Saturday, March 29, 2008

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Peter of Blois

How many of you have read Peter of Blois' "Letter to Eleanor of Aquitaine" (1173)??? You can find a translation by M.Markowski at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. It makes for very interesting reading.

Essentially, in 1173 Peter of Blois wrote a rather misogynist letter to Eleanor of Aquitaine, chastising her for creating dissent between herself and her husband, Henry II, and between her sons and their father. Peter was requested to write this letter on behalf of Archbishop Rotrou of Rouen, whom it is alleged was prompted to do so by Henry II of England.

The Church in the medieval period was still blaming the woes of mankind upon the sins of Eve - she who took the apple from the serpent must still be held accountable for all that follows. At no stage must Man himself take responsibility for his actions.

In this extraordinary letter, Peter lays the blame for all of Henry II’s “ills” firmly at the door of Eleanor, who dared to remove herself from Henry’s household. She alone is held to blame for the civil strife that permeated throughout Henry’s Kingdom - both in England and on the Continent.

“So the woman is at fault who leaves her husband and fails to keep the trust of this social bond.” And “We know that unless you return to your husband, you will be the cause of widespread disaster. While you alone are now the delinquent one, your actions will result in ruin for everyone in the kingdom.”

At no stage is Henry himself called upon to be held accountable for his own actions - no blame his wife. And as long as Eleanor returns to her husband - peace will be restored.

“In your reconciliation, peace will be restored from distress, and in your return, joy may return to all."

A rather interesting take on the situation. Was Peter so blind that he could not see the forest for the trees? Surely, this is an overly simplistic solution to a problem that had been brewing for years.

And then this bit:
“We are certain that he will show you every possible kindness and the surest guarantee of safety.”

So, all will be forgiven upon Eleanor's return to the marital fold. And just where did Eleanor spend the next ten years of her life - oh, that’s right - imprisoned by Henry. This is the "kindness" Henry shows all who come to seek his forgiveness.

But what of Henry - how is he coping with the absence of his rebellious wife and brood:
“He has suffered many anxieties, offenses and grievances.”

So, the disaffection of Eleanor and her sons was starting to cause Henry II to receive some “bad press”.

“…you provoke disaster for the lord king, to whom powerful kings bow the neck”

All the other rulers were laughing and calling him names behind his back! Yes, poor Henry - he suffered so much - with all this dissent,how could he be expected to rule in a calm and rational manner - how could he decide which prelate to cause to be murdered, which of his son’s fianc├ęs to take to his bed, or how many towns to over-tax to support his military campaigns.

But Eleanor is not exhorted to merely return to Henry, so that all can return to normal. No, she must “come back to [her] senses, with sorrow and tears” - in other words, it is Eleanor who must repent, on bended knees, begging to be allowed to return to her husband - fully contrite for her sins in daring to leave him. There is no indication of Henry repenting his sins, or accepting to take some of the blame for the obvious breakdown of the marriage, nor is Henry required to show remorse. No - the blame is solely Eleanor’s to bear - and she alone must take full responsibility not only for the reconciliation but the contrition and penance.

Career of Peter and its context with the history of England.
And what of the man who wrote this letter to Eleanor - let us look at a little of his history and career.

Peter of Blois was a student of Law at Bologna and studied Theology in Paris. In the same year that Becket was appointed Papal Legate to England, Peter accompanied Stephen de Perche (relative of Archbishop Rotrou of Rouen) to Sicily (1166). Stephen became Archbishop of Palermo and Chancellor to the Dowager Queen, Margaret of Navarre. Peter became tutor to Margaret’s son, King William II of Sicily the following year (1167). In this year, Eleanor left England for Aquitaine.

When the Sicilians led a rebellion against Stephen, the French contingent left Sicily (1169) - Stephen went on to Jerusalem, whilst Peter of Blois returned to France. The following year (January 1170), the Pope demands that Henry II become reconciled with Becket, who returns to England (December 1st 1170) and is murdered (December 29th 1170).

Three years later (1173) we find Peter of Blois has entered the service of Henry II of England as a diplomat. Despite the rift between Henry and his sons (March 1173) there is an attempted reconciliation. Peter will advance in the service of Henry II, becoming Chancellor to the new Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Counsellor to Henry II himself.

Henry II attacks Eleanor’s court at Poitiers (1174) and Eleanor finds herself exiled or “imprisoned” in England (June 1174). Henry II wants to divorce Eleanor - she refuses (October 1175) and even the Papal Curia refuse Henry’s request (1177). That same year, Henry and Eleanor’s daughter marries King William II of Sicily (1177) - Peter’s former pupil. Peter travels to Rome (1177) and Verona (1187) on diplomatic business for Henry II.

However, with the death of Henry II (1189), Peter finds himself in disgrace - he does not attain a position at the court of Richard I. Where does Peter eventually find a position - as Latin Secretary to the widowed Dowager Queen Eleanor!

But what is equally ironic is that despite this letter written to Eleanor (1173) chastising her on her behaviour and exhorting her to return, upon pain of ecclesiastical action, to her husband and put a stop to her opposition, Peter wrote a number of letters which directly addressed the status of women in his day. In fact many of the letters openly encourage women to take authority over their own lives and promoted gender equality, based on Biblical teachings.

So, whilst promoting the modern-day feminist ideals of equality of the sexes on the one hand, on the other Peter is preaching the subservience of one sex to another. What is a medieval woman supposed to think???

(full article: Women of History - Eleanor of Aquitaine and Peter of Blois)

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Peter's writings and behaviour are those of a man from a relatively lowly background trying to make his way in a world dominated by feudal and monarchical power. This "letter" reads more like an essay designed to impress with its ability to argue a case, with appropriate references and authorities in a compressed style. It's hard to be sure what audience it was aimed at, or what its purpose was. Eleanor may have even asked for a statement of the traditional position. Notably, Peter was ultimately to become her secretary, so clearly she didn't hold his earlier opinions against him. Eleanor herself was clearly a woman of huge personality and great ambition, ruler in her own right of nearly half France, and married for a time to Louis VII of France, before becoming estranged from him on crusade. It's interesting to read a selection of letters to and from her, as she clearly often asked for counsel from varied standpoints. Fore example there is a an extent message of spiritual advice from Hildegard of Bingen. A good starting point is the collection of Medieval Women's Latin Letters at Columbia: