Forever Reading by Susan Moody

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Yesterday we drove back up after a weekend with old friends near Cahors.  Part of our enjoyment involved going to the cathedral there to hear Mozart’s Requiem. It was sadly disappointing. It’s unfortunate that cathedrals don’t seem to have been built with choral performance in mind. Great orchestra.  Great choir.  But sadly this concert sounded as though some inept chef had thrown  together the aural equivalent of carrots, potatoes, asparagus and peas, boiled them to a pulp then slopped it into bowls and dished it up.  In other words, we were served a soup of sound, dominated by the kettle drums, with here and there a word or two — requiem aeternam, it might have been, or confutatis – making itself heard above the musical din.

Further north, closer to Riberac where we live when in France, it was raining.  None of this gentle rain from heaven stuff, though.  I’m talking cascades plummeting heavily from the dark-grey skies. We shrugged.  So what else is new?  This is, after all, Aquitaine.  Many people believe that its name derives in part from the Latin aqua terra, land of water.  And even soaking wet, a green and pleasant land it is.

Once it was in the possession of the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard 1st of England and of Bad King John.  Aquitaine was a rich prize, its territories and revenues being larger even than the king’s.  Eleanor’s father, William the 10th Duke of Aquitaine, was an enlightened and sophisticated man and before his untimely death – and that of his only male heir – had seen to it that his eldest daughter was given a thorough grounding in the arts, history and mathematics. Which explains why she is always considered one of the great mediaeval champions of writers and poets.

As well as being highly educated and cultured, on his death, fifteen-year-old Eleanor became the richest and most eligible heiress in the whole of Europe, making her and her domains a prime target for ambitious nobles hoping to add to their wealth and power by forming a marital alliance with her.  And even at fifteen, she was a noted beauty.

 The eventual winner in the nuptial stakes was Louis, heir to Louis VI of France, who shortly after their marriage, became Louis VII, king of France. He adored his lively, headstrong queen-consort, but he was a timid soul and she gradually became bored stiff with him and his diffident  monkish ways, and in the end the Pope dissolved the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity. Shortly after that, Eleanor married Henry of Anjou, who through reasons of parentage and family, eventually became king Henry II of England. Between them, they produced five sons, among them Richard the Lion-heart. 

Henry died in 1189, leaving the throne to Richard, and nothing to his youngest son, although John was supposed to be his favourite child.  Eleanor took a managing hand in affairs of state, becoming Regent of England when the Lion-heart went on Crusade, and personally negotiating for his release when he was captured in Germany on his way back to England. When Richard himself died, he was succeeded by brother John, who had already proven himself an incompetent and feckless leader.  Eleanor then returned to Aquitaine, where she retired to a convent and died at the great age of 82, still, according to contemporary accounts, beautiful. She was eventually buried in the abbey church at Fontevrault.

 The reason for this history lesson is the fact that the tomb of Eleanor depicts her lying on top of her sarcophagus, holding a book in both hands and apparently reading to herself.  On sleepless nights, I often find myself lying in the same position, only I’m reading P G Wodehouse, the great soother of the insomniac.  I’m not idiot enough to suppose that Eleanor’s book was anything but a book of devotions, and certainly not any kind of light reading such as a mediaeval romance, but I find it interesting that for such a long time she had been so much associated with literature and letters that she would eventually be remembered down through the ages as a reader.  Even if that was not the original objective and the carved and painted book resting on her chest was merely intended to convey the heavenly delights she was now enjoying – lute strumming, praise singing and the like –   it is striking that, in a far more religious age, reading should be among them.

I read recently that the young are turning away from electronic reading gadgets and going back to print on paper as a more satisfying way of imbibing story and information.  I’ve always been one of those who feel that the demise of the Book has been greatly exaggerated, so this is heartening news, both in a global sense and a personal one. As writers, there is nothing we want more than readers, except possibly bigger advances.  And it’s tempting to wonder whose books Eleanor of Aquitaine would be reading in her convent suite, were she alive today.

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