Romeo and Juliet are probably the world’s best-known star-crossed lovers. However, they are fictional characters, conceived in the imagination of William Shakespeare and brought to life by his quill. For real-life star-crossed lovers, perhaps none are more famous than Heloise and Abelard. A pair of medieval scholars, their romance ended in a painful manner – especially for him – as it gets. Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) was born into minor French nobility in Brittany, and from an early age, he exhibited a love of knowledge that marked him for a life of scholarship.
Abelard’s father encouraged him to study the liberal arts, and by his early twenties, he was famous for his debate skills, particularly in philosophy. Like some super smart people, however, he also gained a reputation for arrogance. By 1115 Abelard was an accomplished theologian, the master of Notre Dame, and a canon in the archdiocese that included Paris. That was when he ran into Heloise d’Argenteuil (circa 1095 – 1164). She lived in the precincts of Notre Dame under the care of her uncle, a secular canon named Fulbert.
A rarity among women in her day, Heloise had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and gained renown for her knowledge of classical studies. To get to her, Abelard wormed his way into the household of her uncle, Fulbert. He claimed that he could not afford a place of his own, and offered to tutor his niece in lieu of rent. Fulbert agreed, tutor and student soon hit it off, and in 1115, Heloise and Abelard began an affair. It was torrid and given their circumstance, the duo were too blinded by their passion to pay heed to the risks involved.
Heloise lived in convent, but she snuck out, or he snuck in, whenever possible. They got physical whenever and wherever they could. They made love in gardens at night, in her convent cell, in the nunnery’s kitchens, and in her uncle and guardian’s bedroom. She eventually got pregnant, and the couple found themselves in an awkward situation. So Abelard arranged for her to visit his family in Brittany. There, she gave birth to a son. Unfortunately for the lovers, and especially for Abelard, his arrogance betrayed him: he started to boast of his conquest. That backfired on him in a major way.
10. An Affair That Ended With the Unkindest and Most Awkward Cut of All
Word got back to Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle and guardian, about Abelard’s boasts, and things took a turn for the worst. To appease Fulbert, the duo got secretly married. When her uncle disclosed the marriage, however, Heloise denied it in an attempt to protect her husband’s career. Abelard sent her to a convent to protect her from her uncle, where she pretended to become a Bride of Christ. Her uncle interpreted that as Abelard’s attempt to bury the awkward scandal by forcing Heloise to become a nun. Enraged, he set out to make Abelard pay for the defilement of his niece.
Fulbert hired some thugs to break into Abelard’s room one night, where they beat him up. Then, they dealt the scholar the unkindest cut of all, and castrated him. After he recovered from his injuries, Abelard became a monk and retired to a monastery. He cajoled Heloise, who was reluctant to don the habit, into becoming a nun for real. Eventually, Abelard got over the trauma and resumed his career as a lecturer and writer. Heloise became prioress of her convent, and the duo spent the rest of their lives writing each other letters.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), was one of the most prominent figures of the Romantic Movement. Today, he is acknowledged as one of Britain’s greatest poets, widely praised for his brilliant use of the English language. His private life, however, was chock full of awkward material. Byron was famous – or infamous – for his flamboyance, deviant practices, the notoriety of his romantic liaisons with members of both sexes, and allegations of incest. Of the great poet’s numerous affairs, his most famous was with the married Lady Caroline Lamb.
She gave him the cold shoulder at first, and described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know“. Eventually, she succumbed to his charms and joined him in a torrid affair that scandalized Britain. After he dumped her, Lamb turned stalker and pursued him relentlessly. After she stopped at his house one time too many and scribbled in a book on his desk “Remember me”, an exasperated Byron responded as only a poet could. He composed a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee!, whose final line concludes “Thou false to him, thou fiend to me“. Byron’s most controversial relationship however was an incestuous one carried on with his own sister, Augusta Leigh.
Byron had seen little of his sister Augusta Leigh in their childhood. He made up for it in spades when he formed an extremely close relationship with her in adulthood. In 1814, Byron fathered a daughter upon his sister, which made for an awkward family relationship in which the poet was the unfortunate child’s uncle, as well as her father. It goes without saying that he was not faithful to his sister, and carried on a plethora of other affairs. Byron, ever sentimental, liked to keep mementos of his lovers. In those days, the norm was a lock of hair from one’s object of affection, perhaps tied with a ribbon. For Byron, Britain’s most flamboyant poet, eccentric aristocrat, and all-around pervert, a simple lock of hair would not do.
Instead, Byron liked to snip clumps of pubic hair from his lovers’ crotches, and kept them, cataloged and labeled, in envelopes kept in his publishing house. The cascade of scandals eventually made Britain too hot for Bryon. So he traveled around Europe for years at a stretch. He spent a seven-year stint in Italy, before his restlessness led him to join the Greeks in their war of independence from the Ottoman Turks. He was disappointed with the Greeks of his day, however, because they differed greatly from the heroic Hellenes he had read about in history books and Homer’s poems. While he moped about that discrepancy like only a romantic poet could, he caught a fever and died in a Greek backwater at the age of thirty-six.
Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) was a celebrated English sculptor, printmaker, and typeface designer. Many of his fonts are still in use today. He played a prominent role in the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which popularized the use of folk styles of decoration. For his creative endeavors, Gill was named Royal Designer for Industry – Britain’s highest award for designers. A lesser-known but awkward fact about Gill – as in the extremely icky kind of awkward – is that he was a total creep.
Gill was a man of many contrasts, to say the least. In 1913, he converted to Catholicism. As with many newcomers to faith, he became a zealot, and loudly and ostentatiously professed devoutness to his new creed. With his wife and others, he founded a lay religious order called The Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic. He went about clad in a habit, with a girdle of chastity beneath. The chastity girdle was probably aspirational because it did not stop him from being a totally unchaste pervert.
6. There’s Pervy, and Then There’s This Sculptor’s Level of Pervy
Eric Gill was obsessed with making love and liked to work it into all his work. His obsessions did not revolve around normal intercourse: he was into incest, bestiality, and pedophilia, was addicted to prostitutes and liked to abuse his maids. One of his most famous sculptures, Ecstasy, depicts a couple passionately entwined. The model was his sister, with whom he had a lifelong incestuous relationship, and her husband. Some of his most celebrated artwork used his own prepubescent daughters as models.
Gill liked to draw his daughters nude, in semi-erotic poses. In his diary, he described his perversions with great relish and in exhaustive detail. Extramarital affairs, decades of intercourse with his sisters, incest with two of his daughters, and bestiality with his dog, he penned it all. In short, Britain’s most celebrated sculptor and one of her greatest artists of the modern era was the kind of person who would probably be in jail or on an offender registry if he was alive today. That makes modern appreciation of his artistic talents pretty awkward, to say the least.
Presidential hanky panky is an irresistible magnet for the media and the public. Just ask Bill Clinton about the firestorm of interest in his affairs. Or ask Donald Trump about the accusations that dogged him throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, dogged him throughout his presidency, and continue to dog him today. However, those firestorms would probably look like dim candles compared to what would have erupted if the affair between JFK and Marilyn Monroe had happened today. Rumors had swirled for quite some time about an affair between President John F. Kennedy and America’s most iconic symbol. Marilyn’s sultry “Happy Birthday” performance for JFK on his forty-fifth birthday did nothing to still the gossip.
To make things more awkward for the POTUS, his wife was present as Monroe crooned to him. Although tongues wagged, JFK was extremely lucky not to have his affair turn into a firestorm. The media of his era was far more discreet than today’s press. Nonetheless, the gossip caused Kennedy to back away from Monroe and end things – to him, she was just one among dozens of pretty women he had slept with. To Monroe, he was the only president she had slept with, and she was not about to give up that easy. She repeatedly called the White House and tried to rekindle the affair, until JFK sent somebody to convince her that it was over and that she needed to stop.
4. Make That a President and The President’s Brother’s Awkward Affair
If it happened today, the aftermath of the affair between JFK and Marilyn Monroe would have made things even more awkward for the White House. It would have added even more fuel to what would have already been an inferno of insatiable media and public interest. After JFK tired of the blond bombshell, he essentially passed her on to his younger brother and the United States’ Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy was widely viewed as the most straitlaced and family-oriented of the Kennedy brothers. RFK’s image was that of a happily married and devoted husband, who raised a large and steadily growing family that would eventually number eleven children.
The contrast between that public perception and an affair with the world’s greatest sensual symbol would have added fuel to the scandal. Then add to it Marilyn’s unexpected death in 1962. The Los Angeles coroner’s office ruled the death a probable suicide via barbiturates. Conspiracy theories abounded however and included allegations that JFK or RFK had been involved. The sudden death of a former mistress of the president, with whom he had an affair while in office, and who then became the mistress of his brother, the Attorney General and the president’s right-hand man? Such a scandal would break the internet if it happened today.
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was not as murderous as Genghis Khan or Hitler. In his day, however, the French ruler was feared and loathed by his foes just as much as contemporaries feared the Fuhrer and the great Mongol conqueror. As he roamed Europe at the head of his armies and gobbled up countries as if they were popcorn at a movie theater, Napoleon was scary enough to serve as a boogeyman. Indeed, English parents used to scare their children into obedience with “Boney the Bogeyman”.
Le Empereur, who was often derided in newspapers read by adults as “Little Boney” in a bid to belittle and play down his threat, was portrayed as a larger-than-life figure to England’s kids. He was portrayed as a giant ogre who would take away naughty children and eat them for breakfast. “If you don’t behave, Boney will come for you” often sufficed to get rambunctious youngsters to pipe down. For such a scary figure, it is surprising that he was once routed by an army of small opponents. Napoleon was famously defeated at Waterloo, but it was not his only loss. A smaller – albeit perhaps more awkward – defeat was once dealt Boney by, of all things, bunny rabbits.
The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was Napoleon’s worst defeat. However, his most awkward loss was dealt him years earlier, when the mighty Bonaparte was put to flight in a bizarre incident by a horde of cute bunny rabbits. It happened in 1807 when he was at the height of his power and bestrode Europe like a colossus. He had vanquished the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz and humiliated the Prussians at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. He capped off his victories with the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended the War of the Fourth Coalition against him.
In an understandably good mood, Napoleon decided to celebrate, and what better way to celebrate than to kill small animals? So Napoleon ordered his chief of staff, Alexander Berthier, to arrange a rabbit hunt and invite the top military brass. Berthier prepared an outdoor luncheon and collected about 3000 rabbits. They were arranged in cages along the fringes of a grassy field, to be released for the bigwigs to shoot as they fled. It went wrong, however. When the bunnies were released they did not jump away in terror, but bounded in their thousands towards Le Empereur.
As thousands of bunnies bounded towards them rather than flee for their lives, Napoleon’s party laughed at first. The laughter stopped and concern grew, however, as the onslaught continued. The rabbits swarmed the Emperor’s legs and climbed up his jacket. He tried to shoo them with his riding crop, while those around him tried to chase them away with sticks. There were just too many of them, however, and Napoleon was forced to flee to his carriage. As one account described it: “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach“.
Even in his carriage, Napoleon was not safe. Some rabbits jumped in with Le Empereur, who ordered his coachmen to whip the horses into a hasty retreat. In an awkward defeat, Europe’s hegemon had been beaten by bunnies. It turned out that the bizarre debacle had been Berthier’s fault. Rather than capture wild hares, he had bought tame rabbits from nearby farms, that were accustomed to people. When released from their cages, they did not fear Napoleon’s party as potential predators. Instead, they bounded towards them in the expectation that the Emperor of the French and his companions would feed them their dinner.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading