A comprehensive view of the mythical and historic significance of the great medieval queen
• Explains that courtly love was not a platonic and intellectual affectation but an initiatic process of male transcendence akin to Tantra
• Shows that Eleanor’s embodiment of divine power undermined the pattern of patriarchy
• Reveals how Eleanor inspired the powerful influence of the Arthurian cycle’s figures
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) has been long noted for her political and cultural achievements that profoundly shaped twelfth-century Europe. Culturally, beyond her role as wife of kings Louis VII of France and Henry II of England and mother of kings Richard and John, she inspired the huge diffusion of the Arthurian cycle and the Celtic myths underpinning it. Without Eleanor, figures such as Merlin, Arthur, and Guinevere (for whom Eleanor served as model) would never have assumed the enormous symbolic value they now possess. Politically, she embodied divine power that ended the dark age of patriarchy, playing a crucial role not only in the development of the Plantagenet Empire, but also in the granting of charters to merchants and craftsmen that led to the birth of the modern middle class.
But her greatest influence, still shaping modern sensibilities, was her role as the symbol of courtly love, which was not a mere diversion of the aristocracy but a process of male initiation and transcendence that bore a close resemblance to Indian Tantra. While the Virgin Mary was restoring a feminine face to medieval religious life, Eleanor embodied the adulterous queen who incarnates sovereignty--the woman who shares authority with the men who act in her name, but only after that power has been transmitted to them through an initiatory process leading to sexual union.
In any event, with all due deference to those who wish to see courtly love as a purified and platonic love, we know that the intellectual elite of that time was haunted by eroticism. The poetry of the troubadours is undeniably erotic--sometimes subtly, other times directly--and the context of the romances of the Round Table is bathed in a refined but perfectly carnal eroticism. The image left by the twelfth-century chroniclers of Eleanor could only be dependent on this context. In short, Eleanor was woman in all her wholeness, and as such, the object of the avowed or repressed desires of a certain number of courtiers or poets. The fact that the queen was attacked for her morals proves both the attraction she exerted from the erotic perspective and the disapproval she inspired in those around her who were little used to such freedom of mind and body. It is well known that woman is the center of desire and repulsion, the object of pleasure and disgust. In the context of the twelfth century, during which developed the cult of the Virgin Mary, Eleanor represented both salvation (although toward a dubious Paradise) and perdition (as a satanic being). It could not be otherwise in this era; everything that did not conform to the norm or that rose above the ordinary smacked of fire and brimstone. As such, the shadow of the devil enveloped the queen in his halo of mysteries.
The reputation of Queen Eleanor caused a scandal because of her behavior--both real and imagined. The author of a rhymed thirteenth century chronicle, Philippe Mousket depicts her undressing entirely in front of her barons after the Council of Beaugency and telling them, without an ounce of modesty:
See lords, is my body not delectable? The king said I was a devil!
Further, if we believe the thirteenth-century preacher Étienne de Bourbon, she was harshly scolded one day by Gilbert de la Porrée, then bishop of Poitiers, because she had paid him the friendliest compliment on the beauty of his hands that was somewhat risqué in its innuendo. Is this a truthful detail or part of Eleanor’s legend? Regardless, Eleanor is not only an important figure but is also--and especially--the symbol of the women of her time. These women sought to free themselves by all possible means from the tutelage of men; these women wanted to dominate the world. In this context, any means to the end are acceptable, particularly the sensuality Eleanor inspired, which ensured that her words were heard. This was in fact how Eleanor became the aspiration of many in Europe. When she married Henry II, the author of a German satire consecrated in his verses the impertinent expression of his desire: “If the whole world belonged to me, from the wide sea to the Rhine, I would use it all up to get the queen of England resting in my arms.” This anonymous poet only said out loud what many of those surrounding Eleanor were thinking in silence.
The Crusade in which Eleanor took part permitted the legend to take shape and develop. Because the chroniclers did not have a great deal to say about the queen of France at the time of this expedition, the storytellers made up for it in spades. One of the most famous legends concerning Eleanor during the Crusades, although it is of later provenance, is the one that portrays her at the head of a troop of women fighting the Saracens.
There was obviously a need to justify the presence of Eleanor and the wives of the other barons in the Crusader army. It was said that Eleanor wished to accompany the king of France, but this is hardly likely, although it was well within the queen’s character to have the notion of taking part in a military expedition. It so happens that the presence of the queen and numerous women on a religious and military expedition was shocking. The chroniclers tell us that the prevailing atmosphere in the army was not much in accord with the sacred purposes of the Crusades. Therefore, either to justify Eleanor’s presence or to show her in a still more formidable and more diabolical light, she was transformed into the queen of a troop of Amazons that swooped down and harassed the enemy, but also--and this was the flip side of the coin--assumed risky initiatives that put the entire army in peril.
Nevertheless, portraying Eleanor astride a steed at the head of a band of women cavaliers was also a rather romantic image. This contributed further to shaping the notion of the ideal woman. In this portrayal, she was not merely cultivated, beautiful, and intelligent but also was the legitimate holder of sovereignty and the woman who fights, the warrior empress who knows how to inspire the masses and lead them to feats of blessed prowess. In the same way that she subjugated Saldebreuil (who happened to be in the troop of Crusaders) by making him fight for her whatever the danger, she stirred up the courage of the soldiers--many of whom were her own vassals--for a good cause.
Jean Markale (1928-2008), was a poet, philosopher, historian, and storyteller, who spent a lifetime researching pre-Christian and medieval culture and spirituality. He was a former specialist in Celtic studies at the Sorbonne and author of more than 40 books, including Montségur and the Mystery of the Cathars, The Church of Mary Magdalene, The Druids, The Celts, Merlin, and Women of the Celts.
“In a work of masterly scholarship, Jean Markale presents a fascinating portrait of a woman: history and myth intermingle as Eleanor, queen of France and England, is revealed as the embodiment of Guinevere and queen of the troubadours at her court of love.”
– Jill Line, author of Shakespeare and the Ideal of Love
"Collections strong in medieval studies, both at the high school and college level, will find this a different kind of biographical coverage which examines the spiritual representation of Eleanor of Aquitaine."
– The Bookwatch, The Midwest Book Review, Feb 2008
"This absorbing book charts the historical image of the medieval queen to the mythological and never does it bore. Indeed, a wonderful take on the ascent of feminism told through the quill of a true storyteller."
– Payal Patel, Feminist Review, Jan 2008
" . . . for women who have sought a true queen who puts our childhood Disney princesses to shame, Eleanor is that queen."
– Smokey Trudeau, Sage Woman, No. 74, May 2008
"I must admit that though I love history it often leaves me in the dust because so many timelines overlap. Jean Markale's biography of the 'Queen of the Troubadours' is concise and orderly, and illuminates an incredible figure in history. By mixing historical fact with theory, questioning some unclear points and offering his own speculation (and making it clear that it is speculation) Markale manages to keep the reader engaged, on track, and encourages readers to philosophize on presented theories if so inclined."