also because, as Heloise puts it, “We shall both be destroyed.  All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been” (Radice 16).  Here, it is easy to see the difference between husband and wife.  Abelard embraces God and the Church after his castration and their permanent separation, but Heloise sees their situation as nothing but suffering and chaos. 

Both Abelard and Heloise change throughout their relationship, but in vastly different ways.  “After his castration Abelard insisted on addressing Heloise as ‘Sister,’ even though she gently … reminded him that she was his wife” (Clanchy 50).  Abelard’s power over Heloise changes, whereas Heloise’s attitude does not change, but she does learn how to use her identity and her femininity to her advantage – and to the advantage of her convent.  Abelard sees their relationship after the castration as a purely spiritual one.

Abelard … had a particular purpose in telling Heloise that his love had only been lust, as he was now a monk and she a nun.  They must both love God and not each other.  This was the only way Abelard could respond to her insistence that she was still his ‘only one’ and that God was cruel and unjust to have allowed him to be castrated.  Not only was it embarassing to Abelard as an abbot of St. Gildas to have a nun swearing undying love to him and complaining about God, it was also unrealistic of Heloise  to persist with this line, as she too was an abbess.  His castration was an irreversible fact and so were the monastic vows which they had both taken. (Clanchy 152)


Abelard embraces his life as a monk and as a servant of God, and Heloise writes him letters

 complaining of her place in life and in the convent.  While he tries to get her to see things his

way, she is constantly reminded of her loss.  In entering into the same-sex communities of a

 monastery and a convent, they are both entering into non-sexual, homo-social relationships that

will not cause them the grief as their own personal relationship did.  After the castration, Abelard’s

intellectual and spiritual powers over Heloise become all-important, in that he cannot engage in

sexual relationship with her any longer.  This story of a monk and a nun who are forced to end

their relationship – in essence, their marriage – illustrates the importance of power in the Middle


      Without sex, power is found in other places, in other worlds.  By looking at Abelard and

Heloise in the context of their letters to one another, we can see how their feelings differ and how

Abelard’s castration forces them to become a completely different couple than that which they

started out as. They go from being a teacher having a forbidden affair with his young, female

student to a monk trying to further his own spiritual life and career, and a nun who cannot forget

her lost love. 





Works Cited


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Boswell, John.  Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.  Chicago/London:  The University of Chicago Press, 1980. 


Boswell, John.  Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.  New York:  Villard Books, 1994. 


Brown, Peter.  The Body and Society:  Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1988. 


Chance, Jane, ed.  Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages.  Florida:  University Press of

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Clanchy, M.T.  Abelard:  A Medieval Life.  Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997. 


Dinshaw, Carolyn.  “Eunuch Hermeneutics,” ELH 55.1 (Spring 1988) 27-51. 


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Ferrante, Joan M.  To the Glory of her Sex:  Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997.


Gies, Frances and Joseph.  Women in the Middle Ages.  New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell Company,  1978.


Gilson, Étienne. Heloise and Abelard.  Ann Arbor, MI:  University of Michigan Press, 1960.


Kahr, Madlyn. “Delilah,” The Art Bulletin 54:3 (1972) 282-299.


Leach, E.R.  “Magical Hair,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britian and Ireland 88:2 (Sept. – Dec., 1958) 147-164.


Leclercq, Jean.  “Modern Psychology and Interpretation of Medieval Texts,” Speculum 48.3 (1973).


The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice.  London:  Penguin Books, 1974.


McCarthy, Conor, ed.  Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages.  London:  Routledge, 2004.


McLaughlin, Mary M.  Abelard as Autobiographer: The Motives and Meaning of His ‘Story of Calamities,’”  Speculum 42.3 (Jul., 1967) 463-488.


The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books.  Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, gen. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Partner, Nancy F.  “No Sex, No Gender,” Speculum 68.2 (Apr., 1993) 419-443. 


Steinmetz, Devora. “Vineyard, Farm and Garden: The Drunkenness of Noah in the Context of 
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