Eras in Education – Heloise and Abelard

An exchanged glance, a hand brushing a hand, a slip of paper exchanged deftly and discreetly . . . Up until a decade or so ago the paper note was state-of-the-art technology for expressing secret longings and desires. Imagine if a teacher in today’s text-messaging world intercepted one such note, and found it to contain the following lines:

?I have your picture in my room; I never pass it without stopping to look at it . . . If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.?

The teacher would probably want the offending students to read the note out in front of the class, not as punishment, but as an example of good writing that captures something ineffably embedded in interpersonal relations. Perhaps she would then proceed to critique the blurbish nature of instant messaging.

Almost one thousand years ago, at the Notre Dame Cathedral school in Paris, students would have written secret messages to one another in much the same way as in modern times. Perhaps the most famous school love affair was between a prideful teacher named Peter Abelard and a much younger pupil named Heloise. Abelard was a ?master,? one of many who competed for prestige and gathered a cadre of loyal followers. Petty disputes were common but Abelard usually had his way. Heloise, though 19 years younger than Abelard, would be considered ?one of the most literate women of her time.? Some of their love letters have survived until today, including one containing the quotation above.

In a calculated manoeuvre, Abelard had himself hired as Heloise’s tutor, which meant that he would move into the same home as her. They soon became involved in more than just studying the Classics and, upon her becoming pregnant out of wedlock, were pressured into marriage. In an effort to keep their betrothal a secret, Abelard sent her away to a monastery. This angered Heloise’s uncle, who hired hit men to break into Abelard’s room and castrate him in the dead of night. They each spent the remainder of their lives in separate monasteries.

But why so much difficulty? Why couldn’t the happy couple simply marry and live happily ever after? The answer lies in the nature of education during the Middle Ages. Schooling was completely controlled by the Church and all learning was in relation to religion. ?Literacy was virtually coterminous with the clergy,? to such an extent that monarchs were often illiterate despite their earthly power. The power of knowledge was thus synonymous with the power of God. Abelard, as an educator, was also a clergyman and therefore was required to be celibate. Public knowledge of his marriage would have ruined his career.

Abelard had already angered the Church on several occasions. One of his central philosophical ideas was that ?it is not the physical action itself, nor any imaginary injury to God, that constitutes sin, but rather the psychological element in the action, the intention of sinning, which is formal contempt of God.? The Church saw this position as too relativistic, in that it opened the way for a person to potentially question authority ?with the best of intentions? and get away with it. In the Middle Ages people were expected to do as they were told and consider it the word of God. (Interestingly, six hundred years later Immanuel Kant would seem to echo Abelard’s position.)

The fact that Abelard’s relationship with Heloise was in contradiction to Church teachings may have played a role in his entire philosophical outlook. Or, perhaps, his philosophy of life led him to feel entitled to enter into an illicit relationship.

As Sigmund Freud suggested, ?the primary tie between group members is that they replace their ego-ideal with the group leader. They then share something as part of themselves.? In the context of education during the Middle Ages, an educator’s first love was to be God, personified partly by Church teachings. Earthly love was not to get in the way. It was inappropriate to become involved with a person; one’s passions were to be reserved for the divine realm.

In his book Eros and Civilization, the social theorist Herbert Marcuse stated that people’s pursuit of pleasure is repressed so that society can function. Without limits, our selfish desires would make society impossible. Sometimes ?surplus repression? exists. Surplus repression consists of repression that does not meet the basic needs of society’s members. In other words, people are prevented from fulfilling their innermost desires and end up miserable. For Abelard and Heloise it might be said that surplus repression prevented them from fulfilling their love for one another in conjunction with their love of God.

The end result of Heloise and Abelard’s indiscretion was Abelard’s castration and their separation. Yet their letters back and forth are testament to the fact that social regulation cannot restrict love or, in sociological terms, strong ?affective solidarity.? Unfortunately for the smitten couple, religion in the 1100s had a monopoly on happily ever after. Marcuse named this belief in a final static state of fulfillment the ?nirvana principle.? Perhaps Abelard and Heloise’s love letters are testament to the fact that the strongest love is that which is just out of reach. By restricting some of our desires society serves to make clear to us what we really want, within or without prevailing social norms. Perhaps without an educational system to restrict us and make us want what is taboo, some people might never fall in love!