by Robert Fripp, author of Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine
King Stephen of England died on 25 October 1154. By the time the news reached the heir to the throne, Henry of Anjou, in Normandy, winter had whipped the Channel into a month-long storm. The new King Henry II and his consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine, took ship from Barfleur despite the weather and survived the crossing. (Unlike a previous heir to the English throne, who had drowned 34 years earlier.) Henry and Eleanor were virtually washed ashore in the New Forest, on England’s south coast. Ironically, the New Forest was a royal hunting preserve, preserved as wilderness by royal decree for almost ninety years. The party had to make its way through twenty miles of rain-lashed woods to the former capital city of Winchester. After that, things began to improve.
Henry and Eleanor took their coronation vows in Westminster Abbey on Sunday, 19 December, 1154. The roof of the abbey was leaking. In fact, much of England lay in disarray after nineteen years of civil war. The palace at Westminster was in such bad repair that the royal couple occupied a rustic palace at Bermondsey across the Thames and some way downstream. Queen Eleanor, having experienced the cultural life of music and troubadour poetry in courts at Bordeaux, Paris, Mainz, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Poitiers, Angers and Rouen, was now marooned some distance from her war-torn new capital, London. The focus of life and gaiety lay some distance up-river, on the opposite bank.
Eleanor faced a second challenge. King Henry’s English-speaking chancellor, Thomas Becket, was brilliant, cultured and worldly. Furthermore, Henry gave him an almost limitless “entertainment budget.” Becket entertained. It was essential, of course: he was negotiating policy on the king’s behalf. But that meant that the smart set came through Becket’s door, not Eleanor’s. For the first time in her thirty-two years, she was not near the center of policy, gaiety, court gossip and intrigue. Eleanor had to win back her influence. Indeed, since Becket also eclipsed her authority, she had to compete with her husband’s favorite. Her chosen weapons included the arts.
During her first years in London, Eleanor encouraged what Bretons and Normans called the matière de Bretagne: tales of Arthur and Guinevere, Tristram and Isolde. The old poetry returned to favor, both sung and recited, translated from Celtic languages to French regional dialects. Quite suddenly, during the first years of Henry II, the legends of Arthur became the vogue in London. They had long been a staple repertoire for bards in Brittany, Anjou and Poitou.
The Arthurian tales entertained by presenting the improbable feats of kings, the bloody toils of knights, the magic of wizards and fairies and the courtly loves of spell-binding ladies. Bards and troubadours — of whom Eleanor’s grandfather was the first — started infusing Arthur’s ancient tales with the elegant manners of contemporary royal courts and the habits of chivalry. Characters and fashions were updated. Wild tales from bardic Wales became embellished with descriptions of fine fabrics, court etiquette and slippers of squirrel fur.
Resurrecting Arthurian tales served an important role during Henry’s and Eleanor’s first years in England. The ancient lais became parables for new times. It served the royal couple to be flattered by old, reflected glories. The Arthurian tales described what had been, in effect, a mythic empire in which a king ruled many peoples, speaking many languages. Henry and Eleanor enjoyed the same privilege. After 1154, they presided over as many peoples as had Charlemagne: English, Normans, Poitevins, Angevins, Welshmen and Marchers, Gascons, Celts and a host of others, including Eleanor’s subjects from Aquitaine. The Arthurian tales described a golden age in which diverse nations lived at peace with each other, inspired by a single ruler. Henry and Eleanor had urgently to show a similar benefit.
The moral that the hastily reworked tales promoted was this: Internally our Angevin Empire (the new Camelot) is at peace within secure borders; we have enemies, but they are external, calling for vigilance and our subjects’ loyalty and sacrifice.
Aligning themselves with legendary powers did the couple no harm in Welsh and English eyes. In French legends, when Roland lay dying, God Himself sent His messenger to lift the sacred sword, Durendart, from Roland’s failing hand. In Britain and Brittany the Celts held women in higher esteem, so it was the Lady of the Lake who took the sword, Excalibur, from Arthur’s dying hand. This respect for feminine power was not lost on Eleanor.
The new paganism (Should that read “iconography”?) worked for everyone except the Church. In Paris, policy advisors such as Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux had taken a dim view of Eleanor. In London, Thomas Becket’s secretary, John of Salisbury, was not impressed, either. The Church preferred to see Eleanor as the Arthurian character Morgana le Fey, the witch.
The Arthurian myth had one drawback. It predicted that Arthur would return in a time of dire need: he was the Once and Future King. So, even in twelfth century England, Henry and Eleanor confronted the ancient Sibyl’s prophecy about one whose death is hidden: “It will be said among the people, ‘He lives,’ when he is dead.” This was awkward. Belief in great Arthur as a Once and Future King implied that Henry and Eleanor were warming the throne for a ghost, and that their line would last only until Arthur chose to come again. Henry and Eleanor wore double crowns in the minds of superstitious persons, as if they were flesh, and faerie, too. Henry was Arthur. Eleanor was Guinevere.
Even while Henry and Eleanor were resurrecting myths for domestic consumption, they secretly hoped to discover Arthur’s grave and lay his ancient bones and the Sibylline adage to rest. Henry would not live to see that day. Not until the couple’s son, Richard the Lionheart, was king, did a tomb came to light (in 1190 or ’91) at Glastonbury Abbey, near Bristol. By then, Eleanor faced bigger crises than laying King Arthur’s ghost.
The bardic Arthur was not the only line of propaganda that Henry and Eleanor put to good use. Before 1160, they commissioned the poet, Wace, to write a book that would pull in ancient threads to weave with the couple’s own reign and times.
Arthurian legends already served the mission of viewing “empire” as a peaceful, harmonious whole. Wace’s book (1160) went a step further. He contrived the literary conceit of the “round table,” where all persons might eat from the king’s table without respect to degree; where no one sat below the salt and where everyone could address their king across the board.
By supporting bards, troubadours, and their Arthurian tales, Eleanor clawed back the influence she had lost to Becket and his well-provided court. Later, Wace’s round table made her court less remote from the English. Poems and songs about Arthur inspired other arts which found tune and voice at Eleanor’s court. Imagination took flight. Led by Welsh bards, plainsong gave way to a fashion for choirs where people sang different parts.
It is appropriate to refer to “Eleanor’s court” here, because Henry was always on the move, fighting rebels on the continent while building a judicial system in England. For several years, Eleanor served in effect as Regent in England.
The cultural advance in England did not please Eleanor’s critics, John of Salisbury among them. Monkish scribes found gloom in modernity: the new arts and manners seemed to erode people’s moral fiber. As Eleanor says, in Power of a Woman, “Men said that the arts and manners of my court debauched the morals of modest London. Pish! I but lit a flambeau in a northern gloom and woke the living death of dullness to a thrilling, modern life.” The cultural advance also served the queen’s purpose: it brought her to the center of the social circle once again. Meanwhile, it entertained diverse peoples, too.
Robert Fripp writes for businesses and has authored several books. Medieval Europe’s formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine dictates her memoirs in Fripp’s “Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine
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by Robert Fripp, author of Power of a Woman
Imagine Paris at the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is not enough to sense the physical fabric, the sights, smells, sounds, the unpaved mud. You must dress in the mind-set of the 1140s in a way of looking at the world that is alien to modern perception. An important aspect of Eleanor’s turbulent, productive life was her contribution to realizing feminine power (or influence) in the medieval period. To raise the profile of women she struggled against steep odds. Just over a century earlier, prelates of the Church had debated the question: did women have souls?
A good place to enter twelfth century Paris is through the mind of Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux. During the reign of Eleanor’s monkish first husband, King Louis VII, Bernard was among the most powerful, certainly the most influential, of men. His Christianity was hierarchical. He stressed adherence to the doctrines of Church Fathers who had lived many centuries before. He demanded absolute faith, the sort of faith that brooked no questioning, no original thought. He had trained himself to ignore earthly beauty: it distracted from communion with the Holy Spirit. He stressed obedience above all to the Church.
Into this repressed environment ventured Peter Abelard, preaching that absolute faith must be questioned, that Christian witness should be based on personal experience, not received as ancient absolutes. Abelard’s reforming spirit had to be crushed, and it was, twice, the second time by Bernard.
Eleanor of Aquitaine had spend her first fifteen, formative, years in the more relaxed atmosphere of her grandfather’s and her father’s courts, in Poitou and Aquitaine. Bordeaux in particular was a trading port, open to Jewish and Muslim merchants and the crews of galleys from the eastern Mediterranean. The Christianity of Eleanor’s upbringing was more questioning than absolute. It was also leavened with bardic entertainment, music, song and the verse of troubadours. Eleanor’s crusading grandfather had been the first troubadour.
Eleanor’s years in Paris as the queen of France must have been marked by her struggle to assert her independent spirit and win space for the intellectual freedoms she had known in Poitou and Aquitaine. Given the strictures of her first ten years in Paris (1137-1147), it was no wonder when, in 1146, she fought to take herself and her women on crusade. Consent came at a high price: Eleanor’s purse paid for half the force that marched to Constantinople, Antioch and then Jerusalem. Likely, her intuition told her that the ethos in Palestine would be freer, more like that of Bordeaux than of Paris. So it proved.
By the time the Church annulled Eleanor’s marriage to Louis VII, in 1152 (after her frequent urging) she had spent fifteen years enduring the disapproval of Louis’ cabinet of clerics, notably the ascetic Bernard. Her second marriage, just weeks later, to Henry of Anjou (the future Henry II of England) subjected Eleanor to a different sort of male domination: Henry was a womanizer to a degree extraordinary even for the times. At first he managed affairs with discretion, until he met Rosamond de Clifford, ‘Fair Rosamond’ as history recalls her.
In 1167, after thirty years spent in courts that revolved around two very different husbands, Eleanor abandoned Henry, packed her household into seven ships and returned to one of her own major cities, Poitiers. There, she established and presided over her Court of Ladies and wrote her Code of Poitiers. Historians still debate the precise nature of Eleanor’s Court, but it is clear that she strove to build an ethos that would raise the status of women in the male-centric world of her day.
Eleanor declared her Code of Poitiers in the shadow of the tower that her grandfather built. Duke Guilhem X of Aquitaine, the “Troubadour” (who was also Count Guilhem VIII of Poitou) had established a reputation: as a crusader; as a womanizer; and as the very first troubadour. Eleanor’s Code set guidelines by which domestic affairs and affairs of the heart would be arbitrated and settled, by women.
Although Eleanor was the mother of nine children by two kings, during her years in Poitiers she took on the role of tutor to the offspring of noble families, some of which were at war with each other. Eleanor’s court was neutral ground. Her great hall, which still stands, brimmed with youth during her years there. Contemporary males, often clerics, wrote dismissively of Eleanor’s Court of Ladies. However, in her own terms, she was trying to recreate the birthright of women she had known from her youth in Poitou and Aquitaine, “as persons equal to men, not in might, but in nature, in virtue, in soul” (Power of a Woman, Chapter 26). The late Claude Marks, the author of Pilgrims, Heretics, and Lovers, expressed that opinion of Eleanor’s work at Poitiers.
Eleanor’s Code of Poitiers may have been influenced by the life of that city’s patron saint, Radegonde. In the year 538, the violent King Clotaire had decided to take Radegonde as one of his wives. With two female companions, she fled. Clotaire, meanwhile, murdered her brother to extinguish her family’s royal line. The first miracle associated with Radegonde is that, while being chased, she took shelter in a field of corn, which sprang up, hiding the women from view. Radegonde became a nun, founded a monastery at Tours and settled at Poitiers. Poitevins associate a second miracle with Radegonde: Clotaire agreed to a separation and provided funds to build the convent of Ste. Croix.
From then on, Radegonde lived on two levels: as a nun who tended the sick and salved the stumps of lepers; and as a noble lady who encouraged a lively social and cultural life. She forged a platonic love with a scholar, Fortunatus, who wrote the book by which Eleanor knew her.
Eleanor removed herself from King Henry’s court almost exactly halfway through his troubles with Thomas Becket. Becket was the chancellor who had lived for mortal extravagance until Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. After that, he became the model of austerity. Eleanor would certainly have considered Henry’s and Becket’s relationship a failed model — Becket was murdered in 1170, while Eleanor held court in Poitiers.
Then there was Henry’s relationship with his mistress which Eleanor describes in Power of a Woman: “This Rosamond Clifford smote Henry as no paramour had possessed him before? The fool confused the hurt in his loins for love! Love, mark me! Henry in his lust was so confused that he squandered his love, the quality by which men attach each other, on a woman!” (Chapter 22). “Love, the quality by which men attach each other” does not refer to a homosexual relationship (which Eleanor describes elsewhere as a “Greek passion”). She uses “love” here to describe male bonding, involving abiding friendship, mutual admiration and respect. The shift in meaning since the middle ages has led to many misconceptions.
Eleanor was an expert on Henry’s failed relationships, including with her. Here, she expresses her resentment: “Granted Rosamond was three-and-thirty. I was forty-four, old enough that I no longer roused passion in the husband whose children I bore. To Henry, my body was as well rehearsed as a hasty mass before breakfast.” (Ch. 22). During this period of intense frustration that led her to move from England to Poitiers, the altruistic model of platonic love between Radegonde and Fortunatus must have beckoned to her like a mirage across the Channel. Here was a demonstration of love and respect between two people on spiritual and secular levels.
Eleanor’s Court of Ladies is sometimes called her Court of Love. To understand why, we have to set aside the modern meaning of love. At a time when romantic love had no place in the business transaction that was a noble marriage, romance and love became a game played in the realm of courtesy and politesse.
In Eleanor’s Court of Ladies, courtly love was seen to refine whatever was vulgar. It might lift whatever was low. By emulating her grandfather, the “Troubadour” duke, Eleanor sought to build a lasting cult of love — love as a game, as a jeu or a joi. Her grandfather’s ideal in a man was one in whom cheer and charity co-mingled with wisdom and wit — and a slight taste for war. Knights, he knew, might assail each other with blows till their brains rang like bells in the name of chivalry. For noble persons of Eleanor’s generation, and her grandfather’s, there was no higher calling than knighthood. But it took more than valor to be a “gentle-man,” a style that was still taking shape during the Troubadour’s reign.
He was long gone by the time Eleanor re-established her ducal court in his tower. Gone, but not forgotten. Eleanor had inherited her grandfather’s titles, titles descended through ten generations of males. And those titles brought duties, one of which she set herself: to build a better ethos within her realms, Poitou and Aquitaine. And what better mortar than love to cement the parts in a civil society? Henry was developing the concept of male juries in England; Eleanor’s female panels would rule on social affairs of the heart.
In the name of women, then, Eleanor claimed possession of amor. One can imagine her reasoning: Who better than women to judge matters of the heart and thereby weave a tapestry of better things? What a loss to European society when Henry in his rage destroyed her social conventions and shipped her back to England, into exile.
In the twelfth century culture of the troubadours, which Eleanor espoused and supported, pure love balanced on a sword’s edge between constant desire and timeless chastity, between eternal longing and eternal disappointment. Radegonde’s convent, six hundred years earlier, and Eleanor’s twelfth century Court of Ladies, had this much in common: they embodied the social and spiritual means to give love’s longing, l’attente amoureuse, expression and a peaceful voice.
How straightforward, yet how unattainable, the solution to loneliness and fear must have seemed to noble women of the twelfth century. They were raised behind heavy stone walls in a culture of warfare, traded as infants and abandoned for seasons on end. Eleanor’s Court of Ladies may have addressed the question: How can the life of a woman’s soul thrive in a barracks? Eleanor and her court of women were working out the answer by trying to live it during those shining days at Poitiers. But that is not the message that descends to us, interpreted as it was through generations of men, whether scribes, courtiers, kings or acolytes of a suspicious Church.
When she looked back at her life from old age, Eleanor surely considered her happiest years to have been her first, in Aquitaine, and later, when she presided over her Court of Ladies. Perhaps this short span in a very long life was also her most productive.
Robert Fripp writes for businesses and has authored several books. Medieval Europe’s formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine dictates her memoirs in Fripp’s “Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine.”
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by Robert Fripp, author of Power of a Woman
‘Never fear mighty men, child. They are dumb beasts. It’s accidents make history.’
So saying, Eleanor of Aquitaine tells her young secretary in Power of a Woman that the path of her eighty-two years was studded with accidents, several of which insured that, in 1137, the young duchess of Aquitaine entered Paris as the fifteen-year-old queen of France.
Over the next sixty-five years, Eleanor (first, as the queen of France, then England) honed her diplomatic skills, building and reinforcing alliances; advocating a pragmatic, rather than a Church-dominated, approach to statecraft; and promoting the standing and interests of women.
The defining accident of Eleanor’s life was to be born female in a century when society and the all-powerful Church preferred women to be seen but not heard, and to be mild, not militant. Eleanor comments, in Power of a Woman, “It is only since I was a girl that statues of the Blessed Mary have been carved with their eyes cast down. Why shouldn’t a woman hold her head erect?” She knew the answer: the Church needed men for Crusade. Husbands (literally, men bound to house and land) would not abandon their families, farms and crops if their wives talked bluntly to them. Feminine meekness served the cause of power in general, and Crusade in particular.
Power of a Woman finds Eleanor dictating her book in her eighty-first year. Author Robert Fripp lets us eavesdrop as she recalls her growing maturity: as a teenaged queen provoking a foolish war in Champagne that drew the wrath of the Church; as the wife and advisor to two kings; as a witness to diplomatic and military folly in high places; as an isolated voice arguing for a sound military policy during the Second Crusade; as Regent of England, helping to frame social and administrative policy; as a consort perfecting her statecraft, notably during the Thomas Becket affair; as a woman ruling Aquitaine and Poitou in her own right while promoting the standing of women; once more as the hard-pressed Regent of England; and, to the end of her life, as a broker of strategic marriages and alliances.
As we read, we find Eleanor’s strength of character evolving. She becomes a mistress of public relations, negotiation, bare-knuckle diplomacy, forceful administration, tax collection and, always, she is the consummate alliance-broker.
In 1152, Eleanor finally won a long-sought annulment of her marriage to Louis VII and, within weeks, married Henry of Anjou, the future king of England. Winning the English throne brought Henry and Eleanor an empire that stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. Their alliance (still the French word for a wedding-ring) forged the largest political entity in western Europe since the reign of Charlemagne.
Their Angevin Empire included peoples holding scores of feudal allegiances and speaking many languages. This required that Eleanor’s love of the arts take on another role, disseminating propaganda. Perhaps she first heard tales of King Arthur from Welsh bards in London, or perhaps she recalled them from childhood in her father’s court. As the empress of a polyglot empire, Eleanor promoted old legends and new, explaining, in Power of a Woman: “The Arthurian tales describe a golden age in which diverse peoples live at peace with each other, inspired by a single ruler. We had urgently to show a similar benefit.” As Henry and Eleanor came to represent Arthur and Guinevere, their hold on England became secure.
In 1167, after thirty years divided between two male-dominated courts revolving around very different husbands, Eleanor abandoned Henry and returned to rule Poitou and Aquitaine in her own right, administering her provinces and her Court of Ladies from Poitiers.
Historians debate the roles of Eleanor’s Court of Ladies and her Code of Poitiers, but it is clear that she strove to reverse Church-mandated “meekness” and restore the feminine birthright she had known in her youth, where women were “persons equal to men, not in might, but in nature, in virtue, in soul.” Eleanor’s Code set guidelines by which affairs of the heart and the household might be judged and settled, by women. “Through those five years of blessed peace we built an ethos which raised women in the real world as the popes raise Mary in the Church. The feminine nature we sought to seat as our judge is not unlike that which the Church promotes for the Blessed Virgin.” In effect, Eleanor tried to create a Magna Carta for noblewomen half a century before the English barons imposed that charter of Alpha-male rights on her son, King John. It may be no coincidence that, while Eleanor and her courtiers were evolving a female-centered social code, her estranged husband, Henry II, was writing his Clarendon Code of English laws across the Channel, while introducing male juries.
Thirty-seven years as the consort of kings and a duchess in her own right taught Eleanor the crafts of diplomacy. However, she failed to discipline herself at the worst possible time by unleashing her pent-up anger against her husband, Henry. The degree to which Eleanor encouraged her sons to rebel against their father is not clear: “I raised my boys to be men who esteemed their own rights, not to disesteem their father’s,” she says, disingenuously, in Power of a Woman. “If it chanced that I spoke harshly of Henry in their hearing, my tongue cut no deeper than the lash his public whoring earned him.”
There was blame enough to go around, but Henry never doubted who was pulling the strings of his mutinous sons. In 1174 he ransacked Eleanor’s court and sent her to exile in England until his death commuted her sentence fifteen years later. Not that they lost touch: Eleanor was central to the endless family feuds. In James Goldman’s film The Lion in Winter, Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar but, never forget, Eleanor of Aquitaine wrote the part!
Henry’s death in 1189 taxed Eleanor’s diplomatic skills to the limit. She raised the finances for her son Richard the Lionheart’s crusade; prevented the English barons rising in support of her younger son, John, and his ally, King Philip of France; and then, at seventy-two, she spent two years in high level diplomacy extracting three years-worth of England’s annual revenue from bishops and barons to pay for Richard’s ransom. Few of Eleanor’s contemporaries could have passed that test.
In her final years Eleanor came to understand that glory is fleeting, and that empires pass, including the one she had helped to build. At the start of the year 1200 she crossed the Pyrenees in mid-winter to select one of her own grand-daughters as a bride for the heir to France. If you can’t beat them, marry them! she seemed to say. Eleanor, a shrewd judge of character, chose the lively, self-assured Blanca. In time, Blanca matured into Blanche of Castile, becoming an “Eleanor” in her own century, in her own right.
Tolstoy, writing about the Napoleonic wars, famously claimed that “the war was bound to happen because it was bound to happen”; that events were the inevitable outcome of prior history, and that leaders are “labels that serve to give a name to an end.”
Eleanor does not bestride her era so lightly. On the negative side, she bears responsibility for the actions of her sons whose wars destroyed their father and their Angevin inheritance. On the positive side, her years of influence managed the transition from rule by sanctity (i.e. Louis VII, the abbots Bernard and Suger), to government by trained administrators and the rise of a money economy in newly wealthy towns.
If Eleanor’s struggles in Power of a Woman seem far removed from the forces driving statecraft eight centuries later, bear in mind that human nature has not changed. Personal and collective ambitions, fear, greed, stakeholders’ interests, narrow nationalism, religious intolerance and naiveté still play their parts — which means that the work of peace-making and progress has much to overcome, now as then, before it can prevail.
A queen twice over, for more than fifty years Eleanor of Aquitaine was an icon in her lifetime. Her name sticks in our collective memory, commanding her century, outlining her persona, defining her place. Power of a Woman charts a great lady’s course through the thorny thickets of a long, eventful life lived in a violent time, and it brings her safely to her end. A shard of tile in the British Museum, written in ancient Greek, preserves an unknown writer’s wished-for epitaph: “When I am dead / let fire consume the world / I shall be safe.” Eleanor would not have condoned such fatalism, but she would have understood.
Robert Fripp writes for businesses and has authored several books. Medieval Europe’s formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine dictates her memoirs in Fripp’s “Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine.”
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A guest blog for Historical Tapestry, by Robert Fripp
As I write this, Atlantic magazine’s cover story is: “The End of Men: how women are taking control of everything,” by Hannah Rosin (July, 2010)
Contrast that with my concept of Eleanor of Aquitaine as she dictates her memoirs in the year 1203. In this passage she is looking back on her first decade in Paris as the queen of France, beginning in 1137. “Women were wombs,” she begins, “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.”
Eleanor’s campaign (if it was a campaign) to improve the status of noble women borrowed from the teachings of at least two influential men. One was the philosopher Peter Abelard; the other, the charismatic wandering preacher, Robert d’Arbrissel, founder of Fontevrault, the abbey for nuns as well as monks and always governed by a woman. (Eleanor is buried there.)
Here she is on Abelard: “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. He raised at least the hope of a free mind. How bold he made us feel. What vicarious joy!”
In Robert d’Arbrissel she finds, “…a man of vision. He came from Brittany, a land of Celts whose ancient tales expound on British legends. They tell of magical and healing powers possessed by women in the days of the great King Arthur. Celts are not jealous of female arts: rather they revere them. It is no coincidence that both d’Arbrissel and Abelard were Bretons. The Celtic mind permits Woman her full measure of humanity.”
“Historical Tapestry” asked me to explain, “Why is Eleanor of Aquitaine so popular in fiction right now?” After a decade working on “Power of a Woman…” I can say: Because her time is now.
The first years of the past century saw women struggle for the right to vote. The first decade of this century finds them continuing to break from a cocoon of condescension to achieve emancipation in the fullest sense — in human life and living. Transpose the following passage into modern terms as “my” Eleanor rejects her centuries-old conditioning; and observe how her ancient dream slips into place in the jigsaw of our modern times. Here is Eleanor on what must have seemed to her an impossible hope:
“In the time of my grandmothers, worthies of the Church spilled earnest ink and heated breath upon this question: do women possess immortal souls? The men who asked that question held that women were but passive vessels for the nurture of their husbands’ seed. Think of it, Aline. The very proposition begs a second question: do women give birth to soul-less snakes or to the souls of men? All men are born of women. So, how is it that a beast-like thing, having no soul, gives birth to kings? Pah! I myself have carried God’s anointed! Jesus was of woman born! Even a Church whose one good eye looks kindly upon males concedes the truth of that! So how can it be that women have less claim to souls, or claim to lesser souls?”
In Eleanor of Aquitaine’s character I discovered the toughness and agility of the feminine spirit that my late mother-in-law possessed in abundance. So, who was she?
Cipe Pineles reached New York from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 1920s with her mother, two sisters and some English acquired by reading Charles Dickens aloud. She soon graduated high school, at the same time winning The Nation’s national essay contest. As a young designer she knocked on doors with her portfolio for a year before magazine entrepreneur Condé Nast himself placed her in a job with potential. She never looked back.
What had Cipe Pineles in common with Eleanor? They were cut from the same cloth. They both had the practical intelligence – the nous, in Britain — to show flexibility, pragmatism, courage and persistence under fire. They both made progress in the face of systemic opposition by men. Under Condé Nast, Cipe became the first woman appointed art director of major consumer magazines. Throughout her working life she competed in a tough, men-only field, and in each of her jobs the majority of people reporting to her were men. For thirty years I watched Cipe pull threads in managing professional and family matters. She was also the most gregarious, most generous woman one could meet. She threw great parties.
Eleanor of Aquitaine had been brought up in the relatively relaxed social and religious climate of Poitou and Aquitaine. Her only brother died, requiring that Eleanor be led from the feminine shadows and groomed to assume a degree of leadership normally reserved for males.
Her move to Paris as the queen of France at the age of 15 took Eleanor to a different world, one where priests and abbots ruled, and where sanctity challenged joy and gaiety. The sudden change must have weighed like a leaden blanket. But Eleanor held fast to the ambit of her youthful mind, inching forward where she could and learning from severe mistakes. Her years as the mistress of Paris may have been grim, but they taught perseverance in the face of adversity and, no doubt, toughened her cool reserve. Here is Eleanor instructing her young secretary, Aline, in deportment:
“There is a quality about a woman in her prime, transcendent of the flesh, for which men pine. Mark me, Aline, men’s quest to possess us is a much greater thing than a stag sniffing hinds.
“Thus was I worshipped, in song and in verse. I say this to you now, not from the folly of vanities past, but as the earthly embodiment, long ago, of that essence which is the power of a woman.
“That is what draws, Aline. That is what draws men in. It is an essence of grace not captured or crafted in fine fabric and squirrel fur, though it may clothe itself in them. It does not depend upon beauty; it lives in a radiant hauteur, a comely and commanding presence. It finds life in the rustle of silk, but not the silk; in the lightest of footfalls, but not the foot; in the bearing, apart from the being.”
Why is Eleanor popular now? Because, by seeing far, she projected potential for women’s success into a future time — our century — as well as her own.
Medieval Europe’s formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine dictates her memoirs in Robert Fripp’s “Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine,” Copyright Robert Fripp 2010. Visit http://eleanor.robertfripp.ca// for excerpts, reviews, a blog, an “Eleanor of Aquitaine timeline” and a reading group guide.
Medieval Europe’s formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine dictates her memoirs in Robert Fripp’s “Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine,” Copyright Robert Fripp 2010. © Robert Fripp 2011.
Recorded by © Fascinating Authors 2015
Q: Do you have any secret writing tips you’d like to share?
RF: I have many writing tips, and they’re all up front. None of them secret. Readers can visit my Writing for Businesses page to download my free eBook, Good writing gets read (PDF). It’s the last line on that page.
I earned a living for many years writing about science and technology, but whether you write fact or fiction the key guide to follow is this: kill the passive voice in your writing, make your content absolutely clear and cut way back on using adjectives. My eBook — it’s just 19-pages — gives all sorts of useful tricks you can follow to induce clarity. When you master the approaches, you’ll be in a better position to know when you can break some rules.
FA: Tell us a quirky or funny story about you!
RF: How about my “Up the creek without a paddle” trip? I was walking along a street in Toronto in 1975 when I looked down and saw a new split-pin. (Yes, I pick up useful bits of hardware. A split-pin holds rotating wheels firmly on shafts, such as kids’ tricycle wheels.) I put the pin in my change-purse and forgot about it.
Two weeks later I was in the North West Territories, directing a camera crew for a film in Wood Buffalo Park. We were going upstream through woodland in a heavy, voyageur-type cargo canoe. Suddenly the outboard struck shallow gravel and the propeller spun off its shaft. We easily retrieved the propeller from crystal-clear water, but we had nothing to keep it on its shaft. So we reached for the paddles. There were none. Nobody, but nobody, gets into a canoe in northern Canada without checking for paddles. But we had forgotten to check on that day.
It took a moment before I realized we still had a chance of returning to camp under power. “Hold on,” I announced. “I’ve got a split-pin that may fit.” The crew and a warden from Parks Canada looked at me as if I had proclaimed a miracle. The pickup-up pin in my change-purse fit perfectly.
Picking up stray bits of hardware comes into the same category for a writer as retaining shards of completely useless information. For example, a town in southern Italy claims to have invented the magnetic compass in the second half of the twelfth century. Remembering that from somewhere allowed me to bring Eleanor of Aquitaine from Brindisi to Reggio by ship in 1190, guided, to her immense relief, by “an iron pin which, placed on a floating leaf in a bowl of water, turns its point to the north.” (Eleanor had been shipwrecked or washed ashore twice before, in Sicily, and England.)
An expert reviewer compliments me on such points: “I’m convinced that Mr. Fripp has far exceeded me in his diligent research of the topic.” Thank you, Melissa Snell. Likely, after years of producing factual television for CBC, I had trained myself to plug complementary facts into my head.
FA: Have you ever battled writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
RF: In my case, writer’s block takes on a different meaning. “Writer’s block” is caused by publishers and editors who want nothing to do with my stuff. If you can’t get published, there is no point writing. Hence writer’s block. I solved that by washing the publishing industry out of my mind long since and publishing much of my best material. Now I have no writer’s block, and more satisfying outcomes.
OK, I confess. I smoothed over potholes in the previous paragraph. In 1981 I sat down to write a novel, just like that. Couldn’t think of anything: plot, characters, period, locations – nada! But I stuck to a rule I have always followed: Write something! Anything. And go with it, no matter what. So I wrote a single sentence (One is all you need): “The last autumn leaves fall in April in Washington Square.” That gave me a season, a location, and forced me to explain in a few words why last fall’s leaves drop in the spring. That got me to the end of the first paragraph, at which point I had glimpsed a possible central character. By the end of the next paragraph I had placed a British graduate student in New York to take a Master’s degree at N.Y.U. Eighteen months later I had the novel written. It still starts with that sentence. I’ll publish it one day, but other things come first.
FA: What’s your favorite quote?
RF: It comes from the Chinese classic, the ‘Tao Te Ching’: “A man is wealthy who knows when he has enough.” When I first read that I had to think about it for a while before it sank in.
FA: Who inspires you the most?
RF: As a writer, the British novelist John Fowles (‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, ‘The Magus’, ‘The Collector’, ‘Daniel Martin’, etc.) inspires me. I read his books, trying to learn how he had attained and mastered his apparent simplicity of style. It so happened that we lived in the same English county, Dorset, which is best known for being portrayed in Thomas Hardy’s novels. I approached John Fowles, and he did me the honor of writing the foreword for the U.K. and North American editions of The Becoming (U.K.), and Let There Be Life (North America), collections of sixty-plus scientific essays on our cosmic and organic origins. Fowles writes: ‘Robert Fripp’s ingenious idea…must, I suppose, count as a literary curiosity; but I have long been in favour of literary curiosities. They have a perverse habit, very often, of provoking more thought than the orthodox approach. By simplifying the complex and broadening the narrow, they spark the imagination.’
If I have indeed learned such lessons, I did so in the course of writing television scripts and broadcast continuity for nearly forty years, and learning from excellent writers as well as, more than likely, their anonymous editors.
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Postscript: ‘A clear sentence is no accident. … If you find that writing is hard, that’s because it is hard.’ William K. Zinsser, an American writer, editor, and teacher, ‘On Writing Well‘ (1976)