The Medieval Review 11.02.21

Turner, Ralph V. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 395. 35.00 ISBN 9780300119114. .

Reviewed by:

Theresa Earenfight
Seattle University

Eleanor of Aquitaine is both familiar and elusive, well known and yet unknowable. Heiress and duchess of her ancestral duchy, later queen first of France and then of England, Eleanor so powerfully dominates the twelfth century that she is one of a handful of medieval queens that even students of history in the United States can identify. Most scholars of the European Middle Ages know at least the outlines of her long and very busy life as wife of two nearly iconic kings and mother of a flock of children who populated the royal houses of European realms. She is, however, a vexing subject, seen by us most often in sidelong glances. Medieval narratives that document the lives and deeds of her father, uncles, husbands, and sons, mention her but often only obliquely, paying far more attention to the four kings in her life, two of them husbands and two of them sons: Louis VII, Henry II, Richard I the "Lionheart," and John I. There are a few chroniclers who wrote about her directly, and even fewer extant sources that were written by her during her years as duchess and queen of France. In recent decades, feminist scholarship has generated an impressive body of work that is fundamental to our understanding of queens and queenship. These works took up discrete elements of Eleanor's life-- tumultuous marriages, her role in the reigns of Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, prolific motherhood, allegations of adultery, her association with courtly troubadour poets--that added immensely to our knowledge of the life of this remarkable woman. Ralph V. Turner's meticulously researched full-length biographical study is a welcome and much-needed addition to this rich but disparate historiography that shifts the analytical perspective to focus on documenting and analyzing her life and work in the political sphere.

Turner, a historian of Anglo-Norman monarchy, has taken up the challenges posed by both the English and French archival material. Eleanor's life encompassed a sprawling geography. Because the sources are more numerous for the reign of Louis VII, Eleanor as queen of France is sketchy in parts, with Turner able to draw only tentative conclusions couched in sentences spiked with generous uses of "likely" and "perhaps." In the early chapters of the book, Turner regards Eleanor almost entirely from the vantage point of her father, her husband, nobles, and her sons, often leaving the reader wondering what she was doing. We may never know the answer to this: she made her first appearance in the sources at age five, but of the 200 or so known documents in all, only twenty extant documents were issued by her during her marriage to Louis, with the remainder for her as Henry's queen. Yet Turner's contribution to Eleanor studies, and it is an important one, is the careful analysis of these sources. He is particularly good when discussing Eleanor's complex social origins and how her upbringing in a southern duchy affected her temperament and led to clashes with Louis. But for the Louis period, he tends to fall back on the earlier work of Amy Kelly and Rgine Pernoud, and these works tend to emphasize the familial, the maternal, and the sentimental. But Turner skillfully negotiates of the difficult marriage of Louis and Eleanor and the rumor and innuendo that circulate around her while she and Louis are on Crusade. In these chapters, his focus is on Louis as king, crusader, and lord reflects his own interests in Anglo-Norman kingship, but he is careful to bring the narrative back to Eleanor, paying close attention to her clashes with Louis over religion and the influence of Abbot Suger.

These titanic personalities come to life in Turner's hands, but with a judicious restraint that fully respects them as formidable political operators. The richest passages in the book, after Eleanor's marriage to Henry and her life as queen of England and later as regent for Richard, are informed by more plentiful sources both for her as queen and as duchess in Aquitaine. Turner is less interested in the domestic and private, and he emphasizes court politics, her household and royal officials, and her struggle to find a place for their sons in the governance of the realm that ultimately led her to take the lead in rebellion against Henry. The focus on the political aspects of her life is a welcome balance to the many studies of Eleanor as wife, mother, and patron. Turner's expertise in the sources illuminates his valuable discussion of her court officials, reginal finances and chancery, and concerns over inheritance and the succession during the 1160s and 1170s, and the final years of her reign as she struggled valiantly to maintain Angevin hegemony in the continental realms in the face of Philip Augustus's encroaching power. By blending Henry's kingship with Eleanor's queenship, Turner's book is not just a study of a queen, but also an admirable study of monarchical governance as a partnership.

These contentious partnerships made Eleanor a target for men's anxieties over female power and authority. The final chapter, "Overwhelmed by a Black Legend," is an analysis of Eleanor's reputation that exemplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book. Turner cites key monographs by Marion (Facinger) Meade, Amy Kelly, D. D. R. Owen, and essay collections edited by W. W. Kibler, Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons and includes important new work by women historians who use a range of theoretical approaches to understand her life. But Eleanor's life has been the subject of some of the most rigorous and provocative feminist approaches to the study of queens, and Turner does not go far enough to incorporate theoretical work into his own analysis. This is particularly evident in his analysis of her reputation (multiple adulterer, murderer, demon lady, "queen of the troubadours"). This is lamentable, because his analysis of kingship is very strong and the book would be much richer with an equally astute and insightful feminist analysis to balance kingship. For example, his discussion of the allegations of adultery is good and includes much of the recent work on the subject, but this section would have been richer with inclusion of significant feminist studies on how rumors of adultery function to bolster masculinity that suffered when a queen's actions threatened to out-man her husband. The book would also benefit significantly by inclusion of new work on women and warfare to address questions concerning Eleanor's actions on crusade. And in a familiar move that signals a privileging of men over women, the genealogy of the Capetians neglects to include the daughters of William IX, rendering Eleanor an anomaly when, in fact, she was part of a long line of women such as Agnes of Aquitaine and Agnes of Poitiers who married well and had a significant impact on the political landscape. This may seem a quibble, but it is not an insignificant omission. Genealogies that omit many women (and their less-stellar brothers and sons) from the family tree are only partial histories. Decades of queenship research shows clearly that neglecting these family members leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of the complex family dynamics of medieval monarchy. As important as Eleanor of Aquitaine was, she was raised among strong women who were a vital part of a wider political culture of medieval European queenship. Turner's research into the archival sources for Eleanor's role in governance as duchess and queen, an edition of which would be welcome, will no doubt serve as a model for the rich potential for studies on monarchy that integrate kingship and queenship.