Saturday, December 31, 2011

ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE'S BIRTH YEAR. (and why it matters to me the writer).

For many years it was assumed and accepted that Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122.  Many of her biographers have stated it as her birth year, but her biographers tend to copy and cite each other's work,  and where one makes an error or utilises their own opinion as fact, the others all follow into the abyss. For example, I found Ralph Turner citing Regine Pernoud that Geoffrey le Bel had gone on the second crusade (when it's proven in primary source that he didn't).  Marion Meade and Alison Weir both give Eleanor a half brother called Joscelin that she never had. 
Eleanor's birth date is another case in point, where circular arguments have been used to show that she was born in 1122.  Alison Weir says  that Eleanor  "The first child, the daughter who became known to history as Eleanor of Aquitaine, was born in 1122. The exact date is not known, but the year can be determined from evidence of her age at death and from the fact that the Lords of Aquitaine swore fealty to her on her 14th birthday in 1136. Some chroniclers give 1120 as a date, but her parents cannot have been be married until 1121".  Weir, unfortunately (but typically)  does not cite the chroniclers who give 1120 as the birthdate. Nor does she cite the documents for her other statements concerning the fealty swearing.
Medieval scholar Elizabeth Brown states that she was born in 1124, the first daughter and the second child of William X of Aquitaine. So disagrees with Weir about the birth order and states that Eleanor's brother was the firstborn (no source).  Rágena C. Dearagon says when Duke William X of Aquitaine died in April 1137, his 13-year-old daughter Eleanor had been his presumptive heir for some seven years. Elizabeth Brown is a specialist in medieval and early modern French history and professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York.  Rágena C. Dearagon is associate professor of history at Gozanga University, Spokane, Washington.
The scholar who has unravelled the tangle of Eleanor's birth year is Andrew W. Lewis, Prof of history at Southwest Missouri State University. He says "For Eleanor of Aquitaine's age, most recent scholars have relied on Alfred Richard, the great modern specialist on the counts of Poitou. But details of this sort were not among Richard's strengths is a scholar. Moreover, he vacillated in his statements on the subject, and his argument is circular. Thus, when speaking of Eleanor's birth, he wrote that it was only from knowing that she was 82 years old when she died, in 1204, that one could place her birthday 1122. Yet when speaking of the death he gave her age as 'about 82 years', while citing no source to that effect."  In other words, without sources, the evidence is doubtful and inadmissable. In fact there is only one source quoted in footnotes as giving her age, and when professor Lewis checked back to the primary for himself, he found that it didn't actually mention her age at her death at all!    Lewis goes on to say that greater confidence can be placed in the genealogical text composed at Limoges in the late 13th century.  This record is an early tradition that she was 13 years old at the time of her father's death in April 1137. Lewis says that not only would more people at that time, before the passing of generations, have been likely to have known her age, but by canon law of woman had to be at least 12 years old in order to marry, and the information would have had  practical relevance. By contrast, Eleanor's exact age at her death had none.
The document Lewis cites is an early 14th century manuscript from St Martin of Limoges containing copies of early materials from St Martial of Limoges. It says that  in "1136 on the fifth ides of April, which in that year was Good Friday, William Count Palatine of Poitou and the last Duke of Aquitaine died at St James in Galicia, leaving his only daughter, named Eleanor, aged 13 years, whom he had begotten of the sister of Viscount de Chatelleraut in the principality of Aquitaine to Louis King of the French…" Now that may seem partially wrong in itself because William X died on that date in 1137, but Lewis suggests that it is either a copying error by the cleric, or more likely caused because the reckoning of the years at that time was from Easter to Easter, and so would be correct.
It is interesting that Weir says that the nobles swore fealty to her on her 14th birthday in 1136. She gives no citation for this. However the age of consent at that time was 12 for a girl, and Eleanor would have turned 12 in 1136 if the birthdate of 1124 is correct. It seems far more likely to me that Eleanor's father would have the nobles swear to her the moment she came of age, rather than leaving it until she was 14. She would also have come of age around the time that her father was campaigning with Geoffrey Le Bel of Anjou.  One has to wonder whether approaches were made by Geoffrey concerning his infant son Henry and the uniting of Anjou and Aquitaine through the marriage of the children.  Certainly Geoffrey was intent throughout his life on pursuing such a unification. He approached Eleanor and Louis VII on the matter of a betrothal  between Henry and their small daughter Marie, and as soon as Eleanor and Louis’ marriage was annulled, Eleanor and Henry were married. How much of that was set up before Geoffrey's death?  Were approaches made in 1136 concerning the 12-year-old Eleanor and the three-year-old Henry?  Was William X dismayed at the thought?  Did he prefer to put his eggs in a bigger basket when he arranged for the French to care for his daughters when he went to Compostela?  It's a point to ponder - and pure speculation on my behalf.  
I do believe that the current scholarly thinking on Eleanor's age is correct.  All the evidence points to her being in her 13th year at the time of her marriage to the future Louis VII and makes so much more sense.  It’s also interesting for me the writer.  13 is such a  different prospect to 15.  Eleanor is often imbued with power she just did not possess at that time in her life. She was a year out of childhood and a pawn in the power struggles of the men around her - a fact reflected and explored in the less sensationalist works of scholarship.  Aristocratic medieval girls may have grown up swiftly, but 13 is still 13 and a perilously young and vulnerable age, and in terms of political clout, especially as a female, negligible, other than as a figurehead.  It makes for a rather different angle when it comes to the story telling, and that's one of the reasons why that difference of two years is important  to me the writer when others might be asking 'Does it really matter?' 

Next time round I’ll post a selection of research books with comments.


Helen Hollick said...

I don't know much about the historical evidence - even less the documented sources mainly because, as this is not my period, I have never looked (there's only so much my brain can take in & my own period is quite enough to struggle with #laugh) What I "learn" is from well written fiction - in this instance, primarily Sharon Penman and yourself Elizabeth, as I feel I can trust both of you to be honest regarding what is accurate and what is fiction.
However, for myself I have never thought Eleanore was anything but 13 when she married - for exactly the same reason as I am certain Emma of Normandy was 13 when she was married to Aethelred of England in 1002. And for the same reason as you state Elizabeth - at 15 both girls would have been more confident and self-assured. At 13 they were still on the edge of their self confidence.
That and a "gut feeling" of course!
Out of interest, have you picked up anything about her age via the Akashic Records?

Thanks for this article - one to definitely be put on the bookmark list!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Helen, thanks for your comment. Yes absolutely re Eleanor and Emma. With Eleanor she gets cast in this powerful, dominant, feminist role and it is so not true.
The Akashics - yes, they are very clear indeed that she was only a girl - and that she entered into an abusive marriage and at the time had very little power in the scheme of things.

Carla said...

This is a classic example of the sort of detail that may not matter very much to a historical account (and in any case historians can always say honestly 'this is uncertain, the possibilities are X, Y and Z, and the evidence for each is as follows....'), but is critical for a novelist because it will shape the story.

Happy New Year!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Yeah, I have the same problem with Arminius' death. Our friend Tacitus manages to chose such an obscure phrase that it can have been either 19 AD (the year Germanicus died) or 21 AD, and the moment a writer wants to present the death onstage, you'll have to pick one date and give a reason for it, too.

Happy New Year to you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this-(I've always taken all of Weir's books with a grain of salt)- and for the names of such august researchers.
I'll have to look for their work. I'm having difficulty trying to pin down who was the Warden--or Castellan-- of York castle during the time of the York Massacre. There's plenty of names, Malebestia the leader of the mob, John Marshall the Sheriff, but I can't seem to find a positive identity on the Warden.
I'm working on a YA novel about the massacre, and I sooo wanted to put Eleanor there, so my Main Character could meet her, if only briefly, but I know she'd already left for Chinon by that time, March 1190.
Thank you again for such terrific info and have a wonderful Happy New Year!

Don Maker said...

It's extremely difficult to "know" what is correct when many records were either lost or not kept. I know from doing extensive research for "The Shakespeares and the Crown" that there is much disagreement between "experts" depending on what source material they used, and especially what inferences they make from what information they gather. For example, it's pretty well accepted that Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533, but there is extreme controversy over the birthdate of her long-time friend and perhaps lover, Robert Dudley (by as much as a year), and that was at a time when christening dates of peers were rigorously noted! While it may indeed be extremely relevant to a writer regarding the actions and personality of a character, I think that historically such details are still mostly matters of conjecture. A researcher can only do her best to verify any given piece of information, document it as well as possible, then leave it up to those who come afterwards and find better documentation to correct any mistakes that might have been made.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Indeed Don, I agree, but it's so annoying when some of the documentation by experts that I come across is so obviously sloppy and wrong. They should do their homework better!