Signs and signatures
A love like none other
Darshan Singh Maini

Western literature, like Oriental, abounds in stories of great tragic love, both in poetic and prose forms, but in nearly all such works, religion as such is seldom a driving force. All secular in character. But to find one such story of tragic but erotic love in the 12th century monastic literature of Christianity is to come across a sui generis phenomenon. And that story is the story of Abelard and Heloise published in the form of their love letters.

Peter Abelard, a French philosopher and theologian, who taught at the University of Paris, fell hopelessly in love with his pupil, Heloise. Their passage to love and marriage, full of awful events that included the emasculation of Abelard and their retreat into monastries, is recorded in lavish, frank, detail in the letters the two separated lovers and spouses wrote to each other. Abelard continued to preach, though openly defiant of the Church orders. Heloise, no great scholar, but well-versed in Christian thought, brooded over her fate in a nunnery, away from Abelardís place of teaching.

Abelard, born in "minor Breton nobility" in 1079 wrote later his own story in Historia Calamitatum or Story of His Misfortunes. Both Abelard and Heloise wrote in Christian idiom, and always regarded Christ as their Saviour who understood the true nature of their passionate love. For love, at such a level, becomes almost divine.

His seduction of the pupil Heloise to begin with was just an act of the will, and his spirit was not involved in it fully. Very frankly, it was lust, not love, but as the affair became rich in meetings and matings, his love began to turn into something sacred, and he, for the first time, felt the ecstasy of erotic love. He was now well prepared to meet the assaults of reality. To their dismay ó and joy ó they soon discovered that a child was on the way, a child born out of wedlock, a grievous sin.

He removed her from Paris to a safe village in Brillany. Their son was born there in secrecy and obscurity. They kept their marriage secret. Heloise was just 17 at that time, a girl who had just became woman and mother. They didnít believe in traditional marriage, a consecrated affair in the Church. For them pure and real love was sacred enough to be acceptable in the eyes of Christ. And they remained firm in their adoration of Jesus.

Love, they believed, was between two bodies and two souls, and their consummation was an act of piety; Church or no Church. They, thus, continued to live as free-love spouses. Abelard, given to argument and debate, made many enemies in the Church school of learning. His castration by his enemies completed the cup of woes and miseries of the couple. Their love now became all the more passionate, all the more moving.

She lived up to the age of 67, while Abelard had passed away around 21 years earlier in 1156. Heloise, according to one unconfirmed report, was buried alongside the grave of her lover and husband. The legend that grew after her death became the theme of many a song and story. This story is, in a way, still a tourist attraction and Abelardís tomb "beneath a Gothic-style structure" is a place of great interest. The Paris people celebrate it on All Soulsí Day.

In one of the earlier personal letters, Heloise wrote to her lover: "...You alone have the power to make me and, to bring me happiness.... You are the sole possessor of my body and of my will alike. I looked for no marriage bond... The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore...I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of Hell... It was your command, not love of God that made me take the veil...."

In his reply, Abelard confessed that having made love inside refractory, he had, in his own way, consecrated his passion. "I often forced you," he wrote, "to consent with threats and blows, so intense were the fires of lust...." And for this act, he is brought to shame, but he has no regrets. "....You who were made my partner both in guilt and in grace ... Farewell in Christ, bride of Christ in Christ fare well and live in Christ".