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Eleanor of Aquitaine - review for Tribune

Here's the review of Eleanor of Aquitaine for Tribune Magazine:

Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Ralph V Turner, Yale University Press

By Belinda Webb for Tribune Magazine

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s is one rich story, having lost none of its glory and power in the near nine centuries since her birth. It is a story that was sparked and fuelled from many quarters, not least from misogynistic chroniclers, long before she would die at the then astonishing age of 82.

First married at 15 to the pious Louis VII Eleanor proved her faith to church and husband by joining him on crusade. But, there’s nothing like a long crusade to reveal the cracks in a marriage. It wouldn’t be long, not even returning from crusade in fact, that Eleanor would demand an annulment via the church laws of consanguinity, forcing the Pope Eugenius III to step in and play marriage counsellor. However, after bearing Louis two daughters, Eleanor had her way and the marriage was annulled. This left her at the age of 30, free to marry the twenty year old Henry, two years before he would become King of England and opening up what seems like another life-time of dramatic twists and turns.

In this new book on Eleanor, Turner dutifully gives us all the same information contained in the copious amount of previous books on Eleanor, not least those by Alison Weir and Jean Markale. However, for such a rich story, in the hands of Turner, it all quickly becomes something of a bore. This is mainly due to the fact that Turner has a dreadful habit of constantly repeating information by telling us, then summarising, and then foretelling. It is as though he, as a professor of history at Miami University, has been told by the publisher, to make it an ‘accessible’ story; to reach to as wide a readership as possible. Yet he succeeds only in patronising in the equivalent of one who stops every few paragraphs to ask, ‘did you get that? Well, I’ll repeat it again, just to make sure, and here’s what’s coming up’. A perfect example of this is the mentioning of Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX, the ‘Troubador Duke’, a fascinating individual in his own right. We are duly told that he is Eleanor’s grandfather on the very first page of the introduction, then again on page twelve, and then in a sub-section on him on page seventeen. He doesn’t stop there, but continues to mention the Troubador Duke as being her grandfather at regular intervals throughout the book, each time telling us as though he thought we must have forgotten, which leads me to think that the book Turner really wanted to write was not Eleanor of Aquitaine, but The Troubador Duke!

Despite this, however, there is welcome information on Eleanor’s female relatives, casting much helpful light on Eleanor’s character. There was Lady Philippa of Toulouse, the second wife of William IX, a ‘formidable’ woman, (also a subject of Turner’s need to repeat from one page to the next) whose failure to regain Toulouse can be seen as leaving Eleanor with the need to recapture for the sake of matriarchal pride. Then there was the eleventh century duchess, Agnes of Burgundy. What is apparent is that these women, refreshingly, sought power in their own right. However, when one realises the wealth of strong women, not just in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s genealogy, but many other great families, she becomes not quite so exceptional after all. One of Eleanor’s contemporaries was Ermengard of Narbonne who ruled over Narbonne for almost fifty years without sharing power with her husband.

What makes Eleanor’s life stand out is not the power, but the scandals. The darkest shadow that hung over her from her first marriage, and ever since, is that she was rumoured to have had an affair with a Muslim prince whilst on crusade. However, this is not surprising when taking into account her genes – and not from the female side. Turner agrees, putting it down to having grown up as a pampered princess in a court stamped with the personality of her troubadour duke grandfather – a man who created medieval vernacular love lyrics and who welcomed fellow poets, entertainers, composers and singers to his court, all leaving Eleanor ill-equipped for the role of Queen of two northern European kingdoms. However, Queen of two northern European kingdoms she was – and mother of three kings, including Richard the Lionheart.

I also enjoyed the contrast of Eleanor, a Southern woman, arriving at Louis’s rather dour court, and offering shocking contrast with those of his Northern France aides, who feared ‘the skill of ladies with words, their ability to apply verbal weaponry and sexual wiles for plotting and intriguing’.

But, despite all this, the main question this book left me asking is a topical one – whether academic historians have the edge over enthusiastic amateurs. Put it this way, by the time I had trudged through Turner’s book I felt that for most of the time I had been sat in a dusty library since the twelfth century, and not in the palaces with her. It has its promising parts but, like the charges levelled against history itself, it proved to be horribly repetitious with too few lessons learned.

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