“Consider, I Beg You, What You Owe Me”: Heloise and the Economics of Relationship

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Perpende, obsecro, quae debes,” Heloise writes in her first letter to Abelard, reminding him of the debt that he owes her. She has just received a copy of his Historia calamitatum and is incensed not only that he has not written her, but also that he has omitted her side of the story in his consolation letter to a friend. What is this debt that Heloise believes Abelard owes her and why does he have this obligation? It is not simply the Pauline marital debt, I believe, but a far deeper one. Using economic metaphors and language that play on the connection between marriage and ownership, Heloise cajoles Abelard into paying attention to her. By associating marriage with the profane, she argues that it is ownership, not desire, that is the occasion for sin. Abelard’s marital debt thus becomes an obligation to satisfy her psychological need for recognition of the “love freely given” they once shared.


Twelfth Century Person Plural Woman Writer Public Role Plural Pronoun 
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  1. 1.
    Glenda McLeod, “‘Wholly Guilty, Wholly Innocent’: Self-Definition in Héloïse’s Letters to Abélard,” in Dear Sister: Mediveal Women and the Epistolary Genre, ed. Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 66. Robert R. Edwards notes that the word debitum is also from the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23–35): the servant is forgiven an enormous debt by his master, but then demands a smaller debt repayment from another servant.Google Scholar
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  9. 12.
    The Latin text is from J. T. Muckle, “The Personal Letters between Abelard and Heloise,” Mediaeval Studies 15 (1953): 47–94. All translations are mine. The letters are hereafter referred to by M. T. Clanchy’s system, beginning with the Historia calamitatum as Letter 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Muckle, “The Personal Letters,” p. 65. Nancy A. Jones has argued, quite accurately, I believe, that “these shifts between the first person singular and first person plural pronouns reveal the intensification of her private feelings about Abelard and their mutual past.” See her “By Woman’s Tears Redeemed: Female Lament in St. Augustine’s Confessions and the Correspondence of Abelard and Heloise,” in Sex and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Texts: The Latin Tradition, ed. Barbara K. Gold, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), p. 28.Google Scholar
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    Claire Nouvet, “The Discourse of the ‘Whore’: An Economy of Sacrifice,” Modern Language Notes 105 (1990): 750–73, esp. p. 758.Google Scholar
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    Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 104.Google Scholar
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    Catherine Brown, “Muliebriter: Doing Gender in the Letters of Heloise,” in Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Jane Chance (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 25–51, esp. p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Ann W. Astell, The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 1.Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), p. 378. It is interesting that Radice translates it as “transfer.”Google Scholar
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  20. 24.
    Peter Abelard, Opera theologica: Corpus Christianorum Continuato Mediaevalis XIII (Turnholt: Brepols, 1987), p. 402.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    Heloise’s response to this letter has generated considerable scholarly debate. Although its tone is so different from the first two, Glenda McLeod rejects the idea that she has undergone some kind of conversion. ‘“Wholly Guilty, Wholly Innocent,’” p. 77. As Peter Dronke has explained, there is, in fact, significant continuity in her letters: her desire for a monastic rule reflects her “ceaseless quest for complete and honest understanding” Women Writers, pp. 138–39. Linda Georgianna suggests that it is an “institutionally-centered version of what she has asked of Abelard all along: consolation and guidance for an unruly heart.” “Any Corner of Heaven: Heloise’s Critique of Monasticism,” Mediaeval Studies 49 (1987): 221–53, esp. p. 247. For Peggy McCracken, Heloise’s third letter continues McCracken’s interest in the representation of the female body. See her article, “The Curse of Eve: Female Bodies and Christian Bodies in Heloise’s Third Letter,” in Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman, ed. Bonnie Wheeler (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 217–30, p. 227. Others, however, argue for a conversion—Abelard’s, not Heloise’s. Katharine Wilson and Glenda McLeod claim that she has won their rhetorical debate. See their “Textual Strategies I the Abelard/Heloise Correspondence” in Wheeler, Listening to Heloise, pp. 121–42, esp. p. 122.Google Scholar
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  23. Joan Ferrante has argued in a similar vein: Heloise has directed Abelard’s thought from the beginning of the correspondence, which continues on an intellectual rather than emotional level in her third letter. See her To the Glory of Her Sex: Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 59.Google Scholar
  24. 26.
    The Latin text of this letter is from J. T. Muckle, “The Letter of Heloise on Religious Life and Abelard’s First Reply,” Mediaeval Studies 17 (1955), 240–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 27.
    In addition, other words of Abelard, including the Hymnarius Paraclitensis, the dedicatory letter to the Expositio in Hexaemeron and the prologue to the book of sermons have dedications to Heloise. See Jan M. Ziolkowski, Letters of Peter Abelard, Beyond the Personal. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  26. 28.
    Clanchy refers to Heloise’s entrance into religious life as the “silencing of Heloise,” which he calls a “prelude to the silencing of academic women as a class for the next eight centuries.” This statement is somewhat misleading, since she went on to pursue her intellectual interests after she had become a nun. M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: A Medieval Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 46.Google Scholar

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© Theresa Earenfight 2010

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