Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (1999)

Eleanor of Aquitaine's light continues to burn brightly across (almost) 900 years ago.  She's been portrayed in so many ways over all this time - mother of all mothers, political savage, noble prisoner, wanton slut.  Alison Weir tries to scrape away all the detritus and muck that has clung to her over the years; she also injects some of her own theories into the mix (e.g. some of Eleanor's sexual peccadilloes may have been more than just 12th century monkish gossip).  What remains is still an interesting study; but truly getting to know Eleanor is difficult.  She's not a character in a movie or a book; but she's also not the character you usually find in a (pop?) historical narrative or biography either.  Records on women, even royal women, were scarce in  middle ages (and beyond); trying to go back that far, Weir must necessarily tell Eleanor's story often through the eyes and deeds of others:  her two husbands, her children, her enemies.  What we can know, still, is that Eleanor was more of a lion than her lion-hearted son (that spoiled favorite of hers that quite frankly sounds as bad as bad King John); she was sometimes politically savvy, but often impetuous.  She wasn't going to play by the rules for the time - but was also sometimes forced to.  She was pious when she needed to be; impious at other times.  She would not have made a good 21st century mother - she wasn't a helicopter parent, and definitely played favorites among her offspring.  She was (probably) sexually adventurous (and also impetuous).  She was a teenager (15!) when she married her first husband, Louis the king of France; when she married Henry, she was 30 - eleven years his senior.  She outlived him (and most of her kids).  She was rebellious.  She was one of the most famous women - perhaps THE most famous woman - of her time, of which the troubadours sang.  She's maybe the most famous woman of the middle ages; if asked to name a famous female from that time, I think her name would pop up first almost every time. 

And yet, we still don't even know exactly what she looked like.  We don't know what color her hair was, or the color of her eyes.  This wasn't a time of portraiture, so there is no pictures that are definitely her; and what little murals or stonework that do survive do really show a likeness.  She was described as one of the most beautiful women; I would bet she was quite bewitching.  

Very little writing even survives from this time, outside of religious chronicles, so her voice is also still - as is the voice of so many others.  We don't really know what she thought about her husbands other than conjecture.  But it seems as if Henry and Eleanor had a passionate marriage:  they made lots of babies together, and fought beautifully as well.    Henry II imprisoned her for 16 years for being a kickass rebel (in this, Eleanor was probably a lot like his mother Empress Matilda, who was also a kick ass rebel), but, unlike his ancestor, another Henry (the VIII), he didn't execute her.  That says something about the two Henrys; something about the two time periods; but also something about Eleanor:  Henry, at some level, thought the world was a better place with Eleanor in it rather than absent from it.  

She was also a awesome old lady.  She was 51 when Henry put her in prison for stirring up trouble; when he died and she got out, she was 67 years old.  Age was just a number to her; she acted as regent for Richard I, traveled all over Europe  (remember, this was by horse) up until her death.  She was really quite extraordinary.


Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life (Ballantine Reader's Circle)Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleanor of Aquitaine's light continues to burn brightly across (almost) 900 years ago. She's been portrayed in so many ways over all this time - mother of all mothers, political savage, noble prisoner, wanton slut. Alison Weir tries to scrape away all the detritus and muck that has clung to her over the years; she also injects some of her own theories into the mix (e.g. some of Eleanor's sexual peccadilloes may have been more than just 12th century monkish gossip). What remains is still an interesting study; but truly getting to know Eleanor is difficult. Records on women, even royal women, were scarce in middle ages (and beyond); trying to go back that far, Weir must necessarily tell Eleanor's story often through the eyes and deeds of others: her two husbands, her children, her enemies. What we can know, still, is that Eleanor was more of a lion than her lion-hearted son (that spoiled favorite of hers that quite frankly sounds as bad as bad King John); she was sometimes politically savvy, but often impetuous. She wasn't going to play by the rules for the time - but was also sometimes forced to. She was pious when she needed to be; impious at other times. She would not have made a good 21st century mother - she wasn't a helicopter parent, and definitely played favorites among her offspring. She was (probably) sexually adventurous (and also impetuous in this regard as well). She was a teenager (15!) when she married her first husband, Louis the king of France; when she married Henry, she was 30 - eleven years his senior. She outlived him (and most of her kids). She was rebellious. She was one of the most famous women - perhaps THE most famous woman - of her time, of which the troubadours sang. She's maybe the most famous woman of the middle ages; if asked to name a famous female from that time, I think her name would pop up first almost every time. Weir doesn't perhaps bring her to living, breathing life - but with what little actual knowledge we have about her, that is always going to be difficult (we don't even know exactly what she looked like). But Weir still writes a strong book.


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