The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
Masculinity in Medieval Europe
El Cid and Peter Abelard were both extremely well known, influential men during their respective times. They were each masculine in their own way which proves that masculinity was defined several different ways in medieval Europe, depending on the man’s role in society. El Cid depicts a more stereotypical idea of masculinity. He was a brave, rugged warrior who won many battles to regain his honor, lift his banishment from Castile, and win his people fortunes and land, while at the same time gaining widespread respect. There was no doubt that El Cid displayed many masculine features throughout his various adventures. Peter Abelard was also someone who rose to fame in medieval Europe. His representation of masculinity was a bit different than El Cid’s. Abelard was one of the most intelligent philosophers of his time. He gained incredible fame and respect from his teachings and controversial debates. His father was a knight, like El Cid, but Abelard was more attracted to books and debate rather than swords and battles. Although Abelard did not have the good fortune and luck that El Cid had, he still held numerous masculine traits. These two individual’s illustrations of masculinity have many similarities, but also display some differing traits due to their roles in society.
The story of El Cid begins at arguably the lowest point in his life. He was being banished from his home kingdom for unclear reasons. There is great dishonor that comes with that and he even had tears flowing as everybody watched him. The people were not even permitted to talk to him or their eyes would be torn from their heads. El Cid became a true social climber. He did not make excuses or feel sorry for himself when he was at his lowest point. It would have been easy for him to give up and stay banished from the kingdom and never regain his honor, but El Cid saw what he needed to do for himself and his family and took initiative. None of his fame and wealth was the result of his initial social standing, unlike some other nobles at the time. El Cid earned everything that he had by the time his battles and adventures were over.
His masculinity can also be explored in terms of his military success. El Cid was depicted to be an invincible warrior whose battles skills and strategy won him both glory and wealth. He had fortune on his side as the angel Gabriel says to him in a dream, “Go on, Cid, go on, you wonderful Warrior! No man has come riding out at such a perfect moment: For as long as you live, whatever you start will always end well” (El Cid, 29). His good fortune combined with his military skill and calculated tactics enabled him to go from town to town and conquer them with ease. Just one example of his superior military tactics was when he defeated the moors by pretending to retreat and then demolishing them when they followed them (El Cid, 41). Success in combat and warfare are something that always have and always will be considered masculine.
While El Cid was a rugged outlaw, he was also an extremely generous man. The wealth and fame were things that came along with his great triumphs in battle, but they definitely were not what he was doing it for. He was selfless with what he did with all that he gained from his victories. He treated his soldiers well and gave them much more than a normal vassal would have provided. He was not greedy man by any means. He was a man that ultimately just wanted to be allowed back in his village and be with his family. A good portion of what El Cid gained went directly to King Alfonso. At first El Cid sent him a hundred horses and a large quantity of silver (El Cid, 57, 63). Eventually, El Cid defeats the Moroccan King Tusuf’s army of fifty thousand, with El Cid’s own wife and daughters watching. It was only after he graciously sends King Alfonso the tent of gold he won from his battle, does the king forgive El Cid and lift his banishment (El Cid, 141). El Cid also displays his altruism to the princes when they marry his daughters. Although he was hesitant of the marriage and not completely fond of the two princes, he still gifted them each two swords, Tizona and Colada (El Cid, 251). These swords were special to El Cid, as he carried them throughout many important battles. The gifts symbolized El Cid’s kinship with the princes.
El Cid even shows great generosity to the moors by granting the prisoners of war their liberty back. He could have kept them as slaves or even killed them, but he showed them mercy. They lamented his leaving saying, “My Cid, you’re leaving us! Our prayers will always precede you! We’re deeply satisfied, our lord, with all you’ve done” (El Cid, 59). Men and women began to weep after El Cid’s departure. This truly said a lot about El Cid’s character. It was one thing to be kind and generous to his friends and allies, but to do something like this to his enemies and those that he fights in war was something completely different. El Cid was truly a good, kind-hearted man.
El Cid displays his unbelievable courage in other places than the battlefield. In another time of chaos when the caged lion escaped, El Cid yet again proved his manhood. While the two dishonorable princes flee and hide, El Cid calmly woke up from his nap and took care of business, as the book states “… with his cloak on his shoulder went walking toward the beast. The lion was so afraid at the sight of him, That he stopped and bent his head, And my Cid, Don Ruy Diaz, took hold of his mane And walked him back to his cage. Everyone was amazed…” (el Cid, 159). This was an insanely brave and confident move by El Cid. For someone to intimidate a lion goes to show how much power they have. His long flowing beard was also a great symbol of his power and success. People marveled at the length and bushiness of it. It displayed that he had never been defeated in battle. Around this time it was considered exceptionally honorable to have a beard like El Cid’s.
At the end of the day, El Cid was a family oriented man. Ultimately, the reason he went on all of his endeavors was so that he could be reunited with his family and live happily ever after. He was constantly doing his best to watch out for them and when he was unable to, he was at least making sure that someone that he trusted was watching over them. El Cid was passionate and protective about his wife and daughters. He was able to provide for them and after his daughters had been dishonored, he made sure the princes did not get off the hook. Then he remarried his daughters to more noble people. Being able to provide and protect a family is one of the main characteristics that a masculine person holds. It was apparent that El Cid cared about his family more than anything else.
Then on the other hand we have Peter Abelard, who forged his way into medieval European history through different means. Abelard certainly was not as rugged and macho as El Cid, but he still undoubtedly held many masculine traits. Abelard chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps of being a knight. The life of a knight was not as attractive to him as the life of a philosopher was, as he expressed “I preferred the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war. I began to travel about in several provinces disputing, like a peripatetic philosopher, wherever I had heard there was keen interest in the art of dialect” (The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 3).
Despite this decision, Abelard still engaged in masculine work. He was a competitive and competent man in many aspects of life. He proved to be the most brilliant philosopher of his time. Engaging in many debates, with several older, more experienced philosophers, Abelard proved that he was a philosopher who deserved respect. He would embarrass others in debate so bad, it caused them to be jealous of him. William do Champeaux was Abelard’s first enemy. Abelard started out as his student but would regularly prove William wrong. William’s students sided with young Abelard. Abelard had never seemed to lack in self-confidence. He soon founded a school of his own. This series of events displays Abelard’s ability to debate with great intellect, and it shows his great ambition.
Abelard also possessed the ability to seduce. After he built up his fame and reputation, he decided that it would be easy for him to move in with Heloise and serenade her. He said, “I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at that time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well…” (The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 10). Abelard was able to back up his big talk as he did exactly what he claimed he was going to do in winning Heloise’s heart with ease, as he wrote, “more words of love than our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages…” (The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 11). He tended to look at himself as an alpha male in just about every situation, and it would be hard for anybody to disagree with that. He eventually procreated with Heloise which is another important trait of manhood.
The castration was the turning point in Abelard’s life. It could be comparable to the moment in El Cid’s life when he was banished. They were both very low. After the castration, Abelard lived a more pious life, although he was already involved with the church. It was evident that Abelard was a God-fearing man. Abelard was humiliated after he had been mutilated. He stopped pursuing Heloise and so much and began to pursue a more holy lifestyle. He only pursued Heloise for spiritual love through written letters. Abelard sought shelter in a monastery where he studied the Scriptures intensely and became a monk. He had a lot to overcome, as his enemies were still out to get him, but he never lost his will after all his frustration and unfortunate encounters. He eventually was able to set up another school called Paraclete. Students still flocked to him just as they had done before. He still had their respect. His rivals were able to do nothing. He eventually gave this school this school up to Heloise and her fellow nuns.
It is clear that the word “masculinity” was an ambiguous term in medieval Europe. El Cid represented the idealized man with his many character traits. He became the epitome of a hero by his military successes, bravery, generosity to both friends and enemies, and family values. El Cid was truly an idealized man. Peter Abelard had a different role in society during his time, choosing philosophy over knighthood, and also becoming a monk later on. He was still a masculine figure, displaying his supreme intelligence, strong will and confidence, and also by seducing Heloise. His castration was a pivotal moment in his life, taking a bit of a toll on his manhood and sending him down a more religiously devoted life, while still pursuing his passion for teaching. After reading these books one can conclude that masculinity was defined in several different ways in medieval Europe, depending on the person and his role in society.