Eleanor of Aquitaine. As It Was Said. Truth and Tales about the Medieval Queen by Karen Sullivan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2023. First Edition. vi+270pp. $45,00. ISBN 978-0-226-82583-0/ 0-226-82583-3.
Reviewed by Gabrielle Storey
University of Winchester
Fans of Eleanor of Aquitaine will undoubtedly appreciate this new work on her by Karen Sullivan, who has examined the literary evidence from a close perspective. In her introduction Sullivan posits that her work will rise above the speculation that other biographers of Eleanor have often turned to, in an attempt to fill the gaps left by the evidence. As is sometimes, but not always the case and as Sullivan notes, biographical works of Eleanor have sought to assess Eleanor as a proto-feminist icon, or read the chronicles with too light an analytical eye. This work seeks to redress some of the misconceptions we have of Eleanor through literary analysis.
Sullivan’s approach to the material is chronological, but not biographical, instead providing a useful interrogation of the literature that discussed each period of Eleanor’s life. In the first chapter on Eleanor as heiress and queen of France, Sullivan addresses the folklore tales that introduced a mysterious wife as a demon, and drew parallels with the arguable foundations for Louis’ repudiation of Eleanor because she was a demon (30-1). This is a tall tale for the modern reader, but one that seems to have captured the imaginations of some of the contemporary chroniclers. Sullivan deftly unpicks the literature and the authors, pushing the reader to consider the mindsets and preconceptions of medieval writers, and indeed how Eleanor may have viewed and represented herself knowing the frame of mind of chroniclers. Sullivan’s detailed interrogation of the literature opens up new avenues of thought, and she introduces several histories that new scholars of Eleanor may not be immediately aware of, which is beneficial for students and scholars alike. In the second chapter, ‘The Crusader’, Sullivan excavates the literary records of the many men who were thought to have had romantic liaisons with Eleanor during this period, and considers why these stories arose: a welcome discussion that does not solely focus on Raymond of Antioch, as is often the case with such examinations.
What is one of the most intriguing chapters is the discussion of Eleanor and the courts of love: with its foundations in Marion Meade’s original biography in 1977, much work on Eleanor since has sought to unravel the truths and connections between Eleanor and the ideals of courtly love. In the third chapter Sullivan argues for the merit that Eleanor was a great patroness of poetry and courtly love, pushing against the ‘minimalist scholarship’ that has assumed that legendary tales about Eleanor were false (80). This may be an assessment that some historians grapple with: often we are to frame our interpretations on the evidence in front of us and not be speculative. Yet Sullivan invites us to ponder the wider ramifications of such interpretations and consider that greater understanding may be sought by parahistorical approaches. The strengths of this book lie in its wealth of evidence and the author’s superb knowledge and skill through which each piece is considered as its contribution to our understanding of Eleanor.
One concern with this book is that at times it reads very speculatively despite its professions to do the opposite: although most of the points are substantiated with literary evidence and subsequent analysis, some of the narrative is punctuated with ‘it was thought’ and ‘this was thought’ which does not establish a level of authority in the writer’s argument. The book serves its purpose in that it contains a close analysis of medieval texts, contemporary to Eleanor and some written after her lifetime; however it is very much a book of questioning our assumptions (whilst on occasion inviting more speculation). This is not a biographical work – and nor does it claim to be one – and therefore for those interested in Eleanor it should be read alongside a biography that makes strong use of the numerous charters and letters attributed to or concerned with Eleanor.
In all this book builds upon some of the work that Michael R. Evans undertook for Inventing Eleanor and is a welcome examination of the literary sources, familiar and unfamiliar. However, it lacks an engagement with some of the most recent work on co-rulership, power, and other royal studies scholarship which would round out Sullivan’s assessment of Eleanor. It is well-written, examines an impressive breadth of literature and offers food for thought on our interpretations of the literary evidence. Eleanor is certainly not a figure who is going to stop gaining attention anytime soon, and this book would be useful to anyone with an interest in medieval literature and queenship. There are some phrases and terminology which may be inaccessible for the lay reader, however the structure of the work, including endnotes, helps overcome any other accessibility concerns. On the whole it is a useful text for Eleanor scholars seeking a fresh approach to her life and the evidence.
University of Winchester