How do the letters of Abélard and Héloïse describe intelectual life in Europe durning their times?
The correspondence between Abélard and Héloïse can be read on a superficial level as a romantic tragedy, as one of the most tragic love stories of all times. The letters have fascinated the romantic imagination throughout the centuries and Jean-Jacques Rousseu appropriated this tragic love-story when he titled his sentimental novel about the ill-fated affair between Saint-Preux and his pupil Julie, The New Héloïse (1761).
Yet, a deeper reading of the correspondence also reveals the traditions and social conventions of the society in the Middle Ages. For example, feminist critics have focused on the story as an illustration of patriarchy. An intellectually challenging woman like Héloïse was not free to choose her own future and was forced by males to conform to what they expected from her. Héloïse is shown as equally having to struggle against her uncle's request for respectability and honor and against Abélard's later lack of passion and avoidance of anything that might recall their old love affair.
In addition to this feminist perspective, the letters show a society dominated by theological disputes as part of the epistolary exchange focuses on Abélard's problems with censorship because of what were perceived as unorthodox ideas. Abélard was a provocative theologian, whose challenge against the dogma of the Original Sin brought him many enemies including the powerful Bernard of Clairvaux.