By Katherine M. Baltrush
Student Pulse: Online Academic Student Journal, Vol.2:3 (2010)
Introduction: The 12th century marked a major shift in the course of western history. As D.D.R. Owen writes in his book, Eleanor of Aquitaine:
Western civilization was feeling the need for a reassessment, a redefinition of some of its basic principles regarding the nature of man, his place and function in creation, his social organization and responsibilities, his proper conduct in all his various activities.
Here, he is referring to what has been called the “12th Century Renaissance”. At this time economic stability, governmental systematization, and the flourishing of urban life gave rise to intellectual institutions and a resurgence of culture not seen in the west since the fall of Rome.
The changes taking place in this 12th century European world were not, however, uniform throughout Christendom. In his biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, simply named after its subject, Desmond Seward begins with a description of the culture of the province into which the future icon was born. In particular, he dwells on the fundamental differences between the southern province of Aquitaine and its northern counterparts of the Ils de France and the duchy of Normandy. These distinctions seem rather marked. One is southern preference for literature as the intellectual exercise of choice rather than religious life or institutions of government. Another is the place of women whose lot Seward argues improves as a result of the chivalric ideals of new literature. Yet another is the level of contact that southern France experienced with the world beyond the confines of northern and western Europe, particularly with the Middle East via Moorish Spain. All of this worked to create a society in Aquitaine that, despite geographical proximity, had little in common with its northern neighbors.