, Volume 94, Issue 4, pp 569–584

The Function of the Medieval in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse: A Rereading of the Abélard and Héloïse Motif

Open Access


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critical rewriting in his Nouvelle Héloïse of two foundational medieval works—the letters of Abélard and Héloïse, and Petrarch’s Canzoniere—reveals the crucial role that the medieval played in his own moral vision. This article both identifies a possible eighteenth-century source for Rousseau’s retelling of the Abélard and Héloïse story, and explores the function played by the medieval in his novel. The medieval in La Nouvelle Héloïse, as in his larger thought, was not a chronological, but an ethical category. It spoke not of historical events, but of his own “pays des chimères”. Because of its position outside of the accepted classical canons, it could incarnate an alternative vision commensurate with Rousseau’s own self-image as an outsider to the morally corrupted societies of his own time. Associated with the purer language of music, the medieval finally offered access to a higher spiritual plane, exemplified by Julie’s role as a Mary-like or even Christ-like figure. As such, the medieval ultimately served as an epistemological counter-model, an imaginary point of origin within a larger history of human virtue.


Rousseau Abélard and Héloïse Petrarch La Nouvelle Héloïse Medievalism 

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Romance Languages and Cultures, Faculty of ArtsUniversity of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands

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