Do We Know What We Think We Know? Making Assumptions About Eleanor of Aquitaine
DeAragon, RáGena C.
Medieval Feminist Forum: Vol. 37, (2004)
As Mark Twain (not known for his advice to historians) said: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” So when I was approached to write an essay comparing Eleanor of Aquitaine with her noble female contemporaries, I went searching for facts about the queen. I had read Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings early in my graduate- school days and remembered my disappointment that the book, although readable, focuses much more on the kings than on the queen. Since I’d read almost nothing on Eleanor thereafter, I asked which biography to consult and was directed to that written by D.D.R. Owen.’ There I found many of the facts I needed, but also an indication of how much about her life and activities is disputed-even such matters as the number of her children by Henry II.
Then I was invited to be on a panel devoted to Eleanor at Kalamazoo. I was pondering what topics to discuss in my presentation while proctoring an exam in my western civilization course, and I thought to look up Eleanor of Aquitaine in the course textbook. One of the most famous women of the middle ages was accorded only two sentences! That sent me on a survey of other western civilization text s. I discovered that Eleanor gets rather short shrift in many. Out of nine recent textbooks, Kishlansky, Geary and O’Brien’s Civilizations of the West gave her the most coverage: a two-page spread introducing the reader to the royal effigies at Fontevrauld, then leading into the story of the Plantagenet kings and Eleanor. Greaves, Zaller and Roberts included several paragraphs, while the others even textbooks devote one paragraph or less to the queen.