Scandalizing Desire: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Chroniclers

  • Peggy McCracken
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Most historical accounts characterize Eleanor of Aquitaine as a strong-willed woman who knew what she wanted, and many stories about her—both medieval and modern—portray her desire as a dangerous threat to the powerful men in her life. She is represented this way in some of the earliest accounts of her life as queen of France, most prominently in chronicles that record her voyage to the East with Louis VII. In 1148, Eleanor accompanied the king to Antioch, and her affection for her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, was regarded with suspicion by some in her entourage; several chroniclers recorded rumors of an adulterous passion between the queen and her uncle. Over the course of the Middle Ages, chroniclers transformed Eleanor’s close relationship with her uncle into a scandalous, adulterous passion for a Muslim sultan. While the fictitious elaborations of Eleanor’s story do not offer historically reliable information about the queen herself, their representation of her scandalous desire for adultery might say something about the institution of queenship in the medieval West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The ways in which the story of Eleanor’s adultery is recounted, revised, and elaborated may speak some of the anxieties about gender, sexuality, and sovereignty that continually surfaced in medieval definitions of queenship. In particular, these narratives articulate the imperative of legitimate childbirth within the royal family, the complex and contested question of the queen’s sovereign authority, and above all, an uneasy recognition of the queen’s access to influence and power as the king’s sexual partner.


Thirteenth Century Royal Family Christian Woman Dangerous Threat Muslim Leader 
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Copyright information

© John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler 2003

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  • Peggy McCracken

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