My Translation of a French Section of a Letter From Peter Abelard to Heloise
The same year as my friendship with benefits with Shawn, 1992-1993, I discovered the story of Abelard and Héloïse in Humanities class.
Short form, the great medieval lecturer and thinker Abelard fell in love with beautiful and brilliant young Héloïse,
ingratiated himself with her uncle,
became her live-in tutor,
got her pregnant,
married her secretly,
stuck her in a convent for a reason I don’t quite understand,
then her uncle thought he’d cast her aside, and had him castrated.
Abelard’s passion still went on for a time, but eventually subsided for obvious reasons, while Héloïse still burned for him. They both entered monastic orders, and exchanged a few love letters which were preserved for the ages.
I felt kinship with Héloïse for burning with a passion she was not able to satisfy, because of Abelard’s castration and their monastic vows.
I felt kinship because Shawn and I believed in no sex before marriage, but we were doing things which are meant to lead up to it–so I burned with passion I was not supposed to satisfy.
Yet, just as for Héloïse, it was hard to repent of things which I still remembered with pleasure.
For almost 20 years, I longed to read the letters themselves, not just about them in a textbook. Finally, I found them on the Internet.
My translation came from Letter III in the Editorial Appendix, which included a section which had been kept out of the English translation for being too racy (it was a 1722 translation)–but this section was in French.
As I wrote on Facebook on October 20, Why do old-fashioned English texts not translate French for us? I have to translate an entire passage of one of Peter Abelard’s letters myself and I need a dictionary for it, dagnabit. But then, it is revealing some interesting stuff: He and Héloïse did what in the corner of the convent’s refectory?
Here is the translation at last:
However, to sweeten the bitterness of your sorrow, I would still like to show that what happened to us is also useful and just, and that by punishing us after our marriage and not during our living in sin, God has done well.
After our marriage, as you know, and during the retreat to the convent at Argenteuil, I came secretly to return your visit, and you returned the excess of passion I bore toward you in a corner of the refectory (dining hall).
You know, I say, that our immodesty was not stopped even out of respect for a spot consecrated to the Virgin.
Had we been innocent of all other crimes, did not that one deserve the most terrible of punishments?
I now recall our ancient stains and the shameful sins which were before our marriage, the indignant, guilty betrayal of your uncle, by me, his guest and dinner companion, so shamelessly attracted to you? Wasn’t his treachery just?
Who would be so rotten as to judge otherwise, on the part of the one whom I first outrageously betrayed?
Do you think that an injury, a suffering of a moment, is sufficient punishment of such huge crimes? What do you think? Do such sins deserve such grace?
What injury could expiate to the eyes of divine justice the profaning of a place consecrated to His holy mother?
Indeed I greatly deceive myself, or an injury so beneficial does not expiate these faults as much as the ceaseless afflictions to which I am subject today.
You also know that at the time of your pregnancy, when I made you go to my country [Brittany], you had put on the sacred habit, taken the religious role, and that, by this irreverent disguise, you pretended to be of the profession to which you belong today?
See, after this, if justice, if divine grace had reason to spite you by thrusting you into the monastic state; she who profaned the habit had to expiate the profaning.
You know to what base acts the fury of my passion willed our bodies; neither respect for decency, nor respect of God, in the very days of the Passion of Our Lord [Holy Week] and of more holy days, could tear me away from the cesspool I wanted.
You didn’t even want it, you resisted all my force, you reprimanded me, and when you had protected yourself from the weakness of your sex, did I not eventually use threats and harshness to force your consent!
I burned for you with such a heat of desire, that, for this foul sensual pleasure of which even the name makes me blush, I forgot all, God, even myself:
May divine leniency save me in another way than by forbidding all sensual pleasure? Compare the malady to the remedy. Compare the danger to the deliverance.