Eleanor of Aquitaine: Not Your Average Medieval Woman
By Laura Goodman
Saber and Scroll Journal, Volume 2:2 (2013)
Introduction: Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most well-known English queens of the Middle Ages. She has been portrayed as a character in movies and there are many books about her life. She was both a queen of France and of England where she was much more involved than were other medieval queens. Eleanor ruled her own lands without her husband and ruled in her son’s place while he was on Crusade. She was not a typical medieval woman, even when compared to other medieval noblewomen and queens.
There are differing views on women during the Middle Ages, but it is generally agreed that their life was not easy. Women were perceived in different ways, depending on the circumstances. In his English Life in the Middle Ages, historian L.F. Salzman states “woman is at one moment idealized as a divine being, to gain whose love the world may well be lost, at the next she is figured as a worthless and venomous creature, hardly worthy to have a human soul.” The poems of the troubadours frequently portrayed the first kind of woman and the second was often denounced from the pulpits of medieval churches. “The worst slanderers of the female sex were clergy… The common people heard women continually abused from the pulpit.” These conflicting views could be seen throughout medieval writings. Women were often portrayed in extremes, especially those who were well known. Eleanor of Aquitaine was viewed in much the same way, in extremes. She did not stay quietly in the background, which drew criticism.
Eleanor did not live the life of a typical medieval woman. As a queen, she did not have to live through the difficulties of day to day life. A typical middle-class woman “would look after the herb garden, help with such work as haymaking, go into the market with butter, cheese, eggs, poultry and so forth, make salt and brew ale, and, presumably, do most of the cooking.” Even growing up, Eleanor was a high-ranking noblewoman, and probably would have been spared such mundane duties, as she would have had others to do these chores for her. She was heiress to Aquitaine, Gascony and Poitou, which set her apart from even most noblewomen. However, she probably did learn other duties. “Comparatively rich… though upper-class women may have been, they were not idle. In the administration of households and estates they had a full part to play… some women were literally called upon to defend the hearth and home when their menfolk were away.” Eleanor would have been raised to understand the running of a household, which could be extended to the running of a country. As an heiress to so many lands, she would have learned even more about ruling than most other noblewomen. Eleanor would have been exposed to more than a lower ranking noblewoman. Noblewomen served a different role in society, and Eleanor later took this even farther, ruling in her husband’s place. Her early education would have prepared her well for her future positions.