The continuous efforts of humankind to desire progress and liberty have shaped the advancement of the human civilization, and humanity have more or less benefitted from the progressive nature of human beings. Yet, it is also often observed in the history of mankind that human thoughts usually do not deviate much from the values constructed by the worldview prevalent in the society. This is especially noticeable in medieval European society characterized by Christian ideas deeply rooted in virtually every aspect of the culture. In this regard, the letters of Abelard and Heloise may serve as a great primary source to understand the prevalent thoughts of the culture. Although the philosophies and behaviors of Abelard and Heloise may seem radical from the norms of the medieval society, their point of views toward the role of male and female largely conform to the social construct created by the traditional ideals of medieval men and women.
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The gender views of European medieval society was largely built upon the Aristotle and Tertullian views that degraded the status of women into a lower form of life and characterized them as the devil’s gateway (Lecture, October 09). Many subsequent Christian intellects such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine have also contributed to ingraining the idea of misogyny -hatred of women – in the medieval views toward the female sexuality, which created the gender stereotype that profoundly separated the role of men and women (Lecture, October 09). One possible explanation for which created gender inequality in the society may be attributed to the medieval education that regarded the Bible and Aristotle as unquestionable authority, and the limited number of educational resources available during the time throughout the continent may have greatly constrained the breadth of their intellectual diversity (Lecture, October 24).
Both Abelard and Heloise as well must have been influenced by the aforementioned medieval Christian perspectives on the gender roles. Yet, one may argue that a few instances in the letters indicate that their gender views were considered extreme compared to the norms of their contemporaries. Abelard indeed placed Heloise’s name in the very beginning of greeting which astounded Heloise for it was uncustomary deeds for men in letter-writing (Radice, pp. 56 & 63). And, Heloise denounced the concept of marriage in that it merely creates unnecessary bondage between men and women (Radice, pp. 13 & 51). However, despite their seemingly radical perspectives, their rational thoughts were ultimately confined in medieval thinking. Abelard, even after his castration, could not free himself from the typical androcentric idea of medieval Europe that men are the sole purpose for the existence of women. Abelard in the third letter constantly asked Heloise to live a pious life, not for the sake of her spirituality but for his own salvation (Radice, pp. 59-62). Furthermore, Heloise’s thinking did not go beyond that of subordinate medieval woman in that she attributed her decision to be a nun solely to the command of Abelard (Radice, pp. 69). Hence, they were, in a broad sense, not so much different from conventional medieval men and women.
Throughout the letters, Abelard and Heloise’s perspectives on gender roles were strictly based upon the traditional dichotomous views on sexuality. For instance, in the androcentric mind of Abelard, women in the medieval society were viewed as a weaker sex who needs help of the stronger since there were certainly things that “cannot be carried out by women” (Radice, p. 39). Moreover, Heloise, despite her being a woman, did not seem to be appalled at the idea that men are superior to women. Instead, she instinctively acknowledged the weaker nature of women indicated by her discussion of her abbey which she called it “feminine”; she also described it as weak, frail, and needing a more careful attention (Radice, p. 49). Throughout the first four letters from Abelard and Heloise, they both retained congruent views rather than discordant opinions regarding the masculinity and femininity, and this dichotomous way of looking at gender indeed did not deviate much from the conventional thinking of the medieval society.
Abelard and Heloise’s perspectives over the gender role in the society were also found in their discussions on the men-women relationship. As suggested by their agreement on the gender views, their reasoning over the relationship of lovers seemed to go no further from the notion that women are predestined to be an obstacle to men. Abelard boldly defended himself even in front of Fulbert, an uncle of the woman he mistreated, that it was Heloise, the woman, who brought the “noblest men to ruin” (Radice, p.13). Also, Heloise fell into utter depression as she wept over how the fate of women is only to “bring total ruin” on men (Radice, p.66). These instances suggest that women were thought of as only harmful being in the society. However, Abelard presented distinctive views toward women having a role of wife. He believed that men’s transgression can be pardoned by the prayers of his wife, suggesting that a woman, when married, may reconcile the relationship between God and her husband (Radice, p.58). Although this may seemingly suggest that the status of women is promoted momentarily, the belief that women exist only to be a facilitator of men’s salvation is not so different from the prevalent idea of the medieval society that women are secondary to men.
The inferior and subordinate nature of women hitherto discussed were two distinct characteristics of medieval perception of women in which Abelard and Heloise had both agreed. Yet, these negative views of women were actually transformed into an admiration when it came to a matter of spiritual condition. Abelard acknowledged the superiority of women’s spirituality having closer ties with God as he supported it with numerous biblical stories illustrating the greatest miracles found in the gospel were only shown to women (Radice, p.59). On the other hand, Heloise did not seem to agree with Abelard’s speculation of women being more spiritual than men. Although Heloise did not specifically express her opposite views in writing, she often highlighted the importance of the intention over actions, standing firm on her belief that all things are “vain if not done for love of god” (Radice, p.69). In this light, Heloise’s severe criticisms on the hypocrisy of religion at her time suggest her implicit thoughts that not only herself but most women had hypocritical nature in them (Radice, p.69); hence, she believed that women should not be considered so respectful no matter how they might look spiritual in the eyes of the society.
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In conclusion, there were a handful of instances that Abelard and Heloise had opposing viewpoints on medieval men and women especially in the consideration of women’s spiritual status; yet in many occasions found in letters, they both showed consistent gender views that men are superior to women. This well conforms to the traditional medieval thinking built upon the Aristotle and Tertullian views, which adequately support the argument that Abelard and Heloise, despite their seemingly radical thoughts, could not entirely escape from the medieval worldview. Nonetheless, their continual efforts to question and reason with the authorities have certainly made the society go forward. And indeed, the central medieval society began to experience the cultural awakening with the influx of new texts and ideas (MESH, 296). We living in 21st century have more resources than any other civilizations ever had.
O country, the United States, was also built on the humankind’s continuous desire to find progress and liberty. Hence, as another major global transformation imminent, we should never forget our forefather’s fight for liberty and make this civilization continue to prevail.
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