Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why I Love Eleanor of Aquitaine by Cecelia Holland

The Middle Ages was a tough time to be female; from the great Frankish queen Brunhilde being torn apart by wild horses to Bloody Mary having the word Calais engraved on her heart, those thousand years saw a lot of brave, doomed women confronting a male-dominated world. Eleanor of Aquitaine not only confronted the men, she won.

She walked the stage of twelfth century politics for sixty-seven years, and even when her exasperated (and nervous) second husband, the King of England, locked her up she was a force he had to reckon with. Before that, from the age of fifteen she had steered the policies of her weak first husband, the King of France, gone on Crusade and there defied him, and gotten back to the West by herself. Against all odds she forced him to give her an annulment so she could marry Henry of Normandy, who was only slightly more than half her age. She was stunningly beautiful, although no likenesses survive: this attested by poets and troubadours but also in her fascination for the men around her.

She bore a small legion of children and outlived all but two of them; three of her sons were Kings of England, Henry only junior king, but still. Two of her daughters became Queens. All of them nourished the vigorous renaissance of the High Middle Ages. Eleanor's Aquitaine was the heart of the worldly, luxurious and forward-thinking troubadour era, her capitol Poitiers was full of poetry and song, and her splendid court drew thinkers and artists from all over Europe.

She ruled. She wasn't just a lady on a chair, or a woman making babies; she made policy and enforced it, as Queen of France, as Queen of England with Henry II and Duchess of Aquitaine without him, and you get the feeling that Henry's efforts to exclude her from power, as much as Henry's frisky sex life, was what turned her against him.

In our time, with Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi as evidence, we take it for granted that women can and should operate in the public arena. In Eleanor's time, not so much. The shock and horror she evoked in some of the onlookers shows how astonishing her career was. She burst what you could call the glass cell that confined women in her time. Her daughters and grand-daughters ruled in the space she had cleared for them in the world, and we can all look back with satisfaction on the spectacle of a woman who refused to stay in her place and instead had it all, love and children, power and achievement, a life any man would envy.

Cecelia Holland is the author of over thirty historical novels. She currently lives in northern California where she teaches creative writing at Pelican Bay State Prison. To learn more, please visit her website:

1 comment:

  1. Loved this -- I'm so glad to see Eleanor getting the press she deserves! I can't wait to read your novel.