Tuesday, 24 September 2013

It Ain't Necessarily So.... by Elizabeth Chadwick

When I embarked on my novel about Alienor of Aquitaine, The Summer Queen,  I wanted to know what she looked like, so I checked around to see if there were any sources that described her physical appearance.  If there were any, I didn't want to commit a faux pas by giving her the wrong physical attributes at the outset.
As a less experienced author, influenced by other writers of both fact and fiction, I had in the past given her long, raven-black hair.  But now, with a three book contract under my belt and Alienor centre stage rather than peripheral, I felt I needed to nail the truth if it was out there.  After all, even in the medieval period, primary sources do yield hints and descriptions.  There are vivid ones of  Alienor's second husband Henry II that portray him as a choleric red-head with sparkling grey eyes, his height just above average but not tall, and his build chunky.  Women tend to be less well represented in primary sources beyond stock phrases about their beauty or nobility (or perfidy) but personal physical attributes are rare.  However, I embarked on my search and hit the many biographies and histories produced about her and her family to see if there were any pointers.  The research told me plenty, but not quite what I was looking for...

W.L.Warren in his biography of Henry II calls Alienor a 'Black-eyed beauty.' 



Frank McLynn in Lionheart and Lackland: 'Eleanor of Aquitaine had a dark complexion, black eyes, black hair, and a curvaceous figure that never ran to fat even in old age.'

Desmond Seward  In Eleanor of Aquitaine the Mother Queen: 'She was a beauty - tall with a superb figure that she kept into old age, lustrous eyes and fine features (it is likely that her hair was yellow and her eyes blue).'

Douglas Boyd  in Eleanor April Queen of Aquitaine: 'Her face was humorous and alert, framed by long auburn hair flowing freely from beneath the coronet.  Her eyes according to legend were green and fearless.


Alison Weir  in Eleanor of Aquitaine, By the Wrath of God Queen of England: 'It is more likely that she had red or auburn hair since a mural in the church of Sainte Radegonde in Chinon which almost certainly depicts Eleanor and was painted during her lifetime in a region in which she was well known, shows a woman with reddish-brown hair.'

Marion Meade in Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography: 'Eleanor, exceptionally beautiful at fifteen, had matured into a saucy, hot-blooded damsel, and perhaps he (her father) feared that, unproperly chaperoned, she might grant excessive courtesies to some ardent knight...If she conformed to 12th century Europe's ideal standards of feminine beauty...she must have been blond with grey or blue eyes set wide apart.  Her nose would have been straight, her skin white, and she would certainly have had a long, slender neck, firm breasts, and perfect teeth.'

So, after my trawl, I had her as a curvy, hot-blooded brunette, an insatiable gorgeous blond teenage sex-pot, and an alert, good-humoured green-eyed red-head.

These are all 'factual' secondary sources, and it's interesting what a variation of opinion there is, the more so because there is NOT ONE SINGLE description of Alienor of Aquitaine in any written source and there are no proven visual sources either despite Alison Weir's 'almost certainly' remark. Her opinions of the Chinon mural portrayal is optimistic to say the least when studies now tell us that the clothing on the crowned figure is male and it is probably her eldest son Henry the Young King. Which makes total sense given that the mural shows Henry II riding out followed by four people and he had four surviving sons by Alienor. When he made his will, he left John the youngest, to be cared for by the Young King, which also makes sense of the more child-like figure riding beside the crowned one. The scholarly interpretation immediately stymies the green-eyed red-head theory.

click to enlarge.  Photo courtesy of John Phillips.  Henry and (most likely)
his four sons in the chapel of St. Radegonde at Chinon

Marion Meade's comment about a 'saucy, hot-blooded damsel' is astonishing as there is not one iota of proof that Alienor's early personality tended in this direction.  It's all assumption built on incorrect understanding of medieval mindset and primary sources.  For example, Alienor is often stated to have been louche in her attitudes because her grandfather led a scurrilous life, writing very explicit crude poetry and running off with another man's wife, making her his mistress and refusing to give her up even when excommunicated for the sin.  But Alienor was only around 3 when he died, hardly old enough to have been corrupted.  There is no evidence that her own parents were as flamboyant as the generation before.  Then, when one looks at the wider field, one finds that scurrilous rude poetry was the norm of the day everywhere. One only needs to look around at  works such as The Fabliaux, to see that William IX of Aquitaine was operating within the cultural flow, not outside it.  When one looks at Alienor's first husband, Louis VII of France, who was in later life renowned for his piety, then one also finds a scurrilous grandparent in Philip I, who guess what... ran off with someone else's wife, made her his mistress, had children with her and was excommunicated for refusing to give her up.  Obviously such decadent relatives in the family line, didn't prevent Louis from treading a moral path, so why should the same turn Alienor into a 'hot and saucy damsel?' 

With reference to the hair colour again, I was interested to find in Alienor's ancestry, a Duke of Aquitaine called William 'L'Etoupe' meaning 'towhead' i.e. he had blond hair.  So that is how I have protrayed her in The Summer Queen because at least it's one proven genetic marker amid all the rampant speculation!

It fascinates me how historical non facts become historical facts and how writers supposedly producing factual works can get the details so utterly round their necks. Do they crib from earlier works?  Do they make it up as they go along?  Have they read the 'fact' so often that they believe it?  The myth and the made up are so often repeated that eventually they become the truth.  Having made Alienor a blond, I was taken to task by one reader who said that it was genetically impossible for Eleanor and Henry II (a red-head) to have produced dark-haired Prince John.  Now, I know that the reader's grasp of genetics might have been slightly off kilter as it is possible for a red-head and a blond to have a dark-haired child, but the point I am making here is that yet again, we don't know what colour Prince John's hair actually was. That he's almost always portrayed in films and novels as a saturnine type (probably in keeping with the vagaries of his nature)  has sunk into people's notion of his appearance and has become accepted fact.

King John hunting, 13thC.  He's a blond here!

The above examples are just localised,  based on my own trawling of a subject during research. There are many more abounding throughout the centuries and far less trivial than physical appearance. I'm sure people could cite examples from their own delving into particular historical passions.  History is not just set of opinions seen from different angles, but is often made up how we want it to be or how we have imagined it, and often becomes a false fact because we don't have the necessary awarenesses ourselves to view the fully rounded picture.

Gershwin was right in Porgy and Bess.  It ain't necessarily so!







15 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Wonderful post! And how frustrating it must be to get so much difference between the secondary sources and no primary evidence. Now I know why I don't write historical fiction, though I take elements of history. Too hard!

A blonde and a redhead might produce a throwback with dark hair anyway. My own family has a large variety. My father was blue eyed, my mother hazel-eyed, my sister is brown eyed. And we all started blinde and became dark, though neither parent was blonde and my brother had two blonde children with his blonde wife and they are darkening. Go figure!

I'll look forward to your new book.

Susan Price said...

Great post! I once read several 'factual' biographies of Christopher Marlowe, and everyone was different. He was gay, he was straight, he was hot-tempered, he was of a mild dispostion, he was athiest, he was a devout Catholic, he wrote Shakespeare's plays, he was murdered, he survived, he was a spy, he wasn't...
And see this month's The Author for a completely invented meeting between Dickens and Doestoevsky, which was quoted as fact in at least two 'factual histories. - History is what's written, not the truth!

sensibilia said...

Fascinating, and so true about how myths, or gossip, or half-truths morph into facts, especially from the shadowy Middle Ages when "history" was not recorded as we would expect today. The late digging up of "King Richard III" is a good case in point. Some things that have passed into "history" now appear to have been grossly exaggerated, although based on a hint of truth, if this scoliosis-afflicted individual is indeed the skeleton of the "hunchback" Richard III.

martinlakewriting said...

So it seems to me that I can still imagine her looking like Katherine Hepburn. My favourite confusion of fact and fiction is when a reputable New York newspaper thought that Harry Flashman was a real Victorian General. (But is even this story true?)

I guess that the search for accuracy doesn't always bear fruit but the finding of authenticity can. I'm sure your research will give you more insight into her and her time. Martin Lake

Helen Hollick said...

Two good examples of fiction becoming fact are King Arthur and Robin Hood! Guys who probably never existed, or at least not as we now "believe" - Arthur as a Medieval chivalric knight sitting at his round table mulling over ways to find the Holy Grail & Robin Hood with his mates living a life of fun & beer drinking in the woods. Any "facts" behind these two are far removed from what we think of them - on the other hand, they've leant themselves to some darn good stories that have been told - so long live the fiction (as long as the facts that ARE known are correct facts!)

Tracy Barrett said...

Great post! Interesting that so many scholars describe her the way they want her to look without any evidence, or the flimsiest of evidence.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, I imagine her looking like Katharine Hepburn, too. And perhaps art is close to fact there, because 'The Lion in Winter' shows her as a strong, definite kind of woman, and that, surely, was what Eleanor was. Or Alienor. But it IS salutory to reflect on how preconceptions establish themselves.. I guess, if you're writing non-fiction and can't just IMAGINE, it's tough to say: Well, we don't know. Which would be the most honest thing. History certainly isn't an exact science, that's for sure, it is riddled with speculation, opinion, etc, etc - as you say. I did enjoy this blog!

Mik's $ Toy said...

E. Chadwick's post makes more sense than any of the other previous authors descriptions of Eleanor. Are there even descendants of theirs living today that a DNA test could be done to even have a stronger 'guess' as to hair and eye color ? Now that would be very interesting!

Bryan Dunleavy said...

That was really interesting. It is surprising that your research shows that men who are usually considered to be reliable historians can succumb to fancy when it comes to the undoubtedly fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you for all the comments!
Bryan, I think that flight of fancy affect both sexes. I have absolutely no idea where some of those notions (male and female) come from. The red-haired one I can understand because it comes from a misreading of the Chinon mural. I can only think that the other assumptions come from a blanket notion that everyone south of Anjou had a Mediterranean complexion, and, if a woman, curves like Sophia Loren! If they are going by Alienor's tomb effigy, it shows her as a well-made woman, but hardly curvaceous, and the portrayal will be of her in her prime, not an old lady!

Bryan Dunleavy said...

I saw the tomb effigies in July when I visited Fontrevaud. I think they are all very stylised and it is probably difficult to reach any conclusions about likeness from them. Perhaps another 100 years would have to pass before likenesses could be executed that historians might depend upon.

Debra Brown said...

It is so good to see an author, especially a well-read author, taking the facts so seriously, even to the point of looking at the protagonist's relatives for some idea what she may have looked like. I love the accuracy.

Carol McGrath said...

Simply wonderful and as I have always said you are an historical sleuth and what's more you think it through and care. Delightful article.

Penny Dolan said...

So interesting - and an example of how once an image has come into the mind, often from subconcious sources (if one can call Sophia Loren that!) it is hard to "see" the person, unless through sleuthwork like yours, Elizabeth.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Love the detail of her keeping her figure into old age.