Last January, I traveled to Lebanon by myself. Even though I tried to hide it, I was terrified. The farthest I’d ever traveled solo before was Victoria, British Columbia, where I was pretty sure I could walk around at midnight with a sign on my back saying “Mug Me” and be alright. Of course, I had a purpose in going there—an academic conference at the American University of Beirut—so it wasn’t an unstructured, completely unaccompanied venture. But still, I wondered if it was wise. Especially being a girl and all.
I was reminded of this when I was reading about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who basically kicked ass and took names through most of the 12th century and never really let her gender get in the way. This was a woman of vision and ambition who ignored whatever traditions should have constrained her, and who consequently had more power than most of her male countrymen. It didn’t hurt, of course, that she started out as the daughter of a noble of vast territorial holdings; and then, that she was strategically betrothed to the inheritor to the French throne. I mean, she started out strong from birth. But what she did with what she had was still abnormally ambitious.
Eleanor married the soon-to-be Louis VII at a young age, becoming the queen-consort of France. A highly-educated woman with a forceful personality, she contrasted sharply with her soft-spoken, religiously devout husband. Their marriage wasn’t meant to last. The catalyst to their breakup was her inability to produce a male heir (typical), which she attributed to the rarity of his trips to her bed (also typical). The excuse and the means was their consanguinity (read: they were related; for royals, ALSO typical, but invoked or not invoked as desired). This allowed them to get an annulment from the Church.
But her 15-year marriage to Louis wasn’t totally uneventful. Eleanor accompanied him on the ill-fated Second Crusade, traveling to Constantinople, Jerusalem, and various Crusader states in the Near East. Picturing Eleanor atop her steed, French crown stylishly perched on her head, gallivanting across central and southern Europe to arrive at the Crusader castle of Antioch, aside her husband, who unlike her would rather take a pilgrimage than go to battle—well then, traveling to Lebanon on Middle East Airlines for a five day stay at a comfortable hotel doesn’t seem so brave, after all.
(One thing that my trip and Eleanor’s trip had in common: We both went to a Crusader castle. However, hers was probably a lot more intact and functional than the one I went to.)
Eleanor’s ambitious career didn’t end with her French queenship. Shortly after her annulment, she married the heir to the throne of England, the soon-to-be Henry II, who was at least a decade younger than her. (I want to make a joke, but I’ve sworn to never use the word “cougar” to mean anything other than the animal.) With Henry, she had seven children, including future kings Richard the Lionhearted and John Lackland. If you’ve seen Robin Hood: Men in Tights, that’s Patrick Stewart and Richard Lewis, respectively.
Years later, Eleanor was accused of plotting with her sons to overthrow her husband, and so Henry, fearful, locked her up in jail, where she remained for 16 years. When he finally died, favorite son and new king Richard released her; then he trotted off on the Third Crusade for a few years, leaving Eleanor as his regent.
Eleanor remained active in governing and politicking and strategic marriage-arranging until her death at the age of roughly 82—ancient by 12th-century standards. I imagine she was like one of those really cool old ladies who still runs marathons and knows how to use Facebook. “With it” to the very end.
Her longevity is only another facet of her overall impressiveness, though. Queen of France, queen of England, Crusader, coup conspirator, jailbird, king’s regent—by any standards, what a life!
I think that, every time I’m feeling a little constrained by expectations—whether those be gender-based, or age-based, or anything-else-based—I can look at Eleanor for solid proof that expectations can be defied. True, structures exist in society which circumscribe choices and limit options, but the limits are not unbreakable. For Eleanor, the sheer force of her personality, paired with her own limitless ambition, allowed her to not only become, but redefine what it meant to be a queen in the Middle Ages. Twice. If she can do that—I can certainly go on a trip by myself.