Originally published in French in 1979 and translated by Jon E. Graham, this is a fascinating and balanced portrait of the powerful medieval queen of both France and England. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life and the legends surrounding it are explored in unbiased detail as author Jean Markale strips away the myth to reveal the real woman behind them.
The introduction contains a compelling essay about creating heroes, and whether they are warrior, king, saint, righter of wrongs, or the devil in person, they define society in their own particular place and time. Eleanor was a legend in her own time, although whether brilliant or infamous depended on the storyteller; Markale does a superb job weighing the evidence on both counts.
Eleanor was born around 1120 as the daughter of William X of Aquitaine, one of the first troubadours, who are composers of songs, particularly of chivalric subjects. Since Eleanor had only one sister, she inherited the title and after a brief affair with her uncle married Louis VII, the king of France. After fourteen years and two daughters, the marriage was annulled. Two months later, she married Henry Plantagenet, who became Henry II, king of England. Eleanor had eight more children and began the powerful House of Plantagenet.
But Eleanor was more than just a royal brood mare. A feminist for the time, she had a powerful mind and boundless ambitions. Imprisoned by her husband for sixteen years for treason and after having several sons killed, she remained determined to keep her family on the throne whatever the cost.
Cultured like her father, Eleanor encouraged the troubadours in their craft and was credited for forming a society based on respect for the oath of fealty and chivalry. Marriage was no picnic for any class of woman at that time, and chivalric codes brought the respect and honor Eleanor felt was due them. Naturally, this resulted in many bitter enemies, as is evidenced through the scandalous tales told of her, many of which lacked convincing evidence or were completely absurd.
The reappearance of Ovid, The Art of Love by Capellanus, and the legend of Tristan and Iseult formed a new type of literature and were later immortalized by great writers such as Shakespeare. The legend of the birth of Merlin was solidified, and Arthur, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table took new forms in songs and stories of the day.
What would have made this book better are some visual aids. Although there is a family tree in the notes, it ends with Eleanor and Henry Plantagenet and does not include their children or their spouses. That, with a map of medieval Europe and perhaps a glossary for the immense cast of characters to refer back to, would be a tremendous help.
Although at times a challenging book, medieval history fans and those who wish to learn more about the development of chivalry will find Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours a must-read.