March Books 11) Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady

11) Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons.

Eleanor of Aquitaine is perhaps the most fascinating character of the 12th century; first married at thirteen, she divorced King Louis VII of France to marry the future King Henry II or England. I’ve written briefly about my relationship with Eleanor before (doing my M Phil back in 1991 I discovered a medieval horoscope apparently cast for her exact date of birth, 14 December 1123, which is otherwise unrecorded). She’s also a direct ancestor of mine by various genealogical routes. Probably anyone who can trace their family tree to the nobility of any country in Western Europe can say the same.

This book is a collection of academic essays which try to re-contextualise her as a ruler rather than as a romantic figure. Unfortunately for the authors, though fortunately for the reader, the drama of the story frequently pulls them into precisely the type of non-academic psycho-history that they criticise from more popular writers. So, for instance, desperate attempts to be poker-faced and serious about comparisons of Eleanor’s career with those of previous Queens of England, other contemporary noblewomen, her own daughters and grand-daughters, or (a long shot but ultimately convincing) Marie Antoinette 600 years later, end up getting carried away with the drama. (The exceptions, oddly enough, are two dry chapters on Eleanor’s divorce, and several unconvincing ones on her image in contemporary literature – apart from the brief reflection on her portrayal in William Marshal’s reminiscences.)

Lots of material for reflection here on how powerful and/or royal women are portrayed even today, especially now that power is largely divorced from royalty. Just consider the American right’s demonisation of Hillary Clinton, the fascination mutually exerted between Pricess Diana and the press, even the fuss over my friend Mabel. Though Eleanor was in a class apart; this is a woman who still signed herself (and behaved as) Queen of England even during the reigns of her two married sons, when technically the title belonged to Berengaria of Navarre and Isabella of Angouleme.

But for me the standout chapter was a brief one on a vase given by Eleanor as a wedding present to her first husband, and then passed on by him to the abbey of St-Denis, now on display in the Louvre. The vase was originally given to Eleanor’s grandfather, the famously rambunctious troubadour Duke William IX of Aquitaine, by a former ally who was a Muslim ruler in Spain, temporarily on the same side as the local Christians against an external Muslim threat. But it originally appears to have come from Sassanid Persia, probably made there before the 7th-century Islamic conquest; it would have found its way through the Islamic world to al-Andalus, before passing into Christian hands in 1120.

I also liked the chapters on the family funerary arrangements personally planned by Eleanor in her favourite abbey of Fontevraud, where her second husband Henry II (d. 1189), her favourite son Richard the Lion Heart (1199), her daughter Joan (also 1199) and she herself (1204) still rest, their tombs surmounted by lifesize effigies which were apparently unprecedented in Western Europe at the time. It wasn’t what Henry II had planned for his own burial, but an on-the-spot decision appears to have been made by William Marshall when he died unexpectedly; perhaps, I would speculate, assisted by the new king Richard, who certainly was in the vicinity and would have been more inclined to honour his mother’s wishes than his father’s?

Not a book for the casual reader, but for anyone interested in the period it’s absolutely fascinating.

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