Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a Plantagenets binge lately, and no mistake!

As you might remember from my glowing review of Blondel’s Song, I am a massive fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart. She’s just incredibly interesting. And so it was with some excitement that I turned to Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England. After all, Blondel’s Song only featured Eleanor tangentially – here was a whole book on the subject!

Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover

Unfortunately, I was… a bit disappointed.

Alison Weir certainly did her research for this book, and there’s a great deal of information on Eleanor’s life and the lives of her children and husbands. And, since Eleanor’s life and times were so interesting and over-the-top (have you ever ridden dressed as an Amazon on crusade? Because it seems Eleanor did), there is still a lot to interest an amateur historian here.

However, I’m just not sure who the book is designed for. It seems to be giving information too basic for someone with prior knowledge of the era, but too detailed for someone reading out of general interest. There is, in fact, too much information, and it is quite densely written. Take this paragraph, for example:

The House of Capet had ruled the country (France) since 987, when the feudal lord Hugh Capet had been elected king after the death of Louis V, the last monarch of the Carolingian dynasty, which descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. The surname Capet, which probably means ‘cap-wearer’ or ‘cape-wearer’, was not used for Hugh until the thirteenth century, and the dynasty he founded was not referred to as Capetian until the eighteenth century.

The paragraph comes from a chapter on the relationship between Aquitaine and France. There is just so much going on here: the name of the dynasty of French kings, the establishment of said dynasty, information on the previous dynasty, the meaning of the name… And, in my opinion, we don’t really gain from knowing all of it, since what we really want to know is how this relates to Eleanor’s life.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor, and possibly her children and grandson.

I did get some things from reading this; it covers the entirety of her life very well, so I now know a lot more about her activities following the death of Richard. However, for a basic level of interest in the topic, I would say: go for Blondel’s Song, or just watch The Lion in Winter.

Blondel’s Song, by David Boyle

It’s been more than a year since I finished university, and I’ve found myself missing the learning part of education (I am not yet missing the essays, and I doubt that’s ever going to happen). It so happened that, when I was going about my local Medieval Festival, I made my way into a tent that was selling books, and there I found a rather lovely-looking volume called “Blondel’s Song”.

Blondel

“Blondel?” I thought to myself. “Who, or what, is that?”

Closer inspection revealed the book to be about “The capture, imprisonment and ransom of Richard the Lionheart”.

I needed no further persuasion.

It turned out that I had already heard of Blondel, albeit vaguely. You might have heard the story as well: when Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner in a German castle, his troubadour Blondel went in search of him. He found him when he sang a song that the king and he had composed together, and he heard Richard singing the song back down to him.

Now, the story of Blondel’s song is somewhat legendary and, as with many things in the Middle Ages, might be completely or at least partially fictional. In Blondel’s Song, Boyle argues that the events are more partially than completely fictional. He also goes into a great deal of detail about the events of the crusade itself, and how Richard came to be imprisoned in Germany.

This was a delightful read. This might be, in part, because I’ve been a huge fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since watching The Lion in Winter, and Blondel’s Song describes a lot of her history that I was previously unaware of (particularly her old age after the death of Henry II). Boyle is also quite a funny writer, and seems to take delight in adding little irrelevant details, as well as personal musings, in his footnotes. So, while this book is quite thick and  reading it takes a while, it never feels like an effort to read.

plantagenetsmall

Angevin Family Portrait, from Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant

The one complaint I have about Blondel’s Song is its lack of focus on Blondel’s song. This is probably the fault of a lack of documentation on Blondel, but it seems unfortunate to have a book named after a particular event, which only spends about a tenth of its time (if that) on the event itself.

Nevertheless, it is a  lovely book – excellent if you are interested in a history of the Third crusade from a particularly English perspective, and pretty glorious in giving an understanding of the massive impact Richard’s ransom had on Medieval society.