Biographies & Memoirs

1 Aquitaine and the Troubadours


‘Aquitaine, abounding in riches of every kind.’

Ralph of Diceto

‘Her passions are made of nothing but the finest parts of pure love.’

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122, either at Bordeaux or at the nearby castle of Belin. She was the daughter of the future William X of Aquitaine and his wife Aénor of Châtellerault, and grand-daughter of the duke of Aquitaine then reigning, William IX.

In the twelfth century, France was a geographical expression rather than a country, divided between several peoples who spoke different languages. As yet the Capetian dynasty had little real power. The king was a titular monarch who ruled scarcely more than the neighbourhood around Paris — the Ile de France (so-called because it was almost surrounded by rivers) — together with the Orleannais and Bourges. He enjoyed considerable prestige and moral authority, but he was still no more than the first among many great nobles; although they were his vassals, they nevertheless ruled vast territories as independent princes. The duchy of Aquitaine was the largest of these fiefs. It had passed by inheritance to the counts of Poitiers, and the count-dukes ruled almost the whole of south-western France from the river Loire to the Pyrenees.

Aquitaine proper — roughly the ancien régime provinces of Guienne and Gascony — had all the ingredients of a separate nation, and was no less of a country than Brittany. Geographically it was unified by the winding river Garonne and its tributaries, and by such natural frontiers as the Atlantic, the Pyrenees and part of the Massif Central. It possessed racial unity, its people being basically Latinized Basques who had little in common with the Northern French, and its own distinct temperament, which was — and still is — an explosive compound of vivacity and pride. Moreover, it was not merely self-supporting but enviably rich. ‘Aquitaine, abounding in riches of every kind’, Ralph of Diceto called it, and another chronicler speaks of ‘opulent Aquitaine’. From its capital, Bordeaux, wine merchants sailed to England, Germany and Scotland, and from Bayonne men went out to hunt the whale. It was a country of many landscapes, the heaths and sandy wastes of Gascony and the mountains contrasting with flat, lush plains and impenetrable woodland. There were yellow-walled and red-roofed towns, Romanesque cathedrals and rich abbeys. There were also many lordly castles, which were much more comfortable than the chilly keeps of the north, for in the south the tradition of the Gallo-Roman villa had never quite died out.

To the north of Aquitaine was the county of Poitou. Besides its capital of Poitiers, it contained other almost equally fine towns, and La Rochelle was nearly as prosperous a port as Bordeaux. The countryside was an attractive mixture of oak bocage, flat farmland — the plat pays — and deep pine forest. The Poitevins spoke a dialect of northern French, which to some extent separated them from the Aquitainians.

For the people of Aquitaine, including its rulers and Eleanor herself, spoke a tongue very different from that of Northern France. All the southern French used a number of dialects nowadays known collectively as Provencal, or langue d’oc, as opposed to thelangue d’oïl of the north. One of these dialects, the Lemosin, became a written literary language. It was the remarkable achievement of Provencal to create the first vernacular lyric poetry of any merit — with the exception of Irish — in Western Europe since classical times. ‘Twelfth century Provencal, softer than sleep’, Helen Waddell says of it. She adds that ‘Provencal poetry demands no other intellectual background than that of its century, a May morning, the far-off singing of birds, a hawthorn tree in blossom, a crusade for the holy sepulchre. It is the Middle Ages in the medium of a dream’.

The poems of the troubadours were written as songs with lute accompaniment. They might tell of war, politics or rivals, or they could be satirical — as in the form known as the sirventès — but usually they were about ladies. A new and widespread devotion to the Virgin Mary had induced something of a reverence for women in general. The troubadours developed a cult of platonic love (amor de lonh, love from afar) and sang of an impossible passion for some unattainable noblewoman, invariably married and a great lady, declaiming how lovely she was and how despite her scorn they would continue to adore her. Women of rank — young or even not so young — were surrounded by retinues of sighing troubadours, mostly impoverished petty nobles. In theory, at any rate, physical love played a very small part; a troubadour was expected to think himself well rewarded for ten years of devotion by the gift of a single rose, though he would drop heavy hints for largesse.

This idealization of women, however artificial or exaggerated, brought about a considerable improvement in their status. Whereas in the barbarous north ladies were all too often little more than mere child-bearers, kept in strict seclusion and beaten by their husbands as a matter of course, in the south they enjoyed genuine liberty and mixed freely with the other sex. They were even educated and taught to read, if not to write. The personality of Eleanor — or Aliénor, as she called herself — clearly owed much to the unusually civilized atmosphere of Aquitaine.

The earliest troubadour known by name is Eleanor’s grandfather, the fascinating William IX, Guilhem lo trobador, who ruled Aquitaine and Poitou from 1086 to 1127. He was the outstanding figure of her early childhood, the first truly big man in her life, and a hero who must have made an enormous impression upon her, even though he died when she was only five. He was a man of extraordinary complexity, alternately idealistic and cynical, ruthless but impractical. He was no statesman and, though aggressive and pugnacious, a notably incompetent general. He failed in one scheme after another. He claimed Toulouse as his wife’s inheritance, invading it while its count was away on a crusade, but the invasion ended in disaster and humiliation. In 1101 he himself took an army to the Holy Land; it was cut to pieces near Heraclea and he escaped with difficulty — he may even have spent some time as a prisoner of the Saracens. In 1114 he made another attempt on Toulouse, occupying the county for several years, but he was eventually driven out. In 1119 he went on an expedition to Aragon, helping its king to defeat a multitude of Moors but receiving little reward. He was always in trouble with the Church, and once threatened a bishop with his sword. His private life made a scandalous contrast with his ideals as a troubadour. His most lurid affair was with the dauntingly named Dangerosa of Châtellerault, whom he carried off from her husband, seduced, and then kept in the Maubergeon tower of his palace at Poitiers (from whence she became known as La Maubergeonne); and his son rose up in arms at such an insult to his mother. William IX died excommunicated in 1127. For all his talents and his energy, none of his ambitious plans had succeeded. Nevertheless contemporaries undoubtedly respected him as a mighty prince and a brave knight. He successfully cowed and kept in subjection some of the most turbulent vassals in France and he was able to bequeath an undiminished inheritance. Furthermore, even a hostile critic of his own time had to admit that the duke was one of the most courteous people in the world.

Both his age and posterity have been baffled by William IX. First there is his unexpected gift of versifying, in a mixture of Lemosin and Poitevin. He may have been inspired by Arab songs; his father had fought in Spain and brought back Moorish slave girls, and William himself knew Syria as well as Spain. Whatever his inspiration, he was unquestionably a most competent poet, eleven of whose pieces have survived; some are unashamedly licentious, although one, Pos de chantar m’es pres talenz, pays a melancholy farewell to earthly joys:

Since now I have a mind to sing

I’ll make a song of that which saddens me,

That no more in Poitou or Limousin,

Shall I love’s servant be ….

But the originality of a great lord turning troubadour was accompanied by less admirable eccentricities. In one of the earliest known examples of heraldry he had his concubine Dangerosa’s likeness painted on his shield, explaining repeatedly that he wanted her over him in battle just as he was over her in bed. He announced his intention of building a special whore house for his convenience, just outside Niort, in the shape of a small nunnery. His frivolity, his satirical wit and his cynicism disturbed contemporaries. ‘Brave and gallant but too much of a jester, behaving like some comedian with joke upon joke’, Orderic Vitalis says of him, and Orderic is supported by William of Malmesbury, who speaks of the duke as a giddy, unsettled kind of man ‘finding pleasure only in one nonsense after another, listening to jests with his mouth wide open in a constant guffaw’. Although never a clown herself, Eleanor took after this grandfather in her sarcastic wit and in the frivolity of her early years.

There was an uncomfortable legend about William IX that Eleanor seems to have remembered. A holy hermit came to him, protesting in God’s name at the rape of Dangerosa. He was received with the duke’s usual mocking banter. The hermit thereupon laid a curse on William; neither he nor his descendants, whether through the male or the female line, would ever know happiness in their children. When Eleanor was old, bishop Hugh of Lincoln (St Hugh) often told this story, saying that he had heard it from her husband, Henry II, and the king must have heard it from Eleanor herself.

Duke William X, Eleanor’s father, was almost as cultured as William IX, just as colourful and still more pugnacious. He was a patron of poets and there were many troubadours at his court, including foreigners from Aragon, Castile and Navarre, and from Italy, and there was even a Welshman called Bledhri. When this duke died, his Gascon friend Cercamon wrote a lament that mourned his passing and the end of his munificence. However, William X was better known for quarrelling than for verses. A man of huge physique and enormous strength, he was an outsize personality in every way. He was said to eat enough for eight ordinary mortals at each meal. He was unwise enough to involve himself in the Church schism that began in 1130, supporting the anti-pope Anacletus against Innocent II; he menaced prelates and ignored excommunications and interdicts that stopped the bells ringing in entire dioceses. He was completely undaunted by the threats of divine punishment that issued from the redoubtable abbot of Clairvaux, St Bernard, and refused to remove a schismatic bishop. When Bernard deliberately entered his territory and publicly celebrated mass at Parthenay, the duke burst into the church in full armour, to teach the infuriating monk a lesson. However, William had met his match. Bernard advanced on him, holding up the consecrated Host, and spoke to such effect that the duke fell to the ground rigid with fear and foaming at the mouth. But although he had lost his battle with the Church, William in no way abated his quarrelsomeness when dealing with his vassals; only his death prevented the whole of the Limousin from rising in revolt.

Very little is known of Eleanor’s mother, Aénor. She was the daughter of the viscount of Châtellerault and his wife Dangerosa — William’s IX’s concubine, the Maubergeonne. Aénor had three children: William Aigret (who died when still a boy), Eleanor of Aquitaine and Petronilla (who is sometimes called Aélith). There is a whimsical legend that the name Eleanor — in Provencal, Aliénor — is derived from the Latin pun Alia Aénor’, i.e. ‘Another Aénor’. The duchess Aénor appears to have obtained the appointment of her uncle as bishop of Poitiers, perhaps because he was a supporter of Anacletus, and she was probably excommunicated with her husband as an adherent of the anti-pope. The one other detail to survive is that she died at Talmont, about the year 1130, when Eleanor was only eight years old.

William X seems to have been noticeably fond of his eldest daughter, making her his constant companion. In consequence, Eleanor’s childhood was passed under many roofs. Like all rulers of the high Middle Ages, her father was perpetually on progress — administering justice and bringing rebellious vassals to heel — and Eleanor went with him. Inside the Roman city walls of Bordeaux she lived in the Ombrière palace with its tall keep, the ‘Crossbowman’, although she must also have stayed at the rambling old Tutelle palace just outside. When at Poitiers she inhabited the splendid Maubergeon Tower, which had once housed her grandfather’s ladies. There were similar keeps and palaces at Limoges, Niort, St Jean d’Angély, Blaye, Melle, Bayonne and other towns, together with all the fortresses of the vassals. In addition there were many rich abbeys that frequently had the expensive honour of entertaining the ducal household. There were also particularly favoured residences belonging to the duke, such as Belin (near Bordeaux) and Talmont, a castle and hunting lodge on the coast of Poitou.

Eleanor’s education was by no means confined to needlework. She was taught to read Latin: first, the prayers and services of the Church, then the Bible, the writings of the fathers and Ovid. She learned to such effect that later she was able to enjoy Latin comedies when they were performed before the court, and it is likely that she could speak the language. She was certainly able to write it — a rare accomplishment for a member of the laity. She was also taught to read and write Provencal, acquiring an expert knowledge of the gai saber (joyous art), as the troubadours termed their craft.

Eleanor may well have picked up more than gai saber from the troubadours. Many came from the county of Toulouse, which (especially the town of Albi) was the centre of a new religion, a form of Manichaeism. The romantic history of the Albigensians has obsured the nature of their beliefs; they held all matter to be evil, procreation being the ultimate sin. But such views intrigued poets who practised platonic love. Moreover the integrity of the Albigensian ministers contrasted favourably with the corruption and sloth of all too many of the Christian clergy. Whole districts of southern Aquitaine became Albigensian. Although not even the chroniclers accuse Eleanor of being an Albigensian, there must have been plenty of them at her father’s court and it is impossible that she did not know a good deal about their creed.

Obviously Eleanor matured early, partly from being constantly in her father’s company. One may guess how much she regretted not having been born a boy and how this regret, together with the freedom bestowed by her position and by Aquitainian court life, made her determined to do just what she pleased and careless of convention. Nevertheless, although she was independent and strong-willed, she was much too feminine ever to be a tomboy; but later she was credited with wearing armour like a man, and she may have displayed a certain casualness in sexual matters.

By this date the Capetian monarchy was at last beginning to assert itself and think of expansion. Louis VI was accused, with justice, of making a god out of his belly, and by his mid-forties he was too fat to mount a horse, yet for all his gluttony he was determined to be more than just ‘duke of the Ile de France’. After enforcing strict law and order for the first time throughout the Capetian domains, by military skill and sheer force of character, he then made even his greatest vassals defer to him as a judge and arbitrator, as in the disputed succession to the lordship of Bourbon. By 1124 his vassals had grown dutiful enough to help him fight off an invasion by the emperor Henry V and the English king Henry I. Louis also found other sources of support by issuing to town communes throughout France (though seldom in his own territory) charters to set up corporations, which freed them from feudal obligations to their local lord. Understandably, Louis le gros cast greedy eyes on Aquitaine and its heiress. With such a king, Eleanor would have to give priority to a Capetian suitor. In any case, should her father die, the wardship of herself and of her fief would fall to the king.

On Good Friday 1137, despite his strength, duke William X died at Compostella, where he had gone to pray to St James the Apostle, and was buried under the high altar at Compostella. Eleanor had no other course than to turn to king Louis. Although a woman could inherit a fief, receive homage from its vassals, and lead them to war, it was also true that under feudal law any ruthless suitor might seize her, force her to marry him, and enjoy her inheritance. It is not known whether William had expressed any wish that his daughter should marry Louis’s son but it is more than likely that he had recognized Louis’s right to be her guardian. Eleanor was speedily betrothed to Louis le jeune, who was Louis VI’s only surviving son. Even before the marriage, the fat monarch made his son formally claim Poitiers and Aquitaine and receive the homage of his new vassals at Limoges on 29 June 1137.

The future Louis VII was now sixteen. Originally he had been destined for the cloister and had spent his early years as a ‘child monk’ at the monastery of Saint-Denis under the benevolent eye of abbot Suger. However, when he was nine his elder brother Philip’s horse had been frightened by a runaway pig, giving its rider a fatal fall, whereupon Louis became heir to the throne and was crowned joint-king according to Capetian custom (to ensure an undisputed succession). But the memory of his pious childhood and his affection for monks never left him; he continued his sacred studies and sometimes wore a coarse grey gown and sandals like a simple brother. In appearance he was well built, but not overweight like his father, with long yellow hair and mild blue eyes. His strangest characteristic was his humble, unworldly manner, which none the less gave him a naive charm. Yet he was more intelligent than he seemed at first, and far from ineffectual. His worst faults were an appallingly violent temper — his rages were terrible — and a paralysing sense of sin and guilt.

Louis took over a month travelling from Paris to his wedding, riding by night to escape the heat. He was accompanied by his old friend abbot Suger, who was also his father’s trusted minister, by the bishop of Chartres and other prelates, and by an imposing escort of great vassals that included count Thibault of Champagne and count Raoul of Vermandois (a pair of whom Eleanor would later hear a good deal). Naturally he brought sumptuous presents.

Even the monkish young king must have been dazzled by his lavishly gifted bride, when at last he met her. Quite apart from her great possessions, Eleanor was very desirable in herself. So far as one may judge from the contemporary sources and the ecstasies of even the most grudging clerical witnesses, at fifteen she was a beauty — tall, with a superb figure that she kept into old age, lustrous eyes and fine features. (It is likely that her hair was yellow and her eyes blue, as at that time these were considered indispensable for truly remarkable good looks.) Obviously she had inherited the splendid constitution of her father and grandfather. In manner, as befitted a lady who claimed descent from Charlemagne, she was gracious and regal. She must have been far more adult than her bridegroom. Even then she was probably already a protector of troubadours, especially of those fleeing from the irritation of their adored ones’ menfolk. (She was to be no less noted for sympathy with her own sex in trouble; her concern for wives who had run away from brutal husbands was later evident in her patronage of the abbey of Fontevrault, which served as a refuge for them.) She was indeed a girl of extraordinary promise.

On Sunday 25 July 1137 the couple were married in the cathedral of Saint André at Bordeaux, by archbishop Geoffrey of Loroux, in the presence of the lords spiritual and temporal of Gascony, Poitou and the Saintonge. Afterwards, at the nuptial banquet in the Ombriére palace, Louis wore the ducal coronet of Aquitaine. Then they went on progress, the wedding night being spent at the castle of Taillebourg.

A fortnight later another ceremony took place in the cathedral at Poitiers. On 8 August Eleanor and Louis were consecrated duke and duchess of Aquitaine with a sacramental rite modelled on that of the service for crowning a king of France. During the banquet in the Maubergeon that followed, abbot Suger brought them the news that Louis VI had died a week earlier, killed by gluttony. For the next fifteen years Eleanor was to see little of Aquitaine.

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