megwrites: A vertical stack of books, spines facing out leaning against a horizontal stack of books. (things read)
megwrites ([personal profile] megwrites) wrote2011-03-30 02:00 pm

Still working on the review backlog

Title: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life
Author: Alison Weir (
Genre: Non-fiction (Biography)
Page Count: 441
Publisher: Ballentine Books

Summary: Following the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine from her birth to her death, Weir examines not only her personal existence, but her political and dynastic impact on Europe as a woman who sat on the throne of two different countries, held the largest single inheritance in Europe, and was the wife of two kings and the mother of three more.

The Positives: In writing this book, Weir faced what is any historian's biggest obstacle and that is a lack of contemporary sources for her subject. For a woman who was so essential to the dynastic futures of both France and England and, indeed, to the politics of Europe there's an amazing lack of chronicling of her life, and that's because (as Weir points out several times in the book), Eleanor was a woman. And thus was not considered important enough, even as a queen and queen mother to be recorded in historical documents or even to have a portrait made. We have no descriptions of her basic physical looks, for instance. We are merely told that she was beautiful, not specifically why.

So given this enormous obstacle, Weir does a very admirable job of extrapolating and piecing together the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine from start to finish, and it's one of the reasons Weir is one of my favorite historical writers. As with all her books, she gives a balanced treatment to the sources she does have and does not overly value the accounts of later chroniclers, especially given that Eleanor suffered from public relations issues both during her life and afterwards when she was given an undeservedly bad reputation, and even accused of a murder (that was likely not a murder but a natural death) that Weir proves there's no way she could have committed and would have no motivation to commit besides.

When Weir sets out to write a biography of a person she does not begin with a pet theory that she then spends the entire book proving as many historians do. Instead, she lets a theory emerge from the facts. She does not ignore sources or overly favor or regard chroniclers who get details wrong, even if those details seem nitpicky. For instance, she points out when sources place Eleanor in locations she couldn't be because record keeping books that track her expenditures have her in an entirely different place at that date. It's that's level of attention to detail that has made Weir trustworthy to my mind. And given that she had a scarcity of sources to work aside from accounting and the occasional mention and three letters supposedly written by her to the Pope pleading for help in freeing Richard I from captivity in Romania, she does an exceptional job.

What comes through is that Eleanor was very human and very capable, and willful and fortunate enough to have the resources to defy the conventions of her day. This is the sort of book I want to hand to people who seem to believe that women lose their value after age 40 (that includes most people in Hollywood), because Eleanor's most important and most impressive political work was done well after menopause. The fact is that well into her 50's and 60's she was not only revered for her wisdom and prowess, but that she had a very active hand in managing the affairs of her sons. The last chapters of the book that detail the tireless work Eleanor did in not just securing support for Richard and then later John, but in making sure that she personally brought back the bride that her son was to marry show that Eleanor only improved with age in her life. Indeed, if there is any part of the biography that I think could be cut, it is her more youthful years. Weir does a good job of showing that Eleanor wisdom was often hard-won, that if she learned how to play politics, manage vassals, and interfere in the business of kings it was because she made mistakes with her first husband when she was Queen of France. I found myself very much admiring a woman who started off being headstrong but not head smart in her youth but determined to keep going and to learn from her previous errors.

It's also from this lack that Weir does what I've wished she would do in previous books, which is to lay out more general information on what the daily details of life would have been like for Eleanor. There were several parts where Weir describes such details and I found them very useful in putting together a more complete portrait in my mind of Eleanor's life and her circumstances, and it goes a long way towards helping the reader to understand the world in which she lived and thus the decisions that she and the people around her made.

Overall, the book is well researched, balanced, and well written and if you're looking for a good biography of an extraordinary woman, I'd definitely recommend this. In fact, I wish more biographies like this had been handed to me during my school years, especially during high school and college history classes, because there still seems to be this idea that up until the 20th century women didn't do anything because men didn't let them, and it's books like this that show that while women did live under extremely misogynistic social restrictions and dealt with the sexism of their times, many women found ways to work around it or even with it and accomplish a great deal and it is no fault of their own if later historians have felt that these accomplishments weren't worth mentioning or writing down. In fact, it's books like this that prove that there hasn't been a society yet that has been able to totally, utterly, and without exception surpress women and that even in the toughest times, with a bit of luck and a lot of determination, women have always managed to do amazing things. Women, like Eleanor, have always found a way.

The Negatives: The only real negatives are not so much Weir's fault as a product of the circumstances under which any historian would write a book like this. Because there are such scarce sources, there are gaping holes in Eleanor's life. We know the big events, but even the births of her children were not precisely recorded, nor was her own birth precisely marked. Thus, Weir would either have had to write a much shorter book or find things to fill those holes with. Which means that the book sometimes feels like it meanders or sidetracks into excessively detailed recounting of the lives of her sons and husbands and their lives. While I don't doubt that the affairs of her spouses and children were of great importance to her, I think Weir could have done a better job of refocusing those sections on how they might have effected Eleanor or what Eleanor might have felt or done in reaction to them.

I also think that if Weir wanted to fill in some gaps, using the additional info about the day to day culture and materials of the time might have made for a fascinating exploration of what, for instance, Eleanor's daily existence would have been like. What would she have eaten for her meals? What kind of bed would she have slept on? What would her routine have been like as a queen in a perpetually migratory court? What would a journey to Jerusalem have been like for her and her ladies, what would they have experienced, felt, seen, tasted, done? There were many points where Weir merely stated that Eleanor went to a certain place or did a certain thing and I thought expounding on that would have been beneficial and kept the book focused on the titular subject.

CoC Score: 6/10. Weir gives a pretty fair and balanced look at the folks on the other side of the Crusades and actually makes me wish she would write a book about Saladin, nor does she try to paint the Crusades as particularly heroic or well thought out or justifiable and she doensn't shirk from showing exactly how savage the European Crusaders often were. She shows pretty well that the Crusades were just as much about political calculation and personal foibles of rulers as religious fervor and that the European Crusaders were often bad prepared, misinformed, and horribly misguided.

Gender Score: 10/10. Weir does not forget the other women in Eleanor's life, her daughters and the people around her and even when talking about her sons and husbands, she does not forget to give fair treatment to the women in their lives, nor does she malign other women to raise Eleanor up. While she discusses the gender prejudices Eleanor faced, she doesn't paint a portrait that somehow it was all nothing but a miserable, despairing existence for women or that women couldn't play important parts (even if the menfolk didn't feel like writing that down in their history books).

GLBT Score: 5/10. The strange thing about dealing with topics of queerness and gender identity in historical books is that it often comes down to discussing if a historian has been accurate in claiming or debunking the theory that a particular figure had same-sex relationships or if a certain person may have truly identified as another gender besides the one they were assigned (for instance, there have been records of princes that, in private, dressed and acted as women and Mary Queen of Scots is said to have loved nothing more than being in men's clothing and riding the way men did, and Elizabeth I often said that she was an honorary man due to her position). So whether these things amount to evidence that someone was queer or trans or not is hard to say, and it also has the effect of being uncomfortable if you are queer or trans because it means that people go around picking apart what does and does not validate your identity. In this book, Weir does debunk a theory that Richard had same-sex relations (which is based absurdly on the fact that he slept in the same bed with another man he considered a dear friend, which had exactly no sexual overtones at the time), but does mention that in contrast there is good reason to believe that a certain sheriff was actually, in practice, gay due to rumors that he was very fond of young boys. However, this kind of made me somewhat uncomfortable because it reeked of the implication of equating being gay with being a pedophile and Weir doesn't specify what she means by "young boys". In that day and age, people were regularly married off and bore children in their teen years, so to say "young boys" may be misconstruing the facts a bit. I give it a 4 because I almost would have preferred for Weir not to address Richard's sexuality in that way, especially in a book that, ostensibly, was supposed to focus on his mother.

PWD Score: 0/10. Another hard score to give because what was and was not considered a disability in that time and place is vastly different to modern Western ideas of disability and what it means and how it should be treated. There are many people in the book who became injured or sick and dealt with the lasting effects of it, and Weir doesn't harp on any tropes that I could see, but there might be tropes I didn't spot. Eleanor herself is not what I would have considered disabled in anyway at any point in her life, save for in her last few years when traveling became a hardship she could no longer handle in her late 70's.

holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2011-03-30 07:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Okay--I would be very interested in citations, not because I doubt you but because I've found so little suggesting common early marriages historically and it just doesn't make sense to me outside of wealthy classes.

I'm not saying that it's impossible that this person was interested in boys that were genuinely very young or that she's wrong to call them "young" - but what's considered young is relative at times.

Oh, I agree.

But I think basing the crux of one's estimation of someone's sexual identity on a misreading of two men in bed together is absurd, especially given the historical context that people tend to ignore. And on a personal note, I really don't like when people want to speculate on the sexualities of historical figures as though it's some sort of really nifty game or very scandalous. The "do you think he's queer" game does not fly with me, especially not in history books.

I have...mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don't think there's much point to a lot of the speculation, and I also don't like it being treated as scandalous. On the other hand, I think queer people need queer history, and it's natural to look for evidence of it. Unfortunately, trying to dig that out of the historical record is difficult and tenuous and can look much the same as scandal-hunting (or wishful thinking).

It sounds like an interesting book! I will have to check it out.
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2011-03-30 08:27 pm (UTC)(link)
QUILTBAG is still the best acronym ever.

my high school English teacher did this to Oscar Wilde and tried to convince us all that any evidence of him being gay was pure propaganda

*boggle* How is that even possible?

I don't know, the whole concept of gay/straight is such a modern one, and the historical record what it is--I'm not really all that bothered if people think someone might have been queer, but really (not that we can know for sure) they never looked at anyone not of the opposite gender. Most of history seems to be far more focused on acts than identity when it comes to sex, so all of this gets into strange territory pretty quickly (says she who has been reading far too much about Roman sexuality lately, and being very glad she isn't one).

(My feelings on Richard I are that he might well have been bisexual, but that is not the most interesting thing about him. And I still like The Lion in Winter as a piece of historical fiction.)
Edited 2011-03-30 20:27 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2011-03-30 10:33 pm (UTC)(link)
I can understand the motivation, it just seems to take a whole lot of mental gymnastics to get to "Oscar Wilde was straight."

If I can ask (because I love talking history as I am an incurable history nerd), what makes you think this? Because I'd love to talk historical theories with someone who actually knows their stuff (btw, I've seen other posts you've made re: historical stuff and you have my respect).

Erm, well, thanks. I'm not sure I can make a great argument, though, and it may well be wishful thinking on my part. I haven't read up on him recently.

for instance, cultures where very wealthy, powerful women are allowed to take wives who are legally considered the same as they would be if they'd married a man, but these women may not have any sexual or romantic feelings for each other because it's more an economic/domestic arrangement than anything

I have not heard of these cultures, but I am interested!

Plus, defining someone's self for them even right now in 2011 is sketchy as best. I mean, if someone does have, say, sexual relationships with people of their same gender identity but they don't identify as queer, do we really have a business saying "no, you do this, this, and this, thus you are queer, because those are the Rules of QUILTBAGGERY."

Ha, yes. Which makes the whole field of queer history challenging, sigh. I guess I personally prefer to avoid the identity terms (as with "feminist," for example) when discussing historical personages, when I'm being precise. On the other hand, when I'm not being precise and formal, I throw around modern identity terms all the time, so.