This month, many people trekked across a snowy campus to take in the first instalment of this semester’s Alan Lutkus International Film Series: the iconic The Lion in Winter (1968). Afterwards, I asked some of my students who were there what they’d made of it. One of them thought for a moment, and then said, “I was surprised it was funny. You never think of them as being funny.”
Pretty much every history teacher is aware of how helpful film can be in the classroom: how it can confront students with the humanity of others across great distances of space and time, how it can convey with immediacy the different ways in which people in the past spoke and lived and thought. We’ve likely all had conversations like the one I had with my students. But as I mulled over the movie on my way home, I thought that we forget sometimes that historical film can help us to think through our own emotional relationship to the research topics that we’re steeped in: in my case, the history of women in the High Middle Ages.
Let’s be clear: The Lion in Winter isn’t particularly interested in rigorous historical accuracy. Playwright James Goldman wanted to tell a story of a power struggle in a royal family, complete with melodramatic rivalries and biting dialogue, not to conjure up a photo-realistic recreation of the Middle Ages or to delve into historians’ competing takes on the Angevin Empire. Decades of dynastic disputes between Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, are compressed into a single, imagined, heated meeting at Christmas in the castle of Chinon. In other words, it’s a bit of a soap opera. Goldman clearly did just enough research to help him set the scene, but Goldman presents many things as fact which are almost certainly post-medieval fictions—like Eleanor’s recounting of how she rode bare-breasted, dressed as an Amazon, while taking part in the Second Crusade. That’s even setting to one side the question of the anachronisms, Christmas trees and poison oak references being equally unlikely to crop up in twelfth-century northwestern Europe.
But what the movie does have is a powerhouse central performance in Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Lion in Winter was remade in 2003 with Glenn Close as Eleanor, and has also inspired other works like the TV show Empire, with Taraji P. Henson as the Eleanor-equivalent, but Hepburn’s version is the definitive one for me.) Hepburn portrays her—this queen of England, duchess of Aquitaine, and erstwhile queen of France—as engaging, demanding, and mercurial in turn. In doing so, she creates yet another aspect of the myth of Eleanor which has grown up in the centuries after her death.
The famously independent-minded Hepburn once told journalist Barbara Walters that “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man.” Yet her Eleanor clearly enjoys being a woman. She doesn’t seem to think that her exercise of power is exceptional, and no one around her seems to think that either. (The way she wields it may of course be another matter as far as they’re concerned; James Goldman’s stage directions also make it clear that he does think of Eleanor as exceptional, somehow able to be both powerful and female.) This is, however inadvertently, very much of a piece with the work of historians of medieval women over the past thirty years or so, who have sought to recalculate the equation that in the Middle Ages, “any woman who exercised any sort of power or influence was considered in some way ‘extraordinary.'” There’s no attempt on Eleanor’s part to “overcome” her gender, for all that she is acutely aware of the ways that being a woman has constrained some of her options in life.
(Speaking to her sons by Henry about her first marriage to Louis VII of France, Eleanor says wryly, “If I had managed sons for him instead of all those little girls, I’d still be stuck with being queen of France, and we should not have known each other. Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history.”)
This is something worth lingering over, because from the Middle Ages onwards, Eleanor has been associated with a particularly female form of excess by various writers: according to medieval chroniclers, she had an affair with Saladin, she murdered her love rivals and paraded bare-breasted in public, and on, and on. All of this is, to the best of our knowledge, entirely slanderous. (At the time of Eleanor’s putative affair with Saladin, the future sultan of Egypt and Syria was just twelve years old.) Even in much otherwise excellent modern scholarship, which discounts these stories, Eleanor is defined by her relationship with men.
And it’s true that almost all of Eleanor’s interactions in The Lion in Winter are with men, and that some of those interactions are framed in ways which make for uncomfortable viewing for an early twenty-first century audience. (Her son Richard’s preference for sexual relationships with men is not very subtly linked to his close emotional relationship with her. Her estranged husband, who has kept her under a form of house arrest for years, refers to her as “the great bitch in the keep.”) But part of what still delights me about the movie, so long after first seeing it and now having had the benefit of reading thousands of pages of scholarship about medieval society, is that I can see that Eleanor is no more and no less defined by her relationship with her family than is Henry. (Powerful men in the Middle Ages, too, were shaped by their biological and emotional ties and had gendered behavioural scripts to follow.)
It delights me, and gives me pause, because of how much I want this version of Eleanor to be true: to be a real glimpse of an intelligent, politically astute, lively woman who left such a mark on the history of western Europe. Historians often run the risk of falling in love with their subjects—or, perhaps, with what those subjects could symbolise, with the inspirational story of long-ago women overcoming the odds of a patriarchal society.
For instance, I’ve undertaken quite a bit of research on a contemporary of Eleanor’s: Agnès, countess of Braine, a noblewoman who married a brother of Louis VII. What I’ve pieced together about her life suggests she might not have been so dissimilar to Eleanor. Agnès made two politically advantageous marriages, she was a mediator and negotiator, she was a great patron. More than once I’ve told colleagues how fond I am of Agnès—but of course I’m not, not really. I’m fond of the patchwork composite I’ve pieced together from references in letters and the charters that Agnès issued. I appreciate the kinds of things that her career tells me about broader historical themes that interest me. But while I know some things that Agnès did, and can guess at kind of person she might have been, I can never know her.
It’s a frustrating kind of impasse: the historian’s eternal curiosity about the deep past pitted against our inability to know much, if anything, about the people who capture our interest.
In The Lion in Winter’s last scene, Henry hands Eleanor onto her royal barge so that she can be ferried, in great splendour, back to her prison. “You know, I hope we never die!” he calls out to her across the increasing distance as she waves at him. “You think there’s any chance of it?” And there’s the exhilarating thing that keeps us going—in the hands of historians, screenwriters, and novelists, they never will.