Siege Diaries 3/17/2021

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Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Are my choices beautiful?

Today, I chose to be a historian again.   That, in itself, is beautiful. It made me extremely happy to spend time in some of my favourite sources, including the discovery of the household accounts that I’d based a Kalamazoo paper on a number of years ago at archive.org.  When I originally looked at them, they were on microfilm at the PIMS library, and now they’re right there for me to flip though at my leisure.

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Today, the Internet was down for about seven hours.  When we went out for a walk at lunch, we saw the Cogeco truck just arriving.  When we came back after going on a run for takeout (first Extreme Pita wrap I’ve had in months), there were two trucks, and the contents of a control box of some sort were sprawled all over the place.   Luckily, I had gotten most of my work done early in the day, and the things I hadn’t I’m taking care of this evening.

But here’s what I’ve been working on for the past couple of hours, for the AskHistorians subreddit compilation for Women’s History Month:

Eleanor Plantagenet, Countess of Pembroke and Leicester

The remarkable story of Eleanor of Aquitaine is fairly well known, thanks to the two versions of The Lion in Winter and a number of depictions in popular historical fiction. Less well-known is the story of her granddaughter, also named Eleanor.  Born in 1215, she was King John’s daughter and sister to Henry III. Just before the death of William Marshal, who had protected the young Henry after the death of his father and in the face of a French invasion, a marriage alliance was struck where Eleanor would marry his son, also called William. It was hoped that the marriage, and the considerable lands that it would bring the Marshal family, would ensure their loyalty to the English crown. The marriage took place when Eleanor was just nine years old.    William died in 1231, leaving Eleanor a childless widow at sixteen.

Eleanor was persuaded by her governess/compassion to swear a vow of chastity as a widow and to begin dressing in russet clothes, where she might normally have been a very attractive prize for remarriage due to what should have been her considerable wealth from both her marriage portion (from Henry) and from the vast and far-flung Marshal lands, which under English law a widow was entitled to enjoy the use of 1/3 of as her dower.  But her inheritance was complicated. Her brother-in-law Richard, and later his brother Gilbert, did everything in their power to thwart Eleanor for taking possession of her dower lands, including attempting to put responsibility for William’s debts on her shoulders.  Henry III, likely attempting to keep the loyalty of the Marshals secure, was persuaded to accept for Eleanor a considerably smaller amount than what she was entitled to.  Eleanor would spend most of the rest of her life fighting to obtain what she was rightfully owed, and the matter eventually became a significant bone of contention between her and her brother the king.  But it was what she did next that would eventually turn that dispute into a yawning gulf:  She married Simon de Montfort.

This caused an enormous scandal, since the marriage was solemnized in private and despite Eleanor’s holy vow.  The rumour was that the ambitious young nobleman, recently come to England to pursue a claim to the title of Earl of Leicester, had seduced Eleanor.  Simon was a younger son whose father had never taken up the claim to the title and whose brother, more interested in the family’s French holdings, had given his permission for the younger man to pursue the claim.  He managed to convince the Earl of Chester, who had been holding the lands for the elder de Montfort, that his claim was valid.  He then set about vigorously pursuing all of the rights and responsibilities of the earldom.  The other great barons of England were alarmed at Simon’s audacity—and they were horrified when he married Eleanor.   But oddly enough, in just a few years, it would become clear that Simon de Montfort was no friend to the King.   But before the baronial revolts of 1258-1265, which culminated in de Montfort becoming more or less the de facto ruler of England in the final year of his life before his defeat at Evesham, he and Eleanor went on Crusade (she stayed back at Brindisi), governed Gascony, and had seven children.

Eleanor comes across in the sources as a fierce and persistent woman.  She was a patroness of the Franciscan and Cistercian Orders, and her correspondence with the Franciscan Adam Marsh is full of interesting details about her life.  Marsh criticized her extravagant dress and her quick temper, and suggests that the marriage with the equally quick-tempered de Montfort may have occasionally been stormy.  Historian J.R. Maddicot in his biography of Simon de Montfort suggests that she “shared some of her husband’s fierceness and almost destructive energy…the later defence of what they regarded as their rights was to show that both were equally uncompromising.”

My specific interest in Eleanor has been focused on her household accounts.  These date to 1265 and are the first known accounts of a non-royal household.  They give an intimate look into the day-to-day functioning of a great baronial household, including the everyday purchase of foodstuffs such as bread and wine, feed for horses, fees for household officials, and—my particular interest—expenses for textiles and tailors.  Eleanor’s household, if it was similar in size to those of others of her rank, probably comprised at least 35 members and likely more (since she had three sons, all of whom were young adults but not yet fully independent, as well as a daughter.)  About 1/6 to 1/5 of household expenses went towards clothing.

Fabric purchases from London merchants are mentioned in Eleanor’s accounts, including fine linen, striped or rayed cloths, and coloured fabrics (presumably wool) of sanguine, perse (blue), “scarlati” (which may or may not have been red, but was a fine wool cloth), russet, and “blancheti”, which might be any light-coloured fabric.   We meet the household tailor, a man by the name of Hicque Cissoris. It is difficult to determine whether he was a member of the household or whether he maintained his own shop somewhere, but he is the only person called “tailor” in the household and seems to have been kept quite busy, between trips to London on the Countess’ business and specific tasks.  Hicque is recorded making several robes, or sets of outer clothing, for various members of the household.  One interesting way of cleaning clothing is attested to in Eleanor’s accounts.  On two occasions, Hicque the Tailor is sent to London to have various woolen garments shaved or sheared.  A colleague of mine once termed this “medieval dry cleaning.”  The result would have been to scrape both wool fuzz and accumulated body oils and lanolin from the garments.

The detail in the accounts and the constant presence of Eleanor as an active manager of the family’s estates provides a very clear portrait of the role of noble women in managing household affairs.  There are enough other accounts of strong women managing noble estates during the 12th and 13th centuries that it is clear that Eleanor was typical rather than atypical—although she certainly does come off as perhaps more energetic than average.

Eleanor managed to get two of her sons to France after her Simon de Montfort was killed in battle.  She then negotiated the surrender of Dover Castle and went into exile in France at the Dominican abbey of Montargis, where Louis IX managed to negotiate a settlement for her with Henry III to provide her with an income in compensation for the lands confiscated when Simon de Montfort was defeated..  She died ten years after her husband.

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As part of this, I discovered the 1841 Roxburghe Club publication of Eleanor’s accounts is online!  I had a lot of fun going through some of the entries again after many years, and I suspect I may just return to these accounts in the future.

Turner, H.T. ed. Manners and household expenses of England in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Roxburghe Club, London, 1841. 

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