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Heloise and Abelard, letters, French history


The story of Heloise and Abelard has aged remarkably well. We teach their “Personal Letters” and Abelard’s Historia calamitatum in two undergraduate courses. This article discusses an informal writing assignment, in which our students adopt the persona of Astralabe, the son of Heloise and Abelard, and write a letter to Heloise concerning his parents’ lives and loves. Often students read the correspondence through the filter of contemporary experience. They consider Abelard’s behavior as patriarchal and boorish, and object to what they see as Heloise’s extreme humility and acceptance of the anti-feminist palaver of her day. However, when students remember and respect the beliefs and institutions that informed medieval culture and shaped this remarkable story, their letters engage the assignment more imaginatively, thoughtfully and critically. On occasion these letters have astonished us with the clarity and power of their insight. Here we present excerpts from our students’ letters that show how this assignment takes them from a superficial grasp of the texts to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Heloise and Abelard.