Category Archives: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

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.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade

Amy Kelly’s engaging and evocative biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings says about Eleanor’s participation in the Second Crusade, citing Michaud’s History of the Crusades as her source:

With the queen came “many other ladies of quality,” Sybille , Countess of Flanders, whose half brother was King of Jerusalem, Mamille of Roucy, Florine of Bourgogne, Torqueri of Bouillon, Faydide of Toulouse, and scores of others whom the chroniclers could not afford the parchment to enumerate.

Do a google search for a few of those names. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You’ll find that scores of other writers, both in published non-fiction and fiction, as well as web-based sources have taken those words as gospel truth and have published that list of names almost word for word — Allison Weir, Norman Cantor, Antonia Fraser, etc.
Problem. Not one name on that list actually accompanied Eleanor to the Holy Land — and as it happens, Michaud mentions none of them. Let’s take a look at them one by one:

  • Sybille of Anjou, countess of Flanders: She did eventually make it to the Holy Land, travelling with her husband on his third pilgrimage there, at which point she refused to return home and spent the rest of her days as a nun in the convent of Bethany. But during the Second Crusade she stayed in Flanders to run the county, leaving her husband to go to Jerusalem alone.
  • Mamille of Roucy: Died around 1122.  The Second Crusade began in 1147
  • Florine of Bourgogne: There is a Florine of Bourgogne who was married to Prince Sweyn of Denmark and apparently they both went on the First Crusade where both of them died in 1097.  One source suggests she remarried and died in the Holy Land in 1102.
  • Faydide of Toulouse:  She, at first, seemed the most promising because her husband, Alfonso Jordan of Toulouse did go on the Second Crusade.  But it seems Faydide died long enough before the crusade that Alfonso was able to marry and then separate from Ermengard of Narbonne before he left for the east.
  • Torqueri of Bouillon:  Not only can I find no evidence of anyone of this name, “Torqueri” does not even seem to be a woman’s name.  Or a man’s name.

So, frankly, shame on all these authors for simply accepting Kelly’s words as fact, especially the ones who claim to be writing non-fiction. But the lie has been repeated so many times, it has become a commonplace. Faced with that, what does the historical novelist do? Work the myth into the story — or change it?