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Abelard and Heloise – the French Romeo and Juliet

Paris is known as the city of love and in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery there reside together France’s most famous lovers – Abelard and Heloise.

Long before Romeo and Juliet, and the City of Romance itself, another couple set tongues wagging, with their ill-fated romance. Abelard and Heloise’s tale is fascinating, and you can still trace parts of it in Paris today.

Notre Dame

The thwarted couple first met on the Ile de la Cite. When Peter Abelard arrived in Paris in 1100 as a student to Guillaume de Champeaux, he soon became a teacher himself. He was asked by the canon of Notre Dame to become tutor to his niece, Heloise. The location of the episcopal school where Abelard taught is now used as garages by the gendarmes.

Quai aux Fleurs

At Numbers 9 and 11, plaques and a pair of stone medallions commemorate the home of Canon Fulbert. He was Heloise’s uncle, under whose roof Abelard and Heloise began their affair. When Heloise fell pregnant and gave birth to their son, Astrolabe, her uncle forced them into marriage. Heloise argued against it, upset about the effect it could have on Abelard’s career ambitions.

To try and salvage the situation, Abelard sent Heloise away to a convent for her own protection. But Fulbert wasn’t prepared to let the damage to his reputation go unpunished. He sent a gang of thugs to Abelard’s home to perform, shall we say, the unkindest cut of all…

Basilica of St Denis

After being castrated, Abelard retreated to St Denis, becoming a monk. Heloise took the habit, against her wishes, but following his. Abelard moved on numerous times as a monk. Heloise eventually became an Abbess at a community of nuns, set up by Abelard when her original abbey was closed down.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Heloise outlived her Abelard by twenty years, and in 1164 was buried in a tomb near the city of Troyes in Champagne. The bodies of the doomed lovers went through multiple reburials, whether together or apart, depending on the whim of the Abbess in charge. They were finally removed and placed in a double coffin, and in 1817, it was taken to Pere Lachaise. A spectacular monument was built in their memory.

Conciergerie

Back on the Ile de la Cite, the former prison is now mostly used as law courts, but within the first room is a pillar, carved with scenes from the lives of Abelard and Heloise.

By Jennifer Wilson, author of Kindred Spirits: Tower of London

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