Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in 12th-century Europe. Heiress to a vast region of what is now France, she was first married to Louis VII of France and, later, to Henry II of England.  As Queen of England, she founded a long line of monarchs who ruled England and many other European countries for centuries to come.  As Alison Weir writes in this biography:

There were then, as now, women of strong character who ruled feudal states and kingdoms, as Eleanor did; who made decisions, ran farms and businesses, fought lawsuits, and even, by sheer force of personality, dominated their husbands. … The fact remained that the social constraints upon women were so rigidly enforced by both Church and state that few women ever thought to question them. Eleanor herself caused ripples in twelfth-century society because she was a spirited woman who was determined to do as she pleased. (p. 4)

The unfortunate reality is that most written history is focused on men and their achievements. Weir pieced together evidence from contemporary sources in an attempt to illuminate the life of this “spirited woman,” but this book was much more about Eleanor’s actions as they related to her husbands and sons, and their quest for dominance of feudal society.  Weir portrays Eleanor as strong and intelligent, and the men as violent, power-hungry philanderers.  She fails to explain why Eleanor would work so hard to preserve their power.  Reading this book increased my knowledge of Henry II, his sons Richard and John, and the constant power-brokering of that age.  Eleanor was present throughout, always on the scene and sometimes playing a role in negotiations.  But who was she, really?  What motivated her?  How did she feel about being separated from her children, sometimes for years at a time?  I was hoping for more insight to Eleanor as a person, but I suspect there just isn’t enough evidence to produce a comprehensive portrait.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

  1. Alison Weir is I think known as a historian who tries to focus on women’s lives. I have never yet read a book by her, but I come across her name all the time. I always think that it is high time I picked up a book by her, but have never yet managed to do so.

    It’s a shame this book dissapoints in providing a portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine, while providing information on her husband and sons. It might have to do with the available sources. Source-material has overall been selected by men as well and thus selected to what they thought to be important. It could also be that it is hard to rewrite history and put women in it, without holding on to the dominant themes of what’s usually involved in the history of a certain time and place. I guess you can’t really know what happened here, without going out to do some research yourself (then again, that probably isn’t worth the trouble).

    • candletea, thanks for your insight. This was my first book by Weir also, but I’d heard of her reputation and I suppose that’s why I had higher hopes. I tend to agree with you though, that the source material may have been quite limited so much of her biography had to be either conjecture or told through the story of the men in her life.

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