Valentine’s Day in Paris

Abelard and his school on the hill dedicated to Saint Genevive (near today's Pantheon)

Abelard and his school on the hill dedicated to Saint Genevive (near today’s Pantheon) – wall painting at the Sorbonne.

Like in the US, stores milk Valentine’s day in Paris for as many sales of chocolate and hearts and roses and you name it as possible. Plus, Paris is for lovers so there’s no shortage of kissing going on. Still Paris has its own literature that conveys the spriit of Valentine’s Day in a more permanent sense.

Valentine’s Day may come to you as either an awkward moment (pour moi) or a day to be celebrated (pour ma femme) in all its glory. Wikipedia refers to the Roman presbyter (Christian leader) Saint Valentine, of whom some say:

A popular hagiographical account of Saint Valentine of Rome states that he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. According to legend, during his imprisonment, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius. An embellishment to this story states that before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell.

The English author Geoffrey Chaucer was the first associated with this idea as an expression of romantic love. In Paris we can find a couple of examples of the Valentine ideal that go way beyond what most men and women are willing to commit to in modern society.

First there is the story of Peter Abelard and Héloïse. Pierre Abelard was a well known scholar in Paris in the early 12th century,  “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”. Abelard’s career brought him to the Cathedral School at Notre Dame de Paris, the epitome for his profession, and it was then that his scholastic life was interrupted by his meeting with Héloïse d’Argente, who was under the care of her uncle, the secular canon Fulbert. She attracted Abelard’s attention with her remarkable knowledge of classical letters. In about 1116 he began an affair with her, and she became pregnant (and gave birth to a son named Astrolabe). He sent her to Brittany to live with his family. As a cleric of the Church he could not be married. He arranged a secret marriage to her through Fulbert, but when Fulbert disclosed it, Abelard sent Héloïse to the convent at Argenteuil, where she led the life of a Nun. Fulbert arranged for Abelard to be castrated, ending his romantic career. Abelard became a monk at the monastery of Saint Denis near Paris.

The graves of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil, side by side at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

The graves of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, side by side at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Here he published his famous work Historia Calamitatum (known in English as “Story of His Misfortunes” or “A history of my Calamities”), which is a readable window into the life of an academic of the church prior to founding of the first university in Paris. His thoughts on his relationship with Héloïse were a key part. She responded with a letter to him, and they began a correspondence, though they could never again be together. The letters revealed both her continued devotion and his regrets for the troubles his love had caused.

Abelard’s later writings and teachings were controversial, and he was accused of heresy by Bernard of Clairvaux and condemned by the Pope. He was assigned to a monastery and his books were to be burned. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny intervened. He reconciled Abelard with Bernard and the Pope and persuaded everyone that it was enough that Abelard remain under the protection of Cluny. Abelard passed away in 1142, his accusations largely resolved, and his reputation as a wise scholar restored. Héloïse died in 1163.

Though some researchers dispute this, it is thought that Héloïse’s bones were placed alongside Pierre’s when she died. At the behest of Napoleon’s wife Josephine Bonaparte, their bones were moved to a well known tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery, where today “lovers from all over the world visit the tomb where the remains of Heloise and Abelard rest eternally together.” I’ll have to say we were among those who have visited.

Now a second story, shorter than the first. At the end of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, there is this passage relating the fates of Quasi Modo and Esmeralda (translated):

“…they found among those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrèzarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.”

There – that’s some Valentine’s Day for you.

Comments

  1. I am lucky to have loved so deeply been so devoted and yet apart

  2. Terry Mahony says:

    Sent this to our Granddaughter who loves to read. Terry

    • Hugh Nelson says:

      Terry, thanks for the note and for sharing this with your granddaughter. I was so impressed with Victor Hugo – it’s no wonder he is a hero here. Hope you are doing well!

  3. Ardis Morrow says:

    thanks for all the great information as always. The candy, flowers and baloons have been going out of Central Market since
    7:00 a.m. this morning. They have a lovely heart shape about 5 feet tall covered with red roses as you come inthe door so
    no one can miss it.
    P.S. We have rec’d the money from your foundation. Thanks very much.
    Happy Valentines Day 2014

    • Hugh Nelson says:

      Ardis, thanks for having such a great cause to donate to. (I know that preposition is dangling but I didn’t want to say “for which to donate”.)

  4. Kathy Gallaher says:

    Love your research and stories. Happy Valentines to both of you. Keep writing, I always learn something.

  5. This was absolutely wonderful info on Valentines Day! Loving your writing and stories in the blog. I worked in a florists this week, extra hands, and it was so fun to see all the men come in and pick up their flowers.. of course the ones that hadn’t ordered ahead were teased by the owners and will certainly remember to order ahead next year. Sold over 800 roses.. not bad for Kingston!
    love to you guys!

  6. Great stories. Thanks for sharing.
    I look forward to more posts.

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