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Erik Visits an (Non) American Grave, Part 268

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This is the grave of Peter Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil.

The story of Peter Abelard and Heloise is well-known and I’m not going to go into tons of detail about their lives. Plus my knowledge of medieval Europe is almost nonexistent. Abelard was born in 1079 in Brittany. His brilliance was recognized at a young age and he became the rare truly educated person in 11th century France, even for a noble family. He moved to Paris in around 1100, became a teacher, started a school, was overworked and retired back to Brittany for awhile. Despite having many enemies, he became master of Notre Dame in 1115, where he taught thousands of students from across France. But he met Héloïse d’Argenteuil, a young noble woman also of known brilliance, who was living with her uncle. She was very young, probably born around 1100, but they had an affair, she got pregnant, and, well, you know the rest. They has a secret marriage that was soon uncovered, Abelard was castrated and became a monk, Héloïse became a nun at Abelard’s demand, which she did not want. They both remained well-known figures. He was such a crank that most of the other monks hated him, but his writings and teachings made him one of the most famous people in France; she became a successful leader of an abbey. The boy, named Astrolabe, seems to have lived until at least 1135, although the only thing known about him is that his parents wrote him some letters of advice. Then they composed their brilliant love letters in the 1130s. Pope Innocent II actually excommunicated Abelard in 1141 and ordered his books burned, but this wasn’t ever implemented. He was convinced by Peter the Venable to stay with him for the rest of his life and convinced Innocent II to take away the excommunication if he agreed. So this all worked out and Abelard died there in 1142. She lived until 1164, was noted for her success as a physician and her writings asserting the role of women in society.

What’s more interesting to me is how central this story is to French self-mythology. When I was in Paris in May, it was striking how central this story was to how the French thought about themselves. Of course, so much has happened over the centuries in Paris, but even compared to the Revolution, it felt there was as much or more public acknowledgement of this story. The building where Heloise’s uncle lived and where the affair took place, for instance, had a big stone carving noting the place on it, which I didn’t see anywhere else in the city. Now, I don’t want to overstate my claim; I was only there for less than a week. But it did seem striking. We know the French were already talking about their relationship in somewhat mythical terms by the end of the 13th century. Of course, the 19th century Romantics were all over it, with statues, plays, etc. I don’t know enough about French history to really go into this in any real detail, perhaps commenters can add to this.

When Abelard died, he was initially buried at that monastery. But Héloïse managed to get the remains transferred to where she lived and they were buried together when she died. They were moved several times and transferred to the famed Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1817, in part to make that cemetery, which was having trouble selling plots, more attractive to customers. But nobody really knows if they are in those tombs or not. Some claim that Abelard is there and Heloise is not, others that there isn’t anyone buried in there, although I guess that would be easy enough to find out if the government wanted to open the tomb. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Abelard and Héloïse are theoretically buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.

If anyone wants to send me to Europe to visit more graves, you can do so! I guess I will be willing to suffer through such a hard experience. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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