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Power of a Woman – Excerpts

Eleanor of Aquitaine, on the power of a woman:

“A knight who holds a weapon ties his hands. He must either strike or be encumbered by his load. Thus he loses his own freedom to be free. A woman may command with empty hands for she is free to use such weapons as she will. Let her choose words, for darts wound faster than a sword. Let her choose frailty, for limpid mud mires heavy cavalry. Let her choose the sheen of silk, for silk attracts as iron repels. Let her choose allure, for thereby she can sap resistance. Let her seem foolish, for men accede to women’s seeming folly. Let her be subtle, for subtlety will always out-manoeuvre strength. Women are as water wearing rock.”

On Abbot Suger, who led the French mission to Eleanor in Bordeaux:


Abbot Suger at the feet of the Virgin, in the Annunciation scene from the Childhood of Christ window, Saint-Denis, 1144. Detail copied by Anton Nyström, 1901.

“Always present, and always leading while seeming to follow, was Abbé Suger, all-hearing, all-seeing, his senses keen to every nuance. Suger had been the coursing-hound and shadow of King Louis’ life and reign, his wisest counsellor, his truest friend… Ah, Suger. How does a celibate monk put marriage to a maiden, explain her prospects, joys and duties in her husband’s world, and speak of children and the getting of them, hinting all the while at what befalls a woman in her marriage bed? Somehow Suger accomplished these tasks in my own hall, guiding me away from the battle-freighted glory of the barons.” (chapter 1)

Wedding of Eleanor and Louis VII

The artist portrays a middle-aged Louis in  Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis. Both were  teenagers, weeks away from attaining the crown of France.

Eleanor marries the future King Louis VII:

“Archbishop Geoffroi of Loroux married us on a Sunday, one of the hottest days of the year. Mass, and marriage in the cathedral of St. André. A sumptuous wedding breakfast was rather spoiled—Louis was easily shocked—because when we appeared in the arch of the royal portal the crowd began shouting “plen-ty, plen-ty” as if I were a sow to farrow offspring by the litter. In that respect I failed him. As we walked among the crowd the chanting pounded out a rhythm which I, in my virginity, did not identify. Louis, how you despaired the lewdness of our ordinary folk.” (chapter 1)


Eleanor describes King Louis VII of France:

Louis VII "the Young"

Louis VII “the Young”

“Poor sweet Louis, you were two years older than I, but your cloistered life had ill prepared you for a future free of walls. Two weeks we jousted in each other’s company, waiting to be wed… Did you desire me, Louis? No, you dared not. Despite your tranquil front you feared that hell’s flames waited in a woman’s arms. You feared my body as a harbinger of mortal sin. You feared the freedom of my spirit as if it were the poisoned apple plucked at Eden, a fruit from which you dared not bite. You had been freed from the cloister five years before you met me, but you were never free of guilt… How those clerics flayed your naked brains.” (chapter 1)

On re-dedicating Abbot Suger’s rebuilt Abbey of St. Denis:

“Suger had spent years rebuilding the royal church on the Île, the abbey of St. Denis… It was truly born again. Like fresh snow, its new dressed stone blinded the eyes. The edifice loomed up like a giant wall of chalk. Everybody in the press of people fought for breath… Imagine the scene: Hawkers trampled on dukes’ feet, dukes on students’, students on market boys’. Was ever such a pilgrimage! We were several times stopped, unmoving, captives to the crowd, becalmed in a tempest of shouted greetings, blessings, reaching hands, foul breath and pleas for alms. Louis himself pressed back the throng. How wonderful, and yet how wondrous strange. Men and women fought to place themselves where sunbeams touched them after passing through the stained glass images of Jesus, Mary and the saints. To look around was to see faces transformed by being lifted to the coloured glass, each mouth agape with awe, each heart touched by the holy spirit, each transfigured countenance a faith reclaimed.” (chapter 2)

On Peter Abelard:wpid-abelard[1]

“Peter’s message was: question blind faith, for it is blind. And question that which you obey. That was why we women were so fond of him. Not just for his audacity. In those days women were wombs: wombs to put to marriage; wombs to breed; wombs to command; wombs who would meekly obey. A man served two masters, his lord and the Church. A woman served three, for she obeyed her man before the other two. Abelard raised at least the hope of a free mind. How bold he made us feel. What vicarious joy.” (chapter 2)

On Raymond of Toulouse:

“Raymond, prince of Antioch, was my uncle, a younger son of the Troubadour, cut loose with neither prospects nor money; who proceeded to conquer a world and make it his own… How we embraced! With relief on my part. But I tell you frankly, if Raymond had not been my uncle, I had taken him for a lover. There, I’ve said what I kept hidden these fifty-six years, though whisperers long ago had their way with me. Not even in my furies, when I sought for darts to hurl at Louis’ ears, did I admit my lust. Fearless in battle, they said, and why not? Raymond was built like a bull. He sat a war horse like a centaur, as if he were its flesh. To clap eyes on the man was to savour his gift for command. Had he but commanded me!” (chapter 4)

On “that noisome abbot” Bernard of Clairvaux [Saint Bernard]:

Such a grim ascetic, that man! He had trained himself during a long life in the cloister to ignore beauty – nay, to ignore the material world… Years before, he had taken the sensualist Abbé Suger to task. I was an infant when he began chastising the Benedictines of Cluny for backsliding in the matter of gaudy display… He became in time a formidable foe. He was no fool. My forefathers had scant respect for clergy; my father least of all. But, as the biggest badger shuns the slightest ferret, even Father was wary of Bernard.” (chapter 3)

On Eleanor’s second husband, King Henry II of England:

King Henry II Drawing

King Henry II

“God’s me! Coming after Louis, I never thought to know the like of him in bed. He was a heaving, wrestling battering-ram of an over-strong boy, eighteen years old to my thirty. I earned my new title, duchess of Normandy, through trial by battle in bed…” (chapter 12).

“When the envoys reported their news at Marlborough, a devil mixed Henry’s humours to a fire of rage. Some years later he directed a similar fit at me, to my extreme cost. He frothed as one smitten by the falling sickness, he shrieked as a man put to torture, he rent his clothes, threw fire logs, turned heavy tables on their ends. For an hour and more no voice or reason could reach him, much less govern him… But I grant the devil his due: Henry imposed on the backward English a common ‘law and custom of the land.’ It was there, at Clarendon, that Henry’s conclave of nobles and prelates approved his obsession: the swearing in of twelve just men to report malefactors.” (Eleanor of Aquitaine, in chapter 22)

On men:

In my experience, men do not speak to women as they do to other men. Discourse between man and man or between woman and woman is, as it were, secular. It is not unlike the language of the marketplace. It treats of a commerce of concepts where much is known, and, being known, flows casually. But, let a man speak to a woman and he will plumb the depths of his brains to invest his words with inner meaning, and he will seek to find innuendo in her response. Nor is she innocent, for language is a woman’s weapon. It is the siege engine that knocks down male walls. A woman’s body and her language are twin powers, Aline. Use them to negotiate from strength. A woman wields power best who uses seduction, not fear.

Therein lies man’s fear. That his very being lives in awe of women is a secret he dare not disclose, although females know it, deep in their bones. Men’s awe makes them vulnerable. It is the hole in their chain-mail, the rip in their cassock. Oh, yes, priests are no less men for being priests. They are vulnerable, too. Hence the fear and loathing shown us by the Church. If you would negotiate with men, Aline, you have but to dazzle, reject, enchant, confuse, torment and allure. Men need their goddesses, child. They need their Virgin Mary in her very flesh and warmth.  (chapter 28)

 On being a woman at war:

[1] “When I rode away from the proceedings which divorced me from Louis my escort was attacked twice en route to Poitiers. Sixteen years later, when Henry abandoned me, again en route to Poitiers, he gave me into the capable charge of a strong escort commanded by Patrick, earl of Salisbury. But my escort was not strong enough… The previous summer, Henry wreaked terrible vengeance on my most rebellious vassals, the Brothers Lusignan… Now Guy de Lusignan returned the favor: he ambushed me… Thanks to Patrick’s courage I escaped. I abandoned the woman’s saddle, hitched up my skirts, threw one leg over my palfrey and rode like a man, naked from above the knees! I recall thanking Our Lady that I was not with child, for the high pommel bruised my ribs and punched my belly cruelly as I thrashed my steed along. But Patrick lay dead, foully murdered by the Lusignans. What happened on the road behind me seems, to this day, a miracle. A young knight in the company, William Marshal, saw his uncle fall and rushed, bareheaded, to his aid…”


William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Tomb effigy in Temple Church, London. Marshall’s effigy survived the bombing of Temple Church on 10 May, 1941.

[2] “With regard to that affair, I took little comfort from my mother-in-law’s similar experience during her war with King Stephen. Pressed by enemy forces near Marlborough, Matilda fell back, coming under the protection of John Marshal, William [Marshal]’s father. Matilda’s presence slowed her company. Stephen’s forces were almost upon them when John, throwing courtesy to the wind, shouted at the Empress-Queen: “Lady, I swear to you by Jesus Christ, you cannot spur your horse in that position. Throw your right leg over the saddle-bow!” Thus, with the rumps of their horses warmed by the hot breath of Stephen’s steeds, Matilda’s company won to the safety of Marlborough castle. Oh, the indignity of being a woman at war!” (chapter 23)

A disastrous return from Palestine:

Medieval Ship

* This is no galley, but a slow, cargo-laden gallea. Bow- and stern-castles convert it to a warship. Henry II and Eleanor returned from Palestine on separate gallea. Lions on the mainsail suggest that this is King Richard I’s ship. He used Eleanor’s Lion of Guyenne blason in triplicate. It would soon become the arms of England.

“The strange vessels were almost on us before we saw that they bore the colors of Emperor Manuel, come to war with King Roger. Pirate ships or Manuel’s, it made no difference. Sniffing easy riches, Manuel’s Greeks put boarding parties on my ship,* seizing us as prizes. You can imagine our terrors: several vessels bristling with Greeks, unblinking lest they take their eyes off women. Beware of Greeks indeed! And the stench from a galley upwind is a fearsome thing… Now began a chase such as I could not conceive had I not been the prey…” (chapter 8)

On Henry, writing England’s laws while fighting Thomas Becket:

“…Henry removed his person, his scrolls, his lawyers and his anger to Clarendon. Thither he hailed [Thomas] Becket and the bishops, to browbeat them again… The hall was like a market place, a jostling of folk at all hours: lawyers talking, contradicting; Henry smacking his hand on the board and punching his fists in the air; scribes grinding ink while others, black-lipped, tried to suck it faster than reluctant quills could feed it… I will say this for Henry: the Constitutions of Clarendon acknowledged the pope in the preamble. Two years later, Pope Alexander’s aid to Thomas Becket moved Henry to such apoplexy that he expunged the pope’s name utterly… Oh Henry, had the very stars dared cross you in those days you would have hauled them into court…” (chapter 19)

On King Henry’s mistress, “Fair Rosamond” Clifford:

Fair Rosamond Painting

Detail from ‘Fair Rosamund’ (oil on canvas) by John Waterhouse (1917)

“Too many men behave like rams in rut, but surely there were few as hot as Henry… Wives learn to turn their face away, as did I for fourteen years. But there came a season when I could no longer wear a tranquil mask… This Rosamond Clifford smote Henry as no paramour had possessed him before. I’m sure he thought only to bed her, perhaps for a night, perhaps for a week; but she possessed him till she died… The fool confused the hurt in his loins for love! Love! Henry in his lust was so confused that he squandered his love – the quality by which men attach each other – on a woman!… Until this Rosamond bewitched his senses, Henry summoned enough discretion to manage trysts in dark corners of a hall… retaining the decency to greet [a woman] next morning as if [she were a nun]. But his whore Rosamond left him drunk to possess her, again and again… With [her] he must be seen. With her he must display affection. On her he must lavish gifts… Henry was quicker to give the kiss of peace to Rosamond than to Thomas Becket!” (chapter 22)

Note: In a book review on Amazon.com in 2008, I wrote that the author Regine Pernoud “may have written the best modern historical biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine.” Pernoud was born at Chateau Chinon, which Eleanor and Henry II knew well. Chinon served as a treasury for Henry, who died there, and for the couple’s son, Richard the Lionheart.

Pernoud died in 1998, a noted historian, medievalist and archivist at France’s National Archives, where she was responsible for developing the Museum of History of France. In under forty words she adroitly linked Henry’s affair with Fair Rosamond to Eleanor’s subsequent lifelong resentment, the couple’s separation—and more.  Pernoud wrote that when Rosamond came into the picture, Eleanor became “as bent on harming [Henry] as she had previously been bent on supporting him.” At that point their Angevin empire began to die.

On women, men and Eleanor’s Court of Ladies:

“The Capetians and Plantagenets have written much, muttered more and understand nothing of our Court of Ladies and my Code of Poitiers. What we conceived was a return to the birthright of women that I knew in the south from my earliest years, as persons equal to men – not in might – but in nature, in virtue, in soul… We are different, I grant. But the only power I concede to the ‘better’ sex is that of brute strength; in which respect an ox is a mightier thing than a man. It is women to whom God gave the germ of fertility and the mind to thread the maze of social politics.” (chapter 26)

Eleanor regrets the deaths of her children:

“God Almighty, let me die before You gather in another child, or the child of a child, of mine! I would prefer to relinquish this old body quietly, but be warned! If I must be borne hence cursing Christ, as Henry was, I shall.” (chapter 39)

Eleanor, at 81, almost content in retirement:

“She who perforce lived her life with a sword running the length of her back in place of a spine is at last permitted to bend. After such a life as mine, how comfortable it is to yield, to stoop, to answer to a rule imposed by bells rung by persons of no consequence… How strange it seems: that one who for so many years thrust policy on kings and popes should now set down a document which carries no weight, makes no demands and offers no threats. At last I am content to be simply a woman, and a frail one at that.” (chapter 39)

On ‘modern’ surgery:


Maimonides, 1135-1204. Richard I was unable to recruit him as his personal physician.

“We had better surgeons during my Crusade than we have enjoyed these past forty years, a calumny for which I squarely blame the Church. Pope Alexander – whom Henry and Louis were fools to support! – proclaimed a great folly at the Council of Tours: Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine. “The Church abhors the shedding of blood.” Overnight, physicians stopped practising surgery, because the best of our surgeons were priests. So, these past forty years we have had to put up with pig-gelders, barbers and lumpen hangmen styling themselves surgeons. Even the craft of surgery has disappeared. Richard [Lionheart] might still be alive if the Church had not winnowed surgeons out of Christendom. Small wonder Jews and Muslims make the best cutters and stitchers of wounds.” (chapter 40)

On loss, and love:

“Is it not enough that women are bartered as infants, bartered as children and traded away so that world-weary barons may ravish the beauty of youth anew?… What child of high estate is not torn with loss when she is exiled to her future husband’s hall? If women are to be put to marriage without love, then let us claim love as our mystery. As such, love is as worthy of study as those mysteries which the Church claims for her own. That was the subject matter we conceived for my Court of Ladies. That, and nothing more… Then, to lead us to love and into the ways of love we let troubadours guide us… L’amour courtois was, and remains, love of the muse of love, in flesh exemplified… What I brought to effect at Poitiers was not new. It had lain through violent times, a buried trove, long undiscovered. If you would discover the spirit of women and loving, read the book by Fortunatus on the life of Radegonde. Not a month dies into the dark of the moon but I think of her example.” (chapter 26)