Eleanor of Aquitaine

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Because of the immense accumulation of data in the late twentieth century, the lives of recently dead contemporary figures are a boon to the historical biographer. Newspaper and magazine stories, recollections of friends and enemies, official papers, speeches, and news conferences are only some of the sources for interpretations and reinterpretations. In addition, private papers are steadily being revealed to the public through time, the treachery of close associates, and often acrimonious lawsuits. Thus new evidence is constantly available to alter the view of the recent past. As one goes back in time, however, the amount of data begins to thin out and become unreliable. Before the eighteenth century, there is a real paucity of historical information; by the Middle Ages, the thin stream of reliable facts has been reduced to a trickle. This lack is compounded in the case of those who seem more important to modern historians than they did to their contemporaries. Poets such as Shakespeare and Chaucer and queens such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, were given more contemporary historical attention than most of their peers, but not so much as modern historians would like. Moreover, these few older records often create problems because older historians generally had a very different idea of truth than their modern counterparts. Rumors, gossip, and the recollections of old men, all distorted by an author’s political or religious bias, were the basis of history for the Elizabethans, and, to an even greater extent, for the Angevins, of which Eleanor of Aquitaine was one.

This attitude toward history changed by the nineteenth century. By then, history had become scientific, but biographies of half-known figures of the past still suffered. Nineteenth century biographers of Shakespeare, not satisfied by the few facts of the playwright’s life—documents like his baptismal record and his will—wrote volumes filled with psychological conjecture based on an analysis of the plays and sonnets and larded with sermonizing founded on Victorian standards of conduct.

Twentieth century biographers were wisely wary of such shabby procedures—not wary enough, however, to avoid conjecture of a new sort. Marchette Chute’s biography of Shakespeare may be fairly taken as a model of this new school of conjectural biography, a school to which Desmond Seward’s Eleanor of Aquitaine clearly belongs. Chute avoids the high-minded meandering of the nineteenth century, but substitutes for this fiction a new fiction of her own. For example, nothing is known of...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)