Monday, 8 August 2011

Chasing history down the road

I've recently returned from France, where I've been visiting a friend who I used to live with during my MA year in Norwich. She lives in a wonderful house, which has a minstrel's gallery and wooden beams everywhere, in the Saint Dizant are of the Bordeaux region which used to be part of the Duchy of Aquitaine.

By happenstance I have picked up an old biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine before leaving (written by Marion Meade, published in 1977), so suddenly found myself in the confusing position of travelling through modern day towns and villages, whilst reading about their medieval counterparts at the same time.

As I journeyed down straight Roman roads, through miles of vineyards and fields of sunflowers, it was so easy to be able to settle into the countryside and imagine how it must have been for that twice crowned woman to have travelled around defending the Aquitaine's interests from the acquisitive Louis VII or Henry II and how she set off on crusade, riding through the very countryside I was seeing. I had the line from The Lion in Winter (fantastic film, staring Katharine Hepburn) running through my head: 'I made Louis take me on Crusade. I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn... but the troops were dazzled.' Not historically correct perhaps (she allegedly only rode from Paris bare breasted) but it's that kind of image that history has handed down - Eleanor the rebel!

Another thing that she and her family have given history - more tangible and therefore more real - are some spectacular churches. I had forgotten how much I love the spectacle of the great caverns these early churches truly were - no doubt fearfully cold, but a more imposing and awe inducing symbol of God it would be hard to imagine. In both Saintes and Bordeaux, one is faced with some truly stunning Romanesque and early Gothic pieces of architecture and in Talmont there is a beautiful Church set perilously atop a rock, which looks like it could topple into the sea at any moment. It was here, on a hunting trip shortly after his marriage, that Louis VII almost lost his life when a recalcitrant baron who refused to pay homage to his new overlord (those Aquitaines were a proud bunch - in the end only Eleanor would be able to control them) took some of his party hostage and forced Louis to fight for his life. How different would history have been then?!

There were, of course, vast parts of Eleanor's life that have been lost to time, because she was 'just' the wife of the king, and therefore undeserving of attention for part of the time. The fact that she was able to keep her mettle and prove her worth when it was needed is testament to her strength of character. It does present a problem for the biograoher, however, who has to resort to the 'this is what she must have felt' line of authorship whenever the facts get a bit hazy.

It was a lovely break - just what was needed to recharge the batteries after a very long term and I've come home with my head full of ideas for new reading themes. Oh, and I want to live here please ....

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