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Medieval Sourcebook:
Mediev-l Discussion of Heloise's Letters to Abelard


[Back to Heloise's First Letter to Abelard]

Note: the posts have been arranged in some sort of topic order. The actual order is indicated by the number of each post.

I. The Question

1. The Question

11 Dec 1997

I have recently added to the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Heloise's First letter to Abelard, as translated by Scott Moncrieff. I seem to recall some discussion about the genuineness of these letters, however. Can anyone indicate what the state of play is?
Paul Halsall, (halsall@murray.fordham.edu)

II. Pro Authenticity Scholarship

2. Solution: Heloise wrote the letters (Dronke cited)

11 Dec 1997

I had understood that the argument over the genuineness of the letters was more or less over, but I could be wrong. On the "for" side, include Peter Dronke and Etienne Gilson, along with most feminist historians (I think). On the "against" side, I seem to remember that D.W. Robertson Jr. was one of the main people who argued that the letters were authored by Abelard to be exempla of conversion (that is, Heloise's). Others will no doubt have more opinions.
Belle S. Tuten (tuten@juniata.edu)

3. Solution: Heloise wrote the letters (Newman cited)

11 Dec 1997

I am convinced that the definitive last word is that issued by Barbara Newman in an article included in her collection From Virile Woman to Womanchrist (U of Penn). It is a resounding defense of the authenticity of the letters. If you want to delve backward into the controversy you could work your way into it from Barbara's footnotes.
Jo Ann McNamara (jmcnamar@shiva.hunter.cuny.edu)

7. Solution: Heloise wrote the letters (Newman cited)

Dec 13 1997

I think the question of style, in terms of Heloise's letters, can be, and has been explained by the fact that Heloise was Abelard's student. This much we do know. And if he was as good a teacher as is thought, then it makes sense to me that Heloise's style would be like his. But I wanted to second Jo Ann MacNamara's reference to Barbara Newman's work. Anyone who is interested in this debate needs to read that work immediately. What impressed me the most about the relevant chapter in From Virile Woman to WomanChrist was not only the examination of the evidence to show that Heloise was the author of her own letters (a position, I confess, to which I already ascribed), but her examination of why this question has even been posed, and the historiographical significance of it. It's been several months since I read it, but one of the most compelling lines of argument in the essay (I thought) was that writing both sets of letters, given their content, would have demonstrated an unmatched perversity on Abelard's part. This was an argument that has stayed with me... but I think ultimately the historiographical questions in the essay are most significant. It should be required reading for anyone interested in writing about Heloise, especially anyone new to women's history. (IMHO).
Miriam T Shadis (shadis@oak.cats.ohiou.edu)

9. Solution: Heloise wrote the letters (Newman cited)

Dec 13 1997

I want to add to the voices of those seconding Jo Ann McNamara's reference to Barbara Newman's essay on Heloise. For what it is worth, I also think it resolves the dispute over the authenticity of the letters. If someone still doubts their authenticity after reading Newman's essay or finds her arguments unconvincing, he or she should publish a persuasive counter-argument. The exact reference is the following: Barbara Newman, "Authority, Authenticity, and the Repression of Heloise," in Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp. 46-75."
George Dameron, (gdameron@smcvt.edu)

III. Why Raise the Question

5. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Pro-Authenticity

11 Dec 1997

In the absence of clear evidence one way or the other, isn't it easier to assume the Heloise wrote those letters? There is certainly no reason she couldn't have written them, but arguing that Abelard produced them in her name seems to assume that she couldn't have written them because she was a woman. It also violates Occam's Razor. As far as the general question of authenticity is concerned, isn't the primary question whether the document is what it claims to be? Authenticity, then, requires that the document be produced at the time it claims, by the author it claims. This excludes the issue of whether the document is accurate or telling the truth about its subject matter. So a document could be authentic and true, (like most government and legal documents), authentic but untrue or inaccurate (like many chroniclers and letters), inauthentic but true (later reproductions of earlier documents), or inauthentic and untrue (like the Donation of Constantine). Is this too simplistic?
Andrew E. Larsen (aelarsen@students.wisc.edu)

8. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Pro-Authenticity

Dec 13 1997

Well, if we're going to propose only one author for the letters, why not Heloise? Why must we always search for a missing male author? Especially in a case where we have a perfectly plausible female author already in position and with the education to have written the texts. stepping down from soapbox.
Rebecca LR Garber, (rlrg@umich.edu)

10. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Pro-Authenticity

Dec 13 1997

I also thought that Newman's article was memorable for demonstrating the perversity of assumptions that Heloise could not have been the author of certain of the letters, and that we should look to Abelard for their origin. I have also been interested that noone has (yet?) mentioned the work of Peter Dronke - didn't he do an analysis of the 'epistolary style' of Heloise and Abelard and show significant differences between them, as well as the more general similarities which we might expect between a teacher and student? From memory, the discussion appears in the chapter re Heloise in Women Writers in the Middle Ages, and I seem to remember that he may even have suggested that Abelard was influenced by Heloise's style, rather than the other way round! His contribution to the authenticity debate in the W.P. Ker lecture, 'Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies also impressed me, but perhaps others have compelling grounds for disagreement. I would be very glad to hear any views on this issue.
Stephanie Tarbin, (Stephanie.Tarbin@anu.edu.au)

6. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Querying Authenticity

Dec 13

Well, to be fair (and I take no position; I'm not familiar enough with the material to judge, although I hope A. and H. each wrote their "own"), the argument isn't that she COULDN'T have written the letters, but that hers are so stylistically similar to Abelard's that it is simplest to believe that the same person wrote all of them -- Abelard or somebody else. Robert Benson first proposed this on the basis of word-counts, although he later backed off after further analysis. Still, every time somebody claims to have laid the issue to rest, somebody else begs to differ. On the one hand, the fact that the letters do not exist in any contemporary or near-contemporary manuscript makes determining their provenance difficult at best, and probably impossible with any degree of certainty. On the other hand, the issue of whether the letters were written by Abelard and Heloise, by Abelard, or by a later writer has enough consequences for our interpretation of the 12th century that I think it needs to be strenuously pursued -- by somebody other than me, I hope, although I'll be happy to read the results!
Robert Helmerichs (rob@minn.net)

12. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Querying Authenticity

The question that was asked earlier in this discussion regarding whether the letters are "authentic" is really a non-question since the mss of the originals apparently do not survive. In the language of diplomatics it is necessary to have an original to have an authentic document. Since we have no original we cannot tell who wrote the letter, i.e. who did the writing. It is important to know with an original who wrote, e.g. the auctor or a scribe. If a scribe wrote it was it from a notitia of some type provided by the auctor or was it dictated by the auctor. In either case, the question must be asked if the auctor checked the draft. Was the original sealed etc. Since there are no originals, the next step is to ascertain the nature of what does survive. Do we have a contemporary copy of each letter or of any of the letters. Who wrote these, not who authored them. This process must go on until one reaches the mss one does have etc. I would hope that with regard to the texts under discussion all of this had been done. Someone mentioned the matter of "style" in the mss that do survive and noted that since A was the teacher of H then it would not be unreasonable for the two to have very similar styles. Is this, in fact, true. What kinds of style do other of A's students have? In short, before getting to the content of the work in terms of ideas or sentiments a great deal of work needs to be and I would assume that all of this was done so that now the question of auctor becomes a matter of the rhetorical skill of one or another proponent of one or another position.
B.Bachrach, (bbachrac@IAS.EDU)

15. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Pro Authenticity

Robert Helmerichs wrote:

In the absence of any medieval evidence concerning the authorship of the letters, we are left with modern arguments. On your evidentiary presumptions, would this not be true of all texts for which autographs do not exist? Take for example, everything ever attributed to Roman and Ancient Greek writers -in some cases one late medieval manuscript survives. Might one then state that "all we are left with is modern arguments" concerning all of Cicero's letters? On the other hand, there is indeed medieval evidence concerning Heloise's letters: a translation in 1280 by Jean de Meun [ie circa 150 years later than the putative date] and nine Latin manuscripts all claiming that the letters were written by her. True, Benson argued that they were 13th century forgeries, but as Newman points out, in a discussion of the authenticity of letters with an ascribed author "the burden of proof rests squarely on the assailants, not the defenders". Benson did not prove his case - according to Newman he was unable to locate any inconsistencies in the texts which would show forgery. Do you think it fair, Rob, to accept this "burden of proof on the assailants" as a reasonable rule of assessment of evidence? Because if you do, and you admit that "modern arguments" are not conclusive, then it would seem that, in the lack of *proof to the contrary* you must accept, and teach, that the letters are authentic. Since "modern arguments" have not been conclusive, and the "burden of proof" is not equal, "historical agnosticism", to use Newman's word, is not an acceptable position. [Although a footnote pointing out that there has been some contestation about the issue *might* just be justified - Shakespearean scholars, however, seem to feel no need, in each and every article, to refer to the extended "modern controversy" over the authorship of his plays.] In a context where no conclusive arguments about the authenticity of the text have been compelling, Newman's raising of the secondary question of why such a question was asked in the first place seems fair enough. Since I do not want to risk loosing an argument on the basis of the Internet "Hitler rule", I shall forgo pointing out that it would be reasonable, before addressing the "modern controversy" to ask *why* some German historians in the 1930 raised questions of Christ's Jewishness; and instead point to the "modern controversy" about the origins of Great Zimbabwe - are we really, still, supposed to discuss whether some Roman soldiers built it, or might it be better to simply point to the racist presumptions of those who "raised the question" and then move on?
Paul Halsall, (halsall@murray.fordham.edu)

16. Discussion of logical basis of querying authenticity: Querying Authenticity

13 Dec 1997

On the one hand yes, the same problem exists for any work with a late manuscript history. And yes, I am perfectly willing to call them the letters of Abelard and Heloise, and footnote the contrary argument; but I am perfectly aware that by so doing, I am going with what I want to be correct, not what I know to be correct (because I cannot know for certain what IS correct). I am willing to take on faith the arguments that the letters cannot be a 13th-century forgery on linguistic grounds (on faith because my philosophical Latin isn't good enough to fully evaluate the argument, but nobody seems to have seriously questioned Dronke, Janson et al. on that point). And I agree that there is something to be said for the teacher/student argument, but that surely cannot be definitive. All I'm trying to say is that, under the circumstances, with NO contemporary evidence, any conclusion, no matter how forcefully presented, must be tentative.
Robert Helmerichs (rob@minn.net)


IV: Authenticity Assessed by Style of Writing

7. The Issue of Style of Writing

Dec 13 1997

I think the question of style, in terms of Heloise's letters, can be, and has been explained by the fact that Heloise was Abelard's student. This much we do know. And if he was as good a teacher as is thought, then it makes sense to me that Heloise's style would be like his. But I wanted to second Jo Ann MacNamara's reference to Barbara Newman's work. Anyone who is interested in this debate needs to read that work immediately. What impressed me the most about the relevant chapter in From Virile Woman to WomanChrist was not only the examination of the evidence to show that Heloise was the author of her own letters (a position, I confess, to which I already ascribed), but her examination of why this question has even been posed, and the historiographical significance of it. It's been several months since I read it, but one of the most compelling lines of argument in the essay (I thought) was that writing both sets of letters, given their content, would have demonstrated an unmatched perversity on Abelard's part. This was an argument that has stayed with me... but I think ultimately the historiographical questions in the essay are most significant. It should be required reading for anyone interested in writing about Heloise, especially anyone new to women's history. (IMHO).
Miriam T Shadis (shadis@oak.cats.ohiou.edu)

11. The Issue of Style of Writing

There are no manuscripts of the letters before the end of the thirteenth century. On the basis of information gleaned from Peter Dronke (Women Writers of the Middle Ages, 1984, 108-9) and R. W. Southern ("The Letters of Abelard and Heloise," in Medieval Humanism, 102-104), it appears that complete versions of the three letters of Heloise to Abelard are present in seven of the nine existing manuscripts of their letters. There is also of course the French translation of the correspondence by Jean de Meun. Southern suggests that two if not three manuscripts of 1290-1330 all come from Paris (Troyes 802, sold to Robert dei Bardi in 1346; Paris B. N. lat. 2923, which Petrarch owned at least from 1344; Paris B. N. lat. 2544, which Southern observes was in the possession of James of Ghent around 1330). Based on textual criticism of the manuscripts, Southern concluded (echoing the earlier scholar J. Monfrin) that the letter collection made its way to Paris at the end of the thirteenth century from the monastery of the Paraclete, where Heloise had lived most of her life. Dronke argues that the letters are "substantially by Heloise" (108), even though she might have edited the letters and someone else might have created the collection. He notes that no one has doubted Heloise's authorship of the Problemata or the letter to Peter the Venerable, even though the Problemata exists in only one manuscript dating from about 1400. Newman reviews these and more recent views regarding the letters in her aforementioned essay. Regarding knowledge of the story of the love affair itself, two twelfth century chroniclers (Walter Map and William Godel) refer to the lovers briefly, according to Betty Radice (The Letters of the Abelard and Heloise, Penguin 1974, p. 46). I am not a specialist in this field. Nevertheless, the evidence for authenticity assembled by Southern, Dronke, and Newman (and many others) seems compelling.
George Dameron, (gdameron@smcvt.edu)

13. The Issue of Style of Writing

Dec 13

B. Bachrach wrote: In short, before getting to the content of the work in terms of ideas or sentiments a great deal of work needs to be and I would assume that all of this was done so that now the question of auctor becomes a matter of the rhetorical skill of one or another proponent of one or another positon. That is exactly the point that I kept trying to make, but you've made it very well. In the absence of any medieval evidence concerning the authorship of the letters, we are left with modern arguments. I have heard a number of times Newman cited as having "solved" the problem, but of course she does nothing of the sort. She makes a very emotionally satisfying argument for Heloise's authorship, but she gives not a whit of evidence not already known and used repeatedly. I hope she's right, and I would like to think she's right, and I am willing to believe, tentatively, in the absence of an argument that I want to believe more, that she is right, but there is no possible way a definitive answer can be given, for exactly the reasons Bernie gives. And, in fact, we can expect van Moos or Waddell or somebody to now write another article refuting Newman, and that response will be based every bit as firmly in the evidence as Newman -- that is to say, not much at all, there being no evidence to begin with. (Parenthetically, I am amused by the argument that of course Heloise and Abelard would write in highly similar styles; she was his student! By the same token, of course, Bernie and I are virtually indistinguishable, so as I go on the job market, may I lay claim to, oh, "Enforcement of the Forma Fidelitatis"? My CV would be greatly enhanced. But that would be foolish, because although I was indeed Bernie's student, of course nobody has mistaken us for each other. Ever.) So I repeat, I want to believe (shades of Fox Muldar) that Abelard and Heloise are the authors of the letters, and by suggesting that the opposing arguments might have merit I am not trying to silence the voice of women in the Middle Ages or put Heloise in her place or suggest that she could not have written the letters, all of which I have recently been accused of. I am simply trying to point to insurmountable evidential obstacles standing in the way of any truly definitive conclusion to the problem. Robert Helmerichs (rob@minn.net)

14. The Issue of Style of Writing

Rob, I'd have to think that instruction in the rhetorical arts or the ars dictamini in the Middle Ages was much more a part of the instructor- student relationship than it is today, and that consequently a teacher might very well leave a somewhat stronger stamp on a student's rhetorical voice in the twelfth century than would be the case now. Furthermore, would we not expect Heloise to have absorbed much of Abelard's rhetorical style along with his arguments in logic, since so much there depends on the use of language?
John Parsons, (jparsons@chass.utoronto.ca)

V: Ancillary Issues

4. Heloise as author of other texts

Might I take the opportunity to piggy-back on this thread concerning the state of scholarship on the Heloise/Abelard correspondence to ask who is working on Heloise scholarship at the moment? I have done some work with a mortuary roll entry that was most likely composed (and perhaps even entered on the roll in her own handwriting) by Heloise when she was at the Argenteuil. It's a verse commemorating Vital of Savigny. I'd love to discuss it further with an expert on Heloise, since it's really a sidelight to my work with the rolls. I'm interested in finding out, in particular, what other work we have from Heloise, aside from her Abelard letters.
Teresa Elaine Leslie (tleslie@emory.edu)


Source:

This is an edited [for typos, removal of "quoted material, and "flow"] summary of a thread on the Mediev-l [mediev-al@ukans.edu] discussion list on the subject of the "Authenticity of "Heloise's Letters to Abelard" initiated when Heloise's First Letter to Abelard was first added to the Medieval Sourcebook.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall December 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu