Do we have a candidate for Renaissance Woman?

If we did, it would be a queen you’ve probably never even heard of.

You’ve heard of Victoria and Elizabeth, Catherine the Great and the wives of Henry VIII. If I asked you about French queens, you’d probably say Marie Antoinette. There’s one woman you probably wouldn’t even mention, yet she’s probably been the most profound influence on Shakespeare, without him even really knowing it.

That woman was Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Born around 1122, she’s about as forgotten in history as it’s possible to be, yet she was probably the most powerful woman of her time, and definitely the most powerful woman for a long time to come.

So, let’s put her in context. She’s born as the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, a massive area in France. At the time ‘France’ was only a small bit around Paris, and there was a duchy of about the same size that covered about a third of what is now modern-day France. Eleanor of Aquitaine might have been born the daughter of a region that’s all-but-forgotten outside of France, but at the time, it was as good as being a princess. At fifteen, her father died and she became the Duchess of Aquitaine.

Then she married Louis VII and became Queen of France too. Not bad.

You can see the bits she reigned over, and the bit in green that she ruled by marriage. She gave the king of France two daughters, but both she and he had had enough of each other and they were granted an annulment. She got engaged to Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy (right at the top) and he became King of England in 1154. Thus, by thirty, she’d been married to the King of France, had two girls, then got married to the future King of England. Not bad going. He was only 21 as well. In the days when kings wanted virginal young beauties, Eleanor must have been a force to be reckoned with.

She went on to have eight children with him – plenty of boys – five – and they would bring him plenty of trouble. Boys do that.

Eventually, when one of his sons rebelled against him, Henry II had his wife locked up and she spent sixteen years under guard. The only way she was released was when Henry II died and his son, Richard the Lionheart, became king.

It’s one of those dramas that would make an amazing soap opera. Eleanor and Henry’s eldest son, Young Henry, led the rebellion against his father with his mother on his side and one of his brothers. Henry II fell out with the church, and his followers killed Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the time of high royal drama.

Of the five sons, the first, William, died aged two years old. Son number 2, Young Henry, died of dysentry whilst rebelling against his father. Son 3, who hadn’t thought he’d inherit the throne at all is Richard the Lionheart, so famous he’s still known as ‘Lionheart’ all these years after his death. He’s the one you might know. He went off to fight the Crusades, leaving his rubbish brother John to look after England. It’s under John’s reign that the legendary Robin Hood is always pictured. Whilst his brother is away fighting over Jerusalem, John raises taxes and puts in lots of sheriffs to make sure everyone’s paying what they should. He was the king forced to sign the Magna Carta, basically establishing the law of England.

So Eleanor is the mother behind two of England’s most famous kings.

But she didn’t sit around doing nothing whilst queen. She was an important factor in the establishing of courts and in her love of music and poetry. Between all of this political argy-bargy, in 1168, she set up court in Poitiers. This court is believed by many to be the ‘court of Love’

Yes. We are finally here. The court of love, where courtly love was born. Or, at the very least, popularised throughout Western Europe.

Courts are, of course, the place where manners are born. They gave us the French adjective courtois and then the English adjective, courteous. If you are courteous, you are polite, civil and respectful. It is Eleanor’s daughter, Marie of France, who patronises Chretian de Troyes, father of all romantic literature. Where did the notion of Sir Lancelot come from? Why, Chretian de Troyes. What about the story of the Holy Grail? Yes, that’s Chretian de Troyes as well. It’s also around this time that La Roman de la Rose, the romance of the rose, is shared.

These two poets create an image of love in which a woman is venerated, adored, worshipped. No wonder it appealed to Eleanor and her daughters. It didn’t just appeal to her either. No. It appealed to one Mr. Geoffrey Chaucer, the ‘father of English literature’ himself. And then, some three hundred years later, Shakespeare finds himself writing a play in which courtly love is the focus of attention.

You can also find all the same kind of ideas in them.

First, you take a woman. She must be unobtainable, angelic, other-worldly. As a result of this she is off-limits. She is, for whatever reason you can think of, unavailable to men.

Then you take a man. He must be a wonderful, thoughtful, poetic, heroic man. In later years, he should have all the qualities of a Renaissance man.

He goes through several stages. You’ll notice Romeo does exactly this with Juliet, albeit in a really, really quick scene. When Juliet says to Romeo ‘You kiss by the book’, part of me wonders if she means he kisses like he’s learned to do it in a book, or if he kisses her like the hero in a courtly love romance – the Mills and Boons of their day.

So… this is the version you’ll see, on FF in Romeo and Juliet.

He must see her, or hear her. She might be in a garden, or high in a tower, singing.

He must fall instantly in love with her, like he’s been struck by lightning.

He must worship her. Like really worship her.

He must declare his undying love.

She must say no. Or her dad might say no on her behalf. Or even her husband. She must say no because she’s honest and pure and sweet.

He must go into a frenzied attack of love, sending her gifts, writing her poems. He is being driven mad by her. He must be tortured, almost on the point of death. He simply cannot live without her.

She (or someone else, like her dad…) must set him a task that they do not think he can complete, in order to test his love.

He completes the task.

She falls madly in love with him because he’s so wonderful and great.

They live happily ever after.

So, you can see The Knight’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale in Chaucer follow this pattern.

The troubadours, though, the musicians and poets popularised by Eleanor’s court, also made popular lots of other poetry styles, including the pastoral (where a knight falls in love with a shepherdess) and yes, the sonnet.

Finally. Some of the literary traditions that were ingredients in the very successful writing career of Mr William Shakespeare. A renaissance man meets an unobtainable woman, brought to you by one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages.

Renaissance Man

When you see this old, beardy man, you probably don’t really think he’s anything ‘ideal’.

And yet if you put him on a checklist of what’s ideal, he’d tick a lot of boxes.

All this comes back to ‘Renaissance Man’ – of which the old, beardy man above is arguably the best example. I guess it depends on your notion of ideal, though.

First, you want someone academic. Someone clever. Someone who’s an all-round A*. Someone good at Maths, good at Science, good at Geography, good at History, good at Languages and good at Art.

But you don’t just want some dusty old boffin. You want someone who’s physically fit as well. Someone who can hold his own in a sword fight. Modern-day Renaissance Man would need to be the striker on the football team, or the full-back on the rugby team. We’re not just talking about some sporty jock here. We want a jock with brains.

But he needs to have a sensitive and intelligent side too. He’d need to appreciate and play music. He’d need to be good at poetry.

And he needs to be able to socialise and behave impeccably. We’re actually talking about some kind of modern man who’s at home in the spy world, speaks several languages and who people trust.

So, some kind of super-intelligent James Bond then, with a more arty and creative and romantic side.

You might be forgiven for thinking that old beardy, Leonardo da Vinci, might not tick so many of those boxes. And that’s where you’d be wrong. Engineer, artist, poet, sculptor, musician, architect and inventor. And painter of the world’s most famous painting.

Because being a true Renaissance man means being well-rounded. You’re supposed to be the peak of civilisation. All those years of evolving from cave-painting-hunters has led us to the pinnacle. The peak.

And excuse me if I’m not finding it easy to find another great example. David Beckham? Okay, he fits the sporty criteria. But is he blessed with brains and the ability to write poetry? Boris Johnson? Scientist and Inventor? Not sure about that one. And I’m not sure if his bicycle-riding qualifies as appropriately sporty. Bill Gates? Brains and invention, sure, but does he speak eight languages? Can he wrestle?

However, just because they were few and far between does not mean that people gave up on striving to be one.

All of this Renaissance Man business is essentially about being one thing: the best you can be, in virtually everything there is to be good at. All things civilised, at the very least. It’s not enough to have a broad knowledge, but you have to be good at things too.

He is, in fact, based very much on the idea of the knight at home. You come back from battling and saving holy cities, you put up your feet and you knock out a great painting. You play the lute, polish up your Latin and Ancient Greek, get involved with a little international diplomacy. You came back to court and put aside your blood-stained armour and your sword and went about the noble business of being civilised.

Now, this is where it starts to get interesting, because a lot of being a knight on leave was about hanging around with the king or the dukes, and so you’d need to have some manners. Also, a man home from long battles might want to take himself a wife, and a well-rounded man would be more eligible for the ladies.

Now, that’s a problem. After a war, the male population is decidedly depleted. There are lots of girls who haven’t been fighting and who have waited patiently at home, so there are lots of women a man might want to choose from. Give it a few years and it’s a little more balanced.

But girls are a problem. Think of the marriage ceremony. In it, a man gives away his daughter. He passes her on. A girl, unfortunately, is little more than a burden. You’ll never find talk of ‘Renaissance Woman’ for example. As a man with a castle, you want sons, so you can pass your castle on to the next generation. If you have no sons, your castle goes to the nearest male relative. Much of this is why Henry VIII ended up with six wives. He wanted a son. Even though girls could inherit a throne, they couldn’t inherit a castle or a Dukedom. And even though they could inherit the throne, the throne would still go to younger brothers instead of them.

Think of it like this. Our current Queen, Elizabeth II, has four children. Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward. Charles is oldest, therefore the throne is his first. The next bit is complicated. Imagine for a minute that Charles had no children. William and Henry don’t exist. You’d expect, in modern Britain, that if Charles died, Anne, his next sibling, would get the throne first.


That would be her brother, Andrew, then her youngest brother Edward. Anne only gets the throne if Charles, Andrew and Edward, and all of their children, die.

Not exactly fair, I know.

So how do we end up with a Queen?

It’s just when there’s no-one in the direct line to inherit the throne other than a girl.

Next is easy. Charles has two sons. William and Harry. If William has a child, the child will inherit the throne. If he doesn’t, Harry will.

Men are all-important.

As a man, you wanted a son. You wanted more than one son, in fact, because it was pretty likely one of your sons would die. You worked on the theory of three or more sons. One would be your next-in-line. One you’d send off to be a soldier and work for the country, and one would go to be a priest. If he’s a priest, you don’t have to look after him and pay for him any more, the church will do that. A soldier’s also got places to be. He’s going to be paid for by the state.

A girl has got nothing. She’s practically worthless. She costs you money to keep, doesn’t pass on your family name and to top it all off, the church says she’s responsible for all the sin in the world. We’d all still be in Eden if it were not for a woman.

The only way a girl has any use is if you marry her off and she makes a good alliance. You could marry her into someone else’s family, have some powerful in-laws and you’ve set yourself up so you’ve got a bit of power on your side.

But of course, if you’re a man of wealth and fame and talent, you’ve got several other blokes who want you to marry their daughter so that they can count you as part of their family. And if you’re a man of wealth and fame and talent, you want the best marriage possible. You want her to be pretty and kind of clever (but not so clever she shows you up) and most of all, you want her to be faithful. Above everything else.

In fact, Game of Thrones is a great example of what happens when it all goes wrong. Young, handsome, rich king fresh from war has the pick of the nation’s girls and alliances. He chooses a beautiful blonde. She gets pregnant, has three children in succession, including two fine boys. You’re a happy king.

Or not.

Because as it turns out, the devious Queen has been cheating on you (with her brother, no less!) and your children aren’t yours at all. As soon as you’re dead, your inheritance, everything you’ve worked for, goes to her children who are nothing to do with you. This little cuckoo in the nest can inherit everything. There was no Jeremy Kyle with a DNA test.  So you needed a woman you could trust, otherwise all your friends and family will be laughing their arses off that you got cheated out of your own kingdom.

So, you need a faithful, polite, virginal, trustworthy innocent young gem who isn’t going to embarrass you or show you up. Sounds a little like the young Princess Diana to me.

And, just to make it clear, there are still conspiracy theories about whether Harry is Charles’ son or not. And it’s not even as if it’s important any more. (And, in this age of DNA testing, can you imagine any scenario in which Harry isn’t Charles’ son? I’m with reason and logic on this one….)

Many fathers went to extreme lengths to ensure their daughters remained marketable. If she’s pretty, you might want to lock her in a tower. You might want to keep her out of public view. You want to keep her away from any man who might ruin her.

So, men held all the cards, especially these talented, well-rounded, educated, charming courteous Renaissance-Man-wannabes. And girls had nothing. If you don’t believe me, read how desperate Katherina’s father gets in The Taming of the Shrew. He’s all set out to sell her off to the highest bidder. Poor man, with two daughters and nothing else. He will lose everything and not only that, he’s burdened with an unreasonable daughter to boot.

Which reminds me of another thing… the dowry. A dowry was basically a sum of money a girl’s dad would give to the husband in order to take her off his hands.


Katherina even asks her father: “I pray you, sir, is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates?”

A stale is a prostitute. She’s basically asking her own dad if it’s really his plan to pimp her out to the highest bidder. And yes, it is his plan.

But even though he’s offering a large dowry, she’s too rough, she’s not gentle or mild or maidenly. In fact, when a man sees Bianca, the younger sister, she says nothing and he falls in love with her because she’s so meek and mild.

So you can see, a woman’s lot was a tough one.

One woman was responsible for a big change in attitude though. You can read about her in the next blog, which will be on courtly love, popularised by the effervescent king-maker, Aelienor of Aquitaine, a right royal feminist who gave women a little bit of power.

The sonnet, courtly love and renaissance men

Oh the sonnet can be so hard to teach as it comes with a huge great history and life of its own. You kind of need to know that history to fully appreciate it, and that’s the tough bit, because then, even though you know about it, you can’t write about it. Or you don’t need to.

Okay, so here’s the thing. You have to think of Italy and you have to think of France. You have to remember that France considers itself second-to-none. Its signs to Roman architecture say ‘Gallo-Roman’ because as far as the French are concerned, the Gauls had as much to do with it as the Romans. Forget that the Gauls were no different than any of the Celtic tribes in England, Asterix is not the best-selling cartoon for nothing. The French see themselves as a kind of equal partner in this ‘Franco-Roman’ thing. French people like to get cross because most of the rest of the world don’t speak French and they think they should. Living in France, having seen the ins and outs of the French history curriculum, I know that all schoolchildren in France learn all about how important France was. To a Frenchman, French things are far superior to things in the rest of the world.

Take cookery. French people see their food as the best in the world. Sure, Japan has Michelin stars, but French people invented cuisine. According to French people.

Italian people might argue with that, and they’d have a point. The French laugh at English ‘cuisine’ and German food and English chefs. However, they tolerate Italian stuff. They actually accept it’s pretty good. Likewise with fashion. French people like to think they are the most cultured in the world, and will grudgingly accept the Italians as less-than-but-acceptable.

Italian people laugh at English ‘cuisine’ and German food and English chefs, too. However, they tolerate French stuff. They actually accept that it’s pretty good. Ask an Italian what he wouldn’t mind being if being Italian did not exist, and he might say ‘French’.

Here’s an example. A French friend of mine lived in Italy. She had an argument on a bus with an old lady, who was absolutely adamant Italian food was better than French. In the end, my friend gave in, but not without telling me that ‘I just realised I’d never convince her that French food is the best of course. Poor, deluded woman.’

So… picture the Italian Renaissance – the ‘re-birth’ of Italy. Why a re-birth? Because after Rome collapsed, what was there? Pretty much nothing. They were overrun by tribes like the Visigoths and Vikings got big and important and what once was Rome needed to pull itself back together again to become a mighty empire.

And it did. It was the first European country to do so.

Music, art, literature… The Italians cornered the market.

Ask yourself, what is the most famous painting in the world?

If you didn’t say the Mona Lisa, you’re not very well informed about famous paintings. But I’d bet any money you said the Mona Lisa.

And the Mona Lisa, an Italian painting in a French art gallery, painted by an Italian who died in France.

So what do you have to understand?

Firstly, Italy wasn’t a nation. It was a set of city-states and smaller nations. Like imagine if Manchester decided to rule itself and it was no longer part of England. Not only that, but whilst the rest of Europe languished under a feudal system, like this one in Monty Python, Italy’s city-states had an awful lot more merchants.

And that’s something to think about.

First, most people were either landed gentry or peasants. Usually. And the landed gentry were good at taking taxes, building big castles and gathering up all the men to go off to far away wars. The peasants were good at rooting about in fields. Generally, though, between dying in wars and growing kingdoms, there wasn’t much time for reading and whatnot.

Anyway, having a city state means there’s less feudalism and more capitalism. More cash.

And Italy is at the crossroads of Europe.

For the last 200 years, we’ve been trekking across Europe to fight in Turkey in the Crusades. And Italy is right there on the crossroads. The first, in 1096, unites England, France and Italy who go and fight off the First Crusade to win back Jerusalem. And we keep doing it until 1192 when we finally put down swords.

But during that time, the city-states of Italy have been getting richer and more competitive. Imagine if someone made London a country, and Manchester a country, and the competition that would go on between them. It was the same.

So, by the time of the Renaissance, Italy is rich, competitive and ready to get creative. It’s filled with rich merchants who’ve got money to spend and who want to show off. There wasn’t really a beginning or end to the Italian Renaissance, but there were definitely busy periods.

So what did the Renaissance bring?

It brought literature and poetry. It brought Petrarch and Boccaccio, giants of the literary world. Say Shakespeare and everybody knows who you mean. Petrarch should, by rights, have a similar reputation. Born in 1304, he was a poet, scholar and diplomat. He starts writing his great works in 1327. Boccaccio writes his epics in about 1351. Dante’s Divine Comedy – the most famous Renaissance piece of literature – is written between 1308-1321.

It takes a little while for art, music and science to warm up to the same degree, but it does. Galileo and Copurnicus theorise about the planet; Leonardo Da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa between 1503 – 1506. Michaelangelo is born and creates the Sistine Chapel, the statue of David, countless other treasures in the art world.

So, this is Italy, from 1300 – 1520 – a world where art and music and literature and science flourish.

Next up: Renaissance man

Following that, you’ll be better placed to understand the way the sonnet came out of Italy, what it meant to be a man who wrote sonnets, the women they wrote them to and the way these ideas spread across three kingdoms to finally land on England’s doorstep, to fox English GCSE and A level students for the rest of their days.