On Wednesday a dozen members of the Barnes and Noble History Book Club met to discuss Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir. We had fewer members present than usual, perhaps due to the number of members who travel at this time of the year.
A Soap Opera
We began with the comment that Eleanor's life was like a prime time soap opera. Perhaps the richest heiress in Europe, she was not only Duchess of Aquitaine but also Queen of France and later Queen of England (and empress of the Angevin empire). First married as a teenager, she had two husbands, both of whom tried to annul their marriages -- one succeeded and one failed. She had ten children (2 with hubby one and 8 with hubby two, all before the annulment attempts) and was rumored to have had many affairs. A son by her second marriage was engaged to the daughter of her first husband by his second wife. She traveled to Jerusalem on the second Crusade -- one of the great adventures of her time. She also traveled to Sicily escorting a Spanish princess who was to marry Eleanor's son, Richard the Lionhearted, then the King of England on his was to the third Crusade. She administered large territories in her own right and with delegated authority from her husband. She also spent years in (more or less comfortable captivity) while husband Henry II lived with his mistresses. She aided her sons in their revolution against her husband, and was an important adviser to her two sons who later became kings sequentially after the death of her husband, Henry II.
One member of the group commented that he found the book difficult to read because he so disliked the people. Eleanor and her husbands essentially sold off their daughters for political advantage. Sons revolted against their fathers, fathers disinherited their sons. Another member pointed out that fratricide was common in the Ottoman empire as sultans quickly killed off their brothers that might challenge for rule, and were common in other feudal monarchies. We wondered whether the custom of farming off children to other courts to be educated, but also as hostages, might have had a role. The lord placed in loco parentis might be expected to train a boy for knighthood, but also to influence him against the child's father's interests.
The High Middle Ages
A member of the group commented that the book gave her too much data on the minutia of Eleanor's life, and not enough information that would have been more important to the reader. For example, Henry II made very important reforms in the English legal system, but the reader was not informed about the content of those reforms. The book had details about expenditures for Eleanor's clothes, and mentioned that her son Richard had taxed his kingdom heavily to fund his Crusade and to ransom himself when he was kidnapped (during his return from the Crusade). However, the book did not quantify the wealth of Henry II's realm nor the income it provided to his government.
Eleanor's 80+ years spanned most of the 12th century -- a time classed as the high middle ages. She reached adulthood toward the end of a long warming period during which European agriculture had expanded. Monasteries were involved in reforms that included improvements in agricultural technology. For example, the Cistercians established their monasteries in what had been wastelands, pioneering techniques for their reclamation. Water and wind mills were increasingly in use.
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal. In that book we had read that after Toledo was recaptured by Christians from its Muslim rulers (in 1085), texts from ancient Latin and Greek sources as well as some Arabic sources were translated and began to enter Europe. The Abbey at Cluny (founded by one of Eleanor's ancestors and rebuilt using funds provided by Henry II) had an important library including such texts; its abbot, who lived contemporaneously with Eleanor and Henry. was a famous scholar. The University of Paris was established in the middle of the 12th century. Peter Abelard, philosopher and theologian, was an ornament of the 12th century.
We suggested that the economic developments of Europe culminating in the 12th century enabled the Christian successes in the Crusades as well as the Reconquista of Spain.
One of the best known stories of Eleanor's life is that of the Thomas Becket, described in the book as well as in the film, Becket. Becket, who had been Henry II's Chancellor of England, was named by him to be Archbishop of Canterbury. We were struck by Becket's transformation from a worldly courtier supporting the king in his issues with the church, to a hair-shirted religious official fully opposing the king and defending the church, Of course the martyrdom of Becket, assassinated by Henry's barons, and Henry's later public penance for the act are among the most dramatic incidents in British history.
The group delved into the religious divisions at the time to provide some background. We noted that there was a schism with two popes. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York both claimed the primacy of England. The Cluniac abbeys, devoted to ritual with richly decorated churches and a relatively comfortable life for the monks, were competing for influence with the Cistercian abbeys, with their monks devoted in equal measure to prayer, work and study, living a spartan life; both networks included abbeys in the Angevin empire.
Knowledge in the Middle Ages
A member of the group mentioned that he found it almost impossible to understand the mind of the person in the middle ages. How could people believe in the cults of relics -- bodily parts of saints, fragments of the true cross, etc.? How could they accept the authority of such obviously unworthy clerics and aristocrats? One answer was that we have developed skepticism, which did not exist in the medieval mind; we have done so as a result of our more complex lives and our modern extensive schooling.
It was also suggested that the source of knowledge was the church, and the church had religious as well as lay authority. The local priest could claim to be ordained by God teaching material sanctioned by the Church of God. Kings ruled by divine right. Failure to accept the teachings of the church or authority could be sanctioned by serious punishment in one's lifetime, and by an eternity in hell.
We also noted that the acceptance of authority seemed very different in the upper classes than in the lower classes. The Holy Roman Emperor who appointed his own pope when he didn't approve of the one elected by the leaders of the church, or the barons who assassinated Becket were apparently not as dominated by the intellectual authority of the Church. Dukes and Counts who rebelled against their liege lords were less than impressed by the diving rights of their superiors.
Final Comments on the Book
There seemed to be wide agreement that Eleanor was an amazing woman, well worth our attention. Not only did she live in an interesting time, but she was present in some of the most interesting events of that time. In a time when women had little power, she had a great deal of influence over events. Indeed, at a time when women were not visible in the records, Alison Weir was able to find a great deal of factual information about Eleanor.
There was a question about the book's apparent willingness to accept dubious accounts of Eleanor's infidelities. The author herself states in an afterword to the book that most historians in the 20th century discounted those tales.
Finally, a member noted how much more interesting the 12th century was than he had previously believed. Before reading this book he had foolishly assumed that the middle ages were undifferentiated, while he now sees the 12th century as preparing the ground for the Renaissance. It was a time of major economic, cultural and political changes.
Here are some related posts by one of our members:
- Preparing to read about Eleanor of Aquitaine
- Further preparation for reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine
- Royals in the 12th Century Were Terrible People
- Eleanor of Aquitaine: Secular and Ecclesiastical Power in the High Middle Ages
- Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Biography
- Eleanor of Aquitaine in the movies