Ex Libris: Eleanor of Aquitaine

By the Wrath of God, Queen of England

By Margaret Clay

“Pitiful and pitied by no one, why have I come to the ignominy of this detestable old age, who was ruler of two kingdoms, mother of two kings?”  — Eleanor of Aquitaine, third letter to Pope Celestine, 1193

Courtly love, knights in shining armor, castles, dungeons, princesses, chivalry … the Medieval Era conjures up the most romantic of associations and offers a time period in which the imagination can run unbridled, and with good reason. From this age of fairy tales emerged the historic legends whose actions still reverberate in the world today. Looking back at these heroes and villains, it is difficult to image these formidable figures as real people who enacted what was simply their normal routine of daily life. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine has nearly as much mythology and gossip about her life in public circulation as concrete fact; considering that this powerful woman bore the titles of Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France and finally Queen of England –– matriarch of the Plantagenet Dynasty –– this is not surprising. She also traveled the entire Second Crusade through hostile Islamic regions to Jerusalem, was the mother of two famous English kings, endured 10 years in prison and reigned as regent of England before, finally, concluding her life as an abbess. In her biography, Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Alison Weir casts a beautifully thorough portrait of this fascinating queen of medieval history, undertaking the daunting task of untangling the facts from gossip and legend and of assimilating the vast sea of information regarding both her life and the era in which she lived. Despite the enormity of such a task, Weir still manages to breathe life into the central characters enacting pivotal scenes on the global stage of 12th century Europe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s lifetime saw dramatic shifts in the medieval world, in what is now known as the 12th century (or first) Renaissance. Cultural and political changes marked an era of novel ideas and new institutions in Europe, and the intensity of incessant warfare in the ninth and 10th centuries gave way to comparative peace and economic prosperity. The period saw the emergence of the first troubadour poems of courtly love, and their tendency to emphasize the individual is also reflected culturally in the chronicles of that time, largely contributing to what can be known today about Eleanor’s life. In all things, Eleanor challenged the status quo and was unwilling to undertake the conventional roles assigned to women, even the comparably more powerful roles of female consorts, for better or for worse. Praised as “an incomparable woman, beautiful yet virtuous, powerful yet gentle, humble yet keen-witted,” she is also blamed for the adverse consequences resulting from some of her political influences, as well as for illicit affairs. 

In the introduction to The Folio Society edition, medieval historian Richard Barber writes, “Here is the crux for the modern biographer: do we believe both the praise and the gossip? In the pages that follow, Alison Weir paints a fascinating portrait which brings out the contradictions of this extraordinary, almost legendary figure. She conveys vividly the varying fortunes of her political career, drawing on the rich contemporary sources which describe her. We may well owe to Eleanor, directly or indirectly, the very existence of the medieval romance, forerunner of the modern novel.”

Her own tale is certainly as intriguing as any novel, and in the pages of Weir’s biography, I found myself immersed in Eleanor’s world, both gripped by the adventures of her life and fascinated by foreign setting of courtly life in 12th century France and England. 

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