I know I promised to look at Empire, but I felt I needed a break from the Julio-Claudians. So last night I sat down and rewatched Hugo (2011, dir. Martin Scorsese, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick).
It’s a charming film about an orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris at some point in the 1930s, where he maintains the station’s clocks and eludes the station’s inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who wants to send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s only possession is a broken automaton that his father was trying to repair when he died in a fire. He develops a complicated love/hate relationship with Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs the station’s sweet and toy shop and from whom Hugo steals the parts he needs to fix the automaton. Eventually it’s revealed that Georges is actually Georges Mélies, one of the first commerical film-makers in the world. The automaton turns out to be something Georges created when he was a professional stage magician. But when his studio, Star Films, went bankrupt, Mélies lost the automaton as well as everything else except his mistress and later wife, Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McRory), and was forced to make a living running his small shop in the train station.
Mélies (1861-1938) was one of the most important early film-makers, serving as screenwriter, director, actor, and producer, and churning out a staggering 500 films between 1895 and 1913, when bad business decisions left him bankrupt. The Great War put the last nail in the coffin of Star Films, and about 80% of Mélies’ oeuvre was melted down for silver and celluloid, destroying them forever.
Butterfield and Kingsley as Hugo and Georges
Prior to discovering the new medium of film, Mélies had worked as a stage magician, and he brought a magician’s eye to his work as a film-maker. So he specialized in films that told fantastic stories and often employed stage magic tricks. For example, in Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb, considered one of the first horror films, Cleopatra’s mummy is chopped into pieces and then burned in a brazier, from which a woman emerges, while in The Famous Box Trick, a magician cuts a boy in half with an axe, producing two boys, whom he procedures to turn into other things. In his One Man Band, Mélies becomes seven different musicians playing a tune together.
He eventually moved up to telling stories with more complex plots. His most famous work, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, tells the story of Professor Barbenfouillis, who builds a space-ship in the form of a bullet, which he fires at the moon, striking the Old Man in the Moon right in the eye. The crew nap until the goddess Phoebe causes it to snow on them, forcing them to take refuge in a cavern, where they are taken prisoner by the insect-like Selenites. Escaping, the crew climbs back into the bullet, which falls off a cliff and into the Earth’s ocean, where they are rescued and given a parade to celebrate their accomplishment.
In addition to being one of the first film-makers to tell narrative stories, Mélies also invented a number of simple special effects that he used repeatedly, including multiple exposure (filming something, rewinding the film, and then adding something to the scene, which is how Mélies become seven men playing instruments together), advancing the camera on a track to make something seem to grow in size, split-screen exposure, and dissolves. By putting a fish tank in front of the camera, he created the illusion that he was filming underwater. In his films, men and women turn into skeletons, butterflies, and other creatures, people explode in burst of smoke and sparks, travelers encounter fairies, aliens, and Satan, people take off their heads and argue with them, and many other delightful things happen.
The man was a visionary and for a period the most popular film-maker in the world, and he profoundly infuenced the development of all later film. In many ways, the film is Scorsese’s love-letter to Mélies, and an effort to make sure that this pioneer isn’t forgotten by modern audiences.
The film’s treatment of Mélies is pretty accurate. The middle portion of the film is a reasonably factual, though simplified, account of Mélies’ career. It omits the fact that his brother played an important role in his film company, and it condenses Mélies’ two wives into his second wife Jeanne (his first wife Eugenie having died young in 1913). He really did build an automaton that wound up in a museum where it was ruined. He really did go bankrupt (though less because of the Great War and more because of poor decisions) and wind up running a toy and sweet shop in the Gare Montparnasse. And he really did enjoy a final period in his life when film enthusiasts recognized his enormous contributions to the medium. It’s refreshing to see an historical film that actually tries to get the facts more or less correct.
But in addition to being a wonderful introduction to the work of Mélies, Scorsese has another point to make. Hugo was made in 3D, and Scorsese was trying to get away from the use of 3D to simply make the audience gasp, exploring its potential as a cinematic device. He plays with snow, steam, and a cloud of papers in a way that is reminiscent of the way Mélies played with his film tricks.
The film twice shows the famous early film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a brief 1895 film that simply shows a train pulling into a French train station. The film repeats as fact what is quite possibly an urban legend that when the audience saw the train approaching, they panicked because they were unable to distinguish the film from reality because the technology of film was literally brand-new and the audience was unfamiliar with it.
Later in the film, Hugo has a dream in which he finds himself on the train tracks of the Gare Montparnasse as a train is bearing down at him. The train runs him over, jumps the tracks, and plows through the station, plunging out of a window and down to the street below. This scene is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it recreates an actual train accident that happened at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895 (the same year L’Arrivée d’un train was first shown). So Scorsese cleverly conflates the train footage with an actual train crash the same year.
The 1895 Montparnasse derailment
But what I find even more clever about this sequence is that by doing it with the relatively new modern 3D technology, he gives 21st century audiences an experience not unlikely the one the audience in 1895 had, of having a train appear to come hurtling toward them in a way that unnerves the viewer. In a film about the early history of cinema, Scorsese has brilliantly given audiences a sense of what it might have been like to be one of those early film-goers, thus increasing our ability to understand the whole point of the film.
Hugo’s dream of the Montparnasse dereailment
This isn’t the only time Scorsese references early cinema in Hugo. At one point Hugo, fleeing from the station inspector, is forced to climb out onto the minute hand of the station’s largest clock in a scene that directly references Harold Lloyd’s famous stunt in Safety Last. There are also more subtle homages to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938). And throughout the film, Scorsese and his team tried to work in as many of the techniques that Mélies pioneered as they could, so that the film’s cinematography and special effects were as much an homage as the story.
You should totally watch Mélies’ A Trip to the Moon. It’s on Netflix, and also available through Amazon. Although its special effects are primative by modern standards, it really is a must-see. If you want to know more about Mélies, try Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Mélies. It’s more a study of his films than a history of the man, but it treats him as a serious film-maker, not just a man playing around with special effects.
If you want to dig a little deeper in the film’s use of visual effects, here is a good page on the subject.
One of the most infamous events in all of French history is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, during which French Catholics, with apparent royal backing, slaughtered thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants) in the streets of Paris. That horrible event is at the center of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Reine Margot (published in 1845), which was adapted for the screen as Queen Margot (1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles).
The Massacre as It Happened
When the French king Henry II died in 1559, he left behind four minor sons and a widow, Catherine de Medici, who acted as regent. It was Catherine’s tragedy to watch three of her sons become king and die without heirs. Francis II died at age 16 after reigning only one year, and was succeeded by Charles IX, his ten year brother, who reigned for 14 years but died without a legitimate son in 1574. He was succeeded by his brother, the probably homosexual Henry of Anjou, who ruled as Henry III until his death in 1589, likewise dying without heirs.
Charles has often been depicted as a weak king, but that may be unfair. He took direct control of the kingdom when he was 13, but looked to his mother for guidance his entire reign, which makes sense given that by the end of it, he was still only 24.
And Charles was ruling during a period of extreme political tensions. France was torn by the Protestant Reformations, divided into hard-core Catholics and Huguenots, who were followers of Jean Calvin. The Catholics were led by the House of Guise, while the Huguenots were led by the House of Bourbon. In between was a faction known as the Politiques, who were Catholics and Protestants who wanted to find a way for the two rival faiths to co-exist peacefully. Members of both factions sat on the Royal Council, and Charles and his mother had to find a way to navigate the competing demands of these two groups. As Catholics, they naturally sympathized with the House of Guise, but they did not want to make the Guises politically dominant by relying on them too much, and so Charles entrusted a good deal of power to Gaspard de Coligny, the Admiral of France and leader of the Huguenots. And to keep Coligny from growing too powerful, Charles and Catherine relied heavily on Henry of Anjou, Charles’ younger brother, as a counterbalance.
Catherine de Medici
Sadly, Charles’ reign was marred by a series of civil wars, conspiracies, and political assassinations. Coligny took over as Huguenot leader after the murder of Louis, Prince of Condé, while Duke Henry of Guise loathed Coligny for orchestrating the murder of his father. Catherine was rumored to have poisoned Jeanne of Navarre, mother of the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, with a pair of poisoned gloves. Both Francis II and Charles IX had been the target of Huguenot kidnapping plots, and at one point, the Guises had orchestrated a slaughter of Huguenots during a worship service. Coligny narrowly survived an assassination plot.
When the Third War of Religion was brought to an end with the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which Charles and Catherine seem to have arranged in good faith, it made sense to try to bring the two warring factions together with a marriage. The proposal was to marry the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre to Charles’ sister Marguerite. The Treaty granted Huguenots freedom of conscience and the right to worship everywhere across France, so a mixed-religion marriage would act as a reasonable symbol of that treaty. So on April 18, 1572, with large numbers of Huguenots visiting the Catholic stronghold of Paris, Henry and Marguerite were married.
Henry of Navarre
Unfortunately the marriage was ill-conceived. Charles and Catherine were trying to walk a tight-rope between angry Catholics and suspicious Huguenots. There were enormous amounts of bad blood and mistrust on both sides. (Imagine trying to end World War II by marrying one of FDR’s daughters to Adolf Hitler. That’s how much Catholics and Huguenots disliked each other.) Catholics were appalled that Charles would re-admit Coligny to the Royal Council when the Admiral had just been fighting him a few weeks before. European society had not yet developed the notion that Protestants and Catholics could live together; both sides insisted that the other side was wrong, was going to Hell, and did not deserve political or civil rights because they were religiously in error. Additionally, many Huguenots had begun to reject the idea of monarchy entirely and had called for the overthrow of the monarchy or at least the ruling family. On the other side, the Catholic bishop Simon Vigor had been calling for the deaths of Huguenots from Paris pulpits for some time. So the Parisian population was deeply unhappy to suddenly be hosting literally thousands of Huguenots in their midst for the wedding.
Henry and Marguerite
And then, four days later, someone shot Coligny, seriously wounding him. The identity of the assassin is known, but historians have never been able to definitively prove who was behind the assassination attempt. Many have speculated that Catherine was afraid that Coligny’s rising influence over her son would mean the end of her political power, but the most likely suspect was one of the Guises; the assassin was a client of the Guises and had taken his shot from the window of a house owned by them; Charles certainly thought they were the guilty party. Coligny survived the attempt on his life, but it ratcheted up the tensions in the city enormously.
Two nights later, the municipal government of Paris was ordered to shut the gates of the city and arm the citizenry, and in the early hours of St. Bartholemew’s Day, the bells of Saint-Germain rang out. The palace guard of the Louvre forced the visiting Huguenot nobles to leave the palace. Henry of Guise forced his way into Coligny’s house with a band of men, dragged him from his bed, killed him, and threw his corpse out the window. That was the trigger for an orgy of violence that lasted three days. Although the target of the violence seems to have initially been the Huguenot nobility, the general population of the city soon turned their wrath on their commoner Huguenot neighbors, slaughtering men, women, and children. The bodies were thrown in the Seine.
Francois Dubois’ depiction of the Massacre; note Coligny’s body hanging out a window in the background
Marguerite reportedly saved Navarre and a cousin of his by sheltering them in her bedroom and refusing to allow anyone in. Afterwards, he feigned willingness to convert to Catholicism until he was able to get away from Paris, at which point he renounced the notion of a conversion. (Decades later he would actually convert in order to inherit the French crown. Paris, he is reported to have said, “is worth a mass.”)
As the violence spread the following day, Charles frantically tried to stop the killing, to no avail. He sent letters out across the kingdom in an effort to stop the violence from spreading, but as word of the killing spread, at least a dozen French cities experienced their own massacres.
Exactly how many died in the massacre is unknown. Estimates range from 2,000 to 70,000, but the figures generally used today put the deaths in Paris in the 2-3,000 range and nationally in the 7-10,000 range.
The massacre was a profound blow to the Huguenots. They had lost many of their most prominent leaders in the slaughter, and tens of thousands of them had converted to Catholicism out of fear. Many fled the country entirely. Protestant countries were appalled at the carnage, and the Massacre became a rallying cry for opposition to Catholicism across the Protestant world. Pope Gregory XIII was so overjoyed that he ordered a special mass of thanksgiving, sent Charles a golden rose, and issued a commemorative medal. He also commissioned a trio of murals that are still in the Vatican today.
Giorgio Vasari’s depiction of the Massacre; note Coligny’s body falling out a window
Who Ordered the Massacre?
While it’s easy to guess the basic reason the Massacre happened, there’s been a good deal of argument over who ordered it. Well into the 19th century, blame for the Massacre was usually placed on the shoulders of Catherine. She was widely viewed as a domineering schemer who completely controlled her weak-willed son. The wedding was sometimes viewed as a plot to lure the Huguenots into Paris so that they could be slaughtered. In this view, Catherine was vicious, power-hungry, and ruthlessly determined to impose Catholicism. According to a letter attributed to Henry of Anjou, when Catherine finally forced Charles to accept the killing of the Huguenot leadership, he said that if they were going to kill the leaders, it was necessary to kill all the Huguenots, so that he would not have to listen to them accusing him of the crime.
Henry of Anjou, the future Henry III
Early modern historians tended to take a very negative view of women exercising political power. While Queen Elizabeth I of England (a younger contemporary of Catherine) was able to win the admiration of scholars, they were more likely to point to women as unacceptably ambitious and ruthless, the way Catherine was, or as overly sexual and swayed by bad men, as Mary of Scotland was. The notion that female rulers were simply trying to govern while having to overcome obstacles arising from their gender was rarely considered. Instead, their failings were viewed as evidence the women ought not to be involved in politics.
However, that letter of Anjou’s was proven to be a fake in the mid-19th century, and since the collapse of the ‘Evil Catherine’ scenario, alternative views have been put forward. Charles has been accused of orchestrating the killing out of fear that the Huguenots were planning to overthrow him after the attack on Coligny. In favor of this claim is the fact that when Charles sought to end the killing, he issued a decree that said he had taken action to prevent a Protestant plot.
Robert Knecht has argued that the failed attempt on Coligny’s life threw the royal court into a panic. Charles and his council concluded that a Fourth War of Religion was inevitable and decided that the best option was to kill all the Huguenot leaders right away in an attempt to avert the war by killing those who would be leading it. There were 4,000 Huguenots soldiers sleeping outside the city, so if violence broke out, the Huguenots might be able to seize control of Paris. Again, that fits with the royal decree Charles issued. But it doesn’t explain why Catherine initially denounced the killings.
However, a recent theory put forward by Thierry Wanegffelen offers a more complex explanation of the events, especially when combined with Knecht’s views. As Wanegffelen sees it, Catherine and Charles opposed taking any action against the Huguenots after the attempt on Coligny’s life. However, Anjou saw this as an opportunity to advance his power and made an arrangement with Henry of Guise to orchestrate the killings of the Huguenot leadership. Wanegffelen points out that during the slaughter, Anjou’s men claimed to be acting under his authority, not the king’s. Catherine initially denounced the killings, but then realized that she was in danger of ruining Anjou, whose support she needed against Guise. So then Charles took credit for the killings as a way to cover up his brother’s role in it. However, after things had settled down somewhat, Catherine worried that Henry was becoming too powerful and found various ways to get him out of Paris.
Duke Henry I of Guise
This explains the start of the Massacre, but does not explain why it grew so large and resisted Charles’ efforts to stop it. To explain that, we have to turn to the religious tensions and the systematic efforts to demonize the Huguenots made by men like Bishop Vigor. It has also been suggested that there may have been an economic dimension to the killing; the Huguenots tended to be somewhat wealthier craftsmen than the average resident of the city.
The Massacre in the Film
The film opens with the wedding of Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) and Margot, as she’s called in the film (Isabelle Adjani); Margot is so reluctant to marry a Huguenot that when she is asked during the ritual if she marries him, she hesitates so long that Charles gives her a violent shove.
Isabelle Adjani as the reluctant bride Margot
The wedding celebrations that follow play like a very tension-packed episode of Reign, with lots of flirting between young men and women and open discussion of the various affairs the nobles are having. Margot’s lover is Henry of Guise (Miguel Bosé), and she vastly prefers him over her new Protestant husband, so much so that she tells Navarre not to come to her room on her wedding night. When Navarre show up anyway, he tells her that he needs her as his ally, because he knows he is among enemies. She reluctantly agrees that she will not be his enemy, but she will not sleep with him. Instead, she and her handmaiden, Duchess Henriette of Nevers (Dominique Blanc) sneak out into the streets of Paris to find a lover for her. She finds Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez), a Huguenot who bumps uglies with her in an alleyway.
Given that the novel was written in the 19th century, it is not surprising that it adopts a fairly old-fashioned view of who caused the Massacre. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi, with a wonderfully high plucked forehead) is a veritable gorgon, totally dominating her weak son Charles IX (Jean-Hughes Anglade), who is played as virtually insane in his emotional instability. (Given how fiercely he chews scenery when he’s onscreen, it’s a wonder there aren’t holes in the walls.) Catherine has a vaguely incestuous relationship with Henry of Anjou (Pascal Greggory), which is unlikely, given Henry’s strong penchant for young men. Both Charles and Anjou are styled with long, stringy hair (totally wrong for the fashions of the day) and sickly pallors, as if to suggest that Catherine has infected her sons with her malice. Henry of Guise at one point accuses Margot of having had sex with one of her brothers.
Lisi and Greggory as Catherine and Henry of Anjou
Perhaps it plays better in Dumas’ book, but in the film, Catherine’s schemes are malevolent but somewhat ill-formed. Rather than having an overarching plan, she lurches from evil scheme to evil scheme as if she’s making it up moment by moment. She insists that she wants peace with the Huguenots, but she also wants Coligny (Jean-Claude Brialy) dead because she realizes that Charles is coming to see Coligny as a father figure and that means she will lose power. So she is behind the assassination attempt against him, having apparently not stopped to consider the impact killing Coligny would have on prospects for peace.
When it becomes clear that Coligny has survived and the Huguenots are on the verge of rioting, Catherine and Anjou browbeat Charles into authorizing the massacre, forgetting that peace was the original goal. Charles remarks that if they are going to kill the leaders, they must kill them all, so that he will not have to listen to their accusations; the suggestion is that he fears he will hear voices.
Anglade’s pathetic Charles
So Guise, acting as much out of sexual rivalry with Navarre as anything else, goes out to find men willing to do the dirty work. One of the villains he recruits is Coconnas (Claudio Amendola). When the bells finally ring, Guise, Anjou and Coconnas run rampant.
The Massacre sequence is a tour de force of panic, chaos, and violence. Whereas in reality, the Louvre was not the site of the killing, in the film, the killing starts there and spirals outward. Huguenots are lined up against the walls and bayoneted, women have their throats slit, and young nobles are dragged to their doom begging for mercy. Confusion reigns as the bewildered Margot runs through the halls, trying to understand what’s happening. It’s a shockingly effective sequence; I first saw this film 20 years ago, and the massacre sequence has always stayed with me.
Here’s the first part of it. Warning: it’s quite bloody.
Then the killing spreads to the streets and soon corpses are lying everywhere. Coconnas seems to revel in the chance to slaughter Huguenots, and Henriette seems almost psychotically amused by the spectacle. Guise bursts into Coligny’s room and throws him from the window still alive (another inaccuracy, because Coligny’s killing seems to have started the violence).
The results of the massacre
Coconnas bursts into la Mole’s bedroom, but la Mole wounds him and flees through a window across the rooftop. As he searches for a safe haven amidst the violence, Coconnas doggedly pursues him, wounding him twice. Eventually, by wild coincidence, la Mole staggers into Margot’s chambers. Recognizing him, she intervenes when Coconnas tries to enter, telling him that at Judgment Day he will be asked to account for his murders and telling him that he will have to kill her to get to his target. Later, however, la Mole staggers back into the street, where he and Coconnas slowly bludgeon each other into unconsciousness and are mistaken for corpses to be carted off.
Margot learns that Navarre has been taken to the king’s chamber, where she finds him a captive, being browbeaten until he agrees to convert, which he does the next day. Again, this distorts the facts, since Margot is said to have protected him (not la Mole) and Navarre did not actually make a public conversion but only promised to.
Auteuil as Henry of Navarre
Overall, the film’s depiction draws heavily on 19th century notions of the event both in terms of who is behind it, what their motives were, and who was doing the killing. Modern historical explanations have tended to emphasize the complexity of the politics over the personalities of Catherine and her sons and have found sociological explanations for why the Massacre grew so out of control. There’s no sense that the general population of Paris were complicit in the killings, or that the violence lasted for three days. The killings seem over by sunrise.
This fits with 19th century notions of history as being primarily driven by Great Men and Bad Women. If historical events are dictated by individuals in positions of power, then it stands to reason that personal motives such as lust for power, insanity, and sibling resentments are primary historical forces. Thanks in no small part to the historical theories of Karl Marx and his followers, historians now tend to accord a much larger role to the widespread sentiments of the general population and are somewhat less inclined to view personality as the basic explanation for everything. But, as I noted, the source material for the film is 19th century, and bringing the film more in line with contemporary historical analysis would probably have changed Dumas’s plot too much.
The film also tends to demonize the Catholics. Although it makes clear that the Huguenots are just as intransigent as their opponents, the film makes no mention of their more ruthless actions, apart from the killing of Guise’ father. Nor does it show any interest in the theological issues of the day; it is enough to say that the Catholics hate the Huguenots and are willing to slaughter them. In fairness though, it’s probably hard to offer an even-handed treatment of the slaughter of thousands of innocent people.
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.
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.