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Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England. By Ralph V. Turner. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. 416. $35.00.)

The author of this book is but the latest historian to try his hand at writing a biography of Eleanor, whose story has been the subject of enduring scholarly and popular interest despite the significant dearth of sources that can be attributed directly to her. This attempt, although certainly more measured, more thoroughly researched, and more respectful than the flights of fancy usually larded onto Eleanor's life, nevertheless still falls short in painting a multidimensional portrait of this extraordinarily complex woman.

Though Ralph V. Turner succeeds in placing Eleanor at the center of a century's worth of political and administrative activity dominated by the towering figures of Henry II, Richard I, and John and their perpetual confrontation with the Capetian kings Louis VII (Eleanor's first husband) and Philip II, he interprets her activity, especially before 1176 (when she was imprisoned by Henry II for inciting the rebellion of their sons), as unproductive, impulsive, and even nefarious, even though most of these interpretations are speculations based on very thin evidence. This suggests that Turner, despite his resistance to it, has allowed what he terms the "Black Legend" of Eleanor--the product of hostile ecclesiastical writers--to infiltrate his own view of her.

When Turner has adequate documentary sources, Eleanor appears as a ferociously intelligent and perceptive woman constrained by the growing misogyny of a Church dominated by the likes of Bernard of Clairvaux and the growing professionalism of the royal household administration through which Eleanor's predecessors had been able to establish their authority. When he has few sources attributable to her, Turner depicts Eleanor as a kind of medieval Paris Hilton: craving to be the center of attention and to make a mark on the world but without the skills or emotional maturity to do so without making a mess of it. This bipolarity, created by a splendid scholar of the twelfth century who seems to admire Eleanor even as he grows more critical of the Plantagenet men, trivializes Eleanor even when it celebrates her. Moreover, since fully three-quarters of the book focuses on Eleanor before the death of Henry II, the "Paris Hilton" Eleanor is emphasized: comparatively little time is spent on her widowhood and the reigns of her sons, the period in which she had real power, sympathetic chroniclers, and a public gravitas that made her a true force to be reckoned with.

Turner has more or less rejected all previous depictions of Eleanor as a combination of sensationalizing and psychobabble. Though this reviewer would in large part agree with him, what is missing from his portrayal of her is a genuine woman, one whose education, experience, and position certainly contributed to the development of her character but whose gritty determination and passionate advocacy of her children, her favorite courtiers (such as William the Marshal), and her "pet projects" (such as enriching Fontevrauld) came from her core and must have made her intimidating and formidable, even to archmisogynists like St. Bernard. One has only to read the extraordinary letters she wrote to the pope during Richard's captivity--with their artfully crafted combination of pathos and fury that this reviewer feels cannot have been the work of a clerk--to recover something of the authentic Eleanor. Turner's work, however thorough, has leached that passion out of her.

Linda E. Mitchell

University of Missouri
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Author:Mitchell, Linda E.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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