Scene 1 is set in Paris, where the lovers will meet. The time is August 1118. It's dawn and we hear first the street cries of the market stallholders. They're selling pates and hot cakes, cheese and honey, grapes and loquats. Soon a group of jongleurs take over with a ditty beginning that's the fruit I want to peel that is clearly not about fruit at all. Wafting throughout are the rich scents of the market, of animals, and of bodies bathed once or twice a year.
Heloise enters. She is seventeen and pampered. She is after all the apple of her uncle's eye. And her uncle Fulbert is one of the canons of the cathedral. He would give her anything, and at the moment she is asking for an education in philosophy. When one of the jongleurs tries chatting her up, singing if I were a man, she slugs him with a fistful of references to poets we might be surprised she had met in her convent education, but which she quotes with relish. The jongleur suggests she apply to Abelard to be one of his students. Abelard is something of a medieval sex symbol.
Heloise notices a pair of lovers. Her song I'm a girl, as curious as anything shows that she is longing to discover in real life the passion she has read about in books. For her it's spring.
There is a rowdy incursion of Abelard's students, tonsured and dressed in dark habits, singing here are students stuffed from study. They're singing about Abelard who is the reigning champion of philosophical debate with mega-star status.
This is France, remember, where to exist you must have a theory, and intellectual jousting is still the proof of personhood. But in the twelfth century, when literacy was the privilege of a very few and it took a herd of sheep to make one copy of a book, imagine the kudos from being able to talk about the newly rediscovered ideas of the Greeks. Dangerous ideas they were too, that rattled the framework of both the church and the state.
Abelard at this moment was able to think of himself as the greatest philosopher alive, a modern Plato, and his students shared his opinion. He taught using the methods of Socrates. He doubted, asked questions, exposed contradictions. All dangerous.
He was at the top and people at the top often feel a little bored, are often led into temptation. Now Abelard hadn't taken vows yet, that came later. He wasn't a priest or a monk. But as a teacher he was attached to the cathedral school, and the church was the only place he could rise to the top. There he might become an abbot, a bishop, or even Pope, as did three of his pupils. But as a philosopher and teacher he was supposed to be above the desires of ordinary mortals. If he married he was sunk. He claimed later that he'd never had anything to do with a woman. Well, of course we believe him.
In so who are you Heloise and Abelard have their strangers across a crowded room encounter. Abelard is 39. Although he is tonsured and wears clerical gear, he looks pretty slick and is at least as spunky as Mel Gibson. He assumes this girl will be a pushover. Heloise, twenty-two years younger, has no more doubts than he does about her ability to get what she wants. It's Abelard who takes the initiative, saying I've got all the world has to offer, but now I have seen a girl for whom I would waste it all. He calls to his servant Drogo to start things moving.
Every tall poppy has its enemies, and Abelard makes acquiring them his specialty. Alberic was Abelard's real-life enemy. Once his envious fellow pupil, he is now in competition with him as a teacher. When the students flock to Abelard from Alberic's own classes, and from all over Europe, he starts plotting. In she's the fruit, Alberic pictures Heloise as Eve holding the forbidden fruit for Abelard to eat, so he, like Adam, will fall.
Meanwhile, Drogo has been away talking to Fulbert, who thinks that if Abelard comes to live with him, Heloise will get the education she is longing for. Drogo reports to Abelard, that it's set master, Fulbert says you're welcome to live in his house. As long as you use your spare hours teaching Heloise, and punish her if she doesn't hand in her assignments. Abelard can hardly believe it. Drogo tries to give his master some advice about love, but he is too involved preparing for Fulbert's welcoming dinner party to take any notice.
The chorus tells him (and her) to look for lashes to amaze her (him). The words include Heloise's surprisingly modern thoughts about the ethics of love.
The market has packed up. It's siesta time and Heloise meets her old teacher from the convent at Argenteuil. Hirsinde is a cultured woman. She introduced Heloise to Latin love poetry, and encouraged her confidence in her own ideas. After Hirsinde has untangled herself from Heloise's arms, saying enough, enough, her pupil tells her a secret.
Scene 1 ends as three jolly monks praise the virtues of vintage vino.
Scene 2 begins that evening with the banquet at Fulbert's house, at which Fulbert encourages Heloise to show off her learning. He says to Abelard, you should hear her quoting poetry. The passages she chooses to quote are from Ovid's love poetry, which is steamy at best. The occasion rapidly changes into a not so covert flirtation. Fortunately Fulbert is so besotted with his niece he doesn't believe the evidence of his senses.
Meanwhile, in Scene 3, in a poorer part of the Île de la Cité, Drogo is calling to his girl Maria to open, come and let me in. Maria sells mulled wine at the market, but makes it clear to Drogo that when she marries she wants a farm, something beyond the means of a mere servant. She is, however too generous-hearted to reject him completely. Enter the villain, Alberic, shouting to his followers to raise the flare. He makes Drogo an offer he can't refuse. Drogo is to help them protect his master from his enemies by supplying Alberic with information about what Abelard does with Heloise. Alberic will give Drogo money to win Maria's favour. Alone, Alberic looks up and sees bright stars shining down. He reveals himself as a wonderfully neurotic blend of sexual guilt and envy, determined to save the lovers from their sexuality by cutting Abelard down to size.
Back at the banquet for Scene 4, Fulbert is saying to Abelard if I didn't know better I'd think she was flirting with you. In spite of this he's willing to sign Heloise over to Abelard's care, and the deal, including the arrangement for Abelard to live with them, is struck.
Scene 5, finds Drogo reporting back, Maria, I've got it. The promise of money is enough for Drogo to earn a little affection on credit.
In Scene 6 we are in Heloise's bedroom where she is undressing after the banquet. Hirsinde is chattering on about Abelard, so that's the man, feeling a slight unease at Heloise's pensive mood. Then she realises Heloise is in love, and issues some gentle warnings, suggesting that she not give all her heart. She's in a dreamy, melancholy, confused state, which Hirsinde informs her is love. Heloise says, see how my hands quiver, and with some misgiving allows her passion to run away with her mind.
We are transported for Scene 7 to Abelard's room. It is empty and Heloise dares to enter it, only to be caught by Abelard. She apologises, with master, please forgive me, then they settle down to a discussion of ethics, with Heloise asking provocatively, tell me then is it a sin if a woman sees a man and wants to have him? Heloise and Abelard disagree, but the impression given by both is of moral liberation. As long as a person's intention is pure what they actually do is not sinful. Heloise establishes intellectual and emotional dominance by her sharp intelligence and bold sexuality.
Scene 8. It is early September 1118. One of Abelard's students rushes in to the lecture asking am I late? This begins general gossip about their teacher's neglect of his duties. The word is out, he's been seen with a girl. They can't believe it, that their Plato should be ruled by desire like ordinary mortals.
Meanwhile, in Scene 9 comes the clinch we've all been waiting for. The weather is still hot and stormy. Both lovers say as lovers do I can't believe that I am feeling this. Both realise the peril of their situation, but can't help themselves. Their physical love is so intense they feel it has broken through to the spiritual. They go to bed, to be interrupted by Fulbert bursting through the door, capturing Abelard, and asking Heloise do you call that academic, what his hands were doing there? Heloise argues that her intention is pure, therefore she is innocent. Fulbert insists the lovers be wed to preserve his honour, but she refuses, saying she would rather be Abelard's whore than destroy him by marriage.
In Scene 10, April 1119, Drogo notes that spring has come. He has news for Maria. Heloise is pregnant. Maria has news for him. So is she. It's just as well that Alberic will be willing to pay good money for Drogo's espionage.
In Scene 11, I am sure, Abelard finds himself lost in the confusing lanes of the city. It is July 1119. He has sent Heloise to Brittany where she has had the baby and called it Peter Astrolabe. He will be brought up by Abelard's sister. Now Abelard believes Fulbert's men are out to kill him. He decides that he will offer to marry Heloise, but secretly. That way Fulbert will be satisfied and his own reputation will be unscathed. Marriage will also stop Heloise from wandering, now she knows a thing or two. Heloise has returned from Brittany and manages to find him. In what's that he explains his plan, but she doesn't believe Fulbert will be satisfied by a secret marriage. Abelard insists, and she finally agrees, but with foreboding.
Scene 12. Abelard and Heloise are secretly married in August 1119 in the presence of a few friends and enemies. The couple see in the eyes of the Virgin the presence of a primitive force that is the potentially destructive power of human love. In spite of this they take solemn vows to cherish, love, and worship one another with their bodies as long as they live.
©1998 - 2000 Paul Kavanagh