Medieval Thoughts part 2

Hildegard von Bingen was a real person. We know so much because she wrote and was written about. History calls this time, from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to the Renaissance of the 14th century, as the Dark Ages. Actually there are several Dark Ages within the Dark Ages.

It is not because we forgot how to make candles, or that burning cities created dense black clouds, (although this is also true). It is the Dark Ages because very little was written, or saved, if it was written. Without the trappings of Roman culture, with their scribes and libraries, very little writing was going on. The system of scriptoriums in the Catholic Church hadn’t reached its potential. Yet there were a few written examples. The written works of Hildegard, also the story of Abelard and Heloise.

There are several good books with some excellent recent research available, and the general story is widely known. It is about love, societal standards, perseverance, tragedy, and faith. It is also about power.

Ever since Alcuin stood in chambers with Charlemagne, most of Europe’s leaders sought out learned men to give advice. Armies gave power, but knowledge kept power. Men who knew things were honored. If you ruled, you wanted your children to be educated. In this case, Heloise’s uncle wanted his niece to be educated. Why? Was it cynical? Did he want his niece to be worth more in the typical arraigned marriage in order to build empires? Or did he simply want her to be able to expand on her already considerable knowledge? We don’t know, but we do know that he hired a young, and very famous academician that was currently teaching at Notre Dame.

Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle, was a powerful man, and Abélard wanted to align himself with his House. He also boasted of his ability to seduce Héloïse. Fulbert stepped in to separate the lovers. They went around him. Heloise became pregnant and Abélard sent her to his relatives to have the child. It appeared to Fulbert that Abélard was not serious about the relationship, Abélard had proposed a “secret” marriage but Heloise wasn’t going for it. Abélard then sent her to a convent to protect her from her uncle.

Fulbert was not amused and sent some of his men to find Abélard, and then castrate him. Obviously this was going to change his life. The first thing was that Abélard became a monk, and he insisted that Heloise take the vows of being a nun. We have the letters that Heloise wrote that asks why should she submit to that life, when she did not feel the calling. This was a tragedy of epic proportions.

It gets worse, the arrogant scholar became a theologian and began irritating monks, bishops, and even Popes. His fame grew even more, and his students multiplied. He even rejoined with Heloise. She was now the leader of her group of nuns, and they came under Abélard’s order, although now as brother and sister.

Abélard continued to write books that were challenging to authorities. Pope Innocent finally excommunicated him and ordered all his books burned. A life’s work gone up in smoke. Fortunately, before he went home to France, he stopped at a friend’s who ran the monastery at Cluny. Abélard was getting old by this time, and his friend convinced the Pope to rescind the excommunication because Abélard was in “retirement” at Cluny.

He died soon after and Heloise arranged his burial, with plans for her own burial beside him. Probably a template for dozens of fictional lovers that could never catch a break.

Tristan and Isolde was also written at this time. The beginnings of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere was also being developed. Maybe even Shakespeare was thinking that Romeo and Juliet had a connection.

Not exactly the Dark Ages. I need to read more on this.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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