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VINE VOICEon 4 January 2008
Some of the most fascinating characters in history hail from the murkier depths of times lacking much documentary sources. Perhaps their interest comes from this patchwork of conflicting sources, or perhaps the temporal distance lends enchantment. It also presents a problem for the biographer, in that the lack of sources makes it difficult to write authoritatively on the subject. If the subject is a mystery then the book can't be much more than conjectures joined up with speculation.

Eleanor of Aquitaine occupies an odd place in such a time. As a ruler and heiress in her own right, and as queen of France and later England, her life is much more richly documented than most of her contemporaries. Her movements, lodgings, nutrition and clothing can be conjured from the surviving accounts. Richer detail comes from monastic accounts, surviving letters and a good deal of conjecture based on related sources.

Weir has chosen a fascinating subject. She was a woman ruler at a time when women's right to rule was far from established, and in many areas banned by Salic Law. She was forthright, independent and had unorthodox views that capture the essence of the troubadour culture that flourished in her Aquitanian provinces.

Eleanor was wife of Louis VII of France, and then Henry II of England. She was mother to Richard the Lion Heart, and of King John. She herself went on crusade, appearing as the Amazonian queen Penthesilea to rally the troops. She lived as everything from Queen to prisoner, and did so over a remarkable 82 years.

As a writer of engaging `popular' history, Weir has been criticised for dumbing down the subject. In my opinion this is ridiculous. The idea that a book need be impenetrable and complex to be worthy of the appellation `academic' strikes me as simply the fulmination of the historical profession seeking to ensure the plebs don't scale the ivory towers. Whilst Weir's book may not push too many boundaries, it does present its subject well, contextualises admirably and is properly referenced with what source material survives.

The dearth of source material is shown by Weir quoting in full the surviving letters from Eleanor to the pope at the time of Henry II's capture and imprisonment at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor. As these are the most extensive extant sources it is not difficult to see why they have been quoted in full. But quotations of this length in a work of popular narrative history do somewhat stall the flow of the read. This is a minor point, and Weir compensates by ensuring most of the narrative is written in an engaging and pacey style. Some might sniff at such a tome, but if you have an interest in history you will be rewarded with a fascinating insight.
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on 17 August 2001
I was captivated by the title when I first came across it. Eleanor of Aquitane certainly proved to be an exceptionally well-written and captivating book, especially when compared to the mediocre efforts of many of our contemporary writers. Alison Weir succeeds in making a distant epoch come to life in a multidimensional way. She has been criticised, by some, for presenting a rather scanty picture of the queen, yet in this same sparse representation, which stems from limited resources available, lies the crux of the existence of a medieval woman. From the morsels of information available about the life of one of the most remarkable female figures of the early medieval period, we can infer that the medieval reality did not consider women as figures of much consequence. For there to have been even this little written about Eleanor she had to have been a particularly influential player in the male orientated society. Through MS Weir's very objective eyes we catch a fair glimpse of Eleanor's world, the consequences of her intelligence, strength and power. It is an effortless read, well worth the time and money.
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on 18 June 2015
I have been interested in this period of history for some time, but to date have found few really accessible versions of the incredibly complicated and constantly changing relationships between England and France/Normandy/Aquitaine/Poitou/Holy Roman Empire/Turkey and the Holy Land. Alison Weir's book, apart from painting a fascinating picture of Eleanor herself, whose amazing life was lived right at the heart of it all, also gave an interesting and understandable insight into the volatile personal and national politics of the time. It is not only interesting reading, but very educational, bringing into clear relief a period of time which was pivotal in all our subsequent relationships with continental Europe. A masterly achievement.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 August 2006
I didn't know very much about Eleanor apart from her being the mother of Richard I & John and so I really enjoyed this book. It's a good read if you're not familiar with this period as Weir takes the time to explain the cultural and political environment in which the story is taking place. I've studied medieval literature but not history and so this was an excellent 'filler' and interesting to see where myth and literature intersect with known or documented history.

Having said that, my gut feel is that the history is probably biased and clearly not objective. But I guess whether that's a problem or not depends on why you're reading the book: if it's for a 'historical' take then this probably isn't for you, or it should at least be supplemented with something more academic. If, like me, you're looking for an entertaining read that fills in some of the gaps in your knowledge, then I can fully recommend this.
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on 3 February 2000
A good and thoroughly researched biography. The author, however, sometimes displays unease with the period and the lack of extant and reliable written sources. Both style and approach, unfortunately, lack some of the confidence with which the author has treated subsequent periods of medieval English history.
The result is a work which can be too general and pedantic in its treatment of the socio-ecomonic conditions of 12th Century Europe and often looses sight of its central subject. However, it does offer many insights into the complicated politics of the era and the forces which motivated Eleanor, achieving a synthesis of the overly simplistic pictures of Eleanor as either 'evil witch' or 'courtly icon'. A sober account of both the life and times of an unique, immensely important and successful player on the political stage of the known world.
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on 31 August 2000
This book is the first book I have read by Alison Weir, coming across it by accident, I am enormously glad I discovered it.
The author brings to life a woman who's story and place in history has been somewhat overshadowed by scandal and gossip, that has long since fallen into legend. Eleanor's reputation has undoubtedly been made more unsightly by a long line of male biographers and commentators, this book redresses the balance of a talented and strongwilled woman. The vibrancy of Eleanor's character and her clever and shrewd leadership is at last given the chance to be seen in its true light.
This book highlights the way in which woman of the past did have a say and influence over their destiny and in Eleanor's case in the running of her realm, and in time, over the history of that realm. Because womens lives were not seen as worthy to document in detail, Eleanor's guile and leadership were never assessed by contempory writers. Weir's book gives us the chance to evaluate an incredible life and enjoy a gripping read.
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on 7 April 2016
Hugely entertaining and very informative. The author admits she has had to deal with a paucity of primary-source material about Eleanor specifically but she wrings everything out of it.
By connecting it to known facts of her contemporaries (Henry II, Richard, John et al) she has delivered a history full of fact and sound conclusion while avoiding speculation, and even shooting down the odd myth here and there. Wonderfully interesting content and an easy read.
Recommended to everyone.
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on 21 October 2004
Alison Weir has the gift of combining historical expertise with real story-telling skill thereby bringing long-dead people to life in a way that few can match. Although there are relatively few contemporary sources for Eleanor's life, Ms Weir combines fact and knowledge of the era to flesh out the bones, so to speak. It's a fascinating story containing all the elements of a good blockbuster - love, power, family, intrigue, money, conflict - set in a world of chivalry, knightly adventures and medieval pageantry. Even better, it's all true!
Eleanor was married to two kings, mother of two kings and was a feudal lord of enormous tracts of land in her own right - in an age when women were seen as mere chattels to be disposed of as and when (and to whom) the men pleased, she is an inspiration and a one-off. Fab read, cool heroine, true story - and you don't have to be a history buff to enjoy it.
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on 26 March 2003
Two problems with this book: lack of source material and inadequate research. Alison Weir's usual beat is the Renaissance and late Middle Ages: she clearly isn't so confident with this earlier period.
She's apparently dogged by restricted evidence about Eleanor (or so she says: Eleanor has got to be one of the best documented women of the period, and I personally think Weir is looking for a kind of evidence you just don't get at this time.)
The generic 'about the period' information she's used instead as padding could really use trimming by a decent editor.
I think I knew that 'fruits and berries grew on trees' - this is only one example of the many 'generic statements about life in the Middle Ages' she uses, but it's a particularly fine example! Yet she does not explain why these generic statements are important, or why they are significant to Eleanor's life and circumstances.
And it seems really odd to jump from explaining in moronic detail why people left money to the church, to a glancing reference to resumption of crown lands - surely a technical term that merited more explanation? Niggles, perhaps, but I started noticing them more and more as I read: this one is probably not going to get a second read from me.
It's a readable book with some interesting points. But if it were half the length, it would be twice the book.
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VINE VOICEon 11 September 2011
This is a highly detailed and informative book which attempts to bring to the fore of the Plantaganet period the often pivotal role played by Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Such an undertaking by Weir was something of an epic task, given the paucity of verifiable material associated with Eleanor and this paucity becomes too evident for much of the book. Indeed, for at least 50% of its content, Eleanor is not mentioned at all, or is at best mentioned only by reference to the fact that there are no records relating to her at that time.

It is of course the men of her period who get the most ink and Eleanor forms largely a backdrop to their lives. However, what emerges is a picture of a woman of high intelligence and ability who had a colourful life to say the least. As matriarch of a family who make the Sopranos look like The Brady Bunch, her stamina and determination were crucial to both her own survival and that of her obnoxious brood.

Weir's depth of research is admirable and although it has of necessity enormous gaps in respect of Eleanor, her book presents a pretty thorough overview of the people and events with which she was linked. It also gives a different perspective on Richard the Lionheart, demolishing his illustrious reputation and presenting evidence that, while he may indeed have been fearless in battle, he was a spoiled, dangerous brat and a serial rapist. Both he and his mother seem to have regarded England as purely a private bank to fund their ambition for French territory.

Eleanor's son John's reputation as a cruel, lazy and snivelling version of his brother Richard, gets no makeover and only her husband Henry II comes out with a bit more lustre than history has traditionally given him. The reader is left with food for thought about why she chose to ally herself devotedly to her monstrous sons in preference to her less monstrous husband and this reflection emphasises the nature of power and the need for survival in her period.

Weir's book shows us that in Eleanor's time the acquisition of land was of paramount importance to European royalty and that today's allies were almost certain to be tomorrow's enemies - and vice versa. The daughters of noble and royal families were merely commodities to be bartered for land and power and the peasantry were of no account.

Overall, this book is not an easy read, in part because it has so many names and places throughout the whole of the text and in part because the absence of Eleanor from so much of it becomes a little frustrating. Though she occupies very few of its 355 pages, this is probably as good a job as can be done on Eleanor's life, but it isn't enough upon which to base a whole volume and relies heavily on padding from the better documented sources about her male contemporaries.
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