The remarkable Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was irrefutably one of the most powerful and brilliant women of the middle ages. A stunning and charming woman in her youth, she was adored as wife by French King Louis VII. His jealousy over her behavior while on the Second Crusade together caused him to annul his marriage to her in 1152, after 15 years as Queen of France, and after bearing two daughters. Feudal custom in this case worked to her advantage and she retained possession of the duchy of Aquitaine which was approximately one third of France at the time. She wasted little time in remarrying and within two months had wed the future King of England, who was at the time, count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. In 1154 he became Henry II of England, thus uniting England, Normandy and the area of Western France (Aquitaine) under his rule. Eleanor and Henry had five sons and three daughters together. Her tireless diplomacy and the notable achievements of her children have given her the moniker the "grandmother of Europe." Indeed family feuds pitted her against her husband, and allied her with her sons who would serve as future kings of England.
Much is said about Eleanor's sons. William died at the age of three. Henry, Richard the Lionheart, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany; and John are memorialized, along with their formidable mother in the classic 1968 film A Lion in Winter (staring Peter O'Toole, Anthony Hopkins and Katharine Hepburn). But when Eleanor was not imprisoned by her second husband, or working to provide a ransom to free one of her sons, she was working as a patron of the arts-in particular the lyrical poetry of the troubadours. It was with her daughter Marie de Champagne that she helped to formalize the lyricism of troubadour poetry that originated in Languedoc, and she spread it to the North. Marie de Champagne commissioned the romance Lancelot from Chrétien de Troyes. In this way the "langue d'oc" culture of the Midi would influence aristocratic circles in the langue d'oïl. The songs of the troubadours became the basis of courtly love, wherein women are portrayed as idealized ladies worthy of gentlemanly pursuit rather than as sexual objects to bring male gratification. There is some evidence that, in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church, the romantic relationships espoused were rather modern in alluding to mutual sensual gratification (see the poetry of trobairitz Béatrice de Die and Tibors de Sarenom). While much of the poetry brings to mind notions of chivalry and honor, feminist scholars have pointed out that this may tell us more about men than women as it represented a shift in the popular notion of masculinity. In some ways this placing of women on a pedestal parallels the growing adoration of the Virgin Mary among Catholics. While flattering, it in many ways still confines women in a role defined and presented by men. Regardless of the society in which she lived, any examination of Eleanor herself will attest that she was a woman who prevailed over any and all attempts at confinement and she achieved some of her greatest feats in old age, after the death of her second husband literally released her back into the world.
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Medieval Women.
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