Be free in bed, infrequent in business.
—ADVICE OF THE EMPRESS MATILDA TO KING HENRY II, HER SON
SEX HAS NEVER BEEN ABSENT from any age. It rises in heat even if the age views passion as hardly more remarkable than eating and elimination (as did the Greeks), even if the age exalts chastity (as did the medievals), even if the age considers sexual matters beyond polite discussion (as did the Victorians). I would venture that the level of private sexual activity is a constant in the human chronicle and that only our public attitudes toward it change from one era to another. But as we all know, sex and romance are not identical, since sex is available with or without the latter. Romance as a sexual attitude was, in fact, almost unknown before the age of Hildegard.
This may seem, at first, incredible because we have so conjoined the two that it is impossible for our minds to unhook them, but also because we may recall snatches of ancient poetry that have left us with the impression that poets have always been romantics. Weren’t Sappho, Ovid, and Catullus of this persuasion? Didn’t they write all-consumingly of their love objects as might a modern poet or novelist? Didn’t they hurl themselves into the path of their beloved, promising all manner of service, hoping to be permitted to spend an eternity with her? Didn’t they mope and despair when rejected?
Yes and no. People have always had sex with one another, whether inside marriage or outside. Since before modern times all marriages were arranged and the betrothed seldom had contact with each other prior to the wedding night, romantic pursuit ending in marriage was impossible. What we may think of as romance in ancient poetry is strictly confined to the occasional extramarital affair, either homosexual, as in Greek Sappho’s case, or heterosexual, as in the cases of Ovid and Catullus. But both Roman poets are writing about sexual obsession for a particular woman—which, as we all know, is anything but everlasting. Catullus’s passion is for “Lesbia,” a pseudonymous married aristocrat, whom he comes to hate; and women in general fare badly in his poems, which are often obscenely degrading. For Ovid, passion is something of a joke; and if we read his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Loving) seriously, we miss his meaning. For Ovid’s famous work is actually a kind of send-up of self-help books, giving heaps of bad advice to the would-be lover, who is seen to be in the throes of a ridiculous appetite. Ovid’s irony becomes undeniable in passages where he lets us in on the joke:
Magna superstitio tibi sit natalis amicae:
Quaque aliquid dandum est, illa sit atra dies.
Cum bene vitaris, tamen auferet; invenit artem
Femina, qua cupidi carpat amantis opes.
On her birthday, just be far away—
no gifts, but fine excuses of all sorts.
She knows the art of taking all she may
And leaving you with nothing but your shorts.
The love object is a demanding, even a devouring, female, her suitor a temporarily infatuated fool. In the more earnest age of Hildegard, however, Ars Amatoria was cherished as a straightforward how-to manual for knightly lovers of lovely women.
The cultural transformations that were coming to bud about the time of Hildegard’s birth—in the late eleventh century—and that reached full flower in her lifetime were several and extraordinary. We have already seen examples of two of these: the growing power of women in religious life and the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary. Like Hildegard, afterwards known as “the Sybil of the Rhine,” many other abbesses and female visionaries began to occupy the public imagination in a way they’d never done during the long, hard Dark Ages that had preceded the lighter, more luminous twelfth century. One virgin lady in particular, Mary, formerly peasant girl of Nazareth, now Queen of Heaven, was given so much publicity that she came to overshadow her divine son in popular devotion and ecclesiastical art. It is not so surprising that the cults of such women, whether of flesh and blood or of stone and stained glass, should be especially vibrant in Germanic and Celtic realms, where women in pagan times had held more power than they ever exercised in the Greco-Roman world.
Beyond these transformations, feudalism, the basic medieval socioeconomic system, was evolving rapidly. Feudalism was a complex set of relationships to military service and land ownership. In theory, all land was owned by the sovereign, who bestowed it in “feud” (or “fee,” or “fief”) on those who had fought (or were pledged to fight) for him in war.a The recipient of the king’s (or duke’s or count’s) land was called a “knight,” a word of Germanic origin that meant “boy” but came to accrue the meaning of “servant of the lord” or “vassal.” Throughout the Middle Ages it was used to translate the Latin words miles (soldier) and eques (cavalryman). Only someone at the level of a knight could be properly addressed as “sire” (or “sir”) by those beneath him, who were termed “villeins,” “churls,” or, if female, “wenches.”
By the twelfth century, however, many knights were (more or less) landless retainers of the local lord, kept in readiness just in case; and between wars they were left to idle at his court, where women were in short supply. There were, of course, the lord’s wife, the well-guarded female members of his family, and their female attendants. But the exceeding number of young, lively, unattached males hanging out in the castle precincts presented something of a challenge. Goneril’s description in King Lear of her father’s retinue, though doubtless exaggerated, paints a vivid picture of the challenge confronting the well-protected courtly family:
Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires [attendants to the knights],
Men so disorder’d, so debosh’d and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac’d palace.
The true knight was, of course, far from such scenes. He was imagined in the courtly literature of the Middle Ages as a valiant, questing soul, modest, full of quiet strength, incapable of bragging, though known to be deadly in warfare. Like the “verray parfit gentil knight” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he was always one who “loved chivalrye, / Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye,” the ideal male. It is most relevant, however, that Chaucer, immediately following this portrait, gives us another—of the knight’s son the squire, not a lover of chivalry, truth, honor, etc., just “a lovyere, and a lusty bacheler,” his clothing embroidered as if he were a meadow “Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and rede,” “Singinge he was, or floytinge [fluting] all the day; / He was as fresh as is the month of May.” If Chaucer’s knight is shown as the ideal, his son the squire is portrayed as the more common reality, the idle frat boy. A well-stocked castle might easily host a hundred dancing layabouts like this one, “wonderly deliver, and greet of strengthe,” as Chaucer tells us, and “So hote he lovede, that by nightertale / He sleep namore than dooth a nightingale.”
Whether the lord or his lady felt more challenged by this situation we cannot say for certain, for we have little historical evidence as to how the next step in social evolution took place. We can say, however, that what resulted was a culture of adultery—the most mannerly adultery in history, but adultery nonetheless.
“Any idealization of sexual love,” wrote the great medievalist C. S. Lewis, “in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian, must begin by being an idealization of adultery.” If, as Henry Adams believed, the Virgin of Virgins was the mysterious dynamo at the heart of the Middle Ages, extramarital sex was the ordinary electricity. How the two were connected is by no means obvious; and the attempt by historians to make a connection has precipitated a dozen theories, revisions, and countertheories. What we can claim without cavil is that both the pious worship of the Virgin and the adulterous worship of the lady of the manor were connected to the general rise in the status of women during this period. If it is not, on the face of it, evident how widespread adultery can be connected to the social advancement of women, it will be, once we have examined the special rules for adultery invented in the courts of the twelfth century.
The queen of the castle (or duchess or countess or dame or lady-in-waiting) was a prize to be won. Since there were few women of stature resident at each court, many worthy knights contended for the fair hands and full hearts of the few, all women in arranged marriages with time on their hands and daydreams in their heads. To debauch a virgin was a risky maneuver, one that could lose you life or organ, especially if the fruit of your love became the all-too-visible fruit of her womb. But a married lady, with obscure chambers at her personal disposal and guarded at evening only by female confidantes, could manage even an adulterous pregnancy rather nicely. (“Why, of course, it’s yours, my lord!” she replied indignantly. “Haven’t you noticed? It looks just like your mother.”)
Idle men in barracks (or even in barricaded castles) inevitably invent games for themselves. The twelfth-century game: who is knight enough to win the lady? Athletic talents useful to the soldier were recalibrated for displays of peacetime jousting, tilting, melees, and similar diversions at organized tournaments—bloody, often deadly, affairs that are the origin of our field sports. A knight might enter the lists wearing a delicate flower or bright swatch of cloth, a secret (or not-so-secret) pledge of his vassalage to a certain lady. Furtive strategies of the battlefield were retooled for wooing in gardens by means of stolen glances and in passageways by means of whispered words and clandestine tokens.
It seems most likely that women set the rules of this new game, perhaps after many hours spent poring over vernacular translations of Ovid:
Siquis in hoc artem non novit amandi,
Hoc legat et lecto carmine doctus amet.
Arte citae veloque rates remoque moventur,
Arte leves currus: arte regendus amor.
If there is anyone who needs to know
The Art of Loving, come along with me.
It’s but a skill—like sailing, riding—so
It can be learned in lessons one, two, three.
It’s simple, really—and Ovid, who claimed that Venus had dubbed him “artifex tenero Amori” (artist of tender Love), will instruct us all.
We should not think that these courts of love, as they came to be called, were confined to individual strongholds. They were as itinerant as Benedictine monasteries were stable, settling into one castle for a few months or even weeks, moving on to a hunting lodge perhaps, then on to another of the lord’s castles, then crashing at the fortress of some lesser lord who was duty-bound to put up the greater lord’s whole household, which could number a hundred or more—the lord and his knights, the lord’s spouse and her ladies, his councillors and other officials, the steward, the butler, the cooks and kitchen staff, the chamberlain, the treasurer, the bodyguards and others designated to keep order, the clerks, servants, and grooms, a chaplain or two, the packhorses and oxen, carts and wagons. For a king’s entourage there would be much additional paraphernalia to be stored (dramatic changes of clothing and jewelry, supplies of parchment and coin) and many additional figures to be housed: a high-ranking constable or marshall, a keeper of the king’s seals, and “ushers, huntsmen, horn-blowers, watchmen, guards, archers, men-at-arms, cat-hunters, wolf-catchers, keepers of the hounds, keepers of the royal mews [stables for horses and hawks], keepers of the tents, the chamberlain of the candles, the bearer of the King’s bed, the King’s tailor, laundresses, including the King’s personal washerwoman, and a ewerer, who dried his clothes and prepared the royal bath,” in the words of Alison Weir, a biographer of medieval royalty.
Mention of “the royal bath” gives us a clue as to why this large assembly had to keep journeying on. The insoluble medieval problem in the face of such a company was sanitation. Plumbing was unknown; and the tradition of public bathing, though as much a part of the Greco-Roman heritage as plumbing had been, had perished beyond Byzantium. Because individual bathing in a copper basin in a drafty castle could lead so easily to chill, then to fever and death, kings and queens seldom bathed more than once a month, those with neither washerwoman nor ewerer at their command scarcely more than once or twice a year. Despite their silks and linens, their frequent changes of costume, their liberal burning of Arabian incense, the royals stank, as did their retinues. More than this, the chamber pot was the sole device for receiving human waste.b A small castle—or even a large one—might become downright uninhabitable after many weeks of residence by such a throng.
When Duncan, an eleventh-century king of Scotland, arrives at the castle of the treacherous Macbeths, he remarks:
This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
Ah, yes, but after some months of habitation by the king’s enormous retinue, “sweet” would not be the adjective that would come nimbly to mind. The clammy castle would need to be vacated for some time so as to be adequately aired. The chaos occasioned by all this to-ing and fro-ing served as an additional aid to the privy assignations of gay ladies with their adoring knights.
The language by which the knight addressed his prey was so reverent that it could be easily mistaken for prayer, even prompting one jolly North-country mistress to set her poetical suitor straight:
I’m no the Queen o’ Heaven, Thomas,
I never carried my head sae hee,
For I am but a lady gay
Come out to hunt in my follee.
This quatrain expertly reverses the dramatis personae of the hunt: it is the lady, not her knight, who does the hunting. The idea of the knight as pursuer was a convenient social construct. He writes the romantic poetry, gives the gifts, and mopes mournfully about, but it is the down-to-earth lady, smarter and more strategic than he (and even more intent on her “follee”), who secretly controls the pace of the chase, having determined well in advance whether or not the poor devil will get his reward in the end.
As in fact the abundant literature flowing from the courts of love makes clear, the lady is to render conquest as difficult as possible:
An easy conquest sells love on the cheap;
a hard one shows the cost of love runs deep,
instructs Andreas Capellanus, a somewhat plodding late twelfth-century imitator of Ovid, in his best-selling Latin treatise De Amore (On Love). Among Andreas’s many “rules of love”: “It is genuine jealousy that makes the feeling of love grow.” So go ahead, torture him.
No one knew the rules better than Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine, afterwards queen of France, then of England, a courtly lady who played a singular role in the history of her time. She was born in 1122 to a family that reigned not only over Aquitaine but over Gascony, which gave access to the kingdoms of Castile, Navarre, and Aragon (and thence to the delicacies of the Spanish-Muslim south), and over Poitou and its très riche capital of Poitiers. The affluent vineyards of Bordeaux lay within the family’s domains, as did the lucrative salt flats of Saintonge. At the time, France was still a tiny kingdom, an island of property squeezed between Champagne and Blois, while the dukes of Aquitaine ruled a swath of territories ten times as large. Aquitaine itself was a sunny and fertile land of waters (“Aquitania,” as the Romans had named it), dotted with charming red-tiled villages, whitewashed walls, yellow gates, rolling hills, fields of deep green, yellow-green, and velvet brown, prosperous monasteries, and gloriously welcoming castles. Its people, aware of their happy fortune, were easy, attractive southerners known for their good manners. Men, eschewing the usual bowl-top haircut, wore their hair long and commonly shaved their faces—a most uncommon sight in the rest of Europe—and both sexes delighted in fine fabrics and elegant costuming. A mixture of Basque natives and Roman colonists, they were viewed by the sterner Franks of the Germanic north as trivial pleasure-seekers.
Eleanor’s palace at Poitiers. The Maubergeonne Tower to the right, built by Eleanor’s grandfather, housed his mistress Dangerosa. (Photo Credit 2.1)
She was christened Alienore, an elision of the Latin Alia Aenor—for her mother was Aenor and the baby was to be “Another Aenor.” She seems to have set herself the task of becoming anything but a copy of her unfortunate mother; she would not be another anyone but the world’s first (and for some time only) Eleanor. Granddaughter of William IX, the world’s first romantic poet and a “vehement lover of women,” Eleanor grew up in a household of extraordinary refinement, where poetry and music were honored and sex and power were prized above all.
The dukes of Aquitaine were distinguished by their violent willfulness. Finding himself attracted to the wife of one of his vassals, a woman aptly named Dangerosa, William IX stole her from her castle at Châtelleraud and bore her to his palace at Poitiers, installing her during his wife’s absence in his newly built Maubergeonne Tower. When the shocked duchess returned from her charitable enterprises, she engaged the papal legate to do battle on her behalf. William was perennially on the outs with churchmen: he had once drawn his sword in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre and threatened to behead a bishop in the act of excommunicating him. So the legate’s warning of a second such sentence fell on deaf ears; and William swore at the bald man that hair would grow on the legate’s head before the duke would return Dangerosa to her meekly silent husband. After his second excommunication, the defiant duke had his paramour’s portrait painted on his shield, announcing that “it was his will to bear her in battle as she had borne him in bed,” according to a contemporary account by the lively monastic historian William of Malmsbury. The duchess ceded the field and hid herself in Fontevraud Abbey, her favorite nunnery, where she soon died.
Before long, Dangerosa proposed that William’s son, William, should be married to her daughter, Aenor. And so it happened—though young William had little love for the woman who had displaced his mother or for her daughter. As heir to his father’s ducal lands, however, he had no choice but to bow to the dominatrix’s wishes if he did not want to be disinherited. Eleanor was born a year after the wedding, and five years after that William IX was dead, duly succeeded by Eleanor’s father, now William X. Three years further on, Aenor died, as did Eleanor’s only brother, William Aigret. Eleanor at eight was heiress of Aquitaine.
Her father, a perspicacious man less violent than his father, saw to it that Eleanor was taught the unwomanly art of reading both her own language, the langue d’occ (or Provençal, or Old French of the south), and Latin. “Brought up in delicacy and reared with abundance of all delights, living in the bosom of wealth,” in the words of a contemporary chronicler, Eleanor loved musical performances, especially the newly harmonized chansons and gai saber (gay knowledge) of the troubadours—of whom her grandfather had been the first, a sort of knightly Chuck Berry to a younger generation of Beatles and Rolling Stones. Throughout her life she was a patron to singers and instrumentalists, especially those who sang of love and les chagrins d’amour.
These performers, still a novelty in Eleanor’s girlhood, had exactly the same revolutionary effect on the sensibility of her time that rock music would have on Westerners in the mid-twentieth century. As their elders recoiled in disgust, young people everywhere loosened up and rocked their bodies and their lives to a new beat. In the courts of the south, the new music encouraged the delightfully novel practice of mixed dancing. Whereas dancing had formerly been exclusively homosexual, men performing only with men and women with women, now a knight was taught the art of bowing to a lady, gracefully offering his hand, and gliding forth with her in a series of complicated steps that mimicked the art of courtly wooing.
Before undertaking a pilgrimage for his sins and the sins of his fathers to the shrine of Saint James the Apostle—Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain—William summoned all his vassals and commanded them to swear public homage to Eleanor. They came from every corner of the duke’s domains and found themselves kneeling before a tall young woman of surpassing beauty—“perpulchra,” they described her—a blue-eyed, reddish blonde who carried herself with regal assurance. At thirty-eight, the duke had every intention of returning from pilgrimage, marrying again, and engendering a male heir to carry his legacy. But just to be safe, he made Eleanor a ward of King Louis VI of France, who was nominal overlord to the more powerful William. As part of their agreement, Eleanor was affianced to Louis’s son Louis. William’s foresight paid off: he never returned from Compostela, dying in the cathedral there after drinking polluted water on his journey. At fifteen, Eleanor was duchess of Aquitaine and Gascony, countess of Poitou, soon to marry the crown prince of France.
Alas for royal marriages, always arranged, seldom satisfying. Louis the Fat—for such was the nickname of Louis VI—became so adipose in his later years that he could no longer rise from his bed. His chief adviser, the brilliant Suger, child of peasants and abbot of Saint-Denis, knew that he would not last much longer. Unfortunately, Louis’s heir, Philip, had broken his neck when his horse threw him; the younger son, Louis, who had been meant for the church, was therefore brought out of mothballs and crowned as his father’s successor—during his father’s lifetime in accordance with French custom. Little Louis would have made a fine monk, but he would make a less impressive king and a husband of dubious value. Less than four months after her father’s death, a scarlet-gowned Eleanor and her Louis—he at sixteen just a year older than his wife—were married amid great pomp on a Sunday in late July of 1137 in the cathedral of Saint-André in Bordeaux. Afterwards, as they journeyed north to Paris, they received the news: Louis the Fat had expired; they were king and queen of France.
Eleanor did not admire the Cité, Louis’s old Parisian palace, which she found drafty and grim. Very soon her apartments were modernized in the southern manner and redecorated with colorful tapestries from the workshops of Bruges. She introduced tablecloths and napkins and even insisted that her pages wash their hands before serving her dinner. She invited troubadours, jongleurs, and theatrical troupes to entertain the court. The courtiers were not amused; they found the emotions expressed in the words of the south to be downright scandalous. It would take another generation before these northerners would succumb to the sensual delights of this nouvelle vague. Though Louis seems to have been unimpressed by all her innovations, he loved his wife “almost beyond reason,” in the words of John of Salisbury, later bishop of Chartres and an astute commentator.
Someone in whom the troubadours found a responsive listener was Eleanor’s younger sister, Petronilla, who soon commenced a steamy affair with Count Raoul of Vermandois, a married man thirty-five years her senior. In an unrelated move, Louis refused to allow the pope’s candidate to take his seat as archbishop of Bourges, which impelled the pope to impose an interdict on Louis’s household, which meant that no member of the household could receive the sacraments of the church till the interdict was lifted. Not only could no masses be offered for the benefit of the living and the dead, but no marriages could be celebrated, no confessions heard, and neither communion nor anointing could be given to those in danger of death. They must face their deaths unshriven, unreconciled, most likely damned, nor could their bodies be buried with funeral rites in consecrated ground; and babies who perished without baptism must face the same unceremonious damnation.d This was rough justice, to say the least, and for the pious Louis a tragic reversal.
As if this were not misfortune enough, Raoul succeeded in having his marriage annulled by three suborned bishops, who then proceeded to solemnize his marriage to Petronilla. But Raoul’s castoff wife was not without defenders, especially her powerful brother,Count Theobald of Champagne, who brought her case to the pope. The pope suspended the three offending bishops, excommunicated the lovers, and laid their lands under interdict. Louis, who felt his manhood threatened, marched an army into Champagne and surrounded the town of Vitry-sur-Marne, which lay in the shadow of one of Theobald’s castles. The town was burned to the ground by the flaming arrows of Louis’s army, and more than a thousand innocents—children, women, the elderly and infirm—who had taken refuge in the cathedral died by fire. Louis could never afterwards forget the smell of burning flesh and the screams of the hopeless victims.
None of Louis’s aggressive initiatives, whether against church or Champagne, were sanctioned by Abbot Suger, canny adviser to the elder Louis, who suddenly found his sage advice unheeded and unwelcome. Weir suggests that Eleanor had become young Louis’s chief adviser and was urging him to cut a more dashing figure on the international scene. This is certainly what Bernard of Clairvaux surmised. The intimidating ascetic, who would in this same decade of the 1140s champion the writings of Hildegard, was nonetheless no friend to women, especially to women of the world beyond the reach of the cloister’s severities. For Eleanor, whom he met, he had nothing but scorn and suspicion. Carefully noting her regal bearing, her high chin, her stately (or, as Bernard said, “mincing”) step, and all the particulars of the fashion in which she was dressed—the lined silk, the flowing sleeves, the bright colors, the fur, the bracelets, the earrings, the headdress, the diadem—he reached the conclusion that she was “one of those daughters of Belial,” a biblical name for Satan. “Fie on a beauty that is put on in the morning and laid aside at night! The ornaments of a queen have no beauty like the blushes of natural modesty that color the cheeks of a virgin.” Virgins good; queens bad; women who make themselves sexually desirable, certainly one of a queen’s chief duties, daughters of the Devil. Bernard’s approach may be said to have the stark virtue of simplicity, but the truth is he was terrified of real women, especially one like Eleanor who, perfumed and painted, dared look him straight in the eye and speak as if addressing any other subject.
Though he continued to love his wife, Louis, full of guilt over the atrocities committed by his army in Champagne, fell more and more under the influence of monks like Bernard, even dressing like a monk himself, fasting, wearing a torturous hairshirt against his skin, and spending many hours on his knees in prayer. Eleanor, widely described as the most beautiful woman of her time, dressed ever more splendidly and, now in her twenties, grew restless with her role as queen of France and childless wife to Louis. She had had more engagement (and more fun) in the short time she had ruled alone as duchess of Aquitaine.
Bernard and Suger managed to patch up the quarrel between Louis and Theobald and prevailed upon Louis to set aside his opposition to the pope’s choice for archbishop of Bourges, so that the interdict could be lifted. In time, as part of a shrouded quid pro quo, the pope recognized Petronilla’s irregular marriage, awarding Raoul the same annulment that the three suspended bishops had once given: Raoul and his first wife were third cousins, which was considered by the church to be a consanguinous relationship too close for marriage. Marriage law is one of the most notorious arcana of the medieval church. Since so many European nobles and royals were related, it was relatively easy to discover after the fact some sort of “consanguinous relationship,” however attenuated, that could nullify a marriage and leave the partners free. This Divorce Medieval–Style, though useless to ordinary people (who hadn’t the financial resources or the influence to pursue their cases in church courts), was a great help to the leading families of Europe in their ever-shifting alliances.e
In the course of the extended melodrama of the Petronilla affair, Bernard raised an issue no one had voiced before: Louis and Eleanor were third cousins. Why was Louis so contemptuous of Raoul’s first marriage when the same standard could be applied against his own? Louis paid no heed, but Eleanor was transfixed.
In 1145, some eight years after their Bordeaux nuptials, Eleanor gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Marie. Marie could not inherit the throne of France as her mother had inherited Aquitaine, Gascony, and Poitou, for the Salic law of Charlemagne and his successors, still in force in France, excluded females from dynastic succession;f but she would one day become Marie de Champagne, “the joyous and gay countess, the light of Champagne,” and a famous patron of poets. On Christmas Day in the year of Marie’s birth, Louis revealed to his assembled vassals that he would, at the urging of the new pope, Eugene III, and of the pope’s mentor Bernard of Clairvaux, “take the Cross,” that is, lead the Second Crusade to further the “liberation” of the Holy Land from “the Crescent”—the Muslims. The initial announcement met with few cheers, since the vassals viewed Louis as something less than a leader of men and rightly suspected that the king’s new undertaking was for him a further form of penance rather than an adventure of conquest.
The First Crusade, preached by the wily Pope Urban II in 1095, had proved a roaring success, capturing Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem for Western forces and shedding the blood of countless combatants and not a few noncombatants, including communities of Jews the crusaders encountered along their way. The surviving crusaders (as well as the ones who did not survive, for that matter) were buoyed in their conviction that the pope had promised Christian participants a plenary indulgence, erasing all their sins and rendering them Heaven-ready. Pope Eugene now promised no less; and Bernard’s eloquence lent an aura of sacred destiny to the mustering of troops across the ancient realms of Charlemagne. In a departure from previous tradition, Eleanor enthusiastically announced that she too would take the Cross, which brought many of her vassals, personally loyal to Eleanor, to her side, increasing considerably the army’s muscle. As, impelled by Bernard’s tireless voice, the coming crusade began to sound its drumroll of historical inevitability, enormous numbers of men and not a few women in French- and German-speaking lands joined up, red and black crosses pinned to their clothing, shouting “Deus vult!” (God wills it!) and “To Jerusalem!” as they set out southeastward across Europe.
Louis’s vassals, however, had had the right reaction in the first place. For all its fiery rhetoric and holy panoply, the Second Crusade turned quickly into an anarchic mess and, finally, an unmitigated disaster. It is an axiom of history—which it would reward contemporary politicians to consider—that few human endeavors prove as pointless as projects of religiously inspired military idealism unaccompanied by worldly understanding, strategic thoughtfulness, and common sense.
The German army was under the command of the reluctant emperor Conrad III, who had been shamed by Bernard into participating. On their way to the Holy Land, the Germans made permanent enemies of the Orthodox Greeks—for whom all Catholic Europeans were (and still are) “Franks”—by senselessly pillaging, burning, raping, and murdering as they marched. In battles against the Turks, however, nine-tenths of them were slaughtered. The remaining Germans straggled home, their emperor sliced by head wounds—which caused Louis to weep when he saw them.
The French, constantly harrassed by Turks over rough, unfamiliar terrain, made it to Antioch, then to Jerusalem, both cities still under the Western dominion imposed by the First Crusade. Louis, fasting in preparation for his entry into the Holy City, burst into tears of joy on first glimpsing the turreted walls of Jerusalem. He never came near achieving his main objective, to restore crusader dominion to Edessa, which had been overrun by Turks. He never even came near Edessa. The French did attack Damascus, till then a Muslim city friendly to the crusader states, and were ignominiously routed. In their many quixotic maneuvers, led by their oft-fasting, oft-weeping king, they were hardly helped by the need to protect the large numbers of noncombatant women and clergy who accompanied them, along with the many chests of costly robes, precious jewelry, and sacred vessels the noncombatants deemed necessary to their progress. By the end of the crusade, however, few gowns remained to the ladies, and even some bishops were forced to go barefoot. The French battlefield losses, though not as immense as the German, were great, the losses from hunger, plague, and accidental death even greater. More than three thousand French troops, lured by the first wholesome meal they’d had in months, remained behind and converted to Islam.
By crusade’s end something had gone badly wrong between the royal couple. They were no longer speaking to each other and were seldom seen together. It was said that Eleanor had spent far too much time in the agreeable company of her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, the athletic ruler of Antioch. Prince Raymond had wanted the French to attack Aleppo before going on to Edessa—which would have been a better plan and would also have greatly shored up Antioch’s defenses. Eleanor pressed Raymond’s plan on Louis, who was already hot under the collar about his wife’s endless meetings with her uncle, “taller, better built, and more handsome than any man of his time,” according to a contemporary witness. When Louis voiced his pilgrim desire to visit Jerusalem before heading for Edessa, Eleanor said that in that case she would remain as Raymond’s guest at Antioch, along with her vassals—which would have crippled any further military effort on Louis’s part. Wounded in spirit, Louis threatened to remove Eleanor by force, at which point “she mentioned their kinship, saying it was not lawful for them to remain together as man and wife,” in the account of John of Salisbury.
Louis did remove Eleanor by force and drag her to Jerusalem; and from that time forward she seems to have had as little as possible to do with her husband. As far as hard facts go, we have almost no more information. We can, as everyone did at the time and everyone has done since, speculate about what was going on between them. There can be little doubt that Eleanor had tired of Louis and that she had for some time played with the idea of the “consanguinous relationship” as a convenient excuse for ending their marriage. Whether or not she had an affair with her uncle—who was but ten years her senior—his manly vigor must have made a vivid contrast to Louis’s weepy pieties and may have clinched her determination to have done with the king. If she did have an affair with Raymond, it is unlikely to have been her first.
The sexual carryings-on of European royalty were as fascinating to the chronicling clerk-clerics of the twelfth century as are the similar carryings-on of today’s celebrities to our own clerisy, whom we call journalists. We have a story from Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman), which he claims to have had from the sainted lips of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, that Eleanor, even before the Second Crusade was launched, had managed a discreet pas de deux with the ambitious, overreaching Count Geoffrey of Anjou. Giraldus, a waspish gossip and first-class suck-up, is nonetheless generally accurate when it comes to royal peccadilloes. We know from John of Salisbury that Louis, in despair over Eleanor’s cold stubbornness, consulted his court eunuch, Thierry Galan (bad choice, Louis!), whom Eleanor loathed, and that it was the eunuch who urged Louis to use force on his wife to avert “lasting shame to the kingdom of the Franks.”
Eleanor’s life would prove a long one, far too full of adventure and incident for us to follow adequately in one chapter. Here I would wish only to give some essential information on what happened to her next and then take a look at how she exemplifies certain trends of her time. What, finally, was the role of this unusual woman in an age of virginal saints?
Eleanor dumped Louis, though not immediately. A smart cookie, she knew to bide her time and give the appearance of growing anxiety over the possible moral (and therefore eternal) consequences of their “incestuous” union. If their marriage was no marriage in the eyes of God, it could—horrid thought!—result in their damnation, could it not?
Both Louis and Eleanor, crossing the Mediterranean on different ships of the same fleet, had much trouble reaching safe harbors, Louis somewhere in Calabria, Eleanor—after months of being blown about—at Palermo. The royal couple, then reunited after their long separation, journeyed north to visit the pope at Frascati, south of Rome, where he kept a palace. There Eugene acted as marriage counselor, hearing each side’s complaints and even personally setting up a sort of marriage bower—an alluringly decorated bedchamber, hung with precious silks—where he ordered the pair to resume relations. If from the perspective of the twenty-first century this fussing about with bed linens seems an odd activity for a pope, it may be said that Eugene was no disinterested third party. Urged on no doubt by the Abbot Suger’s dynastic preoccupations, he was also acting as the Catholic Church has always acted, preferring large political units to small, intending in this case to prevent the dissolution of the union of Eleanor’s vast inheritance with the kingdom of France. Eleanor, realizing she had been outflanked, kept her own counsel and gave in to the pope’s coaxing, becoming pregnant in the process.
The issue was a second daughter, Alix, a crushing disappointment to the king, who needed a male heir. After nearly a decade and a half of marriage, his hope of a son was fading. He began to find the idea of an annulment more attractive.
Eleanor, meanwhile, had met the man she intended to have as her second husband: Henry of Anjou, eleven years her junior, who would inherit Anjou, Le Maine, and Normandy from his father and had good reason to believe he might claim England as an inheritance from his mother, the très formidable Matilda, formerly empress of Germany. The red-haired Henry had the face of a lion, the body of a bull, and the voice of a crow. A natural leader, he possessed, according to the Anglo-Norman Walter Map, a favorite clerk of Henry’s, a countenance “upon which a man might gaze a thousand times, yet still feel drawn to.” A great horseman and huntsman, a man of gargantuan squalls of temper, who was never quiet and “shunned regular hours like poison,” he had all the energy and passion that Louis lacked. His much-feared anger could sometimes be averted by wit, for Henry himself had an impish sense of humor and loved a good joke. Yet he was also an educated man who enjoyed reading, especially the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, then coming into vogue. That he was rumored to be Satan’s spawn—as a scion of the house of Anjou, which according to legend was descended from the Devil’s daughter—may only have increased his attraction in Eleanor’s eyes.
In late summer of 1151, they met in Paris, whither Henry had come, after threatening Louis with war, to pay grudging ceremonial homage to the French king and formally receive back his inheritance of Normandy, over which Louis reigned as nominal overlord.Bernard of Clairvaux, now old and ill, had stepped in to arrange a truce. In their first meeting, Eleanor, at the acme of her grace, and Henry, pulsing with adolescent energy, fixed each other with “unchaste eyes,” according to Map. Henry’s father,Geoffrey the Fair, forbade his son to have anything to do with the queen because she was, after all, the wife of his overlord and, well … “because he had known her himself”—according to the gossipy Giraldus, who turns up his nose at “these copulations.”
Suger’s death earlier that year had deprived Louis of his most devoted adviser, one skilled in all the chess moves of power and a wise interpreter of every intrigue. More in the dark than ever, Louis at last gave way to Eleanor’s insistent requests and agreed to seek the annulment she so desired in the same month that Henry’s father, Geoffrey, died suddenly, making Henry duke of Anjou, Le Maine, and Normandy. A synod of archbishops, duly constituted, dissolved the royal marriage the Friday before Holy Week in 1152. The sole ground was consanguinity. With holy Bernard as go-between, even Pope Eugene gave his consent. The two princesses—Marie then six or seven, Alix not yet two—were found to be legitimate (because their parents had entered into marriage in good faith) and were made wards of their father. Both king and queen were present at the synod. After taking their leave, they would never see each other again, nor is there any record of a further meeting between Eleanor and either of her daughters, not that she had ever seen much of them before this parting of the ways.
Eleanor, having escaped the gray-stone north and now at her capital of polychrome Poitiers to celebrate Easter, happily recommenced single rule of all her dower territories, given back to her under the stipulations of the annulment. Straightaway, she sent a message to Henry informing him of the annulment and praying him to ride out immediately and marry her. On Pentecost Sunday, less than two months after receiving her annulment, Eleanor, the wealthiest woman in Europe, was wed to Henry, count of Anjou, Le Maine, and Normandy, who was already planning his invasion of England. The ceremony, though celebrated in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre at Poitiers, was a hastily arranged affair, having “neither the pomp nor the circumstance befitting their rank,” according to the tut-tutting authors of the Chronicle of Touraine. By uniting their continental possessions, this medieval power couple now held sway over nearly half of today’s France, dwarfing and fairly engulfing Louis’s Lilliputian kingdom.
When Louis recovered from his extreme shock at hearing the news, he realized he had been blindsided by Eleanor. Since both she and Henry were Louis’s vassals and had no business marrying without his permission (and since they were related just as closely as he and Eleanor), Louis summoned the offending pair to his presence to explain themselves. When he received no reply, Louis marched into Normandy at the head of a small army that included noblemen who had quarrelled with Henry. In little more than a month, Henry defeated the king’s forces and, having made himself undisputed strongman of Europe, turned his attention once more to the matter of England, which, after a small war and some negotiations, was settled to his satisfaction.
On December 19, 1154, in Westminster Abbey, Henry and Eleanor were crowned king and queen of England by the archbishop of Canterbury amid the general rejoicing of their subjects, who rightly saw in Henry an unswerving leader who would bring them peace and prosperity. In less than a score of years, Eleanor would bear Henry eight children, five of them male—seeming to ensure the succession of Henry’s line, which would become known as the Plantagenets.g Eleanor’s relationship to her children by Henry, especially to the boys, was much closer than had been her relationship to her daughters by Louis. The Plantagenets’ first child, however, was dead within three years of his birth, and two other males, Young Henry and Geoffrey, would die while still in their twenties. Henry would take care that his daughters made good marital alliances, Matilda with the powerful duke of Saxony and Bavaria, Eleanor with the king of Castile, and Joanna with the king of Sicily. (After her first husband’s death and Henry’s, Joanna would marry the count of Toulouse, a man of harrowing violence.) Only two of the male children would survive long enough to occupy the English throne after Henry, Richard Coeur de Lion (or Lionheart), who would die in 1199, and John Softsword, the youngest of the children, who would succeed Richard and reign till 1216. Despite the early deaths, the children of Eleanor and Henry would produce thirty-four legitimate grandchildren.
But the Plantagenets were no Brady Bunch. As many observers noted, there was palpable electricity between the young king and his queen. They had, after all, chosen each other, the first married couple in recorded history to have managed to do so; and though Henry remained pleased with Eleanor for many years, it took him little time to resume his bits on the side. By the time Eleanor was done with childbearing, Henry had entered into his most buzzed-about adultery—with “Fair” Rosamund de Clifford, the barely pubescent daughter of one of his most loyal Norman knights. As years sped by, the poets of England, France, and Germany wrote ever more extravagant praise of Eleanor’s beauty:
If all the world were mine
From the seashore to the Rhine,
That price were not too high
To have England’s queen lie
Close in my arms,
goes the anonymous Latin of Carmina Burana, a celebrated collection of student songs composed in Germany in this period. But the only arms Eleanor had wanted round her were Henry’s; and the love of this peculiar man, not the predictable praise of poets, was what she had hoped for. Despite her disappointment, there is no evidence she was ever unfaithful to Henry. After many years of inevitably cooling relations, however, she did turn against him.
From 1168 onward, Eleanor lived apart from her husband. The separation served Henry’s administrative requirements well, Eleanor watching over his continental realms while he continued to put his governing impress on England, which had been badly administered before his accession, though it was also true that Henry never stayed anywhere for long and was constantly, or so it seemed, flying back and forth across the Channel. As their sons reached manhood, Henry bestowed titles and inheritances on them but kept changing the terms and retained all real power for himself, leaving the sons resentful and in the dark as to his ultimate dynastic intentions. In 1173, at Eleanor’s urging, the three eldest living sons (John alone being too young to participate) rode to Paris, where they sought alliance with Louis for the purpose of bringing their father’s reign to an end. Their intention was to use the armies of France and of their mother’s vassals to carve up England, Normandy, and their mother’s dower territories among the three of them. Louis, who began to refer to Henry as “the former King of the English,” was delighted to sign on.
The ensuing war was hard fought on both sides, the sons “laying waste their father’s [continental] lands on every side with fire, sword, and rapine,” in the words of Ralph of Diceto, dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a most conscientious historian. But Louis, who took command of his side, was no better at war than he’d ever been; and as Henry bore down upon him, “like a bear whose cubs have been stolen,” according to Ralph, Louis found it wise to sue for peace. “Thus the mighty learned that it was no easy task to wrest Hercules’s club from his hand,” commented Richard FitzNigel, bishop of London and Henry’s treasurer. The peace was a wobbly one, however, and would remain so for the rest of Henry’s life. Though Henry forgave with fatherly magnanimity “his sons whom he loved so much” (Ralph’s phrase), he could never again trust them; and they continued to smolder with resentment.
Eleanor’s fate was unique. In the course of the familial hostilities, she fled her headquarters at Poitiers and, disguised as a man and brazenly riding astride her horse, was intercepted on her way to Paris. She was turned over to Henry and made his prisoner—and so she would remain for sixteen years, till Henry’s death in 1189. For a long time, no one even knew where she was; and it was hardly in the king’s interest to announce the site of her captivity. At any rate, public opinion now turned decisively against Eleanor. From time immemorial royal sons had rebelled against their fathers. In the Bible itself one reads of the uprising of the beloved ingrate Absalom against David, the greatest of Israel’s kings. But never in any chronicle had a royal wife turned on her husband. Eleanor’s betrayal was as unique as would be her punishment.
She was kept under lock and key in various bleak fortresses, usually at Sarum or Winchester, where she was closely watched by men the king knew to be completely trustworthy. Allowed but one personal servant, she was assigned a tiny allowance for her few needs. Though never abused, there was no doubt she was the king’s prisoner. He hated her, in the account of Giraldus the gossipy celibate, and imprisoned her “as a punishment for the destruction of their marriage,” while he “returned incorrigibly to his usual abyss of vice.” More likely, he feared her indomitable will and felt far more capable of limiting his young sons than of confining Eleanor’s activities, were he to set her free.
We know little of her life during these years. She was permitted few correspondents and almost no visitors, not even her sons, and the chroniclers fall silent about her, having no news to chew on. Eleanor had become a nonperson. Henry did toy with the possibility of seeking an annulment and proposed that the queen be vowed as a nun at Fontevraud Abbey in Poitou, her favorite monastic foundation, the very place her grandmother had sought refuge when displaced by Dangerosa. Henry even offered to have Eleanor made abbess. She declined him frostily and smuggled a message to the archbishop of Rouen, in whose diocese Fontevraud was situated, that she required his help, for Henry was attempting to force her into the convent. She would rather be Henry’s prisoner than God’s. And so she stayed.
Four years into her imprisonment, Louis, her first husband, died, leaving his personal wealth to the poor. He was succeeded on the French throne by Philip II, his son by Adela of Champagne, his second wife; and Louis’s body, dressed in his monk’s habit, was exhibited to the people of Paris in the old nave of Notre-Dame. Six years later, Eleanor’s oldest surviving son, Young Henry, died in the midst of a war in Aquitaine against his brother Richard, who now became King Henry’s heir apparent. Before his death, Young Henry with deep emotion confessed his sins against his father and his brother and, like Louis, gave his wealth to the poor. His last request was to his father that he show mercy to Eleanor and set her free.
The queen received the news of the death with tranquility, telling her messenger that she already knew that her son was dead, having seen him in a dream. She described her dead son with two crowns above his head, one the crown he had worn in life, the other a crown “so pure and resplendent” that it could signify only “the wonder of everlasting joy. This second crown was more beautiful than anything which can manifest itself to our senses here on earth. As the Gospel says, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of Man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.’ ”
It is actually Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, not the gospel, that Eleanor is quoting. And though Paul, adopting phrases from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, is speaking of the revelation entrusted to the first Christians, medieval Christendom took his words as reference to the unearthly joys that will come to the faithful Christian after death. But it must be admitted that the queen’s words, composed, reflective, even visionary in a Hildegardian manner, suggest a new Eleanor.
And now, because of the unsettled political situation on the continent, Henry needed her once more—to assert her right of ownership over certain properties the new French king was claiming and to quiet the continuing tension between their remaining sons and between the sons and their father. So Eleanor, still closely guarded, was allowed a trip to the continent. From this time forward, Henry would permit Eleanor more freedom of movement, though she was still in custody and would never again reside with him. “What he and Eleanor now achieved,” remarks Weir, “was a working, mutually beneficial relationship designed to preempt any resentment against the king on the part of their sons for the way in which he had treated her.”
Eleanor, more practical than ever and casting aside whatever resentment she may have harbored, was happy to serve as mediatrix of familial peace. But it may not be too much to say that during her ten-year imprisonment she had, like so many long-term prisoners for whom the press of daily events is no longer meaningful, reached an inner peace that could not be taken from her. Certainly, there was no longer any hint of scheming on her part. She did refuse to be part of Henry’s plan to deprive Richard, her favorite, of her inheritance, which had been previously settled on him. But Henry was always reorganizing the territories to be awarded his sons according to whatever humor was on him—which made them all nervous as cats. For daring to gainsay her lord once more (though more circumspectly than she had ever done before), she was imprisoned again. But soon she would be given a role that only she could play and that no one could have foreseen.
The sons continued to scheme, however, their ranks reduced in the summer of 1186 by the death of Geoffrey, trampled at a melee in Paris, where he had gone to plot with King Philip. For a while, Philip and Richard became extremely chummy, sleeping together in the same bed and dining from the same plate; and Richard was betrothed to Philip’s sister Alys. In the autumn of 1187, the Turks captured Jerusalem. By January, Henry, Philip, and Richard had all taken the Cross and committed themselves to regaining the Holy City in what would become the Third Crusade. But no one left for the East, as the intermittent, low-level war between England and France proceeded apace, the French king now assisted by Richard. Henry’s once-secure territories of Anjou, Le Maine, and Touraine began to desert to the French banner; and Philip’s forces even captured Le Mans, where Henry had been born.
“Oh, God,” cried the ailing monarch, now old, fat, gray, and no longer invincible. “Thou hast vilely taken away the city I loved best on Earth! I will pay Thee back as best I can. I will rob Thee of the thing Thou lovest best in me, my soul!” Forced to accept terms and even to bestow the kiss of peace on Richard’s cheeks, Henry continued to fulminate, croaking at his son, “God grant that I may not die till I have had a fitting revenge on you.”
“Why should I worship Christ?” Henry, no longer able to walk or ride and carried by litter, croaked hoarsely to the sky as he departed the peace parley. “Why should I deign to honor him who takes my earthly honor and allows me to be ignominiously confounded by a mere boy?” But that night, at the urging of the archbishop of Canterbury, he confessed his sins and received absolution. The next morning, he attended mass, as he had every day of his life, and received communion. But that day, he also received a fatal blow: he was informed that John, his youngest and favorite son, whom he had always counted as his ally, had been with Richard all along. As he descended into delirium, Henry muttered repeatedly, “Shame, shame on a conquered king.” On July 6, 1189, Henry II, surely one of the best monarchs the English ever had, died, attended only by the faithful Geoffrey, one of his bastards.
The difficult Richard was now king—and Eleanor at sixty-seven was free, free as she had never been before. From the continent, Richard sent the trusted Plantagenet servant William Earl Marshal to England to end the queen’s captivity and ask her to act as monarch in his absence. She reigned with such sagacity that when in September Richard arrived for his coronation and barred all women from the event, Ralph of Diceto tells us that “the earls, barons, and sheriffs” of England demanded that Eleanor be present. Her rehabilitation was complete.
After bleeding England dry to finance his crusade, Richard embarked for the Holy Land, leaving his mother in charge of all his European territories. She had much work on her hands, for John was not idle in stirring the pot and attempting to take away lands from his absent brother. But according to one chronicler, the old queen was “determined, with every fibre of her being, to ensure that faith would be kept between her younger sons, so that their mother might die more happily than had their father.” With tenacity she kept John in England when all he wished to do was sail to the continent where he could more easily claim territory with the aid of Philip, who was now willing to move against his old friend Richard because Richard, discovering that his father had slept for years with Philip’s sister Alys, was dragging his feet about marrying her.
The Third Crusade was blighted by the death by drowning of Frederick Barbarossa, whose participation might have greatly improved the outcome. Returning from the Holy Land after a series of disappointing engagements—in which he captured a couple of cities but could not get near Jerusalem—Richard was taken prisoner outside Vienna by Duke Leopold of Austria, a man of mountainous pride whom Richard had mortally insulted in the course of the crusade. Triumphantly, Leopold refused to free Richard or even to divulge his whereabouts. It took more than a year for Eleanor to win Richard his liberty, as she badgered emperor, pope, and anyone who might be able to bring pressure on Leopold. Her letters to the new pope, the aged and spineless Celestine III, are masterpieces of canoodling, threat, and innuendo:
For the Prince of the Apostles still rules and reigns in the Apostolic See, and his judicial rigor is set up as a means of resort. It rests with you, Father, to draw the sword of Peter against these evildoers, which for this purpose is set above peoples and kingdoms. The Cross of Christ excels the eagles of Caesar, the sword of Peter is a higher authority than the sword of Constantine, and the Apostolic See higher than the imperial power.
Eleanor adopts this wheedling tone because she is trying to get Celestine to excommunicate the emperor, Leopold’s overlord. Celestine had a clear right to do so, for Leopold, with the emperor’s connivance, had broken the so-called Truce of God by which no European monarch was allowed to take advantage of a crusader during his absence from his realm. He was not permitted, for instance, either to invade another sovereign’s territory or to imprison him. Without this papal mechanism, no sovereign would have been willing to go on crusade in the first place. But Celestine, palsied with anxiety, could not bring himself to make a move.
Besides having the full-time task of negotiating Richard’s release, Eleanor was regent of England, which she contrived to rule “with great wisdom and popularity,” becoming in the process “exceedingly respected and beloved” by her subjects, in the words of the fine thirteenth-century historian Matthew Paris.h Among her less agreeable tasks was keeping in line her sneaky son John, who saw a great opportunity in Richard’s imprisonment and even put out the rumor that his brother had died in captivity.
On March 12, 1194, after submitting to a humiliating and extortionate settlement in Austria with the treacherous Leopold, Eleanor and Richard landed in England, Richard for the first time in five years. In two months’ time, however, they would depart their well-run country for the continent, in order to counter Philip, who had occupied Richard’s lands in Normandy. Neither the king nor the queen mother would ever return to the island kingdom.
Eleanor ended her days as a nun at Fontevraud Abbey, having taken the veil she once refused. But her religious vows were made eight years after she and Richard sailed from Portsmouth to Barfleur on their last voyage across the Channel, two years before her own death at eighty-two. The eight years before she cloistered herself were among the most active of her life, getting Richard out of trouble with an uncompromising new pope—the fearless Innocent III—rescuing her daughter Joanna from the clutches of Joanna’s second husband, arranging retribution against rebellious vassals, fielding armies against Philip (and her own upstart grandson Arthur of Brittany), gladly granting charters to the freshly independent cities of her realms, crossing the Pyrenees to arrange a marriage between her granddaughter Blanche of Castile and Philip’s son and heir as part of a new pact of peace between Philip and the Plantagenets.
Her worst ordeal during these years had little to do with travel, war, or policy. It was to mourn the deaths of two more of her children. Her first child by Henry had died long ago in 1156, Young Henry in 1183, Geoffrey in 1186, Matilda in 1189, Eleanor’s daughters by Louis, Alix and Marie, in 1198. The abused Joanna died in childbirth in 1199, and Richard Lionheart died in the same year of a suppurating arrow wound received in a minor skirmish. (He asked to be buried in Fontevraud at his father’s feet in reparation for having risen against him.) Only two of her ten children, Eleanor, queen of Castile and mother of Blanche, and John, Henry’s favorite but certainly not Eleanor’s, would survive their mother. Though she had long ago given up all rights to her daughters by Louis, she seems to have tried mightily to be a proper mother to her children by Henry and even to Berengaria, the sweet-tempered, abandoned wife of her son Richard, whom he had wed after decisively rejecting Alys of France. Her service to the desperate Joanna, who took the veil at Fontevraud just before dying, and her admiration for Joanna’s courage and spiritual intensity in her last hours may have been what prompted Eleanor’s own belated vocation.
There can be no question, however, that Richard’s death was a blow from which Eleanor never recovered. He was as much of a mixed bag as his father, full of explosions, a cunning strategist, a fearless warrior, but cruel, willful, faithless (and possibly homosexual, which would have left the humble Berengaria up a tree). Eleanor may have been attracted to the same qualities in Richard that had once attracted her to Henry. Certainly, Richard, despite his gouging taxations and arbitrary judgments, was loved by the English people—which could never be said of his successor, the slimy John. Richard, a tower of a man nearly six and a half feet tall in a time when most men stood scarcely more than five feet, became a legend—the heroic, lionhearted crusader who befriendedRobin Hood (though Robin Hood, if he actually existed, belongs to a later century)—whereas John became a historical lesson in how not to be king.
John gained the nicknames “Softsword” and “Lackland” because he lost most of his continental fiefs to Philip, who, annexing Anjou, Le Maine, Normandy, Touraine, and most of Poitou, began to build what would become modern France. Having quarreled with Pope Innocent, John found England under interdict and himself excommunicated, which subsequently pushed him into the humiliating posture of becoming the pope’s vassal. Finally, he was forced by his barons to seal Magna Carta, the first time in European history that the power of a king was limited by law.
What strikes me most forcibly about Eleanor at the end of her long life is her generosity—toward kin and in-law but also toward servants, toward the poor, and toward God. She became in her last years an almsgiver of marked largesse: to those living who had helped her or her children (cooks, governesses, even her jailers, all of whom received properties of consequence) and to many religious foundations that cared for the poor (and that received everything from chantries to enlarged kitchens “for the weal of her soul and of her worshipful husband of sacred memory, King Henry, of her son King Henry, of goodly memory, and of that mighty man King Richard, and of her other sons and daughters”). She freed many people from “all accustomed services” that had previously bound them, just as she had earlier freed cities by charter from their former feudal obligations. Among her descendants are the expectable kings, queens, and even an emperor, but also two royal saints: Louis IX of France, son of Blanche of Castile, a truly good king whose inveterate peacemaking serves as a prophecy of the peace of Europe in our time,i and Ferdinand III of Castile, a more conflicted figure than Louis IX but nonetheless rebuilder of the cathedral of Burgos and founder of the University of Salamanca. It may be said of Eleanor that she made more than one erratic start in life but she made a good end.
To make a good end was indeed the chief goal of all medieval lives. One recalls the exceedingly incarnational Marian prayer, Ave Maria, which came into existence in its present Latin form only in the twelfth century: “Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum; benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen” (Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen).j The hour of one’s death is the decisive hour.
Detail of Eleanor’s tomb. The face appears to be a late likeness of Eleanor, who kept her beauty despite her great age. (Photo Credit 2.2)
The Middle Ages were, at least for the leading families of Europe, a combustible combination of sex, violence, and religion. The powerful have always had license to fulfill their sexual whims in ways unavailable to simple folk. But till the Age of Eleanor such fulfillment was almost entirely limited to males. Likewise, statecraft, political power, and armed combat were instruments for alpha males that no woman was invited to handle. Eleanor, despite the discretion and equilibrium her imprisonment would teach her, was the first woman in the history of civilized Europe to have the experience of choosing her husband, leading an army, going to war, and ruling over countries for considerable periods of time—all without the need to defer to husband, father, brother, or son.
Eleanor’s tomb in Fontevraud Abbey, next to that of her second husband, King Henry II. Taller than Henry, Eleanor was the genetic source of their son Richard’s great height. (Photo Credit 2.3)
If her beauty and grace were legendary, her competence and decisiveness became more so. If Hildegard proved that a woman could be as profound a mystic and as orthodox a theologian as any man of her time, Eleanor proved that a queen could be as free a sexual being, as wise a ruler, as strategic a general as any king. But though Hildegard remains in important aspects forever medieval, Eleanor is an entirely modern woman. One feels that one meets her in the pages of history as one might meet any woman of consequence in the world we now inhabit. Her desires are ours, her objectives our own. And just as certain noble ladies throughout Europe held her up as a model, many ordinary women too came to find in Eleanor a standard by which they might measure their own actions and rehearse the roles they could win for themselves. For as King Henry V of England would remind the royal Katherine of France in Shakespeare’s history play, “We are the makers of manners, Kate.”
Besides the living models of abbesses like Hildegard and queens like Eleanor, besides the omnipresent liturgical and artistic model of the Virgin Mary, there is the literary and musical model, the courtly love that provided constant subject matter for writers and composers of the twelfth century and later. In this endeavor, the poets and musicians repeatedly took inspiration from primitive Welsh and Breton stories, told and retold, of an early British king, Arthur, whose Knights of the Round Table were models of chivalry for all time, whose queen, Guinevere, was the most beautiful of all, and whose court of Camelot would have enjoyed eternal life, had it not been for the queen’s adultery with the king’s good friend Lancelot, the perfect knight. Did the life of Eleanor feed the legend of Guinevere or did early versions of Guinevere’s story, now lost in the mists of time, give Eleanor the courage to act as she did?k
It is unlikely that we shall ever know for sure. An educated guess would be that the expanding cult of the Virgin Mary in the language of prayer and in the images of art served as the inspiration for all subsequent exaltations of women in religious life, in the worshipful literature of the troubadours, and in the courts of Europe, which soon devised a more secular form of devotion—courtly love—which in turn influenced women like Eleanor to seize control of their destinies. Though this feminism is certainly not the result that churchmen would have wished when they reluctantly blessed the growing popular enthusiam for devotions to the Virgin, it is also true that all cultural revolutions tend sooner or later to press beyond whatever initial limits were set for them.
In one aspect only does the singular Eleanor agree with the figures that surround her, the others whom we have met in the course of her story: her religious attitudes are the same as theirs. She was dismissive of churchmen—this is what Bernard of Clairvaux sensed in her—and her exasperation and irreverence toward the pretensions of the official church are unmistakable in her correspondence with the doddering Pope Celestine. But she is nonetheless a believer, who takes seriously the presence of an immortal soul inevery person, a soul that will outlast the body and that is destined for eternal happiness with God or, because of a final refusal to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness, eternal damnation. Every medieval life, including Eleanor’s, was lived against this horizon of apocalypse, for life was a great drama ending awesomely in Four Last Things: death, God’s judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
The record survives of many of Eleanor’s grants to individuals, often made in the name of Richard, “our son of blessed memory; may his soul be at peace forever.” There can be no doubting the anguished sincerity of Eleanor’s hope. She was no saint and would likely have ridiculed the notion of a Saint Eleanor (and, perhaps because of her realistic view of human activity, of a Saint Anyone). She was, rather, a smart, spirited, incautious young woman, who developed into a wise, effective, generous old woman.
One is hard pressed to find examples of unbelievers anywhere in medieval Europe. Henry and Eleanor’s youngest child, John, could be named as such. He was famous in his day for chatting and giggling his way through mass, refusing communion, and hooting at the preacher to hurry up and finish so he could eat. When Bishop Hugh showed John a new depiction of the Last Judgment, a favorite medieval subject, and pointed out the happy souls ascending to Heaven, John scandalized all present by pointing to the damned, pulled down to Hell by demons, and shouting, “Show me rather these, whose good example I mean to follow!” But even this was more likely braggadocio than an expression of atheism.
What is discernible, however, in John’s taunts, as in his mass-frequenting father’s threats against God, is a disjunction between their undoubted beliefs and their daily lives. The biographies of medieval royals are reminiscent of the formula for a Cecil B. DeMille film—lots of sex and violence followed by a pious ending—which does not, however, discredit the authenticity of their piety. They did use the church and its doctrines to their advantage—twisting the arms of clerics as needed, confessing their sins and receiving absolution and then returning to their sins, leaving grants to monasteries so that masses would be offered in perpetuity for their imperiled immortal souls—but they didn’t trust churchmen any more than they trusted other princes, and the lives they led were nearly as pagan as those of their barbaric forebears.
Throughout Europe two languages were used: Latin, the high-minded language of the church, and one’s vernacular, Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-French or Langue d’Oc or High German or whatever. In the emerging vernaculars, there was plenty of room for practical matters, for concerns of fleshly existence, and even for sensuous delight and erotic need, but there was little room for God and the things of the spirit. There was still a fissure in European consciousness between flesh and spirit that needed to be healed, a fissure symbolized by the two languages of life, Latin and vernacular, language high and language low.
As local languages slowly gained ascendency, fewer and fewer people understood Latin, which was on its way to becoming the language of power, of priests and lawyers, of deeds and charters and mysterious ceremonies, no longer the language in which a mother caressed her children or a man embraced his wife or a friend gave his hand to a friend. Somehow or other, for the sake of an integrated consciousness, the Incarnation—the original, early medieval resolution of the tension between flesh and spirit—needed to penetrate the vernacular. To experience the impact of the most extraordinary experiment in vernacular spirituality since the parables of Jesus, we must make our way from Fontevraud Abbey in the lush Loire Valley and, crossing the barrier of the Alps, return to Italy.
In 1182, three years after the death of Hildegard and in the same year Eleanor turned sixty, a boy was born to Pietro di Bernardone, a worldly-wise, tyrannical cloth merchant, and his long-suffering wife, Pica, who lived in a prosperous hill town of Umbria called Assisi, nestled in the foothills of the Apennines. The child was christened Giovanni shortly after his birth. His father, however, on returning from one of his many business trips to the larger France of Philip II,l where he purchased the bolts of stylish cloth he would sell to Italians, demanded his new son be renamed Francesco, “the Frenchman,” Francis in English. Francis of Assisi was to become, in the course of his forty-four years, the greatest of all medieval saints, for many thoughtful commentators the greatest Christian figure since Jesus Christ.
But for the first half of Francis’s life there was nothing remarkable about him. A spoiled rich man’s son, he became in his teens a dissolute layabout, whose supremely practical father tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to interest him in the particulars of the cloth trade. Though bored by the business of the business, Francis appears to have enjoyed his many trips with his father to France, picking up along the way the songs, stories, and easy morals of the early French poets. He had a good ear and a fine memory and was an excellent mimic, all of which enabled him to retain the Provençal verses he heard and to sing them back throughout his life whenever a situation seemed to require entertainment or a crisis needed to be defused by a moment’s jollity.
The poems young Bernardone committed to memory exhibited all the gai saber of the troubadours and told of brave knights and beautiful ladies, of furtive romances and whispered assignations. They provided the adolescent with a worldly, even a fashionable, education and with models of conduct that set his imagination afire. They also gave him whatever literary and historical grounding he had beyond three meager years of schooling from his parish priest, who had taught Francis to read, to write, and to parse elementary Latin—a typical education for the time. For tucked away within the gai saber were references to lost traditions and buried knowledge. As Chrétien de Troyes wrote in the prologue to Cligés, a long poem about a knight’s quest:
Par les livres que nos avons
Les feiz des anciiens savons
Et del siecle qui fu jadis.
Ce nos ont nostre livre apris,
Que Grece ot de chevalerie
Le premier los et de clergie.
Puis vint chevalerie a Rome
Et de la clergie la some,
Qui or est an France venue.
Deus doint qu’ele i soit retenue …
From books of ours we ken
The deeds of ancient men
And ken the days of old.
These books of ours have told
That Greece was first in yearning
For chivalry and learning.
Then chivalry came to Rome
And of all learning the sum,
Which came to France at last.
God grant we hold them fast …
Cligés, which concerns a knight’s love for the married lady of the title and involves hideaways and love potions and is set in part at Camelot, runs to more than a hundred pages, even in modern editions. However extended some of these romances were, they were simple singsong affairs, rigidly bound in rhyming couplets, each line containing exactly four iambs (which, because of the terseness of English, cannot be simulated in translation). But they offered incidental learning (or clergie in the Old French of Chrétien, showing just how closely knowledge and learning clung to the clergy) about many things. These early lines, for instance, were intended to demonstrate how the refined manners and intellectual seriousness of Greece and Rome had found their way tocontemporary France—here seen not just as the tiny realm of Louis VII but as the broad country of all Francophones. In their wide-ranging references, the troubadour poems, whether long or short, opened Francis to a changing world far beyond the bounds of his Umbrian parish. These business trips with his overbearing father provided him with his true school of learning.
But for all that, Francis could not seem to rise above the role his fellows had designated for him, rex convivii, master of the revels. The emerging middle class, to which the Bernardones belonged, did not exist in isolation from the rest of Assisi, a typical European town of its time, full of extremes of poverty and wealth, charity and violence. Women and girls had to be closely guarded at all times to prevent rape, while the streets clanged with strutting young male revelers, such as Francis and his friends—so much so that we could almost be in the Verona of Romeo and Juliet, of the Montagues and Capulets, as in the Assisi of the Bernardones.
Assisi was then a commune—that is, a new kind of town with elected officials—but it still owed allegiance to the German emperor, for Assisi lay within the Holy Roman Empire. After the burghers of the town decided to cut all feudal ties, they found themselves in a pitched battle with the aristocrats they had previously expelled—and who arrived at the walls of Assisi with overwhelming reinforcements from Perugia, Assisi’s ancient enemy, twelve miles to the west. Francis, thinking himself a knight of the new order, answered the call to man the battlements and soon found himself imprisoned in Perugia, where he languished for a year in a dark, airless dungeon and contracted malaria. Ransomed at last, he returned home but would never be his old self again. No longer master of the revels, he had become a depressive who “began to regard himself as worthless.” He did make one quixotic attempt to join the forces of a Norman nobleman in Apulia. He even assembled an expensive knight’s costume in preparation for his role as vassal. “I know that I shall become a great prince!” he vowed to all who would listen. But the malaria returned and his unrealistic plans for chivalric glory had to be laid aside. He would remain sickly for the rest of his short life.
On a bright afternoon in the summer of 1205, Francis, returning from an errand for his father, took refuge from the heat in the ruined coolness of the chapel of San Damiano at the foot of the hill of Assisi. There above the cracked altar, surrounded by signs of neglect and decay, was a miraculous survival: an intact crucifix of painted linen, stretched across a wooden frame. The image on the cloth, a crucified Christ in the Byzantine style, its severity mitigated by Italian tenderness, was looking directly at Francis. Then the young man thought he heard a gentle voice saying, “Francis, don’t you see my house is being destroyed? Go, then, rebuild it for me.” Francis felt a mysterious change steal over him, a change he could never afterwards describe. “So,” writes Thomas of Celano, Francis’s first biographer, “it is better for us to remain silent about it, too.”
This was the turning point of Francis’s life, the moment at which a new and unexpected vocation took hold of him and sent him racing along a path he could not previously have imagined choosing. An irreligious man, he had found the love of his life—God, or more precisely, God revealed in Jesus—and this discovery made sense of everything else, putting all others, whether people or things, in their proper perspective. As one looks back over Francis’s boyhood, one sees that bolts of cloth and columns of coins could never have held him. He required an overpowering vision to make him function properly; and it’s no wonder that the stimulus of poetry and the ideal of knighthood had been the only previous things to capture his attention or win his homage. He was in every sense of the word an extremist.
Donald Spoto, Francis’s most recent biographer, warns his readers that real saints are “not normal people.” As the screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce put it, “Even Saint Francis—who was one of the two or three greatest human beings ever to walk the earth—could be a bit weird.” I would go so far as to say that Francis was a naturally bipolar personality, a sort of less literary and more self-denying version of someone like Robert Lowell, who could never have settled down to oxlike domesticity but required a great and continuing enterprise if he was to function at all. Once that was sorted out, however, he could function brilliantly, excessively, erratically, eccentrically—which is what Francis did for his remaining twenty-odd years.
Crucifix of San Damiano that spoke to Francis. Like the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere, it is an example of the new tenderness introduced by Italian artists of the twelfth century into their tradition of Byzantine-inspired art. (Photo Credit 2.5)
At first, he took literally the words of Jesus and painstakingly restored San Damiano to its previous beauty. As he did so, he often prayed his now famous Prayer Before a Crucifix:
Most high and glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge, Lord—
that I may carry out your holy and true command. Amen.
In this, Francis’s first composition, he could hardly have been more plain, more humble, less adorned, less rhetorical. This is the prayer of a man who has left the startling colors and bold materials of the fabric shop behind him, a man without ornament or pretension.
He took to wearing a hooded peasant’s tunic, cinched by a wide leather belt, and sandals. He lived in a hermit’s cave and carried a pilgrim’s staff. When a little later he noted Jesus’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, telling them to “take no gold or silver or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff,” he would abandon his staff, go barefoot, replace his belt with a bit of rope, and divest himself of all changes of clothes. His colorless vagrant’s costume would become the uniform of the early Franciscans, the world’s first hippies.
But Francis’s father, the cloth merchant, mortified by the mad behavior of his son, hauled him into Assisi’s central square and beat him brutally in the sight of everyone. When that failed to dissuade Francis from his bizarre behavior, Bernardone locked him in a storage room, from which he escaped with his mother’s complicity. When Bernardone discovered that Francis had sold some of the family’s precious bolts of cloth to get money for San Damiano’s repairs, he was overcome with rage and brought his case against his son to Guido, the exceedingly wealthy, no-nonsense bishop of Assisi. Guido conducted his court in the great piazza before the cathedral in the hearing of many witnesses.
To the amazement of all, Francis emerged from nowhere, bathed, trimmed, and elegantly outfitted in one of the plumed and patterned costumes from his abandoned wardrobe. Bernardone began his complaint before the bishop: his son was a thief who had mortally dishonored his father, who had the right to compensation for the cloths the young man had stolen. Sounding no more sympathetic than Shylock demanding his pound of flesh, the father was startled by the response of his son, who agreed to return all the money forthwith, as well as anything else he had from his father. Francis then ducked into the cathedral, reappearing shortly thereafter stark naked and holding his clothes in a bundle in front of him, surmounted by a purse full of coins. All these he handed to the imperious bishop, who could not mask his astonishment.
“Listen to me, all of you,” the unashamed naked man addressed the crowd, “and understand. Till now, I have called Pietro di Bernardone my father. But because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also the clothing that is his, and I wish from now on to say only ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’ ” As Bernardone stumbled off with his bundle and purse, Bishop Guido descended the steps of the cathedral and covered the naked man with his enormous cloak.
There is no record of a reconciliation between Francis and his parents nor of any words he ever spoke of them again. There can be no doubt that Francis, for all his blunt simplicity and spontaneity, was capable of forethought and even guile. There was nothing unrehearsed about the episode before the cathedral, nothing Francis had left to chance. He had played it all out beforehand in his mind’s eye and planned it for maximum dramatic effect. No one present could ever forget the plain force of Francis’s nakedness or of his uncompromising and quite final words. As Hildegard had used the symbolic sensibility of her age to fashion allegorical word pictures, Francis used that same heightened sense to create gestures of renunciation and attachment that left such a searing impression on human imagination that they could have been firebrands.
Symbolic gesture, Francis’s natural language, was the profound source he was able to call on throughout his life, though seldom as dramatically as he did that day before the cathedral. He was no good at organization or at long-range strategies, and he knew it. As men, and then women—led by the self-denying and steel-willed Clare of Assisi—began to present themselves as followers, Francis accepted them, befriended them, told them to hear the gospel and to stand beneath the Cross. But he gave them little else, certainly nothing resembling an elaborated rule of community, such as Benedict had left behind. Francis expected his brothers and sisters to live like him as the Lesser Brothers and Sisters, as laypeople rejecting any distinctions of class among themselves and lacking all honors of church or king or commune, taking the words of Jesus literally, never owning anything, married to their poverty and suffering for God’s sake, befriending every outcast—heretic, highwayman, leper—that God thrust in their path. They must not remain at home, making themselves virtuous and fat like the established religious orders.m They must go forth on the roads to live the gospel of God’s love and preach it to all—farmer, bishop, emperor, pope—yet condemn no one. Judgment was the exclusive province of the all-merciful God; it was none of a Christian’s concern. “Give to others, and it shall be given to you. Forgive and you shall be forgiven” was Francis’s constant preaching.
“May the Lord give you peace” was the best greeting one could give to all one met. It compromised no one’s dignity and embraced every good; it was a blessing to be bestowed indiscriminately. May the Lord give you peace, George and Jacques. May the Lord give you peace, Osama and Saddam. May the Lord give you peace, my annoying aunt. May the Lord give you peace, my unbearable neighbor. May the Lord give you peace, my loathsome enemy. Francis’s great insight was that humanity could find its way back to the Garden of Eden, to the aboriginal innocence, but only if we blessed both the murderer and the murdered, the defrauder and his victim, the robber and the robbed. And so Francis went on his way.
Such an approach, in an age when the most visible signs of the Christian religion were the wars and atrocities of the red-crossed crusaders, was shockingly otherworldly—and slyly effective. It silenced sermonizing windbags and brought archbishops up short. It even impelled Francis himself to join the Fifth Crusade, not as a warrior but as a healer. He sailed across the Mediterranean to the Egyptian court of al-Malik al-Kamil, nephew of the great Saladin who had defeated the forces of the hapless Third Crusade. Francis was admitted to the august presence of the sultan himself and spoke to him of Christ, who was after all Francis’s only subject. The attempt to proselytize a Muslim would have been cause for on-the-spot decapitation, but Kamil was a wise and moderate man who was deeply impressed by Francis’s courage and sincerity and invited him to stay for a week of serious conversation. Francis, in his turn, was deeply impressed by the religious devotion of the Muslims, especially by their fivefold daily call to prayer—and it is quite possible that the thrice-daily recitation of the Angelusn that became current in medieval Europe was precipitated by the impression made on Francis by the repeated call of the muezzin. Francis was not impressed by the crusaders, nominal Christians whose sacrilegious brutality horrified him. They were entirely too fond of taunting and abusing their prisoners of war, who were often returned to their families minus nose, lips, ears, and eyes.
It is a tragedy of history that Kamil and Francis were unable to talk longer, to coordinate their strengths, and to form an alliance. Had they been able to do so, “the clash of civilizations” might not even be a phrase in our world. Francis went back to the crusader camp on the Egyptian shore and desperately tried to convince Cardinal Pelagio, whom the pope had put in charge of the crusade, that he should make peace with the sultan, who, though with far greater force on his side, was all too ready to make peace. But the cardinal had dreams of military glory and would not listen. His eventual failure, amid terrible loss of life, brought the age of the crusades to its inglorious end.o
Saint Francis by Cimabue, almost certainly a likeness. The stigmata, or wounds of Christ in his Passion, are shown on the saint’s body, but, despite pious legend, it is unlikely that he was so afflicted. The bald circlet on the top of his head is his tonsure, which all clerics had to submit to. Francis did not wish to be made a cleric, but Innocent III insisted on it and personally tonsured Francis. (Photo Credit 2.6)
Francis, whom Spoto rightly calls “the first person from the West to travel to another continent with the revolutionary idea of peacemaking,” now saw himself as a failure. He had failed in his mission of peace; he had failed in keeping the Lesser Brothers propertyless, rule-less, and dependent only on God. Now that there were several thousand such Brothers (and smaller communities of Sisters) spread across Europe, the official church stepped in, demanding all the organizational appurtenances that Francis in his spontaneity had fought. He was old before his time; his fasts and his uncaring abuse of his own body left him frail, blind, and covered in sores. His malaria returned; and it is possible that he had contracted leprosy from his affectionate ministrations to the poorest of the poor. In his last days, he endured exquisite tortures at the hands of medieval physicians who applied sizzling irons to the flesh around his eyes in a crackpot attempt to restore his sight.
(Photo Credit 2.5a)
But even in this condition he was able to leave us some of his finest words, a poem of profound reverence in the gladsome spirit of the troubadours, “The Canticle of the Creatures,” the first poem written in the emerging Italian vernacular and the founding document of Italian literature:
Altissimu, omnipotente, bonsignore,
tue sono le laude,
la gloria elhonore
et omne benedictione.
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord:
yours are the praises,
the glory and the honor,
and all blessing.
Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano
et nullu homo enne dignu
To you alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no human is worthy
to speak your name.
Laudato sie, misignore, cum tucte le tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate sole,
loquale iorno et allumini noi par loi.
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day and through whom you give us light.
Et ellu ebellu eradiante cum grande splendore:
de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
And he is beautiful and radiant in great splendor:
and carries your meaning, Most High.
Laudato si, misignore, per sora luna ele stele:
in celu lai formate clarite
et pretiose et belle.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister
Moon and the stars:
in Heaven you formed them, clear
and precious and beautiful.
Laudato si, misignore, per frate vento
et per aere et nubilo
et sereno et omne tempo
per loquale a le tue creature
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, both cloudy
and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom to your creatures
you give sustenance.
Laudato si, misignore, per sor aqua,
laquale et multo utile et humile
et pretiose et casta.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble,
precious and pure.
Laudato si, misignore, per frate focu,
per loquale ennalumini la nocte:
edello ebello et iocundo
et robusto et forte.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night
and he is beautiful and playful,
and robust and strong.
Laudato si, misignore, per sora nostra matre terra,
laquale ne sustenta et governa,
et produce diversi fructi
con coloriti flori et herba.
Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us
and produces diverse fruits
with colored flowers and herbs.
Such a free, anarchic soul was Francis. How he went against the grain of his hierarchical, ordered, aggressive, divisive society. Even here he bursts the seams of troubadour convention: no regularly metrical lines, no expectable pattern of rhyme. What an improviser the man is. What a sexual democrat, dividing the cosmos equally between male and female. What a lover. His whole life was a gesture, a gesture of renunciation and attachment, a gesture by which the lover shows his refusal to become obsessed with single things—glittering finery or stacks of gold—but loves the Creator in all his creatures.
(Photo Credit 2.6b)
The man who hymned his gratitude for the sun could no longer see, and even dim light was painful to his blind eyes. The man who called the fire “Brother” was tortured by fire’s effect in the form of sizzling irons. “My brother Fire,” said Francis on that occasion, “you are noble and useful among all the creatures the Most High has created. Be courteous to me in this hour. For a long time I have loved you. I pray our Creator who made you, to temper your heat now, so that I may bear it.” He bore it and worse—the subsequent cutting of the veins in his temples—while, as one brotherly witness admitted, “we who were with him all ran away, and he remained alone with the doctor.” If, as he thought, his life was a failure, his was the failure of Christ, abandoned by his disciples, racked by pain, calling out to his Father from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” yet living forever as the heavenly standard by which all our own earthly actions are judged.
(Photo Credit 2.6a)
Francis had two gestures yet to perform, which gave him two last chances to add verses to his canticle of love. Assisi was beset by a fresh wave of violence on account of a murderous dispute between Bishop Guido and Oportulo de Bernardo, the podestà, or mayor. In the course of the dispute, Guido had (what else?) excommunicated Bernardo. Now Bernardo was threatening to clap into chains anyone who had any further dealings with the bishop. The dying saint asked to meet the two before the bishop’s palace, to which he was carried on a stretcher. Neither could refuse the saint’s invitation, nor could the citizens of Assisi miss out on such an encounter. Francis lifted himself up and sang to the bishop, the mayor, and all of Assisi:
Laudate si, misignore, per quelli ke perdonano,
per lo tuo amore
et sostengo infirmitate et tribulatione.
Praised be you, my Lord, through those who forgive
for the sake of your love
and bear up under weakness and tribulation.
Beati quelli kel sosterranno in pace,
ka da te, Altissimo,
Blessed are those who maintain peace,
for by you, Most High,
shall they be crowned.
The two men asked forgiveness of each other; and peace, however uneasy, was restored to Assisi. Back in his empty cell, Francis prepared for his own death by adding one last verse to his canticle:
Laudato si, misignore, per sora nostra, morte corporale,
da laquale nullu homo vivente poskappare.
Gai acqueli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali!
Beati quelli ke trovarane le tue sanctissime voluntati,
ka la morte secunda nol farra male.
Laudate et benedicite misignore,
et rengratiate et serviate li cum grande humilitate.
Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are those whom death will find in your most holy will,
for the Second Death shall not harm them.
Praise and bless my Lord
and thank and serve him with great humility.
At the end he asked to be stripped of everything, even the bed on which he lay, and to be laid naked on the floor. “I have done what is mine,” were his last whispered words to his companions. “May Christ teach you what is yours to do.” Larks sang and flew in circles above the house where he died. As Francis had always noticed, they are the birds who “are friends of the light.”
And that is how romance became prayer.
a Though feud and fief are medieval words, feudalism is a modern term, which has in recent years come to be seen as a conceptual over-simplification of the actual medieval situation—it was, for instance, possible to own freehold property not deeded by the sovereign—but it serves us well enough here.
b Some later Norman keeps did have a closet off the lord’s bedchamber containing a holed seat atop a descending shaft—accessible at ground level to those whose honor it was to muck out and bury the lord’s donations. But I have found no evidence of this improvement prior to the fifteenth century.
c Langue d’oc may be contrasted with langue d’oïl, the Old French of the north, which became normative. Oc and oïl are “yes” in each of the two dialects. Oïl would eventually be compressed to oui.
d The doctrine of Limbo, the happy yet sad “borderland” of Heaven (limbo being early Italian for “hem” or “border”) where the souls of unbaptized infants must stay forever, never having been washed clean enough to enjoy the sight of God himself, will not be introduced as a possible alternative to the Augustinian damnation of unbaptized infants till the teaching of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, when eternity in Limbo will be grasped at as a vast improvement over going to Hell. The modern Catholic Church, embarrassed by its own teaching, has been mum about Limbo since 1951, when Pius XII, perhaps already a bit dotty, referred to it in an inane address to midwives. The doctrine (which presupposes a cruel God, though not one as cruel as the pre-Thomistic model) has become quietly inoperative. It was lately referred by the current pope to a committee, where it is no doubt meant to suffer the final theological indignity—death by committee.
e This was why Henry VIII of England in the sixteenth century felt so put upon when a pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the grounds of incest-by-marriage (Catherine having been previously married to Henry’s since-deceased brother). After all, he wasn’t even demanding special treatment.
f The “Salic law” may have been only a latter-day concoction by jurists, determined to keep a woman from ruling them, but it was widely believed to be inviolable.
g It was Henry’s father, Geoffrey the Fair, son of Fulk the Quarrelsome, who was responsible for giving the name Plantagenet to his line on account of a broom flower (planta genista in Latin), that he wore jauntily in his hatband.
h Matthew Paris, though generally reliable, is hardly inerrant. His Chronica Majora contains the harrowing narrative of the murder of Little Hugh of Lincoln by his Jewish neighbors, one of the first literary instances of the medieval “blood libel” against the Jews.
i Louis also sent deputies touring throughout his realm to investigate complaints of injustice, their bias always being in favor of the poor over the rich, women (widows in particular) over men, and children (orphans in particular) over adults. At the judgment of these investigators, substantial amounts of money and property were returned to the defrauded. Harassed Jews, however, and, more especially, heretics had little reason to be grateful to Louis. Moreover, Louis had a brother, Charles of Anjou, who cut a frightening figure through Spain, Italy, and the Middle East, plotting with popes to limit the reach of the German emperor and effecting large-scale slaughters in many regions. Though Louis, always preferring a political settlement to war, didn’t care for his brother’s incursions, he never stopped him (and probably couldn’t have, because of Charles’s considerable independent resources).
j In its first half the prayer combines the salutation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:28 with the salutation of her cousin Elizabeth in Luke 1:42 and is taken from Jerome’s Vulgate. Though medieval theologians thought that gratia plena (“full of grace”) meant that Mary was awarded the “fullness of grace” by God, the Greek original means simply “well-favored one.” The second half of the prayer (“Holy Mary …”) is not directly scriptural but arises out of medieval piety.
k Merlin, King Arthur’s court wizard, was believed to have left a series of prophecies, some of which were interpreted as referring to Henry II and his family. In Merlin’s language, Henry was “King of the North Wind” and Eleanor “the Eagle of the Broken Alliance” who “shall rejoice in her third nesting,” the birth of Richard, her third child by Henry. There was also a prophecy of the rise of Henry’s bellicose sons: “The cubs shall awake and shall roar loud, and, leaving the woods, shall seek their prey within the walls of the cities. Among those who shall be in their way they shall make great carnage, and shall tear out the tongues of bulls.” At Henry’s direction, the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur was said to have died—Glastonbury in southwest England—was searched for Arthur’s grave, which was duly found by the local monks beside the grave of a blond-haired queen, obviously Guinevere. With Arthur’s bones was a leaden cross inscribed in rhyming Latin: “Hic jacet Arturus / Rex quondam rexque futurus” (Here lies Arthur, / Once and future king). The graves, in all likelihood a monkish ploy to raise the status of Glastonbury Abbey, were destroyed at the Reformation.
l Philip II, son of the handsome but ineffectual Louis VII, Eleanor’s first husband, was most unlike his father. Hunchbacked and ugly, he was an admirable warrior and wily politician who annexed to France most of Henry II and Eleanor’s continental lands, for which achievement he was hailed as Philip Augustus.
m There was no way, in an age in which unescorted women were seen simply as candidates for rape, that the Poor Clares, as the sisterhood came to be called, could wander as freely as the Brothers. They were confined to cloister.
n The Angelus, a verse-and-response prayer originally said in monasteries, is a dramatic evocation of the moment of the Incarnation, the Infleshing of the Word of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. It takes its name from its opening versicle: “Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae” (The angel of the Lord brought the news to Mary). As church bells sounded at dawn, noon, and sunset, people throughout Europe stopped in their tracks, no matter what they had been doing, crossed themselves, and recited the prayer with bowed heads. Likewise, the rosary, its invention attributed to the Spaniard Dominic de Guzmán, Francis’s contemporary and founder of the Dominicans, actually came to Christian Europe from the Eastern practice of using prayer beads.
o There were five major crusades against Islam and the lands of the Middle East. All but the fourth of these have been mentioned so far. The Fourth Crusade was in one respect the most notorious, for it captured Constantinople, a Christian city, giving abysmal depth to the rift between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. After the Fifth Crusade, the crusading ideal, such as it was, was corrupted even further as popes began to call for “crusades” against heretics in France and Spain. As late as the fifteenth century, the belligerent and avaricious Teutonic Knights continued to mount cruel “crusades” against the Orthodox of Eastern Europe. There is no evidence that the so-called Children’s Crusade ever took place. The stories of such an event are probably based on a feckless, quickly extinguished crusading movement of poor people, who were called pueri (boys, children).