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Eleanor, more than a woman of her time; Eleanor of Aquitaine. By the Wrath of God, Queen of England. By Alison Weir (Pimlico, pounds 8.99).

Europe was inhospitable territory for women during the Middle Ages. If you happened to be born into the peasantry life was a constant round of near famine - if the crops failed you went hungry; disease - if the Black Death spared you there was always bubonic plague just around the corner; while dirt and a total lack of hygiene must have made most of the hovels the poor called home more like thatched sewers than houses.

Even if you were a daughter of the aristocracy you were at the mercy of male relatives.

Girl babies in rich households were only valued for their child-bearing possibilities, and their barter price in arranged marriages was designed to make the family even more rich and powerful.

Yet many of those blue-blooded daughters received an education almost as extensive as their brothers. Although, instead of weaponry practice they probably sewed, made music or learned herbal lore.

They needed it all when the menfolk went off to war - later the Crusades - to wreak havoc among their enemies and the Infidel.

But few reached the dizzy heights of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, she ruled the province when it covered by far the larger part of France.

Stretching from the Pyrenees right up to Normandy, taking in Bordeaux and Poitou, she was far more powerful than her first husband - Louis VII of France.

The marriage was annulled - Popes were usually amenable in those days - because there was no surviving male child. When she was turned 30, she married for a second time. Her new lord was also a King, Henry II of England, still in his late teens.

Now with England joined to Aquitaines, the pair seemed almost invincible.

Eleanor was in her prime - she was born in 1122 - beautiful, accomplished, cultured and already no mean diplomat. In Aquitaine she had presided over the legendary Courts of Love, surrounding herself with minstrels and story-tellers, balladeers, and romantic singers.

With Henry, young, strong, tall and handsome as her new husband she had her second family. Among the sons was Richard, who later reigned as Lionheart, and wily John, who took over the throne but never had the charisma of his elder brother.

Eleanor lived on until the new century. She was 82 when she died, her mind still amazingly active, her body still able to undertake trips to her French territories, and throughout the rest of Europe.

As founder - with Henry - of the Plantagenet line, a builder of churches, and one of the most accomplished women of her age, she built an incomparable reputation.

She was also a creature of myth. Guinevere surrounded by troubadours, but with a backbone of steel.

Alison Weir explores some of the myths side by side with the known facts in her highly readable biography of a woman who knew triumph and adversity, who lived, married and raised her children by the tenets of her age.

She still manages to come across as a humane and highly intelligent human being whose qualities - and achievements - would seem great even by the magnified standards of the 21st century.
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 12, 2000
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