It’s been a while since I tackled a truly medieval film on this blog, so when a friend of mine suggested that I cover Stealing Heaven (1988, dir. Clive Donner, based on the novel by feminist author Marion Meade), I thought it was a good opportunity to get back to the Middle Ages with perhaps the most famous love-story to emerge from medieval history.
In the 12th century the most important centers of European intellectual activity were a small number of schools attached to cathedrals. These cathedral schools were in theory intended for the training of clergy, but during the expansion of royal and ecclesiastical institutions in the 12th century, cathedral schools began to attract large numbers of lay men who wished for advanced education so that they could serve in royal government, in a bishop’s household, or act as lawyers or physicians.
Of these schools, the cathedral school at Paris was arguably the most important. The cathedral issued teaching licenses to scholars, who were thereby empowered to charge a fee to teach any students who wished to study under them. In the early 12th century, the most noteworthy of these teaching masters was Peter Abelard, a brilliant logician who attracted enormous attention and large numbers of students by his bold new approach. He was one of the first medieval scholars to develop a deep understanding of the logical methods of the ancient philosopher Aristotle, and his reputation was based substantially on his application of Aristotle’s logic to medieval philosophy and theology (although technically he was not qualified to teach the latter subject).
His most important work was the Sic et Non (“Yes and No”). In this text, he asks a series of 158 theological questions (such as “Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?” and “Does God know everything, or not?”) and then cites Biblical sources to answer the question first affirmatively and then negatively. Having demonstrated that the Bible apparently contradicts itself on the issue, Abelard then proceeds to reconcile the contradiction with logic, showing how the Bible in fact presents a consistent answer if one reads the texts carefully. In doing this, Abelard laid the foundation for the Scholastic Method that was to dominate medieval universities for the next several centuries; Sic et Non became a basic textbook for university students. And, in fact, the Cathedral School at Paris would, by the end of the 12th century, evolve into the University of Paris.
Abelard was a rather arrogant man, making enemies of other scholars by poking holes in their ideas. In particular, he humiliated his former teacher, William of Champeaux in an intellectual debate. His skill at this made him extremely popular with his students.
Around 1115, he encountered Heloise, the niece of Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. Her family background is unclear, but she was remarkably well-educated by the standards of the day, knowing Latin, Greek and Hebrew (the latter two languages not being common knowledge even among educated men). Having been raised at the convent of Argenteuil, by 1115, she was living in Fulbert’s household in Paris. Perhaps attracted by her reputation for education, Abelard proposed to Fulbert that he move into Fulbert’s household to tutor Heloise. Her age is uncertain, but it has been argued that she was probably in her mid-to-late 20s.
Abelard and Heloise debating
In the course of tutoring her, Abelard also seduced her. The affair became a subject of gossip, and Heloise eventually became pregnant. She gave birth to a boy named Astrolabe. Fulbert was upset about this, but Abelard agreed to marry her on the condition that the marriage be kept a secret, because scholars were expected to be single and celibate, and if word spread about his marriage, he would be unable to advance within the Church.
After the marriage, however, Fulbert began to spread word of it, to punish Abelard for the embarrassment he had caused Fulbert. Abelard sent Heloise to Argenteuil, but this caused Fulbert to fear that Abelard was trying to get rid of her, and so Fulbert hired a group of men to attack and castrate him.
Humiliated and apparently spiritually devastated by this turn of events, Abelard chose to enter a monastery, and insisted that Heloise become a nun at Argenteuil. Abelard established a new school at his monastery and soon began teaching theology as well as philosophy, once again attracting a crowd of students. He continued making enemies, which led to numerous conflicts, including one in which he was condemned for heresy.
He established a chapel, the Oratory of the Paraclete, where he again became a successful teacher. In 1129, the monks of St Denis gained control of the house at Argenteuil and evicted the nuns, including Heloise, who was by this time the prioress. Abelard installed Heloise and the other nuns at the Paraclate, where Heloise was made abbess, while he went to another house and again resumed teaching.
He published his theological masterpiece, Scito Te Ipsum (“Know Thyself”), in which he argues that the morality of a sin was strongly influenced by the intention behind the sin. In doing this, he became one of the first to argue that intention was as important as action in determining morality, a position which continues to have enormous influence in Western thought even today.
After that, Abelard became a target for Bernard of Clairvaux, who as a monk objected to Abelard’s rationalist approach to the mysteries of scripture. Bernard orchestrated another condemnation of Abelard for heresy. Fortunately for Abelard, Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny, one of the most important abbots of the day, intervened to protect Abelard, who died about two years later, in 1142. He was buried at the Paraclete.
After his brief reunion with Heloise at the Paraclete in 1129, the two seem to have never seen each other again. They corresponded for a while, and Heloise rebuked him for not writing more often. She outlived him by more than two decades, dying in 1163 and being buried alongside him. In the 19th century, their bodies are thought to have been moved to Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where lovers still go to pay tribute to them.
Their tomb, or perhaps cenotaph, at Pere Lachaise
Heloise’ letters reveal her to be a very unhappy woman who is still deeply in love with Abelard. When he requests burial at the Paraclete, she asks him not to talk about dying before her, because her life will have no meaning once that happens. She agonizes over her role in his physical suffering and social ruin. She is particularly distressed over what she sees as the bitter injustice of God.
…all the laws of equity in our case were reversed. For while we enjoyed the pleasures of uneasy love and abandoned ourselves to fornication…we were spared God’s severity. But when we amended our unlawful conduct by what was lawful, and atoned for the shame of fornication by an honourable marriage, then the Lord in his anger laid his hand heavily upon us and would not permit a chaste union though he had long tolerated that which was unchaste. The punishment you suffered would have been proper vengeance for men caught in open adultery. But what others deserve for adultery came upon you through a marriage which you believed had made amends for all previous wrong doing; what adulterous women have brought upon their lovers your own wife brought upon you.
Later in the letter, she explicitly accuses God of cruelty, and admits that she cannot find it in herself to be truly penitent for her feelings.
How can it be called repentance for sins, however great the mortification of the flesh, if the mind still retains the will to sin and is on fire with its old desires….In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet—they can never displease me, and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes…Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.
She goes on to lament the fact that she became a nun, not to please God, but to please Abelard. Because she understands Abelard’s teaching on intention, she fears that nothing she does can please God, because her intentions are wrong.
Abelard’s response makes clear that he is motivated by a more sincere repentance than she. He urges her not to bring up such unhappy thoughts and reminds her that they both agreed that chastity was morally superior to marriage. In her response, she agrees to do as he asks, but one can’t help thinking that Abelard has run away from her pain without offering much comfort.
Stealing Heaven (and I assume the novel on which it is based) focuses entirely on the love story of Abelard and Heloise. After a brief opening in which we see an elderly Heloise (Kim Thomson) behave mysteriously and die at the Paraclete, the film jumps back to her early life at Argenteuil, showing her arguing with the magistra who is teaching the nuns basic theology. Not too many movies pass the Bechdel test with a theological debate. Heloise hates being a nun, but is soon told that she will be sent to Paris to live with her uncle Fulbert (Denholm Elliot).
Thomson as Heloise
The film follows traditional scholarship by assuming that she was a young woman of about 17 when she came to Paris (whereas more recent scholarship has argued that she was about a decade older). As such the film assumes that Fulbert was planning to marry her off, whereas if she were older, that is less likely the reason he took her in.
The film erroneously sets its events about half a century too late. The cathedral of Notre Dame is under construction, which only began in 1163, way too late for Abelard and Heloise’ affair. Fulbert is charged with helping raise revenue to fund the construction project, and his efforts to marry of Heloise seem to be part of that project. He is also forging and selling relics to raise money, something which Heloise eventually tells him he is damned for doing. This is entirely fabricated for the story, with no basis in fact. The film also incorrectly identifies Suger, the Abbot of St. Denis, as the Bishop of Paris.
In the film, Abelard (Derek de Lint) has an established career as a teacher, with an enormous crowd of rowdy students and an envious fellow teacher. The students refuse to believe that Abelard is truly chaste, and pay a prostitute to try to seduce him in his room. He refuses to have sex with her, but he is accused of consorting with prostitutes, and Suger orders him to find new lodgings, which is how he comes to be living with Fulbert and thereby falls in love with Heloise.
The reality was quite different. Abelard wrote one of the earliest autobiographies in Western literature (the History of My Calamities). In it he says that he was attracted to Heloise by her reputation from learning, and decided that he wanted her in his bed. So he persuaded Fulbert to let him move in and teach Heloise. He presents himself as entirely the instigator of the affair, and Heloise says in one of her letters that she resisted him at first.
But in the film, they only begin to fall in love once the tutoring has started. Heloise is as attracted to him as he is to her, and in some ways she is the instigator. She burns a charm she has been given to confirm that he will be her true lover. Abelard repents quickly and wishes to break off the affair, but is unable to restrain himself.
However, once the film has gotten past their initial coupling, it follows historical events fairly closely. Their affair becomes public gossip, Fulbert learns of it and tries to separate them, she discovers that she is pregnant, he sends her off to Brittany where Astrolabe is born, and so on down to them both entering monastic orders, even though she truly does not want to. The film addresses the eviction of the nuns from Argenteuil and their arrival at the Paraclete, and tacks on a brief scene where Abelard brings Astrolabe to meet her.
De Lint brooding as Abelard
The film is largely Heloise’ story. She emerges as by the far the more interesting of the two lovers, having a forceful personality even at the start of the film, whereas Abelard comes off as somewhat irresolute, despite his initial commitment to chastity. She resists marrying him because it will harm his career in the Church, but gives in because her love for him is so intense that she cannot deny him anything, although after his castration, she refuses to abandon him even when he tells her to.
The film does not address the couple’s later correspondence, but it tries to explore the turmoil she felt in later life. Early in the film it is made clear that she dislikes convent life and has little aptitude for it. She resents being returned to Argenteuil after their marriage, and when she learns that Abelard has been castrated, she announces that she no longer believes in God. She declares that Abelard is her Crucified Lord, and later hides a feather she caught during their affair in the base of a crucifix so that when she reveres the cross, she is actually revering this symbol of their love. As she lies dying, she asks to see the crucifix, takes the hidden feather out, and throws away the crucifix. While none of this is historically accurate, it is at least an attempt to explore the spiritual crisis she experienced as a nun.
The film offers only the vaguest hint of what 12th century intellectual life was about. It shows Abelard lecturing to his students, but it’s no more successful at capturing a 12th century classroom than movies are at capturing modern university classrooms. In what passes for scholasticism in the film, Abelard points out the seeming contradiction between “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and Saul and David killing the enemies of Israel, and then lets his students joke about various vaguely related issues without bothering to offer any resolution to the issue. His debates with Heloise are similarly insipid attempts to mimic medieval scholastic thought, and bear little resemblance to any of Abelard’s actual ideas. The doctrine of intention, which is fairly central to Heloise’ sense of the relationship, is nowhere to be found.
Nor does the film address any of Abelard’s various controversies with scholars, or even point out that he continued as a teacher after he became a monk. It makes no effort to explain Abelard’s historical importance, so that once again, historical figures in film are reduced to romantic fodder. In the process, it strips away his less likable qualities, such as his intellectual arrogance and his pleasure in rousing controversy. It turns him from an arrogant intellectual into a brooding romantic. It situates the birth of their romance in a chance meeting rather than in his intentional plan to seduce her into his bed.
The film also ignores the fact that Heloise’ life story was not simply about romance; she was remarkably well-educated, a rare example of a medieval female author (although her surviving output is only a few letters) and she was an important abbess in a period when abbesses were declining both in educational attainment and social prominence.
Despite all its flaws, I still like this film. Heloise emerges as a fairly strong-willed woman. She has considerable agency; although she agrees to do what Abelard wants, she always does so as her choice, and rather than simply being seduced, she pursues her desire for Abelard as much as he pursues his for her. And her desire for him is not simply physical but intellectual; there is little doubt that she is his equal intellectually. So the film seems to have captured important elements of the real Heloise’ personality, and perhaps even exaggerated them slightly; Meade is a feminist author after all. Thomson’s performance is the heart of the film, and she brings real strength of personality to the role. And, somewhat interestingly, the sex scenes offer De Lint’s body for erotic consideration almost as much as Heloise’.
Is it a great movie? No. But it is a far better medieval romance than many other films. And it’s fun to see a film that at least tries to make intelligence and education seem sexy. As a university professor, I appreciate that.
Want to Know More?
Stealing Heaven is available on Amazon. Also, Marion Meade’s novel Stealing Heaven: The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard is available for Kindle.
Most of what we know about Abelard and Heloise’ lives comes from Historia Calamitatum: The Story of my misfortunes, one of the first autobiographies ever written. A small set of letters between Abelard and Heloise were known for centuries. There used to be a theory that Abelard wrote both his own and Heloise’ letters as an intellectual exercise, but Betty Radice has persuasively argued that Heloise wrote her half of the correspondence. You can read her emotionally tormented letters in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Not too long ago, however, Constant Mews argued that he discovered a much larger collection of letters between the two lovers, which he published as The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (The New Middle Ages).
M.T. Clanchy’s Abelard: A Medieval Lifeuses Abelard’s life to explore 12th century culture, with a particular emphasis on the intellectual world of the time. There is also a wealth of scholarship focusing on Abelard’s important contributions to philosophy and theology. If you want to know more about that, try John Marenbon’s The Philosophy of Peter Abelard.