Eleanor of Arborea

“Sardinian women are amusing, so brisk and defiant.

They have straight backs, like little walls and decided, well-drawn eyebrows.

They are amusingly on the alert.

Like sharp, brisk birds they dart along the streets.

You feel they would fetch you a bang over the head as leave as look at you.

Tenderness, thank heaven, does not seem to be a Sardinian quality.

Here, men don’t idealize women, by the look of things.

Here they don’t make these great leering eyes, the inevitable yours-to-command look of mainland Italian males.

When the men look at these women, then it is “Mind yourself, my lady.”

These women have to look out for themselves, keep their own backbone stiff and their knuckles hard.

Man is going to be male Lord IF he can.

Woman isn’t going to give him too much of his own way, either.

The Sardinian isn’t looking for the “noble woman nobly planned”.

No, thank you.

He wants that young madam over there, young stiff-necked generation that she is.

In these women there is something shy and defiant and un-get-able.

The defiant, splendid split between the sexes, each absolutely determined to defend his/her side from assault.

So the meeting has a certain, wild, salty savor, each the deadly unknown to the other.

And at the same time, each his/her own native pride and courage, taking the dangerous leap and scrambling back.”

D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia

“Elenore, gee I think you’re swell
And you really do me well
You’re my pride and joy, et cetera”
The Turtles, “Elenore” (1968)

When this song was released I wonder if Sardinia took it to its heart, for almost every town has a street named after Eleanor of Arborea, buildings bear her name and statues commemorate her “likeness”.

Eleanor of Arborea (Sardinian: Elianora de Bas; Catalan: Elionor d’Arborea or Elionor de Molins de Rei; 6 June 1347 – 23 September 1404) was the iuyghissa (“female judge” or Queen in Sardinian language) of Arborea from 1383 to her death.

She was one of the last, most powerful and significant Sardinian judges, as well as the island’s most renowned heroine.

Eleanor is a fascinating figure in many respects.

First of all, she was an independent, strong-willed and ambitious, woman.

She never submitted to anyone: not to her brother, not to her husband, not to the Doge of Genoa, not even to the king of Aragon.

In Sardinia women were traditionally considered less submitted to men than it was common in Europe.

Secondly, Eleanor was a champion of Sardinian independence:

She fought to reassert the island’s right to be ruled by local people.

Eleanor was the princess-judge (“giudichessa”) of Arborea, the most important region of 14th century Sardinia.

The island of Sardinia, though scarcely populated, due to its position in the middle of the Mediterranean was coveted as a prize by the main naval powers of the time: Genoa, Pisa and Barcelona in the Crown of Aragon.

At the beginning of the second millennium Sardinia was organized in four small states, called “giudicati”.

The Italian maritime republic of Pisa succeeded in taking over most of the island, with the exception of the “giudicato” of Arborea, in the west.

The Catalans from Barcelona and from the Kingdom of Aragon, in Spain, were also interested in the island.

In 1297 they obtained Sardinia from the Pope as a feudal possession.

This only meant they had a “right to conquer” it.

With the help of Arborea, the Catalans succeeded in expelling the Pisans, yet their relationship remained ambiguous:

While Arborea considered itself an ally of the Catalans, the king of Aragon regarded it as a vassal state.

Marianus IV, father of Eleanor, was a successful ruler.

He was raised at the royal court in Barcelona.

He then proved himself by developing a small territory outside Arborea, granted to him by the king of Aragon.

He kept an elegant and cosmopolitan court, and was beloved by his subjects.

Marianus married a Catalan lady and had three children.

The oldest, Ugone (Hugh) III, brother of Eleanor, succeeded him in 1376.

He was quite different from his father.

His manners were rough and his court almost “rustic”.

In March 1383 he was killed in a local uprising and confusion ensued:

Arborea risked being broken down or taken over by the Catalans.

Eleanor was born around 1340.

During her childhood, she was raised with a natural tendency towards war and weapons.

The first documents about her, from 1382, show her married and with one child.

She probably spent her early years with her parents between Catalonia and Arborea.

In 1382 she asked the Doge (duke) of Genoa for permission to reside in the city.

Genoa gladly accepted Eleanor, the already well-known rich daughter of Marianus of Arborea.

In the same period Eleanor, through a delegate, betrothed her son Frederic to the daughter of the Doge.

The wedding, however, never took place.

When Ugone was brutally killed in 1383, Eleanor rushed to Arborea, taking the situation into her own hands.

Eleanor inherited from her father the ability to be loved by her subjects.

She took care of legislative and administrative issues.

She kept Arborea strong, organized and well ruled.

Eleanor defeated the rebels and became regent to her infant son Frederick, who as the next male heir became the official monarch of Arborea.

Eleanor fought bravely to keep her land independent.

Again, the situation was ambiguous:

Eleanor acted as if Arborea was independent, while the Catalans still regarded it as a vassal state.

The Catalan council took note that her son Frederick had been confirmed by the people of Sardinia as future prince (“giudice”)..

The “Giudichessa” and her husband valiantly expanded the territory of Arborea, repelling adversaries.

For the next four years Arborea was at war with the Crown of Aragon, which claimed the island.

It lost much of its Sardinian possessions to Eleanor.

By fighting against local aristocrats, Catalans, cities striving for independence and all kinds of opponents, she won back in three months most of the territory, counting on the loyalty of her subjects.

Arborea obtained almost all of the island during this war.

Frederick died during this war and was succeeded by her younger son Marianus IV.

Eleanor proved a successful ruler and signed a treaty with the Catalans in 1388.

The most important heritage of Eleanor is clearly the “Carta de Logu”: a written body of legislation, combining customs and tradition.

The famous “Carta de Logu” was promulgated between 1392 and 1395, and came into force in April 1395.

The “Carta de Logu” was an extraordinary piece of legislation.

The laws reflected the advanced level of civilization in Sardinia, an island fighting for independence and for its traditions.

It allowed justice to be dispensed uniformly throughout the entire island.

It was considered to be far in advance of the laws of other countries, the penalty for most crimes being a fine and the property rights of women being preserved.

It was adopted by subsequent rulers and remained valid for over four centuries.

It regulated several matters of economic, civil and criminal nature.

In some areas, such as the rules protecting women, it appears pretty modern for that time.

Copies of it were available in every city or village, allowing control from the population and a uniform enforcement of the law.

It remained in use for over four centuries, almost until the Unification of Italy.

Eleanor was particularly interested in ornithology.

As a friend of birds, she was the first to legislate protection to the falcon.

There is an “Eleanor falcon”: a homage paid to the Giudichessa by a 19th-century ornithologist.

Little is known about Eleanor afterwards.

In Sardinia she certainly lived in Oristano and traveled around.

A few years after Eleanor’s death, the Catalans, that later became part of a united Spain, took over Sardinia and erased the “giudicato” of Arborea.

The Spanish, however, did not abolish the “Carta de Logu”, which remained valid until 1827.

After her death, the “Sardinian “kings” resided hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The myth of Eleanor stayed alive with her “Carta de Logu”, although little else was remembered about her.

When in the 19th century regional pride was revived, she became again a champion of Sardinian independence and a symbol for Sardinia.

All the images “portraying” Eleanor are false likenesses created in modern times.

There is even a Roman sculpture “transformed” into Eleanor, holding her laws in one hand.

A bas-relief was recently found, possibly portraying her with her father, her brother and her husband.

Eleanor was a fair and capable princess, fighting enemies and wisely ruling her subjects, who loved her.

She became the symbol of Sardinian independence, and she is fully entitled to be called a Queen.


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