As the world collectively crawls, gibbering and raving toward the end of the American presidential election, the medieval roots of society’s expectations of women are once again very firmly on display.
Case in point – the life and times of one of the three medieval women you have heard of – Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was, by all accounts, an absolute bad ass. She lead armies both in Europe and on the Second Crusade. She was a highly skilled ruler who reigned in her husband’s absence from the country. She was also a total babe.
For all these reasons, the modern imagination loves Eleanor. She won Katherine Hepburn an Oscar, and pops up in most Robin Hood movies. (Yes, even that really bad Russel Crowe one.) This is why you know her name.
Whilst we appreciate Eleanor, her mind, influence, and general kick-arsery now, everything we love about her now meant she was often reviled in her own time, and for decades after her death.
Eleanor managed to run herself into trouble because she was intent on exercising power in the public sphere.
The trouble began when she was on Crusade with her first husband, King of France Louis VII. While the two were staying with Eleanor’s uncle Raymond, then prince of Antioch, they began fighting over military tactics. Louis wanted to march into Jerusalem then and there in order to fulfill his vow as a pilgrim. Eleanor, on the other hand, was not a fucking idiot, and as a result thought that maybe they should join forces with her uncle instead. You know, given that he lived in the Outremer and maybe had, like, insight into local customs and the lay of the land and whatnot.
But Louis would insist upon being an idiot, so Eleanor was like, yeah we’re done here and decided to divorce mofo and find her a man who would listen to reason. That’s when men started talking shit.
Enter John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres, scholar, and total hater. John took it upon himself to point out that Eleanor questioning her husband’s stupid military strategy and the legality of their marriage wasn’t ladylike. Women, of course, were meant to be submissive and nod and smile while their husbands made idiotic decisions. Meanwhile everyone at court in Antioch was also scandalised by Eleanor’s stubborn insistence on having a brain, and bitches started gossiping. This trickled down to the crusaders’ camps, and suddenly the French forces were hating on Eleanor as well, but not content to gossip about the fact that she had free will, they started saying she was banging her uncle.
When Eleanor moved on to Henry Plantagenet about two seconds after she divorced Louis’s lame ass (#ByeFelipe), people continued to hate. Soon chroniclers in England were intimating that Eleanor had shagged her new father in law when she was still married to Louis, and so her new marriage was unlawful.
English writers joined the hater patrol at this point and started waxing rhapsodic about the virtue of previous Norman English queens, all of whom were apparently basic as hell, knew their place, and never dared to question a man ever.
Eleanor DGAF. Eleanor had England to rule because her husband was basically in France for the majority of their marriage. Eleanor knew that someone had to pull England back together after years of civil war, and she was just the bitch to do it. But as the royal administration grew, Eleanor had less power and she got bored.
Eventually she fucked back off to rule Poitiers, but figured while she was at it, she might as well get her sons to revolt against their father. Henry was always fucking with Aquitaine, which Eleanor was just trying to rule like a normal person. She also wanted her son Richard (you know, The Lionheart) a place of succession.
This did not go down well. Henry took Eleanor prisoner and dragged her back to England, imprisoning her at Sarum.
Eventually Henry’s dumb ass died, though, and Eleanor was ruling again while Richard went off on the Third Crusade. She continued to wield influence in her homelands as well, and made it to the age of 82, which was no small feat in the medieval period.
Medieval people still hated her, though. By the late medieval period people were saying she’d fucked Saladin. They said she was a jealous bitch and had murdered Henry’s lover Rosemund Clifford. Hell that one was so popular it was repeated into the modern period, with the added embellishment that she’d killed Henry as well. By the nineteenth century, historians – actual historians who should know better – were still insisting that Eleanor had been shagging the locals whilst in Antioch. (A wag of the finger at Agnes Strickland.)
Eleanor, of course, was only guilty of one crime – desiring power. The fact that she was well educated, versed in statecraft, had commanded successful military campaigns, and possessed one of the finest minds of her time was moot. She was a woman. Women were meant to quietly birth children, look pleasing, and stay out of the way as their husbands ruled. By insisting she had anything to add to the world of politics, she opened herself up to hatred, rumor, and questions about her sex life.
Now we love her, because we love the idea of powerful women. We romanticise women who are unashamed of their own intelligence and power – provided that they are not attempting to wield it over us ourselves. The idea of a powerful woman is not just fine, it’s to be celebrated, provided that it remains an idea, and no threat to the status quo.
For over seven hundred years after Eleanor’s death people were calling her a bitch for daring to have ambition. Ask yourself how far we’ve come.
For more on women in the medieval period see:
On women and desire
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa
For more on politics and the medieval period see:
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the medieval separation of Church and state
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and existentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit
(This post was originally published 2 November 2016 here.)