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The philosophy of love

Abelard and Heloise were the smartest people of the 12th century - and the most passionate.

By Ron Charles / February 8, 2005

We're devoting this book section to romance in preparation for Valentine's Day. That's less than a week away, which could be the most valuable information you learn today. There's still plenty of time to send a stunning bouquet of roses from Calyx & Corolla ($188.95). (I warned you it was stunning.) If you prefer something less subtle, you could mail a "Pajama Gram," which is just what it sounds like. (Valentine's Day delivery is guaranteed, but after that, you're on your own.) Meanwhile, the candy industry expects lovers and wannabe lovers to exchange 36 million boxes of chocolate on Feb. 14.

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If all this sounds too sweet, direct your attention to a new biography of "Heloise & Abelard," by James Burge. Their star-crossed romance is hot enough to singe Cupid's wings. Abelard was the hippest philosopher of the 12th century, and Heloise may have been the smartest woman. You probably thought the Middle Ages was all plagues and crusades and really bad haircuts, but these two passionate philosophers were carrying on while Christianity was plunging into a period of strict sexual prohibition.

Their story has been told before in songs, poems, plays, paintings, sculptures, and previous biographies - all based on eight remarkable letters that Abelard and Heloise exchanged 12 years after they were forced to separate under gruesome circumstances. Burge's book, however, is the first popular biography to benefit from the discovery in 1980 of a collection of fragments from the letters that Abelard and Heloise wrote to each other every day during their steamy two-year affair.

Apparently, they exchanged notes (in Latin) on a wax tablet that could be immediately reheated, smoothed, and inscribed again, a kind of medieval IM. It's conjectured that Heloise kept a copy of these missives, and some scholars believe that her copy eventually fell into the hands of Johannes de Vepria, a 15th-century monk who was compiling examples of good letters.

De Vepria, however, was particularly interested in salutations, so most of what survives from this flagrante delicto correspondence are just the opening flourishes: "To her heart's love, more sweetly scented than any spice, from she who is his in heart and body...." You get the idea - hardly juicy details. But textual scholars think they have identified passages from 113 different letters between Heloise and Abelard. Burge claims, a little too breathlessly, that this is "almost of the order of a new play by Shakespeare or a lost gospel." In any case, by using these letters and fragments, he reconstructs the story of Abelard and Heloise in all its heart-thumping energy and fascinating historical context.

The first thing to understand about this period of political and ideological upheaval, Burge says, is that "monasticism in the early 12th century was competitive. It was, in a sense, the defining activity of the age - in the same way that, say, manufacturing and marketing are the primary occupations of the early 21st century." Abelard renounced his inheritance, declined the life of a soldier, and strode into Paris in 1100 at the age of 21, ready to take on the world in the arena of dialectica, "philosophy as a kind of combination of word-game, search for truth, and competitive sport."