Everything you know about Eleanor of Aquitaine is wrong! Or so says Michael R. Evans, lecturer in medieval history at Central Michigan University. In his book “Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine”, he works to destroy the myths that surround the life of Eleanor.
He begins by defining the role of medieval queens and how Eleanor fits the image. During her reign as Queen of France, she does appear in charters governing France and her duchy of Aquitaine in tandem with her husband Louis VII. As Queen of England, she also appears in charters and in some chronicles. But she seems to work more alongside her husband Henry II as opposed to autonomously unless she was governing as regent in his absence. She definitely fulfills the customary medieval queen roles of mother, diplomat and intercessor during Henry’s reign and those of her sons Richard I and John.
Evans talks about Eleanor and the creation of what he calls the “Black Legend” which came about through the chronicler’s descriptions of her scandalous behavior usually written with their own political agenda. This includes her supposed incest with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch during the Second Crusade. These rumors didn’t really start until later chroniclers such as William of Tyre wrote about them. Incest allegations were never brought up during the annulment of the marriage between Eleanor and Louis. Although we will never really know for sure, the likelihood of incest between Eleanor and Raymond is negligible and the rumor was only brought up to discredit Eleanor for political reasons. It was standard operating procedure for writers to discredit medieval queens with accusations of sexual misconduct.
Most interesting is the legend that Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons on their way to the Second Crusade. Evans explains how this legend originated. A Byzantine courtier named Niketas Choniates described in his “Historia” a woman who appeared with the crusader army as it passed through Constantinople in 1147. He mentions a campaign of Germans which included women riding on horseback, not sidesaddle as was customary but scandalously astride. These women were dressed in the garb of men and carried lances and weapons. He says they had a martial appearance and were “more mannish than the Amazons”. Choniates says one woman stood out in the crowd, giving the appearance of Penthesilea with embroidered gold around the hems and fringes of her garment. This woman was called Goldfoot (Chrysópous). Penthesilea was an Amazon queen from Greek mythology.
Nowhere in this passage is the name of Eleanor mentioned. These women are not even French here as Choniates calls them German. He doesn’t say they were dressed specifically as Amazons. Eleanor’s visit to Constantinople was made before Choniates was even born so he didn’t actually witness these women in person. He wrote this nearly fifty years after 1147. From this it was assumed the woman Goldfoot was Eleanor and the legend grew from there. This was even expanded upon by later writers to say that Eleanor and other women dressed as Amazons in France before leaving on the Crusade.
Another part of the “Black Legend” is the accusation that Eleanor had Henry’s mistress Rosamund Clifford murdered. Eleanor was imprisoned and under guard at the time of Rosamund’s death. A chronicle from the fourteenth century mentions that Henry held Rosamund in a bower at Woodstock to keep her away from Eleanor’s vengeance but doesn’t mention Eleanor as her killer. The first reference of Eleanor being a murderer doesn’t occur until the mid-fourteenth “French Chronicle of London” which claims Eleanor bled Rosamund to death. A chronicle from the sixteenth century has Eleanor finding Rosamund in the labyrinthine bower with the aid of a silken thread. A later sixteenth century chronicle expands on the story saying Eleanor had a loyal knight obtain the silken thread and that Eleanor poisoned Rosamund as she pleaded for her life. And so the legend grew.
Historical evidence that Eleanor followed her grandfather in the troubadour tradition and administered cases of courtly love along with her daughter Marie just doesn’t exist. Evans says this legend had for the most part had died out until Amy Kelly’s biography “Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings” was published in 1950. She reinvigorated this fable and gave it new life.
Evans addresses the notion that Eleanor was from the south of France, spoke the Occitan dialect of French and brought southern culture to her husband Louis’ backward court in Paris. He convincingly argues that Eleanor lived and identified with the culture of Poitiers which was on the dividing line between the areas of France that spoke ‘langue d’oc’ and ‘langue d’oïl’. Evans believes she did not speak langue d’oc and did not convey any special culture of the south to the north when she married Louis. Since we don’t have any historical evidence about her education as a young girl, we don’t really know if she was exceptionally educated. There is also no evidence she was any greater patroness of the arts than other medieval noblewomen of the era.
Another legend about Eleanor focuses on her purported beauty. There are no written descriptions of Eleanor so we have no idea of her height, hair or eye color or skin tone. There are also no surviving visual depictions of Eleanor. Evans notes that most chronicles describe medieval queens as beautiful so this is not out of the ordinary.
These are just a few of the myths that Evans covers in his book. To summarize:
We don’t really know what Eleanor looked like
Evidence that she committed incest with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers is negligible
She never dressed as an Amazon
There is no evidence she killed Henry’s mistress Rosamund Clifford
She never presided over cases of courtly love
She did not speak langue d’oc
These are only a few of the myths that Evans addresses and he argues that Eleanor is not really exceptional as far as medieval queens go but I’m not sure I can embrace this argument wholeheartedly. She was the Queen of France and the Queen of England and the mother of two kings. She also participated in the Second Crusade. She acted as diplomat and traveled Europe on missions for her sons and lived to an advanced age. But the fact that legends and myths about her life have erupted through the centuries and across different media speaks to the fact that people find her fascinating for many and varied reasons. Even without the mythology, I think what little we know of the story of her life is unique.
Further reading: “Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans