Constant Mews  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Constant Mews (born 1954), D. Phil (Oxon) is Professor of Medieval Thought and Director, Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology, Monash University, Melbourne. He is an authority on medieval religious thought, especially on the medieval philosopher and theologian, Peter Abelard, and on interfaith dialogue. He discovered and published what are possibly the original letters exchanged between Peter Abelard and his lover, Heloise.

Letters of Abelard and Heloise

In 1999 Mews published The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (1999). This contains about 113 medieval love letters, edited in 1974 by the German scholar Ewald Koensgen. The letters, ascribed simply to a man and woman, survived because a 15th century monk copied them for an anthology. Having spent some 20 years studying Abelard's philosophical and theological writings, Mews concluded that the letters (the longest known correspondence between a man and a woman from the medieval period) were written by Abelard and Heloise. In 2005 the historian Sylvain Piron translated the correspondence into French.

Whether the letters were indeed the actual correspondence became a matter of intense scholarly debate in France. Mews and other scholars who support the authenticity case say all the evidence in and around the text points to Abelard and Heloise. Opponents say that is too simple and want definitive proof. They reject accusations of tunnel vision and deny they are motivated by professional envy at not having got there first. "It's not jealousy, it's a question of method," said Monique Goullet, director of research in medieval Latin at Paris's Sorbonne University. "If we had proof that it was Abelard and Heloise then everyone would calm down. But the current position among literature scholars is that we are shocked by too rapid an attribution process." But after his years of research, Mews is all the more convinced. "The first time I encountered the words and ideas they sent a shiver down my spine. Unfortunately, that has been attacked as evidence of an emotional response," he said. "There has been some very quick stereotyping of other people's arguments." Most Latin experts agree the document is authentic and of great literary worth, but its uniqueness makes some scholars suspicious. "The most probable explanation is that it is a literary work written by one person who decided to reconstitute the writings of Abelard and Heloise," Goullet said. Others say it was a stylistic exercise between two students who imagined themselves as the lovers, or that it was written by another couple. Mews has since discovered further textual parallels between the letters and the writings of Abelard which further support his arguments, included in Abelard and Heloise, Great Medieval Thinkers and journal articles published in 2007 and 2009.

Selected works

  • Mews, Constant. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 1999; 2nd edition, 2008.
  • Mews, Constant. Abelard and Heloise, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Mews, Constant. "Cicero and the Boundaries of Friendship in the Twelfth Century," Viator 38/2 (2007), 369-384
  • Mews, Constant. "Discussing Love: The Epistolae duorum amantium and Abelard’s Sic et Non," Journal of Medieval Latin 19 (2009), 130-47.

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