Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Book Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography

Many people who know my politics assume my daughter Eleanor is named after a famous American first lady. Far from it. She’s actually named for an infamous duchess: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Of course, infamous is in the eye of the beholder, and virtually every contemporary account describing Eleanor’s escapades was inked by a man. Which is why I so appreciated reading Marion Meade’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, a book that seeks to illuminate this amazing woman, both through painstaking research* and the intuitive piecing together of events that history left unrecorded. Meade’s attempt to see events from Eleanor’s perspective isn’t perfect, but it probably brings the reader closer to the truth than contemporary, male-oriented accounts ever could.

Brilliant, wealthy and impetuous, Eleanor – along with the land’s she herself controlled in Languedoc (now southern France) – represented the dynastic marital jackpot of twelfth century Christendom. Her father’s untimely death on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela prompted her hasty marriage to Louis of France. Meade speculates on the rationale for their marital problems quite extensively – and I think pretty persuasively – based on the very different relationship she maintained with her second husband, Henry of England. Before she managed a divorce from Louis on the well-established grounds of consanguinity (a burden the Pope had already removed), she gave him two daughters, one of whom was Marie of Champagne, patron to Chretien de Troyes.

With her second husband she had many more children, including two kings of England, Richard the Lionhearted and the ignominious John, who eventually was forced by his unhappy nobles to sign the Magna Carta. But it certainly wasn’t a “love” match, and their family feuding eventually took on civil war proportions, with some of the children siding with Eleanor and the king of France against Henry.**

While Eleanor has mostly been framed by the size of her patrimony, the depth of her perfidy and the acts of her progeny, what struck me most in reading Meade’s biography was her prodigious energy! She never seemed to stop moving, covering thousands of miles throughout her realm, even in years when she was pregnant. She represented a gentle touch to her subjects, probably a much needed one, considering Henry’s heavy hand. And she didn’t slow down much over her long life. The woman was crossing the Pyrenees on horseback at close to 80 years old, securing a granddaughter’s marriage and sealing a peace treaty!

Meade paints what I consider a deserving portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine. To do this, she imagines motives and considers alternatives to “common knowledge.” Since male historians, many of them clerics with axes to grind, are the sources of the “common knowledge” about Eleanor, I can’t see any way around it, although as someone trained in historical method, I can see the potential problems with this strategy. I think anyone interested in medieval history will thoroughly enjoy this book, as well as those interested in history from a feminist perspective.

This book counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. My non-fiction kick is tearing that one up, but I'm moving on to a bit of fiction at this point! Thanks to Jen at the Introverted Reader for hosting.

*You know a book is painstakingly researched when your Kindle says you’ve read 86% of the book, and you’ve already arrived at the footnotes!

** Kind of makes the squabbles at your last family gathering seem like a walk in the park, doesn’t it?


  1. First of all, I like your new look here!

    I read one historical fiction about Eleanor and it was mediocre at best. She's been on the sidelines of a few others I've read and I have to say that I find her interesting, for many of the reasons you mentioned. This book sounds like one that I would like. Thanks for the review!

  2. This seems so intriguing. And I think the name Eleanor is beautiful!

    I've not read much on Eleanor of Aquitane; I'm in the mood for a good non-fiction book right now.

  3. Sounds like a wonderful book. I've never read about Eleanor but this sounds like a great place to start!

  4. This is a part of history I don't know enough about - very intriguing!

  5. I am also named after Eleanor of Aquitaine and have had many years explaining who she was. So often people ask First Lady or the song Eleanor Rigby? :-/
    I spent my High School years nick-named Shelby, after the 1967 Shelby Mustang GT500 that stars as the 'unicorn' car named Eleanor in a Nicolas Cage/Angelina Jolie film "Gone in 60 seconds".


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col