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.

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A. D. 500, by Simon Young – a review

As my regular readers may have noticed, I have been making a lot of changes to this blog recently. This is partly an attempt to make more frequent updates – it is difficult to read a pre-1960s novel every week! Classics-lovers, do not fear: I will still be writing every fourth post about something suitably old.

Somehow, I have managed to accumulate a lot of non-fiction! I have no idea how this happened. I don’t normally read it for pleasure, but I feel that now I really must, in order to clear my shelves without massive feelings of guilt. My room is currently covered in books, and my bookshelves are overflowing.

A. D. 500 is not strictly speaking non-fiction, but it is as near to it as makes no odds, especially since it is set in an era of such confusion. It pretends to be a travel guide to the ‘Dark Isles’ of Britain and Ireland, based on a log kept by a fictional Byzantine embassy sent to visit all the kings of the islands. The reasoning behind this format, the author argues in his preface, is to allow readers to see the era from the perspective of other outsiders, since we must already view it as strangers due to the removal of time.

In my opinion, this technique works really well. It allows the reader to glimpse what the island could have been like (the copious notes at the back highlight the arguments that surround various details our fictitious embassy describe as ‘fact’). Making the embassy a Byzantine one also has the benefit of showing how differently various parts of the Roman Empire were affected by its Fall. For Byzantium, which considered itself the new seat of the Empire, relatively little changed. In contrast, the British Isles were invaded by the Saxons on the Roman’s retreat and the society the Romans had created quickly vanished completely.

Set a hundred years after the Romans left Britain, A. D. 500 shows a country that has fallen into barbarity and poverty (although, of course, this may not exactly have been the case).

It is a fine and interesting read, especially if you like learning about different cultures in history, which I certainly do. I feel, however, that it is a book to be savoured a little at a time, and not read in a week as I did.

Next week I shall be reviewing Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. Stay tuned!