The letters of Heloise have been read and imitated throughout the whole of the last nine centuries. Some have found in them the utterances of a woman whose love of love was greater than her love of God and whose intensity of passion nothing could subdue; and so these have condemned her. But others, like Chateaubriand, have more truly seen in them a pure and noble spirit to whom fate had been very cruel; and who was, after all, writing to the man who had been her lawful husband.
Some of the most famous imitations of her letters are those in the ancient poem entitled, “The Romance of the Rose,” written by Jean de Meung, in the thirteenth century; and in modern times her first letter was paraphrased by Alexander Pope, and in French by Colardeau. There exist in English half a dozen translations of them, with Abelard’s replies. It is interesting to remember that practically all the other writings of Abelard remained unpublished and unedited until a very recent period. He was a remarkable figure as a philosopher and scholar; but the world cares for him only because he was loved by Heloise.
History has many romantic stories to tell of the part which women have played in determining the destinies of nations. Sometimes it is a woman’s beauty that causes the shifting of a province. Again it is another woman’s rich possessions that incite invasion and lead to bloody wars. Marriages or dowries, or the refusal of marriages and the lack of dowries, inheritance through an heiress, the failure of a male succession—in these and in many other ways women have set their mark indelibly upon the trend of history.
However, if we look over these different events we shall find that it is not so much the mere longing for a woman—the desire to have her as a queen—that has seriously affected the annals of any nation. Kings, like ordinary men, have paid their suit and then have ridden away repulsed, yet not seriously dejected. Most royal marriages are made either to secure the succession to a throne by a legitimate line of heirs or else to unite adjoining states and make a powerful kingdom out of two that are less powerful. But, as a rule, kings have found greater delight in some sheltered bower remote from courts than in the castled halls and well-cared-for nooks where their own wives and children have been reared with all the appurtenances of legitimacy.
There are not many stories that hang persistently about the love-making of a single woman. In the case of one or another we may find an episode or two—something dashing, something spirited or striking, something brilliant and exhilarating, or something sad. But for a woman’s whole life to be spent in courtship that meant nothing and that was only a clever aid to diplomacy—this is surely an unusual and really wonderful thing.
It is the more unusual because the woman herself was not intended by nature to be wasted upon the cold and cheerless sport of chancellors and counselors and men who had no thought of her except to use her as a pawn. She was hot-blooded, descended from a fiery race, and one whose temper was quick to leap into the passion of a man.