Streetwise Professor

September 19, 2010

Family History?

Filed under: History — The Professor @ 2:06 pm

A genealogist swears she can trace my mother’s family back to the Plantagenets.  My grandfather, and several others, have independently traced this line of the family back into the late-16th century.  There are several problematic links between that established line and the Plantagenets, but this woman claims she has done it.

Not that such a link, if it exists, is anything to brag about.  The Plantagenets, up and down the line, from Henry I to Richard III, were complete and utter bastards.  The connection, such as it is, would run through John (Jean Sansterre/John Lackland/John I), the baddie in the Robin Hood stories.  And bad he was.  But the supposed good guy, Richard I, the Lionheart, was also a mercenary, murderous SOB.  And their dear old dad, Henry II, was a real piece of work; Mom (Eleanor of Aquitaine) was what you would call very high maintenance.  (See the Lion in Winter for a dramatization of this dysfunctional family.)

Well today I made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the old family stomping grounds (again, if the genealogist is to be believed).  I first visited the Abbey at Fontevraud.  Here Henry II, Eleanor, Richard I, and John’s wife Isabella lie beneath famous recumbent statues, still covered with traces of the original paint.  This is where Eleanor spent her last days.

I then went to Chinon, the seat of the Plantagenet lands in France.  (They were the Ducs d’Anjou as well as Kings of England.)  The Fortresse in Chinon is where the drama in the Lion of Winter played out.  It is where Eleanor and her sons plotted against Henry.

It is also where Joan of Arc recognized Charles VII, Dauphin of France–or was recognized by him, depending on the version of the story.  She received his promise to fight for the kingship of France, and his permission to lead an attack on Orleans.  The rest is history and legend, inextricably mixed.

So much history in a small space.  I have been to many historical sites in my life, but the royal house at Fortresse Chinon affected me in ways that most sites do not.  Perhaps it was the emotional intensity of the Angevin melodrama, or the inexplicable mysteries of Joan, but the place left its mark on me in ways that few historical sites have.  (Perhaps this was encouraged by the interesting and evocative film dramatizations of Fulk, Duc d’Anjou; Henry II and his sons; and Joan that played in rooms of the house.)

There is other family history in Chinon that is beyond dispute.  My dad was stationed there during his days as a draftee in the Army in 1955.  His unit was a communications outfit, and their equipment was stored in caves in the banks of La Vienne river.  I drove by some caves visible on the hillside today–perhaps the same ones.  These were what the Polish vets I mentioned yesterday guarded.

Today Chinon is pretty much a tourist town, touting the Fortresse and the medieval city at its base as its main attractions.  My dad’s memories are hardly so romantic.  He mainly recalls killing with fire pokers the rats that infested their tarpaper barracks; the GIs would turn out the lights, and when they heard the rats scurrying about they would blind them with flashlights and then bash them with the pokers.  But that was the France of the mid-1950s, recovering from the devastation of WWII, much poorer than today.  The France of the pissoirs.  And I’m sure when my dad was there, they didn’t have Le Tennessee Tex Mex restaurant, complete with a bright yellow promotional “Le Tenessee Tex Mex” car parked in front.  They have one today!–incongruously in the center of the medieval town.  (BTW, Jack Daniels might have a good copyright infringement suit against this place.  Just sayin’.)

But no GIs.  They are long gone.  That’s probably mutually agreeable.

And Chinon is the place that would have wrecked my life, had I been born a girl.  My dad met a woman there whose name was Pierrette.  Now, for some reason, that name struck my dad’s fancy.  He was going to name his first daughter Pierrette.

Pirette Pirrong.  Oh. My. God.  There but for a Y-chromosome go I.

He suggested that name for my girls.  Needless to say that silence was the only reply.

Now Pierrette Plantagenet–there’s a name for you!

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