Monthly Archives: June 2010

Eleanor and Raymond, part 2

Okay we’ve read the evidence. What can the historian, and the historical novelist, do with it? Let’s be both prosecution and defence and see what we come up with.

The main problem with the story, I think, is our natural aversion to a tale of incest and the way it conflicts with our sympathy for Eleanor. What might a prosecutor say? Eleanor was quite young at the time of the Second Crusade, about twenty six. In all likelihood, before she met him on a pier in Antioch, she had probably spent little to no time with her uncle, since he had been at court in England prior to his journey to Jerusalem in 1136. And by all accounts, he was quite a hottie, tall and good-looking.

More importantly, attitudes to what we would consider incest were very different in the south of France, where Eleanor came from. The church at the time was trying to push a very strict definition of marriage that excluded even quite distant relative from marrying. But in the south they practiced partible inheritance, meaning a family’s property would be divided between all the heirs (including women) when the parents died. This meant that a family’s holdings would be divided into smaller and smaller pieces — unless relatives married and kept the bits together. And Eleanor herself was the product of a union that would squick most of us out. Her father, William X of Aquitaine, was the child of Wiliam IX. Her mother, Aenor of Chatellerault, was the daughter of William IX’s mistress, Dangereuse.

Many of the later salacious stories abut Eleanor come from the pens of authors in England who had every reason to discredit her in support of their king, Henry II, once the two became estranged. But the two who report the story of Eleanor and Raymond had little reason to shred her reputation. John of Salisbury was English, but much of his career was spent on the continent. William of Tyre, who is most explicit about the accusations, was even further from the world of the English court.

I’ve discussed evidence. There is also some interesting “absence of evidence.” King Louis’s chaplain, Odo of Deuil, wrote a history of the Second Crusade meant to glorify his master. Surely it was intended to cover the whole crusade, but in fact it ends abruptly right before the French reach Antioch. And there is some evidence that passages about Eleanor have been expunged from it, to minimize her role.

What can the defence say to all of this? Simply this: The crusade was a failure. And the chronicles our historians wrote were not meant to be simple collections of facts; they were to be moral explanations that explained why the world was as it was within a Christian framework. Failure was expressed as God’s will and the consequences of sin. The notion that a prideful, arrogant, greedy, or lustful woman could bring down a kingdom was an ancient one and used often in medieval histories to explain reverses of fortune. Certainly there was something wrong between Eleanor and Louis, which came to a head in Antioch. But perhaps Eleanor was merely supporting Raymond politically, wanting to remain with her armies to help him in Antioch, while her husband preferred to go south to Jerusalem. Unused to a political women, perhaps the historians just assumed sex was involved because it fit their moral universe.

It is interesting to me that while most popular historians dismiss the tale of Raymond and Eleanor, the most recent study of the Second Crusade by an academic historian, Jonathan Phillips, gives it much more credence. People who write historical fiction often talk about “getting the facts straight,” and of course this is important. But what I hope I have shown in these posts, is that history isn’t only or even mostly about a set of facts. We have very few facts, much fewer than you would imagine. What we have is evidence. And it is in the interpretation of that evidence that the historian and the novelist create art.

Eleanor and Raymond

In the spring of 1148, Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived with her husband, King Louis of France in the county of Antioch, after a horribly traumatic journey through Asia Minor (what we’d call Turkey) which ended with the loss of most of the crusader army they had brought with them. They were met by Raymond of Poitiers, Eleanor’s uncle on her father’s side. He had come to Antioch years before, hinting he’d wed the widowed countess, Alice, and instead, to her great chagrin, married her daughter, and claimed the county in her name.

The story told of Eleanor’s time in Antioch, that she had an illicit relationship with Raymond, is not one that tends to find favour with readers. It seems too gossipy and too, well, icky. Eleanor has entered the pantheon as a brave, strong, independent women at a time when they were rather thin on the ground, and it is just not a story that we want to believe about her.

So what do her contemporaries say? John of Salisbury raises the alarm bell in his Historia Pontificalis:

While they remained in Antioch to console, heal, and revive the survivors from the wreck of the army, the attentions paid by Count Raymond to Eleanor and his constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her aroused the king’s suspicions.

He goes on to say that when the king decided to leave Antioch, the queen wished to stay and use her army to help the count, and Raymond was more than happy to have her remain, if the king would give his consent:

And when the king made haste to tear her away, she mentioned their kinship, saying it was not lawful for them to remain together as man and wife since they were related in the fourth and fifth degree.

In other words she raised the idea of divorce from the king, based on their consanguineity.
John tells us more:

There was one knight amongst the king’s secretaries, Thierry de Galeran, a eunuch whom the queen had always hated and mocked, but who was faithful and had the king’s ear like his father before him. He boldly persuaded the king not to suffer her to dally longer at Antioch, both because, “Guilt under kinship’s guise could lie concealed,” and because it would be a lasting shame to the kingdom of the Franks if in addition to the other disasters, it was reported that the king had been deserted by his wife or robbed of her.

Thierry’s words about guilt under kinship’s guise are meant to imply a sinful relationship between Eleanor and her uncle, and John is well aware of the irony of her using her distant relationship with the king to escape her marriage and stay with Raymond. The king did tear her away from Antioch against her will , and the two hated each other ever more. John recounts that they went in separate ships when they finally left the Holy Land, and that Pope Eugenius did a spot of marriage counselling when they arrived in Rome, pushing them to sleep in the same bed. John was in Rome at the time, so would have been in a good place to hear all the gossip first hand.

William of Tyre, speaking abut the same events, is more explicit:

The queen readily assented to Raymond’s design for she was a foolish woman. Her conduct before and after this time showed her to be far from circumspect. Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.

William, too, writes of Louis’s departure from Antioch and raises the spectre of s sneaky, night-time escape:

By the advice of his chief nobles, King Louis hastened his departure and secretly left Antioch with his people. Thus the splendid aspect of his affairs was completely changed, and the end was quite unlike the beginning. His coming had been attended with pomp and glory; but fortune is fickle, and his departure was ignominious

John and William both wrote their accounts some years after the events they describe, though both were alive during the events they describe. William would have been about eighteen when Louis and Eleanor were in the Holy Land, certainly old enough to hear the tales. There is also some evidence that is exactly contemporary that, at the very least, demonstrates the king and queen were having serious marriage troubles. Abbot Suger of St. Denis was one of those left in France to take care of the kingdom while Louis and Eleanor were off gallivanting in the Holy Land. He wrote the following in a letter to Louis, responding to one that is now lost:

Concerning the queen your wife, we venture to congratulate you, if we may, upon the extent to which you wait to express your anger, if there be anger, until with God’s will you return to your own kingdom and see to these matters and others.

Hmm, something was certainly up. Can we be sure, reading this evidence, that we know what it was? Was Eleanor unfaithful to her husband with her uncle? We still need to place this evidence in context. In my next post, I’ll do just that and give some reasons why she may be guilty as charged — and some why she may be innocent.

Sex Sells?

(Oh dear, the google hits on this blog are about to get really thrilling with that title!)

A staple of contemporary historical fiction is the novel about the famous man or woman, and a staple of those novels is some speculation about said famous person’s love life. Why not? That’s exactly the kind of information the academic historian is in a poor position to discuss, and it allows the author to reveal the personal, emotional side of a character, which is the reason many come to historical fiction.

But how far can you go? How far should you go? One answer to that question is that you can write whatever you like and speculate as much as you want as long as you do it well. But what if, as an author, you really want to stay close to historical fact, or at least plausible legend and contemporary rumour? The fact is, we can’t prove who loved whom in the past about anyone. We can’t even prove who was whose father if we go too deep in time.

There is a good deal of discussion about this question out there on the intertubes. Susan Higginbotham has been fighting the good fight to save Margaret of Anjou’s reputation. Kathryn Warner is fighting the good fight over on her blog to defend Edward II against the most outrageous attacks. And a really interesting discussion over on Historical Fiction Online about who Alison Weir’s recent Captive Queen and who Eleanor of Aquitaine may or may not have slept with is what started my interest in this whole thing. I can’t speak to most of the rumours used by Weir in her book because they cover Eleanor’s later career and I just don’t know enough about the sources. But in a future post (soon!) I want to discuss the original charge against Eleanor, that she had an affair with her uncle while on the Second Crusade. Today, I want to talk in a general way about how an author might deal with what counts as evidence about a medieval person’s romantic dalliances. An author is of course free to do what he or she likes, as long as it works. But what can an author use, and still claim that she or he is following history?

Rumours that emerge after, say, 1500 are extremely suspect. They usually come from academic circles, not really the best places for buried oral tradition to surface. Stories that are contemporary with a given person’s life are obviously the most deserving of credence. But that doesn’t mean they are true. Historians in the Middle Ages didn’t write because they wanted to get the facts down, and we make a mistake when we treat their works as simple unfiltred repositories of information. The wrote to make an argument and they used standard tropes and moral lessons, one of which was the wayward queen whose lust/greed/jealousy brought down the kingdom. So ideally we will have more than one piece of independent evidence that will confirm what we say.

But, to argue for the other side for a moment, how often do we have more than one piece of evidence about anything that happened in the Middle Ages? Often the chronicler who is the only one to tell us the queen was a bit naughty, is also the only one to tell us exactly what went wrong at the battle of Damascus. Does it make sense to dismiss the rumour, while taking the Damascus account unquestioningly as gospel truth? Not really. We must constantly ask why our sources write down everything they tell us , whose agenda did it serve, how the different stories support each other, and how credible we find their tales. Well, this is why writing history, fictional or non-, is difficult. But also why it is fun!

Next post: Eleanor and her uncle as a case study of how to read our sources.

Viktor Frankl

Anyone who spends time on Facebook knows all about those tests: “What European country are you?” “What decade are you,” “Which deceased female poet are you?” etc. Most of them are pretty unenlightening, not to say badly spelled (though I did admire the wisdom that correctly identified me as “Garden Party Barbie”) but today’s test, “Which psychotherapist are you?” reminded me of a name I hadn’t thought of in years. Evidently, I am Viktor Frankl, and I am a logotherapist.

Logotherapy, the therapeutic method developed by Frankl, teaches that human beings are primarily motivated by, not power or pleasure, but the desire to find meaning in their lives, and that we achieve peace when we find this meaning. We find meaning by doing a deed (work?), experiencing a value (truth, beauty, love; of nature, art, or a person), or, when all that is positive fails, through suffering.

If you have read my “About me” page, you will recognize that these are the views I share. Anyone who writes history is searching for meaning and is actively constructing it out of the chaos of data left by passing humans. Writing stories is a construction of meaning within the fiction/not fiction of the beginning, middle, and end of a tale. I don’t know if I believe that it is our primary impulse, but I believe it should be, that it is the only way to deal with the turmoil caused by all our other primary impulses.

I read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in high school, I believe in religion class at he Convent of the Sacred Heart. I was interested in anything to do with the Holocaust at the time, and I remember appreciating it, though not drawing any especially lasting lessons from it. At the time I did not know that my grandfather’s sister died at Theriesienstadt, where Frankl spent so much time or that, like him, my great-grandparents and my grandfather’s sister were transported to Auchwitz, though with worse fate. What I wonder now is how much Frankl’s book might have stuck inside me without me knowing it all these years. It seems that reading an account of the Holocaust is a rite of passage for high schoolers these days (rightly so). I also believe we are made up of all the books we have read, as well as the experiences we have had and the people we know. I wonder if I would have been different if we had read Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank instead of Viktor Frankl at the Sacred Heart all those years ago?

Toronto

Porter, Streetcar, Bathurst and College, Crown and Tiger, Cloak and Dagger, Iranian Kebabs, up at dawn, Future Bakery, Liber testamentorum ecclesie ovetensis, Flip Toss and Thai, Burry and David, Cora’s, Harbord Bakery poppy seed danish, the Kitchener Picks, Indian food, the Roxton not the Rushton (or is it the other way around?), Ezra’s Pound and Alison, Polish sausage on the street (a big mistake), lots of Rachel, Monkey’s Paw, Ossington between Dundas and Queen, RCMP paper napkins (wish I had bought them now), Foxley (arctic char ceviche and lamb duck prosciutto dumplings), Clinton’s, cider all over my sweater the floor and everything, Stanley Cup, Carin and her Mum, Bar Mercurio Espresso, carrot cake, Kensington Market, Lettuce Knit, Romni Wool, hempathy, Subway, Streetcar, Porter.

Home.

In Praise of Historical Fiction

Those of you who like to read it or write it may be interested in this staunch defense of the genre by Sarah Dunant, in anticipation of the award of the first Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction:

Historical Fiction is the Genre of the Moment

I must say that I personally missed the moment when it was not a prominent genre, having moved straight from Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, to Dorothy Dunnett and Colleen McCullough, and then on to Dunant herself along with her other peers without a break.
Why read historical fiction? Dunant defends the genre against the tiresome accusation of “escapism,” a charge that means nothing more than someone is enjoying their reading a little too much for some else’s taste, in my opinion. If we read to learn the truth of ourselves and our world, historical fiction will always have a place, because it is sometimes only by peering deep into the past that we can see ourselves truly, as if in Tuchman’s distant mirror.

By coincience, I finished Dunant’s Sacred Hearts this very evening. It was wonderful, and took me deep into the sixteenth-century convent world that I had explored earlier this year with my students in our class on Teresa of Avila. I can scarcely believe that 2010 has brought me such treasures already as it and Mantel’s Wolf Hall, also on the Scott prize shortlist. I don’t envy the judges.
And now I am off to read the rest of the shortlist