Back in 2016 Theodore Evergates published an in-depth and very well-received biography of Count Henry the Liberal of Champagne (d. 1181). Here he provides an equally valuable biography of Henry's wife, Marie, daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Originally, he had intended to treat Henry and Marie together as a twelfth-century "power couple" (117), but he came to realize that she deserved a book of her own. Although Marie is best known today as the literary patroness of Chrétien de Troyes and Andreas Capellanus, Evergates provides a much fuller picture of her life and work. As countess, Marie governed Champagne on her own for much of her adult life, during her husband's crusades, her oldest son's minority, and that son's own crusading expedition. The book is a valuable addition both to French political history and to women's history.
Political history has usually put kings at the center. But the example of Marie (and in the earlier book Henry the Liberal) indicates that the counts and dukes of France did as much as the kings in shaping the country's political landscape. As Evergates makes clear, having a woman rule in the absence of her husband or adult son was not unusual; it was instead the expected norm in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This study is based in large part on the letters patent that Marie issued as ruler of Champagne, along with historical and literary texts in which she appeared.
The book is also revelatory of how much family relations shaped politics at the time. Through her marriage and her own family connections Marie had close ties to many of the most important people in northern France, including Normandy. She herself was descended from all the Capetian kings back to Hugh Capet, and her uncles included powerful counts and an archbishop. Eleanor, her mother, tried to betroth Marie as an infant to the future King Henry II of England, the man Eleanor eventually married herself. Marie was half-sister on her mother's side to Henry the Young King, Henry II's original heir, as well as to King Richard Lionheart and the future King John. On her father's side she was half-sister to King Philip II of France. Her children included the next two counts of Champagne and two prominent countesses. Her brothers- and sisters-in-law included counts, countesses, the queen of Sicily, the duchess of Burgundy, another archbishop, and the queen who eventually produced an heir for Louis VII long after Eleanor and he divorced. The complicated politics of marriage played a major role in Marie's life, including the infant betrothal of her son to a daughter of the count of Hainaut--where a dozen years later a different daughter of Hainaut's count was substituted for the original, and then a few after that the young man repudiated his intended bride--and the marriage of Marie's half-sister (on her father's side) to her half-brother (on her mother's side).
One advantage of biography is that it brings together many historical threads that are often discussed separately. Marie and Henry knew Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux and made gifts to religious houses all over Champagne. Henry founded a house of secular canons, St.-Étienne, immediately adjacent to his new comital palace, and had the canons' church built in the newest Gothic style. Marie made sure his tomb at St.-Étienne was suitably magnificent. Marie and Henry were involved in the economic growth of the region, largely due to the trade fairs they sponsored. The murder and subsequent canonization of Thomas Becket were of great concern to them. The poet Chrétien de Troyes, who essentially invented Arthurian romance, may have modeled a crucial character (Cligès) on Count Henry, and Chrétien said that Marie had ordered him to write his tale of Lancelot. Most of the bishops and powerful abbots of Champagne attended the Third Lateran Council. Marie's parents had gone on the Second Crusade, her son went on the Third Crusade, and in between these two great crusades, her husband Henry's departure for the Holy Land in 1179 marked the beginning of the two-decade long period when Marie ruled Champagne almost uninterrupted. As these examples indicate, a well-done biography can bring together church history, architectural history, economic history, crusade history, and literary history as well as political events.
Curiously, although Marie is now thought of primarily in relation to Chrétien de Troyes, the relationship between the poet and Marie appears very minimally in the sources, as Evergates points out, consisting primarily of Chrétien's comment that he received the matière and san of his Lancelot from her. It is not even clear whether Chrétien should be identified with one of the secular canons named Christianus who appear in contemporary records. In contrast, the poet Gace Brulé was clearly at Marie's court and dedicated poems to her. Probably more importantly than ordering the composition of a romance, though little noted today, Marie commissioned a translation of Genesis, with explanatory glosses, into the vernacular. As Evergates notes, she lived in a period when vernacular compositions were multiplying, and they were not limited to epics and romances.
Evergates presents Marie's biography in a series of chronological chapters. He begins with her birth, which her parents credited to the prayers of Bernard of Clairvaux (who later argued that Louis and Eleanor were too closely related to be validly married), and her mostly unrecorded girlhood until at age nineteen she married Count Henry of Champagne, a man twice her age. The following chapters treat her years as countess beside Henry, her governance of Champagne while he was overseas, her regency for her son, a three-year retirement to a nunnery associated with Fontevraud once the boy came of age, and her reemergence into governance when he, following his father's and grandfather's example, left on crusade. Only after her older son's death in Acre, when her second son became count, did Marie leave the world for good for the nunnery, dying at age fifty-three in what was described at the time as melancholy over her son's death.
A final chapter, titled "Images of Countess Marie," demonstrates the varied ways this active ruler was seen later and even during her lifetime, including as an aficionado of romances, a judge in so-called courts of love, a participant in an imaginary female tournament, a conscientious administrator, and a patroness of religious houses. After her death she was accused of vanity and luxury, although by people who most likely had not known her. Evergates concludes that the principality of Champagne, which Henry the Liberal had created just a dozen or so years before he married Marie, was only preserved and continued due to her efforts. Nonetheless, Marie's activities have been little noted by modern scholars, and she is depicted primarily as a cultural patron. The reason for this, Evergates argues, is because King Philip II, in expanding royal authority, kept Champagne from pursuing the independent path it might have otherwise taken, and because the Countess Blanche, Marie's daughter-in-law, was such an effective ruler of Champagne that she has come to overshadow Marie's quite real accomplishments. (Evergates himself published an edition of Countess Blanche's cartulary in 2009.) Marie's biography rounds out with lists of her court officers, of the charters which Andreas Capellanus witnessed, and of the contemporary bishops of the region, as well as a chronology of Marie's life and a family tree.
One of the strengths of this book, as was the case with the earlier Henry the Liberal book, is that the reader is thoroughly oriented in the places where the described events took place. There are excellent maps of northern France, Champagne, Troyes itself--the city that Henry made his capital--and the comital compound within Troyes, where Marie lived most of her life. Like all of Evergates's books, this one is clearly and engagingly written, based on a thorough knowledge of the primary sources from Champagne, both printed and manuscript, on which he is one of the world's experts. It is however frustrating to have to consult the notes at the back, rather than at the bottom of the page. Like Fredric Cheyette's biography of Ermengard of Narbonne (Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours, 2001) or Kimberly LoPrete's of Adela of Blois (Adela of Blois, Lady and Lord, 2007), two other twelfth-century countesses, this volume makes clear that a well-written biography still holds an important place in this era of social and cultural history, and that the history of politics cannot be considered exclusively a history of men.