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Nonfiction review — Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours
Jean Markale, translated from the French by Jon E. Graham
Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2007. Originally published in 1979 by Editions Payot.

If it's true that well-behaved women seldom make history, then Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who was anything but well-behaved, is one of the most interesting women in history. Historians have not, of course, always treated powerful women kindly. Cleopatra of Egypt, for example, spoke eight languages (she was the first of the Ptolemies to actually speak Egyptian) and was a Machiavellian prince 1,500 years before The Prince was written, but what do we know of her? That she seduced Noble Romans. That's because the "history" about her was written by followers of Octavian Caesar, soon to be the first Roman emperor. Catherine the Great of Russia was the powerful and ambitious head of a rising empire, but what's her reputation? She's best known as a conniving nymphomaniac. Maria Theresa, empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and mother of Marie Antoinette, probably had the finest political mind of the late 18th century, but because she was exceedingly moral and well behaved, we hear almost nothing about her. As Markale writes in his Introduction, "History and Its Heroes,"

…women have generally been sacrificed to the androcratic point of view. When we learn of times past, because the silence of their roles is so thick, we might ask if women even existed. Of course, a few have survived in memory, but we can quickly note that all too often these female historical figures are devalued. Often they are transformed into femmes fatales … [and] eventually we come to see the famous women of history merely as sexually obsessed individuals or at least as instruments of perdition for humanity (p. 9).

Eleanor made a lot of history. She lived during a transitional century when Europe was waking from the Dark Ages (brightened only briefly by the Age of Charlemagne, ca. 800) and glimpsing the possibility of renaissance. She was the granddaughter of Duke William IX of Aquitaine, the first French troubadour and a figure of both great cultivation and "unbridled sensuality," who lived in the Occitan region of what is now France. At the time, however, "France" was mainly the island in the Seine upon which Paris sits; it was a cold place, and so were its people. Occitania — the southern half of France — was warm, sunny, and highly cultured. Women there were highly educated.

Shortly before he died, Eleanor's father, William X (another troubadour), married her off to Louis VII of France. But Louis was controlled by a Church as cold as the landscape, and the new queen was seen to be unhappy in the French court. She was also seen to be fickle, flirtatious, and overly interested in politics. This did not please Louis' advisors. Besides, the union was sterile until a daughter was born. (Eleanor had two daughters by Louis, but no sons.) In 1147, persuaded to travel to the Holy Land to slaughter Muslim infidels, Louis launched the Second Crusade, and Eleanor went along, although the story that she and the other women of the Parisian court dressed as Amazons and fought alongside their husbands turns out to be one of the many myths surrounding the queen.

But the Second Crusade was a disaster. Louis and Eleanor didn't even sail home in the same ship. When they arrived back in Paris, Eleanor found her husband even more under the thumb of the Church. She famously said, "I have married a monk!" The king was jealous, the court was chilly, the queen was unhappy.

In 1151, Eleanor met Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou and son of Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and former empress of Germany. Geoffrey the Handsome, as he was called, had obtained the ducal crown of Normandy. She also met Geoffrey's son, Henry. She and Henry fell head over heels in love. Eleanor's lawyers proved consanguinity with Louis, and the Council of Beaugency granted her a divorce. The council, Markale writes,

…marks an important date not only in 12th-century Western history but also in the history of the medieval world. Formerly, every time a woman was repudiated or had her marriage annulled, she was compelled to submit to patriarchal law; with the council, for the first time, a woman who was queen of an important kingdom had personally requested the annulment of her marriage — and it was granted to her (p. 88).

Eleanor and Henry soon married, and when her husband came to the throne as Henry II of England, Eleanor became queen of England, though all her life she also retained her titles as duchess of Aquitaine and of Poitiers (and several other titles that she held in her own right, not through her marriages). In practice, Henry and Eleanor were co-rulers; when one of them was managing English territory in France, the other would be ruling in England, and vice versa. Eleanor and Henry did spend some time together, of course, and produced 10 children. However, as we know from The Lion in Winter, the generally historically accurate play by James Goldman, (made into a movie in 1968), the marriage declined into a virtual war and Henry held his wife captive in various castles for a dozen years.

She outlived him, though, and returned to her Occitanian courts at Poitiers and Aquitaine, where she founded the famous 12th-century courts of love and gained a reputation that endures to this day as a living Guinevere, to whom knights and clerks (intellectuals and scholars) devoted themselves. As Markale writes, her position demonstrates the concept of sovereignty found in Celtic legends of the Land of Faery and belonging to women like Maeve and other queens, both mythological and historical:

The primacy of the woman … popularized by the poetry of the troubadours did not fail to leave its stamp on the mind-set of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Poitiers. The entire immediate environment of the queen-duchess was female…. Eleanor's daughter Marie de Champagne shared her mother's thinking on the importance of women in the new society born in the aristocratic class. … Eleanor [promoted] femininity and redefine[d] love both as a totality of being freely accepted by the woman and as a factor in being able to go beyond oneself morally, psychologically, and spiritually (p. 119).

Eleanor of Aquitaine is only five chapters long, but these chapters (and Markale's endnotes) are long, fascinating, and scholarly. Chapter 1 is a detailed biography of the queen; chapter 2, a review of her "strange divorce" from Louis VII; and chapter 3, a retelling of her career of queen of the troubadours after Henry's death. Markale discusses courtly love, "fine amor," and the customs of knights and queens. In chapter 4, he turns to the legends of the queen's independence, some of them flattering, some damning. Eleanor's life can, in fact, be seen as a study in love and marriage, which do not necessarily go together. The queen's entire life, Markale writes,

…in its historic framework is an illustration of [the] ascent of feminism [in the twelfth century]. Indeed, courtly love itself preaches woman's freedom outside marriage. During the twelfth century, marriage was felt to be a form of slavery for women, and in any case it was incompatible with love. Marriage was only a social action; it was necessary for procreation and inheritance and to guarantee society's balance inasmuch as the family constituted the essential base of any human group…. During this time, however, there was a realization of the ambiguous nature of marriage. … The great battle between love and marriage began in the West and has not come close to ending (p. 162).

In Chapter 5, Markale studies the image of Queen Eleanor in history and legend. This image, he says, "has been distorted by storytellers and scandalmongers." Eleanor is the new Messalina, the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius whose nymphomania was so fierce that she spent nights in Roman brothels. She's the new Iseult, the Celtic queen who seduced the hero Tristram, her husband's nephew. In the stories of Tristram and Iseult, love is more important than any other consideration on earth. Eleanor is the new Guinevere, to whom knights are devoted, and sometimes that devotion goes further than the spiritual or metaphorical. She's the new Melusine, a mythic figure of great power, whose marriage to a French king is seen as similar to Eleanor's marriage to Henry, especially as Eleanor is "exiled" in captivity. She's even compared to Cerridwen and Morgana. Markale cites the great medieval romances and shows how the poets and troubadours were influenced by Eleanor and thus modeled their romantic heroines on her. The queen is, he says, "woman as mistress," as defined in the Latin word domina "with all its underlying meanings." She is authority that "seduces instead of coldly ordering," as Henry did in ruling the Plantagenet empire. She is the queen "who imposes her will not through creating terror but by casting charm on those around her." She was thus "used as a model for heroines who had a sacred aspect" (p. 213). Eleanor is one of history's great queens, not always well behaved, but always fascinating. In his book King of the Celts, Markale demonstrates that it was Henry II who popularized the Arthurian mythos in England — with himself, of course, as the reincarnation of Arthur. (We know that what was believed to be the skeletons of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered on Glastonbury Tor during Henry's reign.)

Jean Markale is well known as a scholar of Continental Celticism in all its aspects. A former professor at the Sorbonne, he now lives in Brittany (home of Sir Lancelot), and among his books are Women of the Celts, Montségur and the Mystery of the Cathars, The Church of Mary Magdalen, The Druids, Epics of Celtic Ireland, and The Great Goddess. He is a scholar we can trust to be even-handed when discussing goddesses and women.

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