Clara Dupont-Monod: Le roi disait que j’étais diable [The King Said I Was a Devil]
This novel is mainly narrated by a woman called Aliénor in French and therefore in this book but whom we know in English as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor of Aquitaine was married first to a king of France and then a king of England. She had two daughters by the King of France and eight children by the King of England, several of whom became kings and queens in their own right. She not only outlived her two husbands, she also outlived most of her children. She was a very powerful woman even before she married King Louis VII of France, having succeeded her father, at the age of thirteen, to become Duchess of Aquitaine, a territory, which she is quick to point out in this book, was around ten times the size of France and, in her view, much more developed. Despite her young age, she was very much in charge, with knights bowing down to her and making decisions, such as the installation of mills on the rivers, which showed a maturity well beyond her age.
Much of the book is her narration but we also get Louis’ thoughts and comments and, right at the end, we get the narration by her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, which continues long after he has been beheaded by Shirkuh (Saladin’s uncle). However, the focus of the book is on Eleanor, undoubtedly the most powerful woman in Europe at the time. The narration starts as she, aged thirteen, awaits the arrival of Louis. Her father, who had died just a few months before, had arranged for her to marry Louis, both with a view to uniting the two houses but also to protect her from other suitors. She describes what she is feeling as she awaits his arrival. She is critical of the whole business. Je connais deux moments où les rois sont ridicules. Lorsqu’ils sont en colère et lorsqu’on les épouse. [I am aware of two occasions when kings are ridiculous. When they are angry and when they are married.] She is critical of France. Louis est un homme du Nord. C’est un pays rude et sérieux. Ses chants glorifient Charlemagne. Pauvre peuple, réduit à chanter des exploits militaires qui ne sont même pas les siens! [Louis is a man of the North. It is a rough and serious country. Its songs glorify Charlemagne. Poor people, reduced to sing of the military exploits which are not not even theirs!] She criticises them for their lack of poetry, lack of economic development and their poor treatment of women. She is critical of Louis for various reasons. He has no money. He was not destined to be king. His brother, Philippe, was to be king and was more of a warrior and leader. However, he was killed when a pig ran under his horse, the horse stumbled and Philippe was thrown and killed. Eleanor considers the fact that a pig killed the heir to the throne of France a delicious metaphor for the kingdom. Louis, not destined to be king, preferred religion and wanted to be a monk. He has remained pious. At the time of the marriage he is not yet king but his father, Louis the Fat, dies soon after the marriage, and he inherits the throne at the age of seventeen.
However, Louis has his own comments. He considers Eleanor to be like her castle – Beau, isolé, imprenable. Une forteresse. [Beautiful, isolated, impregnable. A fortress.] However, he admits that he was not expecting the woman he found. The relationship is somewhat difficult from the beginning. Eleanor very much favours strength and force of arms, while Louis favours sensible administration and diplomacy. Indeed, as she herself comments, she is like her parents – her father a strong and fierce man, her mother, tall, elegant and forceful. She recognises that her husband is pious but, for her, that means hypocritical. But she does not like the royal palace and considers Paris somewhat provincial, while the people do not seem to like her, riding a horse like a man and coming across as decidedly unfeminine. Louis, despite his piety, is very much attracted to her. He likes watching her taking a bath. However, no heir is forthcoming. She is a woman of action. She wants to develop Paris.
She soon gets a chance for action. Poitiers, her Poitiers, is in revolt. She has no doubt what needs to be done. However, Louis and the religious authorities talk about diplomacy. But she is stronger and has the power of sex (a quick bath and Louis melts) and an army sets off for Poitiers with the King and Queen at its head. When they arrive at Poitiers, they attack pitilessly. Louis, to his own surprise, is as fierce as anyone and his sword is bloody. Eleanor wants to slaughter the children as well as the parents, to make sure that they do not seek revenge later but, this time, to her disgust, the religious authorities prevail and the children are spared. Thibaut de Champagne had been called on to help but had refused, so now it is his turn to feel Eleanor’s wrath. But again the religious authorities intervene and after an initial battle, a truce is arranged, while Eleanor was in favour of slaughtering all of them. However, again Louis is fierce. Eleanor argues with Abbot Suger about war and death. La mort n’est pas une ennemie. Elle ne promet ni punition ni souffrance. Elle fait partie du jeu. [Death is not an enemy, It does not promise punishment or suffering. It is part of the game.]
Eventually a child – a daughter is born – but, of course, everyone was looking for a male heir. The next war is the Second Crusade and, again, Eleanor is at the forefront and, again, Eleanor and Louis disagree. Louis is interested in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and attacking Damascus, the Muslim city most friendly to the Christians. Raymond, Eleanor’s uncle, and Eleanor want to retake Aleppo and Edessa, that had fallen to the Turks. It all goes horribly wrong and, when they return to France, Eleanor is blamed. They have another child but again it is a girl and this, on top of everything else, precipitates the end of the marriage and her subsequent marriage to Henry II of England.
Dupont-Monod is clearly putting Eleanor forward as a feminist heroine. She admits, in an afterword, that, in reality, Eleanor was more pious than she is painted in this book. There is no doubt that, in this book, Eleanor is more forceful, determined and ferocious than the men and is easily their match in intelligence and organisation. Dupont-Monod paints her as a very lively woman, self-confident, sure that she is right but determined to be a strong leader of her people, whether in Aquitaine or in France. Though, by her own admission, not one hundred percent accurate, it is certainly a fascinating portrait of a woman who had a major influence on the history of both England and France. She would go on to be mother of Richard I and King John of England, as well as of other children who themselves and whose progeny would play important roles in European history.
First published in French 2014 by Grasset & Fasquelle