Marie of France
Countess of Champagne, 1145-1198
Series: The Middle Ages Series
- ISBN: 9780812250770
- Published By: University of Pennsylvania Press
- Published: December 2018
Glib though the comparison may be, there is something of the “Poor Little Rich Girl” about the life of Marie of France. Born in 1145, Marie was the eldest child of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine and, if a contemporary account is to be believed, the product of a fertility miracle worked by abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (2). However, her parents’ marriage was one of the more spectacular examples of marital discord in the 12th century, and was annulled when Marie was about seven years old.
Marie likely never saw her mother again, and her father on only a handful of occasions. Following Louis’ remarriage, Marie was sent away from the royal household to be raised and educated in quiet seclusion, likely in the household of the widowed viscountess Elizabeth of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ (5). There she remained until she was of age to enter into married life with her husband, Count Henry I of Champagne, a Crusades veteran some twenty years her senior. Marie and Henry’s marriage was of political benefit to the ruling Capetian dynasty, although there is little evidence of strong emotional relationships between Marie and her birth family.
Yet most versions of the “Poor Little Rich Girl” story are more overtly melodramatic than anything we can securely reconstruct about Marie’s life. We know something of its key events, but, as Theodore Evergates points out in Marie of France: Countess of Champagne, 1145-1198, the surviving sources give us very little access to the countess’ interior life. We can only speculate as to Marie’s thoughts and feelings about her largely absent parents, her much older husband, or the sister and half-siblings whom she barely knew.
This book is therefore as much a study of the roles that a 12th-century noblewoman like Marie could play over the course of her lifetime as it is a conventional narrative biography. Evergates brings together documents of practice, literary texts, and material evidence (such as plans of the then-new comital residence at Troyes and sketches of now-destroyed family tombs) to build a picture of a woman who was at various times a wife, mother, cultural patron, capable regent, and, according to an obituary written after her death, a “most reverend nun, most noble countess of Champagne, daughter of the king of the Franks, and [a . . .] much loved lady and benefactor” (91).
Marie appears only rarely in sources dating to the period of her husband’s and eldest son’s active rule in Champagne. However, Evergates argues that the documents associated with her regencies demonstrate that she was an effective, even forceful, ruler who helped to shepherd the county through an important transitional period. Drawing particularly on Marie’s letters patent, Evergates shows that the countess possessed an eye for detail and a knack for employing capable men as administrators.
Marie also emerges here as a woman who took her faith seriously, and as one whose life and career were inextricably bound up in the church and its various institutions. The form which those connections took varied considerably.
Marie began her married life in the comital palace at Troyes, in chambers which overlooked a chapel, canons’ residences, an hôtel Dieu (hospital), and a Benedictine convent (11-15); counted people like cleric and author Andreas Capellanus in her inner circle (60); intervened to secure the foundation of the Benedictine priory of Notre-Dame of Champbenoît (85); and retired to the Fontevrist priory of Fontaines-les-Nonnes where she took the veil before her death in 1198 and subsequent burial in the heart of the cathedral of Meaux (90-91). Her life neatly demonstrates the plurality of ways in which a noblewoman and the church could interact over the years.
There is much to admire in this slim volume. Evergates writes with clarity and a mastery of the primary sources to be expected of the author of several important studies of the Champagne region in the 12th and 13th centuries. Marie of France provides another angle on our understanding of the area’s history during this period, together with another case study of the unexceptional nature of noblewomen’s ability to wield power during the High Middle Ages.
Yet particularly since the body of the book amounts only to some hundred pages of text, the reader may sometimes wish for Evergates to tease out some topics further. For example, Marie is perhaps best (if erroneously) known today as a presider over the mythical, chivalric “courts of love” and (more realistically) as a literary patron—though as Evergates demonstrates, even the evidence for that is patchy. A single, focused chapter on Marie as a literary patron might have been more helpful for the reader than observations dispersed across several chapters. Equally, given the persistent strength of the legends that have grown up around Marie over the centuries, more attention could perhaps have been paid to her “afterlife.”
Medievalists will surely rely on Marie of France as the standard reference on the countess’ life for years to come, while scholars of the history of religion more broadly will find it useful for its discussion of the varying forms of interaction between the church and members of the lay aristocracy in the High Middle Ages. Readers of all backgrounds, however, will appreciate the skill with which Evergates constructs an eminently readable narrative from such fragmented sources.
Yvonne Seale is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at SUNY Geneseo.Yvonne SealeDate Of Review:April 28, 2020