Inventing Eleanor

 

 

The review for this was published in History Today Magazine in March 2015.

 

Inventing Eleanor: the mediaeval and post-mediaeval image Eleanor of Aquitaine by

Michael R. Evans.  Bloomsbury Academic ISBN 978 1 4411 6900 6  228 pp

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124- 1204) has stood in the spotlight for eight centuries, but paradoxically the real Eleanor remains a shadowy figure behind the scenes.  Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France and England, mother of two English kings,  her achievements have been overlaid by successive washes of notoriety, glamour and spin, until separating  fact from fiction has become a Herculean task.

In Inventing Eleanor  Michael Evans attempts that untanglement with panache. Examining the ideas, myths, and legends surrounding Eleanor of Aquitaine, he focuses on the historians and artists who have constructed an Eleanor very different from the 12th century queen and sets out to discover how and why.  The work considers the medieval primary sources before tracing the post-medieval development of Eleanor’s image to the present day.

Inventing Eleanor is a fine addition to the Eleanor oeuvre.  Written in a winning and readable style, it nevertheless possesses a serious scholarly focus.  Evans argues convincingly that Eleanor was ‘far from unique amongst 12th century royal and noble women’ and seeks to unravel how she acquired her false reputation for exceptionalism. He opines that her modern biographers must take a lot of the blame and that we the public would often rather believe colourful myth above prosaic truth. He explores the way in which Eleanor’s reputation has been distorted to suit the ideologies of particular historical periods and historians.  The feminist movement of the late 20th century for example has  spawned an interest in Eleanor as a female hero, exaggerating her influence and reinforcing the fable of her  exceptionalism.

Evans questions facets of Eleanor that are taken for granted.  For instance, he disputes the idea of Eleanor as a heroine of Southern France. Eleanor, he states, ‘can in no way be considered a southern figure in an alien and hostile northern world.’ And the power centres of her duchy were ‘closer to Paris than to the Mediterranean.’  ‘The Courts of Love’ are apocryphal and literary patronage was actually insignificant in her life.

As Evans pursues Eleanor’s reputation through the centuries, it is fascinating to watch the layers of detritus build up as each era adds its own perceptions to the pile – Shakespeare and purveyors of scurrilous 17th century ballads among them.  Evans explores Eleanor in drama and historical fiction post-1900, particularly James Goldman’s iconic Lion in Winter – responsible for more than its share of creating inaccurate public perceptions regarding Eleanor and Henry II.

The section on the visual arts including medieval images was particularly interesting for me because Evans discusses a mural at Chinon, frequently depicted as Eleanor and Henry out hunting with their offspring.  Evans points out that expert art historian Ursula Nielgen identified all the figures as male more than 10 years ago, but recent works continue to insist that it’s a representation of Eleanor.  We’re still obfuscating, which makes Evans’ Inventing Eleanor all the more important as a piece of work.

Professor Evans concludes (with good reason) that finding the real Eleanor remains an uphill struggle. However, he is optimistic that with continuing scholarship that doesn’t pander to myths and stereotypes a more nuanced Eleanor may gradually begin to emerge from the mist.  I certainly hope so.

 

 

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