If you know anything about medieval history you have sort of heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). She used to be treated as a "fabulous female," supposedly one of the very few women who actually had power then. As I discussed in an earlier post, however, medieval women actually had far more power and agency than women did either in antiquity or in the modern period, before the twentieth century. They did not have what we would call "equal rights," but then neither did most men.
(My theory is that modern historians looked back on the nineteenth century, when married women lost rights to their property to their husbands, and figured, "Gee, they must have been even worse off even earlier." But history does not proceed in a straight line.)
Eleanor is and was a striking figure, with a much larger space to work on than most women, but her ability to exercise power was not unique. She first appears as heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine, essentially the southwest quarter of France. When her father, the duke, was dying without sons in 1137, he designated her as his heir and asked the French king, the Capetian Louis VI, to arrange a suitable match for his little girl (she was about fifteen at the time). The French king found a suitable match all right, his own son, who shortly became Louis VII.
Louis had not originally been intended to be king. His older brother Philip was the official crown prince, but Philip had been killed while horseback riding through the streets of Paris with his friends (racing, probably DUI), when a porcus diabolicus ran out, got tangled in the horse's legs, and threw him. Young Louis was also about fifteen, like Eleanor, when they got married, and since he immediately became king, he had a lot on his plate for a teenager.
Then he and Eleanor had daughters but not sons, and they went on the Second Crusade which turned into a disaster, and he figured out that they were actually cousins, so he managed to get a divorce (on which see more here). She promptly married King Henry II of England and bore him five sons, including Kings Richard the Lionheart and John. This attached Aquitaine to the English crown, which understandably caused all sorts of issues for the French, leading eventually to the Hundred Years War.
You can see why she is considered so unusual. Very few women get to be married to two different kings (though neither was what we would call a happy marriage) and be the mother of two others. Two of her daughters also became queens. She was vilified during her lifetime, and stories were made up about her, such as that she flirted shamelessly with her uncle in the Holy Land while on Crusade. She has also more recently been credited with "introducing courtly love" to northern France, which is quite unlikely.
She remained active throughout her life, helping her sons rebel against Henry II, even though at one point he had her under house arrest. She eventually did become a nun, but she popped out to offer homage to the French king for Aquitaine, so that her son Richard would not have to go down on his knees before another king. When she finally died, she was buried next to Henry and Richard at the monastery of Fontevraud (that's her effigy, above).
Fun fact: She was the first person named Eleanor. Her mother was named Aanor, a common name at the time, and she was named for her. But she was the "other" Aanor (Aanor junior we'd say), Alia Aanor in Latin, which became Alianor, or Eleanor.
© C. Dale Brittain 2016