The Uncommon Commonality of Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Katherine M. Baltrush
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

The 12th century marked a major shift in the course of western history. As D.D.R. Owen writes in his book, Eleanor of Aquitaine:

"Western civilization was feeling the need for a reassessment, a redefinition of some of its basic principles regarding the nature of man, his place and function in creation, his social organization and responsibilities, his proper conduct in all his various activities."[1]

Here, he is referring to what has been called the “12th Century Renaissance”. At this time economic stability, governmental systematization, and the flourishing of urban life gave rise to intellectual institutions and a resurgence of not seen in the west since the fall of Rome. 

The changes taking place in this 12th century European world were not, however, uniform throughout Christendom. In his biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, simply named after its subject, Desmond Seward begins with a description of the culture of the province into which the future icon was born. In particular, he dwells on the fundamental differences between the southern province of Aquitaine and its northern counterparts of the Ils de and the duchy of Normandy. These distinctions seem rather marked. One is southern preference for literature as the intellectual exercise of choice rather than religious life or institutions of government. Another is the place of women whose lot Seward argues improves as a result of the chivalric ideals of new literature. Yet another is the level of contact that southern France experienced with the world beyond the confines of northern and western Europe, particularly with the via Moorish Spain. All of this worked to create a society in Aquitaine that, despite geographical proximity, had little in common with its northern neighbors. 

Eleanor lived at the junction of these two phenomena. She was raised on the foundation of a reforming western world that her people, aesthetically speaking, pioneered in many ways. The history of her, fact and fiction, result from that background.

A key piece of Eleanor lore is her adventure to the east in the Second Crusade. In her book Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings Amy Kelly wrote that the young queen, weary from months of difficult travel from France to the East and military lifestyle, was thrilled to be greeted by a family member and fellow Aquitanian in her uncle, Prince Raymond of Antioch. The two immediately began an intimate acquaintance, spending hours together in the lavish splendor of Raymond’s great palace. This intimacy seems to have turned sordid in the minds of some who accuse the queen of committing incest with her uncle. While Kelly admits that the original chroniclers mention few if any details of the alleged episode, it still suffices for her to say that the queen suddenly told the king of France that she was unhappy in their marriage. Louis apparently had to kidnap his own queen in order to get her to leave Antioch.[2]

Desmond Seward, when describing the incest accusation in his book, explains that contemporary chroniclers, such as John of Salisbury and Gervase of Canterbury, believed strongly in Eleanor’s innocence and admits that this incest theory is rejected by most modern historians. Further, he cites his primary sources for the incident as an unnamed chronicler who was writing forty years after the fact. The fact that contemporary chroniclers write to refute the charge indicates that such a theory not only existed, but made its way from Antioch to France.  The theory was still in existence decades after the crusade was over is Seward dates his source correctly.  Whether true or not, it would seem that there were those in Christendom who did, indeed, by the tabloid plot.

There are many reasons why an audience for such a theory existed. One is certainly must have been the legacy of debauchery left by Eleanor’s grandfather, Duke William IX of Aquitaine, in his high profile affair with Dangerosa, Viscountess of Châtellerault. According initially to William of Malmesbury, William kidnapped Dangerosa from her husband and kept her locked her away in a castle to serve as his personal concubine. Legend has it that the lust-crazed duke went so far as to paint Dangerosa’s likeness on his shield so that she could be “over him in battle as just as he was over her in bed.”[3] William’s actions proved that some members of the highest social ranks had no fear of suffering any consequences that could result from adultery. Indeed, he obviously made no effort whatsoever to hide his affair from anyone at all. Family ties being so strong in feudal society, it would not have been a leap for people to presume such lustfulness to be an inherited trait[4]. The possibility of a natural predisposition to such behavior would only serve to bolster its probability in the minds of chroniclers and their audience.

The family history gets worse when one considers the origin of Eleanor’s mother, Aénor, who was the daughter of Dangerosa and her husband, the Viscount of Châtellerault.[5] The timetable for the birth of Aénor and Dangerosa’s affair with Duke William IX is unknown. It may, therefore, be possible that Eleanor’s parents, Aénor and William IX’s son, William X, were themselves half brother and sister. If so, that would make Eleanor herself the product of incest. Since William IX was so public and, apparently rather raunchy, about his infidelities with Dangerosa, the population of French duchies and kingdoms would have been aware of that possibility of Eleanor being of nefarious origin. Whether Eleanor was the product of an inadvertent family wreath or not, the family had still had at least a brush with incest and proximity to it my have been believed by a certain audience an undeniable component of Eleanor’s nature. Therefore, Eleanor might appear to be all the more capable of committing incest herself while in Antioch.

Eleanor’s partner in the alleged against nature was not free from scandal either. When the reigning prince of Antioch was murdered in 1130 his widow, Alice, offered their daughter, Constance, in marriage to an heir of the Byzantine Empire. The western barons were alarmed by Alice’s maneuver and sent the capable but landless duke Raymond to pursue the hand of Constance. Once Raymond arrived in Antioch, he revealed himself only to the widow Alice the two agreed to marry one another instead. However, while Alice made preparations for the wedding, Raymond secretly took the princess Constance, then only nine years old, to a nearby cathedral and married her, thus making himself the rightful Prince of Antioch.[6] Obviously, Raymond was not adverse to tricking women to get his political way. So, when Raymond and King Louis had strategic differences in the east[7], there is no reason to think that Raymond would shrink from using his still young and, likely, impressionable niece as a tool to get back at the king. Raymond’s character, which Seward believes is the result of his race of colorful French southerners, would lend still more validity to the claim of incest with Eleanor. His unscrupulous political measures mixed with her youth and presumed suggestibility is a recipe for great drama.

All of these factors would serve to paint Aquitaine’s ruling family in a light that is not only unflattering, but also in sharp relief when compared to the culture of Eleanor’s husband, King Louis of France. Most chroniclers were of the same culture and temperament as their north French subjects and that culture fundamentally different from that of the Aquitanian south. Therefore, the colorful, arts patronizing, and relatively free society of the southern aristocracy may have been disturbing to the barons and intellectuals of King Louis’ court.

Eleanor’s life and legend can never be clearly known to us. Fiction clouds the facts to the point of obscurity in some cases. Even so, it is neither the facts nor the myths that are so fascinating. The factor that is so compelling is that in her one can see the spirit of an entire time and place manifested. That unique quality is what keeps her fresh in the mind of history.


References

Blois, Peter of. “Letter 154 to Queen Eleanor.” Trans. by M. Markowski. Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Paul Halsall. May 1997. Fordham University. 20 Nov. 2006 < http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html>.

Deuil, Odo of. De Profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem. Trans. Virginia Gingerick Berry.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1948.

Hanning, Robert, and Joan Ferrante. Introduction. The Lais of Marie de France.  By Marie de France. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.

Hollister, C. Warren, Robert C. Stacey and Robin Chapman Stacy. The Making of England to 1399. 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Hovenden, Roger of. The Revolt of 1173-74

Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

---. “Eleanor of Aquitaine and Her Courts of Love.” Speculum. Vol. 12 (1937): 3-19.

Newburgh, William of. “History.” Trans. by Joseph Stevenson. The Church Historians of England, volume IV, part 2 London: Seeley’s, 1861.

Owen, D.D.R. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend.  1993. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994.

Ramsey, Sir James H. The Angevin Empire or The Three Reigns of Henry II., Richard I., and John (A.D. 1154-1216). New York: The Macmillan Co, 1903.

Seward, Desmond. Eleanor of Aquitaine. New York: Times Books, 1979.

Stubbs, William. The Early Plantagenents. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889.

Wales, Gerald of. “The Death of Henry II and Comments on the Angevin Family, from De Instructione Principis.” Trans. by Joseph Stevenson. The Church Historians of England, volume V, part 1. London: Seeley’s, 1863, 221-225.


Endnotes

[1] Owen, 11

[2] Kelly pp. 52-61

[3] Seward 17

[4] Since there are no dates for the beginnings and ends of ideas, Eleanor could also very much have been a victim of the western standard that women were naturally inclined to evil.  The precedents for this notion are in figures such as Eve, Lilith, and Pandora. 

[5] Seward 18

[6] Seward 49

[7] Many of my sources state that Raymond had wanted to use Louis’ crusading army for his own project, which Louis refused.  

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