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Eleanor of Aquitaine led a remarkable life - queen of England and France, participant in a Crusade, mother of Richard the Lionheart, patron of troubadours, benefactor of convents, and actor in numerous court intrigues that decided the fates of kingdoms and helped shape the political boundaries of medieval Europe. Courageous, opinionated, and ambitious, she inspired great loyalty in vassals yet incurred the wrath of noblemen and prelates in her drive to acquire power for herself and her children.
The author of six previous books about English history, Alison Weir tackles familiar territory with Eleanor of Aquitaine. She ostensibly chronicles the life of Eleanor, though the book also provides a tableau of 12th-century Europe. It is saturated with episodes demonstrating the Byzantine nature of dynastic politics and the intensely complex machinations involved in the often bloody chess game that characterized Europe at this time. This lends a healthy vitality to the events Weir describes: This book doesn't read as history, this book is history.
Moreover, Weir seasons her account with voluminous and vivid detail culled from an impressive collection of sources. We discover that kings wore hairshirts and submitted themselves to monks for flagellation as penance for their myriad sins and that nobles often employed the claim of consanguinity as grounds for divorce, paving the way for new and more politically rewarding marriages that created a mosaic of extremely fluid alliances. Such morsels crop up throughout, adding layers of depth to a period often labeled the "Dark Ages."
The title notwithstanding, much of the book revolves around the men in Eleanor's life; after all, she was married at different times to the kings of France and England. Both marriages were arranged in large part because of Eleanor's claim to the vast, wealthy duchy of Aquitaine in France, and Weir carefully shows how the unions deteriorated into acrimony. But the queen's legacy reached all the way to the War of the Roses 300 years later, which marked the end of the line she and Henry founded, and she left her distinctive imprint on the map of Europe.