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When you visit the Conciergerie, in Ile de la Cité, look for this beautiful bas-relief representing Héloïse and Abélard.
Héloïse holds in her left hand the sex of her lover. Next to them, out of frame (sorry!), you can see a beaver, a symbol of Abélard’s emasculation. We imagined that a beaver, chased by hunters, renounced its attributes by castrating itself with its teeth, and it thus saved the essential, its life. This is reminiscent of the sad punishment that was reserved for Abélard.
Héloïse and Abélard are two famous lovers from the Middle Ages. They are for Paris like Romeo and Giulietta for Verona!
The story of Heloise and Abélard begins in the 12th century in the Ile de la Cité, Paris’s heart and the epicenter of intellectual life. It is a myth of impossible love:
Abélard and Héloïse Story
Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), a rebellious intellectual from Nantes, was a reputed cleric and scholar in Paris, where he moved in 1110 to follow the teaching of the French philosopher and theologian Guillaume de Champeaux.
Héloïse (1092-1164) was the illegitimate daughter of an early libertine lord. As a teenager, his mother entrusted Héloïse’s education to her own brother, Notre Dame’s Canon Fulbert, who lived in Ile de la Cité. The young girl’s lively intelligence was intriguing, and soon her reputation as a learned woman spread. Uncle Fulbert decided to hire Abélard to perfect Héloïse’s education.
In 1113, Abélard became the tutor of Héloïse. The girl was 18, and Abélard was 39, but that didn’t stop the student and tutor from falling in love. They made love, often, secretly, violently, sometimes turning into a sadomasochistic relationship.
When Héloïse became pregnant, the couple fled to Brittany, to Abélard’s sister, where Héloïse gave birth to a son. Back in Paris, Abélard tried to obtain forgiveness from Uncle Fulbert. He obtained a partial peace by the promise of a marriage, provided on his terms that it remained secret and so that he could continue his work as a cleric.
But Uncle Fulbert, dishonored, mulled his revenge. And one morning, accompanied by pig castrators, he broke into Abélard’s room and castrated him. The glory of the philosopher was over.
Body made imperfect by mutilation, Abélard had to give up teaching according to the precepts of the time. He retired to the abbey of Saint-Denis, where he devoted himself to theology, while Héloïse took the veil in Argenteuil.
When she died in 1164, Héloïse joined her lover’s coffin, who had died 22 years earlier. Legend has it that the arms of Abélard’s corpse were opened to welcome his beloved.
Héloïse and Abélard Tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery – A Successful Marketing Campaign
The tomb of Héloïse and Abélard, in Père Lachaise Cemetery, is the last symbolic home of the legendary couple. This mausoleum was solemnly inaugurated on 6 November 1817, in the heart of what was then the brand new Parisian necropolis.
The City Council was looking for an advertising effect to make the new necropolis – inaugurated in 1804 but little frequented – more attractive thanks to prestigious guests like Héloïse and Abélard, or Molière and La Fontaine. This turned to be a brilliant idea: soon after their burial, the whole bourgeoisie and artists like Balzac, Chopin, Wilde, or Proust, wanted to make Père Lachaise Cemetery their last home.
Today, with 70,000 graves for 2 million visitors per year, Père Lachaise is the cemetery that houses the largest number of personalities per square meter.
The tomb of Héloïse and Abélard quickly acquired the status of the most famous burial place in France. At the height of the Romantic movement, under these two mythical lovers’ auspices, the neo-Gothic chapel became a meeting place for lovers, and tender oaths were exchanged.
But each era has its heroes! Today, the visitors flock to the singer Jim Morrison’s tomb, without even a glance for the lovers of the Middle Ages. So sad!