Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book 105: Eleanor of Aquitaine

"She had inherited many of the traits of her forebears, and was energetic, intelligent, sophisticated, headstrong, and perhaps lacking in self-discipline. She possessed great vitality and, according to William of Newburgh, a lively mind. Impetuous to a fault, she seems to have cared little in her youth for the conventions of the society in which she lived. Sharing many qualities with that company of ambitious, formidable, and strong-minded female ancestors, she was to surpass them all in fame and notoriety." 

Dates read: November 15-21, 2016

Rating: 8/10

It's easy to forget that the world didn't always look like what it looks like today. Obviously, everyone knows that Egypt now is different than Ancient Egypt, but what we think about tends to be the cultural differences between them. The very borders of what land was considered Egypt aren't the same. So, too, in Europe. We think about the countries of Europe as being more or less settled, but it wasn't always so. It took the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella to bring together much of what is modern Spain. And when she married the King of France, Eleanor brought much larger and richer landholdings, in Aquitaine and Poitou, to the marriage than did her husband.

Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine brings to life a remarkable (and remarkably long-lived) woman. She married two kings, and was the mother of three more. She went on Crusade. One of the kings she married was the son of a man she'd likely had an affair with before her marriage, and she was rumored to have been a little too close to her own uncle. Despite having been a desirable wife to the kings of both France and England because of her inheritance, she never really ceded control of those lands to her husbands. She actively encouraged her sons to rebel against and try to overthrow her husband, Henry II of England. This is some soap-opera level stuff.

Weir has quickly become one of my favorite historians to read, because she has a way of synthesizing lots of information into an easily readable and understandable narrative. She's open about when the scholarship is unclear, or there's more than one version of a particular event, and she tells the reader why she has chosen to take a particular position on what likely really happened. She knows that her reader isn't as immersed in the subject as she is and provides context for the events she relates...she finds a good middle ground between assuming her readers know too little or too much.

My only real exposure to Eleanor's story had been the movie version of The Lion In Winter with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, which I saw several years ago and remember little of apart from Eleanor being portrayed as a ruthless schemer. Weir never stoops to that kind of caricature of the people involved in Eleanor's life, especially Eleanor herself: she was a political opportunist to be sure, but she also lived in an era that was especially skeptical of women in power and the accounts of her that survive reflect that bias. I've got quite a few of Weir's books on my TBR, and I always look forward to them and recommend them (including this one!) heartily.

Tell me, blog you have any family history in areas that have had changing borders? We found my great-grandpa's immigration records, and he's actually recorded as being ethnically Polish, but with Austrian nationality, because the area in Poland where we're from was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire!

One year ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Two years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men (my favorite of that year!)

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