Book review: Historia Calamitatum by Peter Abélard (Manybooks.net/Project Gutenberg)
Have I finally lost it, reading a book written some time in the 1100s by a French monk and philosopher? Well … maybe? Or perhaps I just bought myself a Kindle for Xmas and went to Manybooks.net to download some free public domain books, and found it, went “ooh, an autobiography by Abélard! Sweet! I’ll have that!” and then happened to have chosen it to be the first finished book on said e-reader.
Peter, or Pierre, Abélard was an important philosopher in medieval France, but the reason he’s known today is more to do with his involvement with Héloïse d’Argenteuil, to whom he was a teacher. Epic Love Story, ticking two of my favourite romance boxes (age gap and teacher/student). They were very much in love, got married in secret after she had given birth to their love child (called “Astrolabe“, I kid you not), but her uncle got cranky about their marriage and had some men attack Abélard at night, chopping his bits off. Then the star-crossed lovers ended up not exactly in a happily ever after, but rather dedicating their lives to the church. One’s a monk, the other one’s a nun. I heard about the couple and read their story on Wikipedia, to which my response was “that would be SUCH a great story for a roleplaying game!” – well, perhaps with a happier ending than this.
Anyway, this autobiography is about the history of his calamities, stretching from boyhood through to maybe a decade or so before his death in 1142. It tells about how he came to be learned, how he met and fell in love with Héloïse, how his bits were chopped off and how he lived afterwards with the church.
It’s not an easy read, and by that I mean the actual language used. Lots of “methinks”, “inasmuch”, “thus”, “forsooth” and so on. But if you disregard that (I found it difficult a lot of the time, but I can just play the “but ajm Sviidish” card), it’s an interesting picture of medieval France that’s shown. Abélard often talks of being persecuted and people are trying to kill him a number of times, when they’re not wanting to excommunicate him, and he very often goes on a tangent to justify himself and his actions, often using quotes from various sources, such as the Bible. The whole thing is so full of self-pity at times it can get a bit over-bearing.
To start with, Abélard is actually a bit creepy when it comes to Héloïse, because he says straight out that he manipulated his way into the household just to gain access to the beautiful and learned maiden:
Thus, utterly aflame with my passion for this maiden, I sought to discover means whereby I might have daily and familiar speech with her, thereby the more easily to win her consent. For this purpose I persuaded the girl’s uncle, with the aid of some of his friends, to take me into his household—for he dwelt hard by my school—in return for the payment of a small sum. My pretext for this was that the care of my own household was a serious handicap to my studies, and likewise burdened me with an expense far greater than I could afford. Now, he was a man keen in avarice, and likewise he was most desirous for his niece that her study of letters should ever go forward, so, for these two reasons, I easily won his consent to the fulfillment of my wish, for he was fairly agape for my money, and at the same time believed that his niece would vastly benefit by my teaching.
Creepy, manipulative bastard.
He then goes on to actually write about how much in love they were, so it takes the edge off a bit, but still, shady, wicked man!
The interesting thing is that he wants to marry her, and she doesn’t want to, and is quite adamant about it. It would be such a scandal for him to have a wife and whatnot, because I guess philosophers were supposed to be chaste or something at the time? She didn’t want him to ruin his good name. I like Héloïse based on this, she seems to have had some considerable spirit. 🙂
The Historia Calamitatum was a letter to someone, uncertain as to who the recipient was supposed to be, and it’s known it ended up with Héloïse, who then wrote a letter pretty much in response to it. Have yet to read that.
As a Kindle book, when you’ve hit 75%, that’s where it ends and instead goes into an appendix: a summary about the author and a historical explanation to the places and people mentioned in it. It’s not a long book, and I thought the last 25% were a lot easier to read – obviously written a lot later in time and with easier words.
If you’re into history, I’d definitely recommend it, even if it is a bit dull and preachy. If you’re a sucker for the Abélard and Héloïse story, it’s a must. And to think these were real people, living so many centuries ago! It really doesn’t feel as if they’re almost a millennium away from us in time, and their story lives on in this book and in surviving letters. There’s even a cheesy movie made about them, and in case you’re wondering, yes, I have it on DVD. 😉 (Derek de Lint as Abélard, say no more!)