Book Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life

ISBN 13 : 9780345405401

Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life

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9780345405401: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life

Book by Alison Weir

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Chapter 1
“Opulent Aquitaine”

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born into a Europe dominated by feudalism. In the twelfth century there was no concept of nationhood or patriotism, and subjects owed loyalty to their ruler, rather than the state.

Europe was split into principalities called feudatories, each under the rule of a king, duke, or count, and personal allegiance, or fealty, was what counted. This was expressed in the ceremony of homage, in which a kneeling vassal would place his hands between those of his overlord and swear to render him service and obedience.

The most powerful kings and lords could command obedience and aid from lesser rulers; a breach of fealty was generally held to be dishonourable, and although some paid mere lip service to the ideal, the threat of intervention in a dispute by one’s overlord often remained an effective restraint. On the other hand, an overlord was bound to offer protection, friendship, and aid to a vassal beset by enemies, so the system had its advantages.

Feudal Europe was essentially a military society. Warfare was the business of kings and noblemen, and to many it was an elaborate game played by the rules of chivalry, a knightly code embodying ideals of courage, loyalty, honesty, courtesy, and charity. These rules were often strictly observed, and any breach of them was regarded with opprobrium.

Kings and lords might engage in the most bloody conflicts, but once sieges were broken, castles and territory taken, and a truce signed, it was agreed to be in everyone’s best interests for good relations to be restored-until the next conflict broke out. Thus, rulers could be enemies one month, yet swear undying friendship the next; such was the shifting scene of twelfth-century politics. The real victims of war were, of course, the peasants and townsfolk, who served as foot soldiers or were innocent victims of the sacking of towns and villages by mercenaries or the notoriously violent routiers, ruthless desperadoes whose lives were dedicated to fighting and plunder. Humble noncombatants often perished in vast numbers at the whim of their rulers-even that of Eleanor herself.

Christianity governed the lives of everyone in feudal Europe. Belief in the Holy Trinity was universal, and any deviation from the accepted doctrines of the Catholic Church-such as the heresies of the Cathars in southern France-was ruthlessly suppressed. Holy Church, presided over by the Pope in Rome, was the ultimate authority for all spiritual and moral matters, and even kings were bound by her decrees.

In this martial world dominated by men, women had little place. The Church’s teachings might underpin feudal morality, yet when it came to the practicalities of life, a ruthless pragmatism often came into play. Kings and noblemen married for political advantage, and women rarely had any say in how they or their wealth were to be disposed in marriage. Kings would sell off heiresses or rich widows to the highest bidder, for political or territorial advantage, and those who resisted were heavily fined.

Young girls of good birth were strictly reared, often in convents, and married off at fourteen or even earlier to suit their parents’ or over-lord’s purposes. The betrothal of infants was not uncommon, despite the Church’s disapproval. It was a father’s duty to bestow his daughters in marriage; if he was dead, his overlord or the King himself would act for him. Personal choice was rarely an issue.

Upon marriage, a girl’s property and rights became invested in her husband, to whom she owed absolute obedience. Every husband had the right to enforce this duty in whichever way he thought fit-as Eleanor was to find out to her cost. Wife-beating was common, although the Church did at this time attempt to restrict the length of the rod that a husband might use.

It is fair to say, however, that there were women who transcended the mores of society and got away with it: the evidence suggests that Eleanor of Aquitaine was one such. There were then, as now, women of strong character who ruled feudal states and kingdoms, as Eleanor did; who made decisions, ran farms and businesses, fought lawsuits, and even, by sheer force of personality, dominated their husbands.

It was rare, however, for a woman to exercise political power. Eleanor of Aquitaine and her mother-in-law the Empress Matilda were among the few notable exceptions, unique in their time. The fact remained that the social constraints upon women were so rigidly enforced by both Church and state that few women ever thought to question them. Eleanor herself caused ripples in twelfth-century society because she was a spirited woman who was determined to do as she pleased. Eleanor of Aquitaine was heiress to one of the richest domains in mediaeval Europe. In the twelfth century, the county of Poitou and the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony covered a vast region in the south-west of what is now France, encompassing all the land between the River Loire in the north and the Pyrenees in the south, and between the Rhône valley and the mountains of the Massif Central in the east and the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

In those days the kingdom of France itself was small, being centred mainly upon Paris and the surrounding area, which was known from the fourteenth century as the Île de France; yet its kings, thanks to the legacy of the Emperor Charlemagne, who had ruled most of northern Europe in the eighth century, were overlords of all the feudatories in an area roughly corresponding to modern France.

Poitou was the most northerly of Eleanor’s feudatories: its northern border marched with those of Brittany, Anjou, and Touraine, and its chief city was Poitiers. Perched on a cliff, with impressive ramparts, this was the favourite seat of its suzerains. To the east was the county of Berry, and to the south the wide sweep of the duchy of Aquitaine, named “land of waters” after the great rivers that dissected it: the Garonne, the Charente, the Creuse, the Vienne, the Dordogne, and the Vézère. The duchy also incorporated the counties of Saintonge, Angoulême, Périgord, the Limousin, La Marche, and the remote region of the Auvergne. In the south, stretching to the Pyrenees, was the wine-producing duchy of Gascony, or Guienne, with its bustling port of Bordeaux, and the Agenais. All these lands comprised Eleanor’s inheritance.

It was a rich one indeed, wealthier than the domain of its overlord, the King of France. “Opulent Aquitaine, sweet as nectar thanks to its vineyards dotted about with forests, overflowing with fruit of every kind, and endowed with a superabundance of pasture land,” enthused one chronicler, Heriger of Lobbes. Ralph of Diceto wrote that the duchy “abounds with riches of many kinds, so excelling other parts of the western world that it is considered by historians one of the most fortunate and prosperous provinces of Gaul.”

The region boasted a temperate climate, and its summers could be very warm. It was a land of small walled cities, fortified keeps, moated castles, wealthy monasteries, sleepy villages, and prosperous farms. Its houses were built with white or yellow walls and red-tiled roofs, as many still are today. To the east and south, the land was hilly or mountainous, while fertile plains, high tors, and dense woodland were features of Poitou and Aquitaine, and flat sandy wastes and scrubland characterised Gascony.

The people of Aquitaine, who were mostly of Romano-Basque origin, were as diverse as its scenery. In the twelfth century, The Pilgrim’s Book of Compostela described the Poitevins as handsome, full of life, brave, elegant, witty, hospitable, and good soldiers and horsemen, and the natives of Saintonge as uncouth, while the Gascons-although frivolous, garrulous, cynical, and promiscuous-were as generous as their poverty permitted. In fact, the whole domain was merely a collection of different lordships and peoples with little in common, apart from their determination to resist interference by their overlord, the Duke.

Most people in Aquitaine spoke the langue d’oc, or Provençal, a French dialect that derived from the language spoken by the Roman invaders centuries before, although there were a number of local patois. North of the River Loire, and in Poitou, they spoke the langue d’oeil, which to southerners seemed a different language altogether. Eleanor of Aquitaine probably spoke both dialects, although it appears that the langue d’oc was her mother tongue.

The Aquitanian lordships and their castles were controlled by often hostile and frequently feuding vassals, who paid mere lip service to their ducal overlords and were notorious for their propensity to rebel and create disorder. These turbulent nobles enjoyed a luxurious standard of living compared with their unwashed counterparts in northern France, and each competed with his neighbour to establish in his castle a small but magnificent court. Renowned for their elegance, their shaven faces and long hair, the Aquitanian aristocracy were regarded by northerners as soft and idle, whereas in fact they could be fierce and violent when provoked. Self-interest was the dominant theme in their relations with their liege lords: successive dukes had consistently failed to subdue these turbulent lords or establish cohesion within their own domains.

The authority of the dukes of Aquitaine held good, therefore, only in the immediate vicinities of Poitiers, their capital, and Bordeaux. Al-though they claimed descent from Charlemagne and retained his effigy on the coinage of Poitou, they did not have the wealth or resources to extend their power into the feudal wilderness beyond this region, and since their military strength depended upon knight service from their unruly vassals, they could not rely upon this. Consequently, Aquitaine lagged behind northern France in making political and economic progress.

Nevertheless, the duchy was wealthy, thanks to its lucrative export trade in wine and salt, and it was a land in which the religious life flourished. Its rulers erected and endowed numerous fine churches and abbeys, notably the famous abbey at Cluny-“a pleasaunce of the angels” -and the Aquitanian Romanesque cathedrals in Poitiers and Angoulême, built in a style typified by elegant archways with radiating decoration and lively but grotesque sculptures of monsters and mythical creatures.

In the first century B.C. the Romans had founded Aquitania as a province of Gaul; vestiges of Roman culture and civilisation were still evident in the twelfth century. At the time of the Merovingian kings of France (A.D. 481-751), Aquitaine became an independent duchy. In 781 Charlemagne had his young son Louis crowned King of Aquitaine by the Pope, and appointed a council of nobles to govern in his name. By 793 the renowned warrior William of Orange, Count of Toulouse, had emerged as their leader, although in that year he was soundly defeated by the Moors of Spain during their last attempt to extend their Moslem empire north of the Pyrenees. A brave and devout man, of whom epic chansons de geste (songs of deeds) were written, William retired to the abbey of Gellons near Montpellier, where he later died. In 1066 he was canonised and his burial place was renamed Saint-Guilhelm-le-Désert.

Aquitaine remained a nominal kingdom until 877, but as Charlemagne’s empire fragmented, so its status declined, and it was soon the subject of intense rivalry between the counts of Poitiers and Toulouse, who both wished to rule what was now the duchy of Aquitaine. By the middle of the tenth century, Ebalus, Count of Poitou, a distant cousin of William of Orange, had emerged victorious.

Eleanor “sprang from a noble race.”Ebalus’s son, William III (called “Towhead”), a wealthy, able, and devout ruler, was blessed with a capable wife, Adela of Normandy. She was the first of a number of strong-minded women in the ducal family tree. Like his famous namesake, William III also retired to a monastery, dying in 963.
His son, William IV, nicknamed “Fierebras” (Strong Arm), was of a more volatile temperament. Married to another woman of character, the pious Emma, sister of Hugh Capet, King of the Franks, he so offended her sensibilities by overindulging in hunting and women that she left him twice-but not before wreaking her vengeance on his paramours. Finally bowing to pressure, he withdrew to a monastery around 996, leaving Emma to rule in the name of their son, William V, the Great.

Fortunately, William V took after his mother, who remained in power until her death in 1004. Well-educated, he was interested in the teachings of scholars from the cathedral schools of Blois, Tours, and Chartres; he founded a similar school at Poitiers Cathedral, collected books, and promoted learning at his court at Poitiers, already the leading centre of southern culture. He established good relations and alliances with his feudal neighbours and with the Church, and made several pilgrimages to Rome. He, too, married a formidable woman: his third wife, Agnes of Burgundy, was another such as his mother had been.

William V died in 1030. He was succeeded in turn by the three sons of his former wives, William VI (reigned 1030-1038), Eudes (reigned 1038-1039), and William VII, the Brave (reigned 1039-1058). The latter was “truly warlike, second to none in daring, and endowed with foresight and abundant wealth,” yet although he was “eager for praise, pompous in his boastful arrogance” and enjoyed a “great reputation,” he suffered a miserable defeat at the hands of Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou, in 1042.

William VII was succeeded by his father’s son by Agnes of Burgundy, Guy Geoffrey, who took the title William VIII. Despite the fact that she was now married to Geoffrey Martel, Agnes continued to exert her will over her son and his court, until her retirement to a nunnery in 1068. Yet William VIII was an energetic and dynamic ruler; by 1063, he had annexed Saintonge and Gascony to Aquitaine, thereby increasing the duchy’s importance and power in western Europe. It was for a time sufficiently peaceful for its Duke to depart to fight the Moors in Spain. His victory at Babastro was still being celebrated in the chansons de geste of the twelfth century.

William’s first two wives were barren, so he took a third, Audéarde of Burgundy, twenty-five years his junior and related to him within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity. Their son, William, born in 1071, was not legitimated until the father had personally visited Rome and obtained the Pope’s blessing on his marriage.

William VIII died in 1086, when his son was just fifteen. William IX, Eleanor’s grandfather, was a handsome and courteous, yet complex and volatile man who is regarded by historians as the first of the troubadours.

Romantic literature flourished in the twelfth century, particularly in Aquitaine and Provence. The chansons de geste tended to celebrate military ideals of courage in battle, loyalty, honour, and endurance, as well as legendary heroes such as Charlemagne, Roland, and...

Présentation de l'éditeur :

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine was one of the leading personalities of the Middle Ages, and also one of the most controversial. Having inherited a vast feudal domain stretching from the Loire to the Pyrenees, she was one of the greatest heiresses in history; yet in her own day, she was famous not only for who she was, but also for what she did. In an age when women were treated as mere chattels, she made her own choices, wielded power and won widespread respect.

Circumstances, however, dictated that her memory would be sullied by calumny and misunderstanding. Eleanor was no saint. She was beautiful, intelligent and wilful, and in her lifetime there were rumours about her that were not without substance. Her contemporaries were sometimes scandalised by her behaviour. She had been reared in a relaxed and licentious court where the arts of the troubadours flourished, and was even said to have presided over the fabled Courts of Love. Eleanor married in turn Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and was the mother of Richard the Lionheart and King John. She lived to be 82, but it was only in old age that she triumphed over the adversities and tragedies of her earlier years and became virtual ruler of England.

Eleanor has exerted a fascination over writers and biographers for 800 years, but the prevailing myths and legends that attach to her name still tend to obscure the truth. By careful research, Alison Weir has produced a vivid biography with a fresh and provocative perspective on this extraordinary woman.

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