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The depiction of Biblical women in the letters of Abelard and Heloise

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  1. Introduction
  2. Heloise's response to Abelard
  3. Jephthah's daughter
  4. Wetherbee's interpretation
  5. Heloise's wicked women
  6. The Ethiopian woman
  7. Conclusion
  8. Bibliography

Abelard and Heloise sustained a reputation as great lovers for many centuries. Yet their romantic relationship was essentially over when they composed their famous correspondence; the very nature of their love affair remains unclear. Both Abelard and Heloise construct their past with common methodologies but different perspectives. In the Cambridge Companion to Abelard, Winthrop Wetherbee posits:Heloise had deliberately conjured up the spirit of the Historia in order to pit her intense humanity against the utter self-absorption of its author. Abelard had isolated himself within the epistolary conventions of consolation and apologia. Heloise, by radically personalizing and eroticizing the epistola ad amicum, will challenge him to engage in genuine dialogue.In the letters which follow, however, Abelard withdraws still further, persisting in his preoccupation with himself and addressing Heloise in the broadly homiletic manner of a spiritual advisor. (57)

[...] The second example is especially relevant to the discussion of Abelard and Heloise, since Samson's haircut serves as a symbolic castration within the Bible. As Heloise states: And that mighty man of the Lord, the Nazirite whose conception was announced by an angel, Delilah alone overcame; betrayed to his enemies and robbed of his sight, he was driven by his suffering to destroy himself along with his enemies(67). The passage is strange for many reasons. The Biblical text presents Samson's last act as heroic. [...]

[...] In his praise of strong Biblical women (including Judith, Esther, and Deborah) he waxes poetic for many lines and Jepthah's daughter provides a penultimate climax before the Madonna.In praise of heroic virgins who would not choose Jephthah's daughter? What would she have done, I ask, if she had faced martyrdom? Would she have denied Would she, when asked about Christ, have replied like Peter the prince of the apostles: know him not." By her death, Jephthah's daughter liberated her father from perjuring himself. [...]

[...] This "impurity" is changed by Abelard's rhetoric into "hardship" rather than the more common "sin." As Heloise knows her faults, the Ethiopian woman knows that her skin is not attractive (bear in mind that Abelard is writing from a European perspective where pale skin is the standard of beauty) and in tying black skin to the consequences of past indiscretions, Abelard pulls a rabbit out of a hat by arguing that affliction that has only changed Heloise into a more humble and more decent woman; the kind of bride that Christ would desire more than all the "white" (unafflicted) virgins. [...]

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