Tag Archives: medieval

Joanna, the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldstone

I know quite a lot about England in the late Middle Ages (1100-ish to 1500-ish). I can rattle off kings, battles, works of literature, major and minor social upheavals, geography and demographics, you name it.

I know next to nothing (relatively speaking) about the rest of Europe, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, in that same time period. I vaguely know some of the major points, but just as names, not as details.

This book taught me a lot, in other words. Not just about Joanna, although obviously I knew nothing about her going in, but about Europe outside of England and France during the Hundred Years War. And it was fascinating. The constantly shifting balance of powers between the kingdoms, other non-monarchical countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy – not to mention the Pope versus the Cardinals – was dizzying. And Joanna managed to do that and, mostly, rule alone and keep her power for thirty years.

She had terrible taste in men, though. Her first three husbands were not exactly stable, and each one of them signed treaties and promised faithfully not to interfere with the government of Naples. Of course, as soon as they had the chance, each one of them interfered with the government of Naples. Her first husband was an idiot (possibly in a medical sense) who took advantage of Joanna’s illness to release a notorious murderer from prison, and ended up being murdered. Her second husband was a cousin, who only waited about a month before he started physically abusing her in public. Her third husband had spent half his life in prison, and was mentally affected by that – he also physically abused her and then started wandering the world in search of his own kingdom.

But she managed, somehow. She governed effectively, in the midst of an economic meltdown and a number of Hungarian invasions (her first husband was a cousin, and Hungarian, so they had some claims to the throne), managed to sweet-talk three different Popes into various things, and even controlled Sicily for a while – something the monarchs of Naples had been trying to do for at least 50 years.

The book itself, besides being outrageously informative, is very readable. I powered through it, in part because I couldn’t put it down.  By the end, though, I did notice that Joanna was almost idealised: she didn’t do anything wrong, never made a mistake, was never unreasonable. I didn’t come in with any preconceptions about Joanna (unlike, say, Isabella of France when I read Alison Weir’s biography of her), so I don’t know how balanced the book was or what impressions it was trying to correct. I did feel, by the end, that it wasn’t balanced. I’m sure there were negative things about Joanna, and negative reputations and rumours over the centuries – maybe I’ll seek those out now in an attempt to get a fuller picture. At the very least, I’m pretty sure that some people will have seen her merely as a pawn of the various popes, especially the ones that she got on well with, instead of someone working the system and trying to maintain whatever power and status she had.

It was excellent as an introduction (for me) to “my” time period, outside England. I have added a lot of things to my “must research more” list, including Neapolitan history, the kingship of Jerusalem (Joanna held the title of Queen of Jerusalem, but by now it was an honorific; the lack of information didn’t dim my desire to know more about it at all), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Great Schism.


Filed under Historical

Preliminary thoughts on Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I’m in the middle of reading the first of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Raven King trilogy, Hood. It’s a slightly different take on the Robin Hood story – it’s set in Wales. This is causing me a slight amount of hesitation.

I have nothing against Wales. I think Wales is wonderful and I want to go there someday. But Robin Hood is from Nottinghamshire. Maybe South Yorkshire. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be.

Oh, Lawhead has a relatively persuasive argument about why the “original” Robin Hood might have been from Wales – citing the Saxon and then Norman-now-English adaptation of Arthur as a national hero as precedent. But the two cases are not entirely similar – and, to me at least, not similar enough to make it a fully logical connection.

The biggest problem I have with his argument is the assumption that the Robin Hood stories couldn’t have been original to the early 13th century. I don’t know why it’s always assumed that people of the Middle Ages weren’t original and creative thinkers, but that seems to be one of the underlying themes: the stories must come from an earlier source because there’s no way there would have been inspiration in the 13th century.

Yes, it’s true that most of what we think we know about the Robin Hood stories are later (sometimes much later) additions and interpretations. Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks have a lot to answer for. But the ballads themselves reflect quite a lot of 13th and 14th century ideas about life, authority, humour, etc – why try to dismiss them or cram them into an earlier culture?

And, even more, there’s one aspect of Lawhead’s interpretation that doesn’t help: the very name of his main character. His “Robin” is Rhi Bran, a prince of one of the Welsh “kingdoms”. I don’t know enough about Welsh history outside the English occupation to know how valid a Welsh kingdom is on its own, but it’s made pretty clear in the book that “Rhi” is a title. He is Prince Bran. The phonetic resemblance isn’t enough for me to justify turning “Rhi Bran” into Robin. Robin is, and has always been, a nickname for Robert – a name meaning “fame-bright”. Bran means “Raven”. It fits with the “raven king” idea that Lawhead has come up with. It doesn’t fit with the story he’s trying to adapt.

And it’s even more glaring when many of the other names are Welsh variants on the familiar names: Iwan = John, Merian = Marian, etc. But Robin, the main figure, has a name so different that it jars on me every time I read it.

There may be a point later in the trilogy where Bran inherits something more closely related to “Robert”, which would go a long way toward appeasing my onomastic nature. But for right now, it’s proving to be a minor hindrance in my enjoyment of the book.

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Filed under Historical

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris

I like the thirteenth century. To be honest, I like the period generally called “The Middle Ages” but especially the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. I know quite a lot about the general events of these few centuries. I am always looking for more, though; it’s the nature of the obsession.

I’ve been wanting to learn more about the Edwards for quite a while, too. Edwards I and III are so pivotal in English history; I felt a little bit guilty that I didn’t know their life stories off by heart. So I got this biography of Edward I a while ago, and picked it up last week.

And I couldn’t put it down. It’s a period that I’m interested in, sure, but the book itself is captivating. Morris takes the narrative chronologically through Edward I’s life, focusing in a big way on his international presence. The Crusades, Scotland, Wales, France, Castile….Edward I was a busy king. His military and financial motivations are described in amazing detail, and you understand the complete justification that he felt about attacking Wales and Scotland.

There are no frustrations with this biography – well, not in what it does present. The frustration that I felt came at the behaviours and mores of the thirteenth century: the xenophobia that led to the difficulties in Ireland (they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use their laws! but they’re barbarians, so we can’t let them use our laws! No wonder the politics were messed up for so long), the greed combined with xenophobia that led to the expulsion of the Jews, the tension between family and politics (he’s my cousin/friend, but also my overlord, except that I don’t want him to be, etc.)

The one thing lacking in this book (for me, a romantic and a feminist) is more description of Edward’s personal life. We get quite a lot about Edward’s friends and alliances, but not quite as much as I would have liked about his relationship with Eleanor or with his second wife, Margaret of France. They’re not completely ignored or anything, but for such a passionate relationship (Eleanor) and one of the best-known memorials except for the Taj Mahal (the Eleanor Crosses), there’s not really a lot about Eleanor. And there’s almost nothing about Margaret of France – the alliance where they marry is mentioned, and then she vanishes until “by this time, a child had been born.” Presumably she must have had some presence in his life, for them to have had several children, but she’s essentially invisible in the narrative.

But it’s not really a flaw of the book; it is not pretending to be a comprehensive study of Edward the husband and lover. It does claim to be the story of “The Forging of Britain” – the story of how Britain began to be the political and geographical entity it is today. And the narrative does that. Edward I conquered Wales, took over Scotland (against the will of its current nobility), agreed to hold the first regular Parliaments, held the first Parliaments with commoner – or less high nobility, at least – participation, participated in overseas wars that a different country started (….in the Middle East….couched in pseudo-religious terms……sound familiar?). Almost everything that defines Britain as it is today began in the reign of Edward I, and the book does an exceptionally captivating job of describing it.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)