Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine–Michael R. Evans

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Writing the history of women, especially premodern women, challenges most of the rules of historical writing.  Historians need written sources as the backbone of their research.  What happens when there are few of those?  And what is a historian to do when, despite those few sources, a rich tradition and mythology has grown up around a historical figure?  Where does that all come from?

Those are the types of questions with which Michael Evans engages in Inventing Eleanor.  He presupposes knowledge of Eleanor’s story, but does offer a quick sketch of the basic outline.  He begins by questioning the idea of Eleanor as an exceptional woman and pushes readers to see her as within the spectrum of power available to women of her social class in the twelfth century.  Then he turns to the earliest myths about her, which he terms the Black Legend, and which involve her alleged adulterous and scandalous behavior.  Evans examines the historical evidence for these myths, then turns to the earliest historiography, from her own time or just after.  This chapter (chapter two) powerfully challenges the conception of history as received knowledge.  Evans methodically explicates the various historical turns taken in Eleanor’s image through various ‘historians,’ who often rely on supposition supported by circulation citation to create the image of Eleanor that still persists today.

Evans then turns to sub-themes of the Eleanor image: first, the idea that she was a ‘southern’ queen married to ‘northern’ kings (like most other pieces of her image, he deconstructs this); then the development of Eleanor’s image on the stage pre-twentieth century; then Eleanor in the twentieth century, with the addition of film and television; then historical fiction and the visual arts.  Throughout the book, Evans is careful and precise, but he maintains a swift pace and does not become too bogged down in the details, although I struggled a bit with the chapter on pre-twentieth century stage portrayals because my prior knowledge here was weakest.

Evans’ conclusion asks us to consider the ways in which history and popular culture interact and shape one another.  He does not shame us for preferring popular history or historical fiction.  Rather, he pushes us to think about the construction of both genres as well as academic history, to be critical consumers of whatever we are reading.  He ends with two lovely sentences:  “A better understanding of Eleanor, not as proto-modern exception but in the context of other authoritative and cultured medieval women, can help illuminate a world still too-often stigmatized in popular culture as the ‘Dark Ages,’ and maybe encourage us to view our own age, in which women’s voices are too often excluded, with a little more self-awareness and humility.  It’s 2014 and we’re all barbarians.”

Evan’s look at Eleanor reminded me of Susan Bardo’s popular work, The Creation of Anne Boleyn.  Evans is a trained historian while Bordo is a feminist philosopher who writes in the field of cultural studies.  Having argued for the importance of popular culture in creating historical understanding, I wonder why Evans chose a scholarly press with rather high prices for his work rather than writing for a popular history audience.  His message is important and needs to be read by more than the handful of scholars who may encounter it in this format from Bloomsbury.  A popular press may also have supported the inclusion of images, particularly important for the chapter on the history of Eleanor and the visual arts.  At the very least, those interested in history, popular culture, the Middle Ages, queens, gender, and Eleanor of Aquitaine should pick up this book.  I would love to see those teaching historiography to undergraduates assigning it, also.

Finished 1/17/16

The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret–Catherine Bailey

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A friend recommended this book as we were discussing my current research project and the unexpected turns it was taking.  It was, she thought, a good example of popular history that talked through the historical process.

She was right.  In fact, Catherine Bailey should have listened to her.  Closely.  This story involves secret rooms, a plotting duchess, and a family secret (and briefly a haunted castle story).  The plotting duchess is not surprising and the family secret all too quotidian once revealed.  What’s worse, the epilogue suggests all of it was for naught, which might leave a reader wondering why they had invested in more than 400 pages of reading for naught.  Even Bailey seems annoyed, as she lists the men about whom she had intended to write her book and from whose story the secret rooms had diverted her.

There is the story.  Bailey came to Belvoir Castle to tell the story of the men of the Midlands who fought and died in the trenches of WWI.  The secret rooms began the flirtation and the meticulously archived letters and artifacts of the 9th Duke of Rutland, the man who died in those spare secret rooms, completed the seduction.  Readers should not invest in this book for the story of Rutland, whose childhood sorrows and young adult dramas are different only in time and degree of privilege from most of our own.  They should invest because Bailey, almost inadvertently, tells the story of a historian’s love affair with the past and passion for a historical puzzle.  In the early chapters, Bailey keeps us focused on both her path and the duke’s emerging story, but, as the duke’s story unfolds, her path fades into the background and the duke’s story takes over.

Publishing is a business and readers are fickle buyers.  I get that, which is why I forgive the bogus haunted castle in the subtitle and the melodramatic cover art.  But readers are fickle lovers, too, and they expect satisfaction in the end.  Bailey should have mirrored her seduction of the reader with her own seduction by the archives.  Use the glamour of the castle and the family to draw us in, then ensnare us in the puzzle and let us share in the satisfaction of solving it, of having chosen to follow the duke’s story rather than the story that brought her to Belvoir in the first place.  Then we could close the covers satisfied, satiated, rather than disappointed and slightly empty.  Maybe then she would not feel herself as if her noble goals had been hijacked for an unworthy subject.

Is it worth the read?  Yes, but don’t go into it thinking that you are reading a great mystery with all the expectations that genre entails (and that the jacket blurb promises).  Read it with a keen eye to how she tracks down the story and appreciate the way in which she pulls the puzzle together.  The Secret Rooms:  The True Story of a Privileged Family, a Persistent Historian, & the Unsung Archivists.  Just a suggestion.
Finished 6/23/14