English Ph.D. Dissertations


Deliberative Rhetoric in the Twelfth Century: The Case for Eleanor of Aquitaine, Noblewomen, and the Ars Dictaminis

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English (Rhetoric and Writing)

First Advisor

Sue Wood (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

James Murphy (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Lance Massey (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Melissa Miller (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Bruce Edwards (Committee Member)


Medieval rhetoric has been negatively cast in traditional histories of rhetoric, and the role of women in the history of rhetoric and literate practice has been significantly underplayed and has been remiss in historicizing medieval women's activities from the early and High Middle Ages. Deliberative rhetoric, too, has been significantly neglected as a division, a practice, and a genre of the medieval rhetorical tradition. This dissertation demonstrates that rhetoric in the twelfth century as practiced by women, was, in fact, highly public, civic, agonistic, designed for oral delivery, and concerned with civic matters at the highest levels of medieval culture and politics. It does so by examining letters from and to medieval women that relate to political matters in futuro, examining the roles created for women and the appeals used by women in their letters. It focuses special attention on the rhetoric of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but also many other female rhetors in the ars dictaminis tradition in the long twelfth century. In so doing, it shows that the earliest roots of rhetoric and writing instruction in fact pervaded a large number of political and diplomatic practices that were fundamentally civic and deliberative in nature. Noble women, and Eleanor of Aquitaine in particular, were actively engaged in prospective decision making at the highest levels of society, their deliberative and hortatory rhetoric mediated by the genre of the letter and the technology of writing. Issues in the historiography of rhetoric that have vexed the field for decades, such as the role of excluded or marginalized groups and their rhetorical traditions, or significant disciplinary lacunae on periods such as the Middle Ages, are addressed with a new analytical framework with heuristic applications, using cultural-historic activity theory modified from the work of Paul Prior. By using this analytic, the rhetorical traditions of women that have been lost to us can be identified, analyzed and contextualized in the historical milieu they operated in. I show evidence of significant connections to the classical rhetorical tradition are evidenced in letters from and to noble women, and Eleanor's appeals to Celestine III fall squarely in traditional appeals deriving from deliberative topoi in the Rhetorica Ad Herrennium and De Inventione relating to the four primary virtues, and theoretically square with ideas about deliberative rhetoric in the twelfth century which medieval thinkers described as consilium. Eleanor's letters show how these appeals related to the virtues operated in the medieval rhetorical tradition and pervaded medieval thinking, beginning with Alcuin. The significance and relevance of Eleanor of Aquitaine and noble women in the twelfth century in deliberative rhetoric enriches and explains the women's roles in the beginnings of composition and its relationship to civic engagement, international diplomacy before 1300, and the idea of deliberative rhetoric itself. Eleanor's rhetorical appeals are also significant evidence of the history of women and the largely uncharted waters of deliberative processes and hortatory persuasion in the Middle Ages