Thursday, May 20, 2010

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Without her, Amadis of Gaul would never have been written.

[The tomb of Eleanor and Henry II in Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France.]


God save Lady Eleanor,
Queen who art the arbiter
of honor, wit, and beauty,

of largess and loyalty.

Lady born in happy hour
and wed to our King Henry.

– Phillipe de Thaon in a dedication of his Bestiary.

Few women have shaped history as much as Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was born in about 1122, and, at about age 15, became Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Pointiers. She died on April 1, 1204; she had been queen of France and England; and her children included King Henry the Young King of France, Kings Richard I and John of England, Queen Eleanor of Castile, and Queen Joan of Sicily.

She had also gone on a Crusade, affected the course of great affairs of state, blinded two kings with her beauty and charm and then drove them to despair with her shrewd but flighty behavior, and most important of all (for our purposes, at least) provided a link between British literature and the European mainland.

Eleanor didn't do it alone, though. She had been born into a French ducal court whose involvement in culture eclipsed even the crown's. Her grandfather, Duke William IX, had achieved lasting fame as "the Troubadour" for his poetry about courtly love, some of it apparently based on his many amorous adventures.

Charlemagne and ancient Greece and Rome had already inspired important literary cycles in Europe. Then, in 1155, the Anglo-Norman poet Wace dedicated his Roman de Brut, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, to Eleanor, then the Queen of England. She brought it to her court in Poitiers. This British romance added the Welsh tales of King Arthur and Merlin to the French literary mix. Wace's work also included the first mention of the Round Table.

This "matter of Britain" caught on fast in France. Eleanor's daughter, Marie of France (1145-1198), Countess of Champagne, served as a patron to poets and troubadours, including Chrétien de Troyes from 1160 and 1172. He wrote works about such Arthurian figures as Perceval and Lancelot.

From there, Arthurian tales quickly traveled north to Norway and Germany, south to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and eventually back to Britain with Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur in 1485. In Spain, in the early 1300s, the first tales of Amadís de Gaula appeared about a knight who had lived many years before Arthur reigned and who inhabited the same literary landscape.

In our own time, King Arthur and his associated knights and legends live on in endless retellings.

These tales might have flourished without Eleanor's influence, but since we can't conduct controlled experiments with history, we'll never know for sure, although their spread would have been different. We can be sure that without her, our world would be different in many ways.

That's what one intelligent, educated, strong-willed, charming, rich, and powerful woman can do.

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