The real historical character Ermengarda (also known as Ermengarde, Ainemerda, or Ainemarda) was born in 1129 and died in Perpignan, 14 October 1197). She was ruler of Narbonne from four years old, from 1134 to 1192. In this extract from the novel Ermengarda is preparing for the visit of Aliénor, Queen of France, better known in English as Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the 12th century France was a small kingdom, with no power in Occitania (what we now know as the south of France). The Rabbi who enters at the end of the extract is also a real historical figure.
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Extract from 'Song at Dawn'
Ermengarda, Viscomtesse of Narbonne, glanced idly through the narrow window, over the city wall to the River Aude, swollen with winter rain and snow melt flowing down from the mountains. Another few weeks and it would be time for the sheep to go back up from the plains to the heights for summer grazing. The reckoning from the harsh winter was being tallied daily in the ledgers of the clerks, who reported conscientiously to their mistress. They had no option as Ermengarda knew every last solidus in her coffers, and if Narbonne was the richest city in Occitania, it was in no small measure due to its ruler.
Today, however, Ermengarda had more pressing and personal concerns. Within the next day, few days, week, depending on how the journey went, she was expecting the Duchesse d’Aquitaine with a full entourage of Ladies and men-at-arms. The Palace had been preparing for weeks, storing grain, wine, hams; sweeping and strewing herbs in bedchambers; laying straw and placing troughs by empty stables. No detail was too small, from the Narbonne coat of arms on the heavy fabric newly draping the windows of Aliénor’s chambers, to the phials of oriental perfume by the bathing tubs.
Like the ducks. Ermengarda watched as a group of mallards seemed to float along with the current while their little legs were paddling for all they were worth. And the paddling would continue for as long as Aliénor honoured Narbonne with her presence and with the requirement that Narbonne feed, quarter and entertain four hundred personnel. Ermengarda sighed. The timing was not good. Apart from the disastrous winter, her people were suffering in the wake of the great failure known as the Second Crusade. Also considered by some, more specifically, as Aliénor’s great failure.
Narbonne relied on trade, and trade relied on trust and security. The sea-captains needed to set sail from their safe harbour without fear of being attacked by Genoese pirates when they’d barely left the bay, and in the certainty of re-victualing and repairing boat damage while they bought Moorish goods in the spice ports of Oltra mar. In addition to the sea-ways, overland routes had to be safe from thieves and brigands. And now look at the state of things! Every day her captains and merchants brought Ermengarda new problems; news of peaceful traders imprisoned, tortured and disfigured in deliberate reprisals against any Christians; news of safe routes barred by weather and wreckers. Everywhere, the balance for which she worked so hard shifted into insanity. Soon the trading season would begin in earnest and she must use all of her connections to repair the damage as best she could.
So, how did she feel about Aliénor coming? They had last met before the Crusade, Aliénor blazing with the passion of her adventure and Ermengarda full of misgivings, like a spectre at a wedding, a crone spreading ill-will and evil omens with her caution and reservations. Having been right gave her no pleasure now and she was slow to judge Aliénor as harshly as much of the world judged her. This elegant woman, her senior by ten years, had dazzled fourteen-year old Ermengarda with her intellect and exquisite taste, had shared her inside knowledge of the most powerful men in the land along with her secret recipes for cheek rouge, had called her a friend – and still did.
But even at fourteen, Ermengarda had her own hard-earned understanding of powerful men – and women – and she never forgot that Aliénor’s authority, over however great a realm, was harnessed in uneasy pairing with the King of France, Louis, while she, Ermengarda, was Narbonne. There was no doubt that Aquitaine was Aliénor’s but to what extent did Aliénor belong to Aquitaine? Her eye had roamed to France and rumour said she was still not satisfied.
Rumours. Ermengarda collected rumours along with the daily reckoning of accounts. It was impossible that Aliénor could have carried out half that she was credited or blamed for Oltra mar, overseas, but even so she had played a part that ran to twenty verses in the latest songs, some versions of which had been banned for the coming visit. Although Aliénor might be amused by the stories of herself riding bare-breasted with her Amazons to hack down the Infidels, Ermengarda did not think that a kind hostess would encourage the singing of ‘the whore of Antioch’ in which Aliénor’s trips to her uncle’s bed became increasingly lewd. Whether she had actually made those trips to her uncle’s bed was one of the many little details that might become clearer after Ermengarda saw Aliénor again. Could it have happened? It seemed more likely to Ermengarda than the tale of the Amazon army. It was important to know what you were called behind your back and Ermengarda knew perfectly well that she was ‘the shopkeeper’ and Aliénor ‘the whore’. To some extent she would always be a shopkeeper, Ermengarda acknowledged.
Her thoughts flowed downstream with the Aude. The ducks’ apparent serenity had been short-lived and five male mallards were attacking each other viciously in their attempt to mate the one female. Ermengarda watched as two males, still fighting each other, held the female underwater in their mating frenzy and drowned her. Be careful, Aliénor, be very careful. Not all lovers go down on their knees.
A respectful knock called her attention. Time to attend to the shop window and make sure that Narbonne looked every inch the jewel of the Mediterranean. She hoped Aliénor would have the good sense to send riders ahead that would give her at least one day’s warning of the onslaught. But of course. She smiled. That charming Dragonetz would be the one to send ahead. And he would be sure to remember the sort of courtesy that put her in a good mood.
‘Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac, you may enter,’ she instructed. To business.
Author's Note on the historical background
When I discovered Ermengarda, I really admired her strength as a ruler during such a brutal period in history. Contrary to the northern laws, women in Occitania could inherit titles and were taught how to manage their own lands. This was also true of the more famous Aliénor of Aquitaine but the more I found out about Aliénor, the less I was sure I liked her. The reverse was true of Ermengarda and I can't believe how absent she is from the history books.
As factual background, I highly recommend the book 'Ermengarda of Narbonne and the world of the troubadours' by Frederic L. Cheyette
When actual historical figures appear in the narrative, I used historical fact whenever I could find it, and then added detail which fits with historians' research. The 12th century left little in writing so both fact and interpretation are widely disputed by historians, leaving room for a novelist to explore what might have happened. There is no record of Aliénor visiting Narbonne but it is certainly possible in the dates I have suggested, and it seems likely that she and Ermengarda would have formed an alliance. Also, the notion that Aliénor brought sugar back from the Crusades and made it part of Narbonne's trading goods has some evidential support, linking Aliénor strongly with Narbonne.
Aliénor is of course known in English as Eleanor but I have tried to keep the flavour of the period by retaining French or Occitan names, unless this confuses the narrative. Spelling of names was arbitrary and every other male ruler in Occitania was called Raymond so I have used the different language spellings to try to distinguish between the various Raymonds, who would in fact all have enjoyed every spelling possible at the time.
Although Estela and Dragonetz are completely fictional characters, they live in the real world and events of the 12th century, which I have recreated to the best of my ability. All the lyrics in the book are from existing texts attributed to different troubadours but where the historical troubadours appear in the narrative, such as Marcabru, his lyrics are indeed his own. Again, he could have been in Narbonne at this time. Amazingly, the Prince of Orkney did indeed call at Narbonne and write heroic verse for Ermengarda at roughly this date.
In Occitania (now the south of France and north of Spain) it was a time when Muslims and Jews shared their amazing science, medicine, engineering, technology and even philosophy. Some Christians, like Dragonetz, recognized the future; others preached hellfire and damnation. Among the heathen inventions which drew the wrath of the Church, threatening its coffers and its monopoly on the word, was paper.
The medieval Church was so successful in stamping out the production of paper in Christian Europe that it took 200 years before the knowledge of the 12th century re-appeared, leading to that freedom of thought across time that we call a book.