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.


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