Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael R. Evans

I’m on record as saying that if I were to be a knight in service, to bend the knee to anyone in history, it would be to Eleanor of Aquitaine, “by the wrath of God, Quene of England.”  As a Medieval queen, and especially as one of significant personal power, she’s known to have done some monstrous deeds.  Every Medieval monarch can claim that, and most of them go by such wonderful titles as “the Good,” “the Fair,” “the Just,” or “The Pius.”  If you ever see such titles in a history book, you can bet there’s blood to be spilled.  Eleanor didn’t hide behind such things, though she is known today as the Queen of Chivalry due to her influence in spreading such ideals.  As an adulteress, murderer, and mother of princes who would attempt to usurp the throne from her temperamental husband with her blessing, she stands tall in the annals of legendary personalities and still comes across as far more virtuous than many who have held power.  The reason why is because as much as she’s been vilified by friend and foe alike simply for being a woman of power, she’s also shown valor of her own in the Crusades, is known to have possessed remarkable political savvy, and is often seen through the ages — as the publishing blurb for this book book summary states — “… as a patron of literature, champion of courtly love and proto-feminist defender of women’s rights.”  Short of being a warrior herself, and even in spite of it, Eleanor comes down through the centuries as one of the strongest, smartest, and most politically powerful women to have ever walked the earth.  She needed no sword, for she could smite you with but a smoldering glare… because if the legends are true, she’s also among the most beautiful and charismatic of her age, inspiring loyalty and jealousy in equal measure.  How could it be otherwise for the mother of the most over-romanticized king in English history, Richard the Lionheart?  Simply put, she’s one of the most interesting people in the pages of history.

Thing is, we really don’t know much about her at all.  Most of what we know comes from a study of those around her we do know and of the times and circumstances in which she lived.  Let’s be clear on this: we know who she is based on turbulent people in turbulent times in a world lit only by fire.  That’s really not much to go on.  We don’t even have a clue what she looked like beyond her effigy.

In spite of what many historical novelists will tell you, there’s not a single shred of evidence anywhere to suggest what color her hair might have been, though we’re pretty sure it was gray by the end of it since she outlived almost everyone in her era through sheer force of will to age 82.  “Contemporary” artworks are unlabeled and could apply to any number of young noblewomen, up to and including the equally legendary Guinevere.  Written testaments give fame to her beauty and strength, but details are nonexistent, and flattery was ever the style.  The research many of these novelists conjure up is esoteric at best, and at least one of the most respected such novelists claims to have seen such details in a vision.  Yeah.  I’m guessing she looked something like this:

Not that there’s anything wrong with this.  I mean, I’d follow her into battle; wouldn’t you?  It’s just that this is not history.  For all we know, Eleanor looked much better than we think, am I right?  *crickets*  Everyone’s a critic.  Still, the point is that as with so many literary manifestations of wish fulfillment, the romantics of the world are in love with the idea of being in love, and Eleanor has inspired far more than her fair share of such stories.  That’s where this book comes in.  It serves as both a public service to the truth and a dagger through the heart.

You see, this book rides in on the high horse of actual scholarship and gives us a fairly comprehensive overview of nearly every popular myth and legend surrounding Eleanor, systematically cutting them down in turn.  The literary carnage that’s left behind will leave a reader with two realizations.  The first is that we don’t know what we think we know about Eleanor, and the second is we know even less about her than when we started.  She’s as mythic as the Arthurian legends she helped bring to popularity, and as with those legends, she’s so incredibly vague that we can read what we want into the blank spaces.

While I will be the first to admit that the author’s points are well and truly formed based on what little evidence we do have as well as what we don’t, there is one tiny flaw in the author’s arguments.  It’s a single point I’d make in Eleanor’s defense that still points to her as being worthy of her praise on some level.  It is said we may know a person by the company they keep.  Sir William Marshal was undisputedly the greatest knight to have ever walked the earth in all of history, the details of his life well-chronicled by history and scrutinized by peer and historian alike.  He kept the realm together in spite of Eleanor, her turbulent husband, and their children through five kingships of the Plantagenet dynasty.  If Marshal bent the knee to Eleanor and respected her above all others, if indeed the word of a knight such as he is anything at all to judge by, then that’s good enough for me.  Her biggest claim to fame in my heart is that she inspired through patronage and example at court the same kind of chivalry in other knights that Marshal exuded, across historical and fictional boundaries alike.  That sort of thing outweighs a world of ill in my book.  And as much as there is to disprove who she may have been, there’s also not much there to prove she isn’t what we think either.  How’s that for some literary aikido in the name of chivalry?  It may not hold up in court, but still…

Beyond that, this is an insightful and somewhat sobering read that really needs to find its way into the hands of some self-righteous novelists.  If you’re even remotely curious, it’s for you.  Without the facts, the legend is only so much smoke and mirrors.

4 stars

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