: Dante vivo || White Silence

© Julia Bolton Holloway, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Essays, 1981-2016





haucer has his Wife of Bath mention:

                             a clerk at Rome,
A cardinal, that highte Seint Jerome,
That made a book agayn Jovinian

                 Abelard and Heloise's Tomb at Père Lechaise

That was abbesse nat fer fro Parys.         III.673-678
This essay will discuss three pairs of letter writers, Roman Paula and Jerome, English Lioba and Winfrith, and French Heloise and Abelard, who are flesh and blood women and men, contrasting and comparing them with the fictional Wife of Bath. It will show that monastic women took the opportunity of the letter format to flaunt their classical learning, and that they did so in a manner that was humanistic, rather than scholastic, personal, rather than detached, using their reading in a manner that looked back to Cicero and Seneca and forward to Montaigne and Woolf. Ovid's Heroides, letters written as by women, likewise were an important model; but so also were Paul's Epistles, which frequently mention women. This essay will show, by these means, that Heloise was following in the footsteps of literary predecessors, making use of an established epistolary style that was already created for use by women in the Church. I wish to challenge the assumption that is still held by some university-trained scholars, that since Heloise's letters are so learned they could only have been written by Abelard; the similar charge also being made against Paula, that Jerome must have written her letter, albeit in a style not his own.1 At the same time I will most certainly claim Chaucerian and male authorship of the Wife.

I. Paula and Jerome

Few of Paula's writings survive. The case for Jerome is quite different. However, we do have an important letter Paula and her daughter, Eustochium, wrote to Marcella, coupled with Jerome's later account, concerning Paula's pilgrimage to the Holy Places. We learn much about Paula in Jerome's voluminous writings. He tells of her luxurious Roman life, her wealth, and her very great status. She, who had once always dressed in silks, and who had been used to being carried about Rome by her eunuch slaves so that her feet might never touch the ground, who was descended from Agamemnon, and whose husband was descended from Aeneas, had joined Marcella's group of high-born, wealthy Roman ladies, who together attempted to follow a life of monastic severity. Jerome became their teacher, expounding the Scriptures to them. But he quarrelled with Church officials in Rome most bitterly and found it expedient to return to Bethlehem. Paula and her daughter, Eustochium, joined him there, Paula leaving behind the rest of her children weeping on the quay. In the Holy Land Paula studied Hebrew so that she might sing the psalms, the chief early Christian devotional practice, in their original language and assist him in his translation work. She lived for twenty years in Bethlehem, dying there in A.D. 404.2

Paula's letter to Marcella pleads with her old friend that she leave Rome, called in the letter a "Babylon," and come to Jerusalem and its Holy Places.3 It describes Paula's pilgrims to all these Holy Places in such a way as to have Marcella participate in their sacred journeying, mentally, and vicariously, in her imagination. Paula and Eustochium begin their letter by stating that, although the Crucifixion may have made Jerusalem an accursed place, there is ample scriptural justification for Christians to return to that holy city. Paula relies not only on the Scriptures but also upon Cicero for this argument, describing both St. Paul speaking of his need to return to Jerusalem and Cicero speaking of his need to learn one's Greek not only in Sicily but in Athens, one's Latin not in Lilybaeum but in Rome. She adds, in a capstone to her argument, that Jerusalem is "our Athens." She then quotes Virgil's First Eclogue on the great distance of the British Isles from Rome in noting that Christian Gauls and Britons all make haste to come, not to Rome, but to far Jerusalem.4 Paula movingly contrasts the wealth of Rome and the poverty of Bethlehem:5

Ubi sunt latae porticus? ubi aurata laquearia? ubi domus miserorum poenis et damnatorum labore vestitae? ubi instar palatii, opibus privatorum extructae basilicae, ut vile corpusculum hominis pretiosius inambulet et quasi mundo quicquam possit esse ornatius, tecta magis sua magis quidquam velit aspicere, quam caelum? Ecce in hoc parvo terrae foramine, caelorum conditor natus est, hic involutus pannis, hic visus a pastoribus, hic demonstratus a stella, hic adoratus a Magis . . . In Christi vero . . . villula tota rusticitas, et extra psalmos silentium est. Quocumque te verteris, arator stivam tenens, alleluia decantat. Sudans messor Psalmis se avocat, et curva attondens vitem falce vinitor aliquod Davidicum canit. Haec sunt in hac provincia carmina, hae, ut vulgo dicitur, amatoriae cantationes. Hic pastorum sibilus, haec arma culturae. Verum quid agimus, nec quid deceat cogitantes, solum quod cupimus hoc videmus?

[Where are spacious porticoes? Where are gilded ceilings? Where are houses decorated by the sufferings and labours of condemned wretches? Where are halls built by the wealth of private men on the scale of palaces, that the vile carcase of man may move among more costly surroundings, and view his own roof rather than the heavens, as if anything could be more beauteous than creation? . . . . In the village of Christ . . . all is rusticity, and except for psalms, silence. Whithersoever you turn yourself, the ploughman, holding the plough handle, sings Alleluia; the perspiring reaper diverts himself with psalms, and the vine-dresser sings some of the ballads of this country, these are the love-songs, as they are commonly called; these are whistled by the shepherds, and are the implements of the husbandman. Indeed, we do not think of what we are doing or how we look, but see only that for which we are longing.]

Paula has written a Christian Georgics, a Christian pastoral, though as if through the eyes of Karl Marx, Simone Weil, and Frantz Fanon.6 Her style is shaped by Cicero and Virgil, Horace and Juvenal; her social thought is shaped by the Prophets and the Gospels.

In contrast to this letter, Jerome's account of the pilgrimage Paula made is almost barren of references to classical authors. He writes it after Paula's death, giving her vita to her virgin daughter, Eustochium.7 The letter waxes most sentimental about her parting from her family members, describing her as torn between the love of her children and her love for God. He does, however, mention the "fables of the poets," de fabulis Poetarum, in giving the tale of Andromeda chained to a rock, as happening at Joppa, which he notes was also the harbor of the fugitive Jonah. He had earlier cited some lines of the Aeneid concerning the Greek Isles. But, unlike Paula, he does not show off his classical learning. He is here being more Christian than Ciceronian. (We recall his dream in which he is chided, or chides himself, by being told, "Thou art not a Christian. Thou art a Ciceronian."8) He mentions Paula as visiting the tomb of Queen Helena, famed in Jerusalem for having given wheat during a famine to the populace. (This Queen Helena in pilgrim legends may have become conflated with the Empress Helena.) He notes Paula's deep piety at the Cross and the Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and at the cave and church in Bethlehem.9

Jerome even notes Paula telling him that she realizes that the Hebrew means not Mary, mother of God, "her," but God, "him," in Psalm 132: "Behold, we heard of her/him in Ephratah, and found her/him in the fields of the wood," because he has corrected her on this matter of the Hebrew "zoth."10 A woman, reading of that apology, can sense its pain. It is a male rebuke to her feminist reading of the text, and she, rather than he, may be correct. There was not yet a Dame Julian to console her as there would be for the later Dame Margery concerning such male rebuffs.

The remainder of Jerome's account in Epistola CVIII is quite dry, sometimes enlivened by allegorical interpretations, and mostly illustrated with scriptural passages. Jerome ends by saying: "Her zeal was wonderful-her courage scarcely credible for a woman. Forgetful of her sex and the weakness of her frame, she desired to dwell with her maidens among so many thousands of monks" in the Egyptian Thebaid, but returned to Jerusalem.

Mirabilis ardor, et vix in femina credibilis fortitudo. Oblita sexus et fragilitatis corporae, inter tot milia Monachorum cum puellis suis habitare cupiebat.
It is an interesting relationship, that between Paula and Jerome. We should not forget that Chaucer will play upon it when he writes the Wife of Bath's Prologue, in which he has the Wife, in her scarlet garb, visit the same Holy Places as did St. Paula, and has her constantly cite, not classical authors, but St. Jerome, especially his treatise, Adversus Jovinianum, his diatribe against marriage and widowhood, in which he advocates, as he also did in a letter to Paula's daughter Eustochium, perpetual virginity.11 Paula's journey is replicated in fiction by the Wife of Bath, in fact by Egeria of Spain, St. Birgitta of Sweden and Margery Kempe of England.12 Margery Kempe is to discuss her hysteria and her pilgrimage with Dame Julian of Norwich.13 In these writings we can see some of the reverberations of that relationship between Paula and Jerome, and we can also see how Paula as a pilgrim became a model of other Christian women, one of power and financial independence, in so doing achieving much admiration, even from such a misogynist as St. Jerome.

II: Egburga, Lioba, and Wynfrith

The second part of this argument, as it were its control group, discusses St. Boniface, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon missionary monk, otherwise known as Wynfrith, and his correspondence with English nuns, paramount among them, Eadburga, Bugga, and Lioba.14 I shall begin with a letter written to Boniface by Egburga, a nun whose brother Oshere had been killed and who seeks consolation from her brother's friend, Wynfrith. What is extraordinary about the letter is the erotic language used by Egburga to Boniface:
Charitatis tuae copulam fateor dum per interiorem hominem gustavi, quasi quiddam mellitae dulcedinis, meis visceribus hic sapor insidet. Et licet statim ut nacia sum, aspectu corporali visualiter defraudata sim, sororis tamen semper amplexibus collum tuum constrinxero.

[Thy love is a bond that holds me; since I tasted it in my inner being, like some honeysweet essence the sweetness of it fill my soul. And now, though I have been robbed of the sight of thee, yet shall I always hold thy neck entwined with a sisterly embrace.]15

What is also extraordinary is the letter's use of Virgil, whom Egburga quotes, from the Aeneid, four times in the brief epistle, while also quoting from Jerome's letter to Rufinus, Epistola III, and from the Bible. The Aeneid quotations are echoed in
Et quamvis temporum series ocius currendo discreverit, moeroris tamen numquam me nebula atra deseruit

[Time has run quickly on its course, but the dark cloud of my grief has never abandoned me] VIII.258;

Et postquam mihi simul charissima soror Wetburga, quasi inflicto vulnere, iteratoque dolore, subito ab oculis evanuit

[And after my dearest sister Wethburga, a new wound, a fresh grief, suddenly vanished from my sight] XI.658;

Testor, ubique dolor, ubique pavor, ubique mortis imago

[I declare everywhere was sorrow and desolation and the face of death] II.369-370;

Ille superi Rector olympi ineffabili

[Behold the Ruler of High Olympus] II.779.16

Two scriptural quotations follow these four Aeneid quotations. Then comes the quotation from Jerome's letter to Rufinus:
Quapropter, crede mihi, non sic tempestate jactatus portum nauta desiderat, non sic sitientia imbres arva desiderant, non sic curvo littore anxia mater filium exspectat, quem ut ego visibus vestris frui cupio.

[Therefore, believe me, not so eagerly does the storm-tossed sailor long for the harbour, not the thirsting fields crave rain, not the anxious mother on the curved shore await her son, as I long for the sight of thee.]

Lioba, Abbess of Bischopsheim, around 732 A. D., then writes to Boniface, sending him verses she has written according to the teaching of Eadburga, Abbess of Thanet.17 We also hear of Boniface requesting from Eadburga a book written with letters of gold, in the Roman manner which was adopted by the Church for its sacred pages.18 (I suspect that this Eadburga is the previous Egberga, grown somewhat less girlish, her name shifting from manuscript corruption.) Now Lioba in turn is asked by Boniface and through the request of a priest, Torthat by name, to give instruction to a certain girl for a time, such instruction being not only indoctrination in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures but also in pagan learning, their medium through which to learn the Church's universal language, Latin.19 The only figure capable of quoting so much classical material as Egburga is a Bishop Milret of Worcester who, in writing to Bishop Lul about the martyrdom of Boniface, likewise pulls out all the organ stops and quotes Horace, Ode II, and Virgil, Aeneid I and IV.20

Thus classical texts, in such letters, appear to be a medium for the expression of emotion. We are dealing also with the letters of a very learned circle of men and women, people who are constantly exchanging manuscripts books between England and Germany, and where the women are the copiers of these manuscripts. Brian Stock would speak of such groups as "textual communities," though he uses that term of heretical sects in the Middle Ages.21 The impression gained from this correspondence is one of intellectual equality between the women and men of Anglo-Saxon Romanesque monasteries, whether in England or Germany, and perhaps even superiority on the part of women. The tone of these letters is always loving, thoughtful, consolatory. Jerome's letters to women provided a clear model. In the midst of barbarism, here is civilization. In the cold north we sense the warmth of the Mediterranean and of its African and Asian shores.

III: Heloise and Abelard

                 Abelard and Heloise's Tomb at Père Lechaise

For the third part of the argument eternal indebtedness is expressed to Professor, who became Sir Richard, Southern of Oxford University in whose Seminar on the Twelfth Century at Berkeley in 1968 we came to appreciate the humanity and intelligence of Heloise. The letters of Paula and Jerome were written in the fourth century; those of Boniface and Egburga in the eighth century. The twelfth-century letters of Abelard and Heloise are deeply influenced by those of Paula and Jerome. Interestingly, the earliest Jerome manuscripts we have are eleventh-century; those of Boniface and Egburga exist in twelfth-century manuscripts only and may have had no influence upon Abelard and Heloise's correspondence though they definitely were influenced by Jerome's epistolary friendships with women;22 while the letters of Abelard and Heloise come to us in thirteenth-century manuscripts. (This has led to some scholars' claim that the Letters are forged, though the same claim has not been put forward for the Letters of Jerome.)  A private collection in Scandinavia and London possesses a later Abelard and Heloise manuscript which may be seen at http://www.nb.no/baser/schoyen/4/4.3/436.html clicking on folio image to enlarge it.

In a study of the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise it is necessary first to stress the letter written by Abelard, then the exchange of letters, between an abbess and an abbot, the abbot of Breton St. Gildas, and the abbess of the French Abbey of the Paraclete. And it should be noted that perhaps for the first time in these pairs of epistolary friendships there is also a sexual relationship, to which we shall return. We tend to think of Abelard's History of My Calamity as an autobiography, forgetting that in the early manuscripts it is titled: "Abaelardi ad amicum suum consolataria epistula."23 It is Abelard's letter of consolation to a friend. It is a spiritual and physical biography, and it parodies Augustine's Confessions, just as much as will Dante's Inferno V and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here is Abelard's "chambering and wantonness" with Heloise. She is sixteen or seventeen, he is in his thirties.
Sub occasione itaque disciplinae amori penitus vacabamus et secretos recessus quos amor optabat studium lectionis offerebat. Apertis itaque libris, plura de amore quam de lectione verba se ingerebant; plura erant oscula quam sententiae; saepius ad sinus quam ad libros reducebantur manus; crebrius oculos amor in se reflectabat quam lectio in scripturam dirigebat.

[Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts.]24

It is not for nothing that these words are resonant with Paul's Epistle and Augustine's Confessions.25 It echoes too Bernard's Epistle to Abbot William, in which he spoke against eyes straying to the sculpted marble grotesqueries of Benedictine cloisters more than to the pages of books one ought to read there,26 and Dante's Inferno V concerning Paolo (whose name echoes Paul's) and Francesca who so defy Paul and Augustine: "That day," Francesca tells Dante, "We read no further."27(One can also hear Virgil and Milton here: "Ille dies primus leti primusque malorum causa fuit," Aeneid IV.16; "That day was the first day of death and all our woe," Paradise Lost, I.3.)

Abelard is writing these words within a well-defined tradition and a continuum. And Abelard's epistle is not only resonant with Paul's; it is also quoting from Jerome's Epistle CXVIII, where he notes that Fulbert is the last person to realize that there is scandal within his own household:

Unde et illud est Beati Hieronymi in Epistola ad Sabinianum: Solemus mala domus nostrae scire novissimi, ac liberorum ac coniugum vitia vicinis canentibus ignorare.

[We are always the last to learn of evil in our own home, blessed Jerome tells us in his Epistle to Sabianus, and the faults of our wife and children may be the talk of the town but do not reach our ears.]

Heloise bears Abelard the child Astralabe and Abelard offers to placate Fulbert by marrying her. Heloise strongly opposes this move, citing both Paul and Jerome against marriage, and noting how opposed philosophy and child-bearing are, how far apart desks and cradles, books and distaves, styli and spindles:
Quae enim conventio scholarium ad pedissequas, scriptoriorum ad cunabula, librorum sive tabularum ad colos, stilorum sive calamorum ad fusos?28
She goes on to cite Seneca and Josephus on philosophers and monks as those who depart from the world and its ways, especially from women and children. She even throws in the tale of Socrates, Xanthippe and the piss pot, from Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum, for good measure.29 However, they are married secretly with Fulbert as witness. Abelard takes her to Argenteuil. Then he is castrated by ruffians in Fulbert's pay.

At her husband's request Heloise takes the veil at Argenteuil, Abelard being professed as a monk at St. Denis. Abelard tells of her profession and of how she went up to the altar saying with sobs Cornelia's speech at her husband Pompey's defeat, from Lucan's Pharsalia:

. . . O maxime coniunx, O thalamis indigne meis, hoc iuris habebat In tantum fortuna caput? cur impia nupsi, Si miserum factura fui?

[O noble husband/ Too great for me to wed, was it my fate/ To bend that lofty head? What prompted me/ to marry you and bring about your fall?]30

Professor Southern noted of this scene how extraordinary it was that while Heloise was clearly applying these words to herself personally and at a most intense and deep level, Abelard seems not to hear the meaning of the words, merely to be proud of the learning which he has taught her. She is doing "Reader Response," he merely "New Criticism."

Abelard then continues with his self-pitying litany of woes, the history of his calamities. What is interesting is his strong identification with Saint Jerome. When he is driven from the Paraclete to St. Gildas in Brittany he says he has been driven east, much in the same manner that quarrelsome St. Jerome was driven west, from Rome to Bethlehem where he would be joined by Paula and Eustochium. Abelard quotes, in fact, from Jerome's Letters again and again. He gives the abandoned Paraclete to Heloise and to her nuns, noting that she is no longer his wife and has now become his sister in Christ. When rumor begins to spread Abelard draws direct parallels between himself and Jerome, Heloise and Paula, and he quotes Jerome's Epistle XLV to do so.31

What is important to remember in the letters that follow is that medieval teaching concerning sex in marriage was paradoxically more liberal than Victorian teaching. Both spouses, as Elizabeth Makowski has shown, then had equal rights to demand sex when they needed it and wanted it from the other, the payment of the marriage debt according to Paul's Epistle.32 Not only that, but medieval women who had previously led an active sexual life found great difficulty relinquishing it.33 This is Heloise's predicament and, according to medieval culture, though not our own, it would have been understandable for her to have expressed this desire. Professor D. W. Robertson, Jr., expressed shock to me concerning Heloise's statements and was convinced that they could not be her letters (but instead her husband Abelard's), as he imposed upon her the perspective of southern gentility, believing that no lady could utter such remarks, rather than seeing them in the perspective of medieval canon law or medieval medical teaching.34

Heloise's predicament thus is similar to the one Augustine describes concerning his lust, or sexuality, in the Confessions. She is asking Abelard to play the role in his epistles to her as had Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and the Corinthians and others. She is asking Abelard as the most responsible party to convert her from her lust. She knows, besides, that this could be the best grief therapy and consolation she could offer to her maimed and ego-diminished spouse, that he is still intensely desirable to her. She, after all, vowed before God to love him, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. In medieval canon law, Makowski notes, marriage vows have precedence over vows of chastity, of pilgrimage, of monastic precedence.

Her second stratagem, and again a practical one, is where Heloise involves Abelard in the designing of a Rule for her nuns, thereby giving him a far greater sphere of control over members of her sex than he would have had when merely married to her.35 She sets him as well to composing hymns for the nuns of the Paraclete to sing, including the exquisite "O quanta qualia," and also homilies.36 One hymn Abelard writes is the "Planctus Dinae Filiae Jacob," in which he empathizes with Heloise, in adopting the persona of Dinah who was raped and whose brothers first circumcised, then killed, the prince who had raped her and who had been willing to marry her, and all his men. Another is the mourning of Israel over Samson's Fall to Dalilah; another is of Jephthah's Daughter. Heloise's nuns would have sung these laments in which Abelard's loss, and likewise Heloise's, could be vented through biblical analogues and parallels, rather than classical ones.

Thus Heloise's letters guide both herself and her former lover from their sexual life to the worship of God, and provide spiritual consolation for each other to replace their former physical consummation.37 Not only that but all the letters associated with Heloise acknowledge her great learning. Abelard twice credits Heloise with the knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, making her a second Paula, and we recall that Boniface's learned circle also, at times, quoted Greek in their letters.38 Abelard in the History of My Calamity quotes from Cicero and Jerome, from Ovid and the Bible, from Juvenal and Eusebius, from Diogenes Laertes and Quintilian, from Horace and Bede, from Lucan and Pseudo-Dionysus, from Seneca and Josephus, among others. But in the remainder of the letters he will rarely do so. That was also true of Boniface and of Jerome. It is the women who display, nay, even flaunt, their prococious classical learning when writing to their menfolk.

The letter Heloise was prompted to write on reading the History of My Calamity she addressed as follows:

Domino suo immo patri, coniugi suo immo fratri, ancilla sua immo filia ipsius uxor immo soror, Abaelardi Heloisa.

[To her master, or rather her father, husband or rather brother; his handmaid, or rather his daughter, wife, or rather sister; To Abelard, Heloise.]

She then renarrates the substance of Abelard's letter, and notes that hers can also serve as a consolation letter, because by its means she will share Abelard's burden with him. To substantiate this claim she quotes from a letter by Seneca written to his friend Lucilius, a letter which states that the act of letter writing brings absent friends into each other's presence:
Quam iucundae vero sint absentium litterae amicorum ipse nos exemplo proprio Seneca docet ad amicum Lucilium loco sic scribens; Quod frequenter mihi scribis gratias ago. Nam quo uno modo potes te mihi ostendis. Numquam epistolam tuam accipio quin protinus una simus. Si imagines nobis amicorum absentium iocundae sunt quae memoriam renovant et desiderium absentiae falso atque inani solatio levant quanto iocundiores sunt litteras quae amici absentis veras notas afferunt?

[Letters from absent friends are welcome indeed, as Seneca himself shows us by his own example when he writes these words in a passage of a letter to his friend Lucilius: 'Thank you for writing to me often, the one way in which you can make your presence felt, for I never have a letter from you without the immediate feeling that we are together. If pictures of absent friends give us pleasure, renewing our memories and reliving the pain of separation even if they cheat us with empty comfort, how much more welcome is a letter which comes to us in the very handwriting of an absent friend.'39]

She adds that such letters will not cause scandal. She next quotes Cicero on justice. She then observes that there is a genre already in the Church in which holy ladies are consoled by holy men, and here she means the letters written by Jerome and Paula and her circle, prompting him thereby to emulate Jerome, and she chides Abelard for not having made use of the genre:
Your superior wisdom knows better than our humble learning of the many serious treatises which the holy Fathers compiled for the instruction or exhortation or even the consolation of holy women, and of the care with which these were composed. And so in the precarious early days of our conversion long ago I was not a little surprised and troubled by your forgetfulness, when neither reverence for God nor our mutual love nor the example of the holy Fathers made you think of trying to comfort me, wavering and exhausted as I was by prolonged grief, either by word when I was with you or by letter when we had parted.40
She next declares, and this is the passage that shocks prudes:
Deum testem invoco, si me Augustus universo praesidens mundo matrimonii honore dignaretur totumque mihi orbem confirmaret in perpetuo possidendum, carius mihi et dignius videretur tua dici meretrix quam illius imperatrix.

[God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, though fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his empress but your whore.]41

This is a memory of Thais as well in Terence, the Desert Fathers, and Hrotswitha, and it is to be echoed in Shakespeare's Othello: "She could command an emperor tasks," and in Emily Dickinson, "Unmoved she notes the Emperor's kneeling on her low mat."42 Heloise concludes:
Cum me ad turpes olim voluptates expeteres, crebris me epistolis visitabas, frequenti carmine tuam in ore omnium Heloisam ponebas. Me plateae omnes, me domus singulae resonabant. Quanto autem rectius me nunc in Deum quam tunc in libidinem excitares? Perpende, obsecro, quae debes, attende quae postulo.

[When in the past you sought me out for sinful pleasures your letters came to me thick and fast, and your many songs put your Heloise on everyone's lips, so that every street and house echoed with my name. Is it not far better now to summon me to God than it was then to satisfy our lust? I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas.]43

Abelard makes haste to answer this letter. That plea, "quod debes," "what you owe me," plays upon the Pauline marriage debt. In Abelard's answer there are no classical allusions, only scriptural ones. It is a letter of comfort and consolation sent by the founder of the Paraclete, the Comforter, to its abbess. He goes on after speaking of women who were succoured in the Scriptures to say that in the Old and New Testaments the miracles of resurrection were shown first to women, such as the whore Mary Magdalen, rather than to celibate males. Jerome, before him, had made such statements in letters to his women friends. What Abelard is writing is a letter of consolation that will outdo the Fathers' letters of such consolation.44

Heloise replies in kind: "Unico suo post Christum unica sua in Christo" [To her only after Christ, she who is alone in Christ]. She is still quoting from Seneca and Lucan. In this letter she internalizes her guilt and that of all women, responding with dialectic to Abelard's Praise of Virtuous Women with Heloise's Blame for Vicious Females, naming Eve, Dalilah and Job's Wife.45 It is in this letter that she states that she still thinks of her husband carnally, even at Mass. This is her Augustinian Confession. She ends by quoting the translator of the Vulgate:

Cui quidem consilio nostro ut ex auctoritate quoque robur adiungam, beatum audiamus Hieronymum: Fateor imbecillitatem meam.

[Let the weight of authority reinforce what I say - let us hear St. Jerome: I confess my weakness . . . .]46

Abelard's letter in answer is addressed: "Sponsae Christi servus eiusdem." [To the Bride of Christ, Christ's servant.] He complains about Heloise's complaint that he had put her name before his by citing Jerome's letter to Eustochium in which that weighty saint had likewise insisted on doing so: "My lady Eustochium," he had written.47

In this letter Abelard stresses that Heloise was once a poor mortal's bride and is now raised to the bed of the King of Kings. He compares Heloise in her nun's black to the Ethiopian queen of Solomon and Moses' Ethiopian wife: "I am black but comely, o ye daughters of Jerusalem." For a moment, he lets down his guard and first quotes Jerome's writing to the virgin Eustochium, and then even Virgil describing the wanton and coy Galatea: "Et fugit ad salices, inquit, et se cupit ante videri" [She flees to the willows and wishes first to be seen], Eclogue III.48 He then quotes from Lucan's Pharsalia, VIII.83-86, that text they may have shared together with their kisses and which they certainly did at their bitter parting.

Cave, obsecro, ne quod dixit Pompeius maerenti Cornelia tibi improperetur turpissime: 'Vivit post proelia Magnus! Sed fortuna perit. Quod defles illud amasti.'

[I beg you beware lest Pompey's reproach to weeping Cornelia is applied to you, to your shame: "The battle ended, Pompey the Great lives, but his fortune died. It is this you now mourn and loved."]49

In so speaking Abelard is acting the role of Pompey to her as the grieving, rebuked Cornelia.

These are the Personal Letters. What follows are the Letters of Direction, themselves an aspect of Heloise' therapy for both Abelard and herself. Abelard's final Letter of Direction concludes with:

Quod si in tantae fervorem devotionis accendi non valetis, imitamini saltem et amore et studio sanctarum litterarum beatas illas sancti Hieronymi discipulas Paulam et Eustochium quarum praecipue rogatu tot voluminibus ecclesiam praedictus doctor illustravit.

[You can at least in your love and study of sacred Scriptures model yourself on those blessed disciples of St. Jerome, Paula and Eustochium, for it was mainly at their request that the great doctor wrote so many volumes to bring enlightenment to the Church.]50

Johan Huizinga, in his essay on "Abelard," likewise notes that "Abelard belonged to those on the side of Jerome. He quoted him again and again, he praised him, he sought in him the explanation of the Scriptures. Erasmus, too, was later to stand on the same side,"51 while at the same time Huizinga spoke of Abelard's "conscious and noble sense of the rights and dignity of women."52 Petrarch, another Humanist, was drawn to the Epistles (he, likewise, being an Epistle writer), owning a manuscript and carefully annotating it.53

Finally, there will be the consoling letter from Peter the Venerable, which first softens Heloise with praise:

Mox vero . . . longe in melius disciplinorum studia commutasti; et pro logica Evangelium, pro physica apostolom, pro Platone Christum, pro academia claustrum, tota iam et vere philosophica mulier, elegisti.

[You turned your zeal for learning in a far better direction, and as a woman wholly dedicated to philosophy in the true sense, you left logic for the Gospel, Plato for Christ, the academy for the cloister.]54

He goes on to say, "You snatched the spoils of the defeated enemy and passing through the desert of this pilgrimage, with the treasures of the Egyptians, you built a precious tabernacle to God in your heart." We likewise find Peter the Venerable quoting from Ovid and Virgil. Then he breaks the news of her beloved Abelard's death. In her reply to him she thanks him, then asks that he look out for the needs of their son, Astralabe.55 (And there are male scholars who say that Abelard wrote all these letters; including those written after his death!)

Heloise and Abelard can play with the dialectic of the pagan poetry of lust, such as Ovid's Heroides, and the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures and Epistles against lust, because the tradition already, especially where women's epistles to men are concerned, permitted such a playfulness. Egburga and Wynfrith, Heloise and Abelard, were playing with conventions already set up by Paula and Jerome. But it is not really playfulness. The women could express their deepest and most immediate emotions through the medium of distant and past poetry. It is also the women who are most in control of the genre, manipulating it at their will. Though they proclaim themselves humble handmaids, they are also being imperious. They proudly exhibit their classical learning from that imperial world. One wonders whether their menfolk always catch on to their loving ruses. But it is a gentle dialectic in which they can speak of lonely hours spent reading of Virgil's Dido and Lucan's Cornelia, as if they were yellow-backed French romances (books Rousseau said were to be read with one hand and certainly books so read by Emma Bovary),56 and the stern Judaeo-Christian Scriptures and Epistles which insist upon sexual restraint and which required of female readers virginity and the black weeds of widowhood in the convent, rather than the scarlet of the market place of Mary Magdalen. Latin letters for them encompassed both pagan and Christian worlds, both the scarlet and the black.

IV. Chaucer's Wife

These three pairs of letter writers have been of flesh and blood. Chaucer's Wife, who is a fiction, our "Glorious Fourth," presents within her Prologue Jankyn's Book of Direction and Correction, which she then destroys. Her Jankyn, reader of Jerome and Abelard, though not likely of Wynfrith, is university-trained, a Clerk of Oxenforde. She cannot be. But clearly she both envies and emulates his Scholasticism in her dialectic against him. Paula, Lioba and Heloise had read the classics and had used them in the Ciceronian Humanist and familiar style to express their chaste love. The Wife flaunts her exempla wrenched from classical texts into fragmented and misogynistic anthologies as arabesquing weapons in a quasi-Scholastic diatribe against men to express her sexual hate. I would suggest that Chaucer learned that sexual hatred out of misogynistic university schoolbooks and that it is Gothic rather than Romanesque, pagan rather than Christian. Indeed, Chaucer acquired the tale of Abelard and Heloise out of the quintessentially Gothic text of the Roman de la Rose, its second author, Jean de Meun, being the first to present that correspondence to the world.57 Yet Alice's marriage to Jankyn is analogous to that of Heloise to Abelard, similarly destroying his scholarly career; while her pilgrimages to Jerusalem are those of Paula and Margery, arousing similar gossip, and would have had her stand at Bethlehem in the Cave of the Holy Family, and the adjacent cave in which Saint Jerome and Holy Paula translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into a Latin redolent of Cicero and Virgil.


1 While Etienne Gilson, Heloise and Abelard, trans. L. K. Shook (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), R. W. Southern, "The Letters of Abelard and Heloise," Medieval Humanism and Other Studies, and Peter Dronke, Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1976), do believe in her letters' veracity, D. W. Robertson, Jr., Abelard and Heloise, John F. Benton, "Fraud, Fiction and Borrowing in the Correspondence of Abelard and Heloise," Pierre Abélard-Pierre le Vénerable, les courants philosophiques, littéraires et artistiques en Occident au milieu du XIIe siécle, Actes et memoires du colloques international, Abbaye de Cluny, 2-9 juillet, 1972 (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1975), pp. 469-512, the editor of the Letters, J. T. Muckle, C.S.B. (Mediaeval Studies, 12, 15, 17, 18 (1953-1956), Georges Duby (quoted by Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (+203) to Marguerite Porete (+1310) [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984], p. 281, as saying to the Press: "Quant à Héloise, tout donne à penser que ses lettres ont été écrites ou récrites par un homme"), and John V. Fleming, personal communication, do not. Peggy Kamuf, Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982) accepts this argument and therefore presents them likewise as fiction. On Kamuf, see review by Gabrielle Verdier, Studies in Medievalism, 3 (1987), 83-86. For Paula, see remarks later in this essay and footnote 3.
2 The biographical details can be gleaned from Jerome's Epistles, Patrologia Latina, 22, ed. J. P. Migne, especially Epistola CVIII. See also J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. It is interesting that all three pairs of letter writers, Paula and Jerome, Lioba and Boniface, Heloise and Abelard, were to be buried together, as if married couples; which was also true of Saints Scholastica and Benedict.
3 Kelly, p. 141, remarks that this letter is "written in the name of Paula and her daughter but manifestly by Jerome himself, to Marcella," then goes on to say, "It is an idyllic piece, relating spiritual serenity and contentment . . . and stands in striking contrast to the querulous, vituperative note" of Jerome's typical writings. We find other male scholars making the same statements of Heloise's letters, that they are Abelard's, yet that they are in a totally different style than his. The letter in question is Epistola XLVI and is published in PL, ed. Migne, 22.490-491; Saint Jerome, Lettres, ed. Jérome Labourt (Paris: Societé d'editions "Les Belles Lettres," 1951), II.100-114, and in English translation, The Letter of Paula and Eustochium to Marcella about the Holy Places (365 A. D.), trans. Aubrey Stewart (London: Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1896); omitted from Select Letters of St. Jerome, trans. F. A. Wright (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), Loeb Classical Library 262.
4 Jerome is also fond of this phrase, but states it the opposite way: "Et de Hiersolymis et de Britannia aequaliter patet aula coelestis: regnum enim dei intra nos est," Epistola LVIII. Chaucer may have had it in mind with his Wife of Bath, who so often speaks of Jerome.
5 Epistola XLVI, PL, ed. Migne, 22.490-91.
6 These insights into the injustices of privileged wealth bridge time; one can find them in the Prophets and the Gospels, in Horace and Juvenal, in Wyclif and More; but they are especially likely to be perceived by women who stand outside the structures of power, such as Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, and Nadine Gordimer.
7 Epistola CVIII, PL, ed. Migne, 22.490-491; trans. Aubrey Stewart (London: Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1896), who notes that the earliest manuscript is eleventh century.
8 CETEDOC CLCLT CD, Epistola XXII, "et ille, qui residebat: 'entiris', ait, 'Ciceronianus es, non christianus; ubi thesaurus tuus, ibi et cor tuum.'"
9 Epistola CVIII. The experience of women pilgrims is so intense that it is expressed as if it were hallucinatory, for instance, with Paula, with Birgitta of Sweden, with Margery Kempe. See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), for a partial explanation. However, see also the Christian meditative tradition as exemplified by Jerome, and continued in Pseudo-Bonaventure, Meditations on the Life of Christ, and St. Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, which requires the imaginative participation in the events of the sacred drama as a form of prayer.
10 Epistola CVIII. Jane Barr, "The Vulgate Genesis and St. Jerome's Attitude towards Women," Studia Patristica, 18 (1982), 268-273, republished in Equally in God's Image: Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Julia Bolton Holloway and Constance S. Wright (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), pp. 122-128, also discusses this issue. Jerome will commission Paula's tomb in Bethlehem, stating of it, "Exegi monumentum aere perennius," quoting Horace's Ode.
11 Jerome's Letter to Eustochium and Adversus Jovinianum, PL, ed. Migne, 23.221-354.
12 The Pilgrimage of St. Sylvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places (London: Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1896), I; also "Peregrinatio Aetheriae," Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, trans. George E. Gringras (New York: Newman Press, 1970); The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen (London: Oxford University Press, 1940/1961), Early English Text Society, Original Series, 212; Johannes Jørgensen, Saint Bridget of Sweden, trans. Ingeborg Lund (London: Longman's Green, 1954).
13 Pp. 42-43.
14PL, 89; The English Correspondence of Saint Boniface: Being for the Most Part Letters Exchanged Between the Apostle of the Germans and his English Friends, trans. Edward Kylie (London: Chatto and Windus, 1911).
15 Epistola XXXIII, 732B; English Correspondence, p. 57.
16 Pp. 57-60.
17 Letter XXIII, pp. 110-111.
18 Letter XIV, pp. 90-91.
19 Letter XXIV, p. 112
20 Letter XLVIII, pp. 206-209.
21 Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Modes of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
22 While Jerome's fourth-century letters in extant manuscripts date back only to the eleventh century, a hiatus of six centuries, Father Muckle, editor of the twelfth-century "Letters of Abelard and Heloise," claims their letters cannot be genuine since their earliest manuscripts are thirteenth century, and gives this particularly as a major reason for Heloise's letters not being her own.
23 PL, 178; "Abelard's Letter of Consolation to a Friend (Historia Calamitatum)," ed. J. T. Muckle, C.S.B., Mediaeval Studies, 12 (1950), 163-213; "The Personal Letters between Abelard and Heloise," ed. J. T. Muckle, C.S.B., Mediaeval Studies, 15 (1953), 47-94; "The Letter of Heloise on Religious Life and Abelard's First Reply," ed. J. T. Muckle, C.S.B., Mediaeval Studies, 17 (1955), 240-281; "Abelard's Rule for Religious Women," ed. T. P. McLaughlin, C.S.B., Mediaeval Studies, 18 (1956), 241-292, for the Latin texts; The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, ed. and trans. Betty Radice (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), for the English translation.
24 PL, 178, 128A; ed. Muckle, 12 (1950), 183; trans. Radice, p. 67.
25 Romans 13.13-14; Augustine, Confessions, VIII, "So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there I had put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell, 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provisions for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.'" No further would I read, nor did I need, for instantly, as the sentence ended, - by a light, as it were, of security into my heart, - all the gloom of doubt washed away."
26 Bernard, Apologia ad Guillelmum Abbatem: "Ceterum in claustris, coram legentibus fratribus, quid facit illa ridicula monstruostias, mira quaedam deformis formositas ac formosa deformitas? . . . Tam multa denique, tamque mira diversarum formarum apparet ubique varietas, ut magis legere libeat in marmoribus, quam in codicibus, totumque diem occupare singula ista mirando, quam in lege Dei meditando," Opera, ed. Jean Leclercq, H. M. Rochais (Rome: Editions Cistercienses, 1963), III.106.
27Inferno V.138: "quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante."
28 Ed. Muckle, p. 184; trans. Radice, p. 68.
29 Ed. Muckle, p. 186; trans. Radice, p. 71; p. 73 for the Adversus Jovinianum Socrates and Xanthippe episode. Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea, 1982), pp. 130-131, was to rewrite that story delightfully, describing Xanthippe rushing into Socrates' prison cell and dashing the cup of hemlock away from his lips, onto the ground, out of her great love for him.
30 Lucan, Pharsalia, VIII.94-95; ed. Muckle, p. 191; trans. Radice, p. 76. Lucan and Jerome provided Abelard and Heloise a rich intertextuality for their own lives and texts.
31 Ed. Muckle, p. 194; trans. Radice, p. 98.
32 First Epistle to the Corinthians 7.1-5; Elizabeth Makowski, "The Conjugal Debt and Medieval Canon Law," Journal of Medieval History, 3 (1977), 99-114, reprinted in Equally in God's Image: Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Julia Bolton Holloway and Constance S. Wright (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), pp. 129-143.
33 Monica Green, when a graduate student in History of Science, Princeton University, informed me of such statements in Trotula and Hildegard of Bingen.
34Abelard and Heloise, pp. 125-127, 50-54, 58-59.
35 Augustine, Letter 211, and Caesarius of Arles for his sister Caesaria, had already written Rules for nuns, but apparantly neither Heloise nor Abelard knew this. The Anglo-Saxon Regularis Concordia is also written for nuns, its full title being Regularis Concordia Anglicae Nationis Monachorum Sanctimonialiumque [The Harmonizing of the Rules for Monks and Nuns of the English Nation], ed. Dom Thomas Symons (London: Nelson, 1953).
36PL 178, 1817-1818.
37 My former student, Lauren Jackson Beck, noted that the use of therapeutic repetition is mirrored both in the Consolation of Philosophy and the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, in which the self-pitying is played back by one party to the other. Both Abelard and Heloise are well aware that their abbey/convent of the Paraclete means the "Holy Ghost," the "Comforter," the "Consoler."
38 Ed. Kylie, p. 43; I am intrigued by Abelard's use of the onos lyras tag line of Greek, ed. McLaughlin, Mediaeval Studies, 18 (1956), 289. See Julia Bolton Holloway, "The Asse to the Harpe: Boethian Music in Chaucer," in Boethius and the Liberal Arts, ed. Michael Masi (Bern: Peter Lang, 1981), pp. 175-186, republished in Tales within Tales: Apuleius through Time, ed. Constance S. Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway (New York: AMS Press, 1992).
39 Ed. Muckle, 16 (1953), p. 68-69; trans. Radice, p. 110.
40 Ed. Muckle, p. 70; trans. Radice, p. 112.
41 Ed. Muckle, p. 71; trans. Radice, p. 114. Shadowing this statement is Lucan's Cornelia saying she brings such misfortune to her husband she wishes she were her husband's enemy's wife, Caesar's: Pharsalia VIII. 88-89, "O utinam in thalmos invisi Caesaris issem/ Infelix coniunx et nulli laeta marito!"
42 My graduate students, Alecia Dantico and Patricia McIntyre wrote on these Terentian parallels for our volume of essays, Latin with Laughter: Terence through Time; Julia Bolton Holloway, "Death and the Emperor in Dante, Browning, Dickinson and Stevens, Studies in Medievalism, 2:3 (1983), 67-72.
43Ed. Muckle, p. 73; trans. Radice, pp. 117-118.
44 Ernst Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper, 1963), p. 162-165.
45 Ed. Muckle, p. 77. A parallel occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 2416-2419: "For so watz Adam in erde with one bygyled,/ & Salamon with fele sere, & Samson eft-sone3,/ Dalyda dalt hym hys wyrde, & Dauyth þer-after/ Watz blended with Barsabe, þat much bale þoled."
46 Ed. Muckle, p. 82; trans. Radice, p. 136.
47 Trans. Radice, p. 153.
48 Ed. Muckle, p. 87.
49 Ed. Muckle, p. 92.
50 Ed. McLaughlin, 18 (1956), 292; trans. Radice, p. 268.
51 In Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, trans. James S. Holmes and Hans von Marle (New York: Meridian, 1959), p. 194.
52 P. 193.
53 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 2923. My colleague and friend, Professor Richard J. Schoeck, has drawn my attention to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Letters to Women, ed. Hugo Rahner, trans. Kathleen Pondand S. A. H. Westman (Frieburg: Herder and Herder, 1960) which demonstrates the continuity of the tradition beyond the Middle Ages.
54PL, ed. Migne, 189.347; trans. Radice, pp. 277-284.
55PL, ed. Migne, 178; trans. Radice, p. 285. See also Giles Constable, Letters and Letter Collections, Typologie des sources du Moyen Age occidental, Fasc. 17 (Turnholt: Brepols, 1976), and his edition of The Letters of Peter the Venerable (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), 2 vols.
56 Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973); Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966-71); Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, edited, Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1975).
57 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, has the early and best manuscript of the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, which had been owned by Petrarch and which he annotated. Did it influence his love for Laura? It is a text Humanists revered, but not Scholastics.

Go to:

Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri
I Bankers and Their Books: Italian Manuscripts in French Exile
II Brown Ink, Red Blood: Brunetto Latino and the Sicilian Vespers
III The Vita Nuova's Pilgrimage Paradigms
IV Stealing Hercules' Club: Inferno XXV's Metamorphoses  

Geoffrey Chaucer
V Black and Red Letter Chaucer
VI Fact and Fiction: Women in Love
VII Convents, Courts and Colleges
VIII The Tomb of the Duchess Alice

Terence, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer
IX God's Plenty: Terence in Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare Newest

Epilogue: Attica State Prison, Boethius the Exile, Dante the Pilgrim


: Dante vivo || White Silence