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A Hint and Clue about Eleanor of Aquitaine

Monday, July 8, 2019 - 07:00

You win some, you lose some. When I'm book shopping, I often don't have the time to determine whether the intriguing reference in the table of contents will pay off in the actual content. I'll probably be putting this book on my give-away shelf, but it did provide me with one useful lead (as noted below).

I have something of a collection of passing references to historical anecdotes that seem worth tracking down, where the  original mention didn't include enough specifics to find a publication immediately. This is the case with "Denise of Clapton" who was mentioned in some long-ago Usenet thread on medieval women who fought in armor as men. There were enough specifics in the original reference (12th century, England, the context of the event) to give me confidence that there was some actual historic evidence behind it. But I've been completely unable to track down more. In some cases, I have a clear publication citation but haven't yet found a copy of it to review. This is the case with one of the "two women buried with a memorial in the style of a married couple" references where the publication is an obscure local church journal.

And in some cases the reference is treated as one of those "everyone knows about this" events but no details are given. This the case for the "Queen Eleanor and her ladies cross-dressing on crusade" anecdote. Morrison finally provides an author and context for the motif, as well as the information that Eleanor doesn't appear to have been mentioned by name in the text (only by implication), which may account for the lack of specifics in other sources. (Although more likely it's one of the "telephone game" things where people are simply repeating versions of what they read in unsourced references.) Given that, it may still take me some time to find the reference in the original work, because what I have is a pdf scan of a nearly 400-page volume in which the original Greek text is glossed in...Latin. Oh, and there's no index or table of contents. (That is, there may be an index and table of contents, but what I have is an excerpt from a multi-volume edition of various religious texts, so there's no index and TOC in the file I have.)

But I rather enjoy finding, pinning down, and presenting this sort of primary source material. Because too often what we get is the results of a telephone-game that has been re-shaped according to the desires of those passing it alone. Often, the full original text and context is even more interesting than the sound-bite. Sometimes, the original context undermines how the sound-bite version has been presented. And that, too, is valuable. This is what a researcher's life looks like, even an amateur researcher like me.

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Morrison, Susan Signe. 2017. A Medieval Woman's Companion. Oxbow Books, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-78570-079-8

This book looked interesting at a quick glance, and was reasonably priced. I picked it up for the chapter entitled "Textile Concerns: Holy Transvestites and the Dangers of Cross-Dressing." The substance is a lot less useful for my purposes, though not necessarily as an absolute judgment. It appears to be intended as a textbook for "general survey" type history courses. The sort taken by people who aren't history majors, but are taking it as an elective. It combines a highly readable style and careful footnotes with a very superficial and overly general survey of issues relating to women's lives in the middle ages. Topics in the textiles chapter include textile trades in the economy and society, clothing as status markers and as symbols, and the specific topic that the LHMP is interested in: cross-dressing. Rather than going into general theoretical issues, we mostly get a selection of individual texts or events.

The Icelandic Laxdaela Saga includes an anecdote about how one woman (Gudrun) accuses another woman (Aud) of wearing "men's breeches" as a way of inciting Aud's husband to divorce her.

The Greek historian Niketas Choniates described European women accompanying the second crusade in Amazonian terms, including mention of "females...dressed in masculine garb" and referring to one prominent woman as being like the queen of the Amazons. Morrison notes that this is believed to be a reference to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. If so, this is the first time I've seen a solid reference to the oft-mentioned anecdote of Eleanor and her ladies wearing male clothing on crusade. So I'll be tracking down that reference.

There is a brief survey of the usual cross-dressing texts: the Romance of Silence, the Krakow university student, Pope Joan, all the "transvestite saints", and Joan of Arc, with discussions of the varied attitudes toward cross-dressing women in different contexts.

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