Book Review: “Charles VII” by M.G. Vale

This volume is an English language biography of King Charles VII of France first published in 1974. As the author states in the Preface, this is not a conventional biography. His intention is to write a study of this enigmatic king by utilizing the evidence in a selective manner. Vale gives a contemporary assessment of Charles as both a king and a man as its starting point. He states in the beginning that there is precious little evidence about this king’s reign as many of the records no longer exist.

The first chapter is an overview of the king and his reign as it is viewed by historians in books from the past and how the reign is viewed in context. Vale then begins with a view of the king’s early years up until his meeting with Joan of Arc and his coronation at Reims. Other chapters recall his relationship with Joan of Arc, his son Louis and the nobility of France. The last part of the book cover his later years and then there is a section on the ceremonial king. Vale recounts several ceremonies Charles VII participated in and ends with a long description of his funeral.

Vale has a great deal of insight into the personality of Charles. Where some historians view him as a weak and fearful king, Vale believes just the opposite. He interprets Charles’ personality as very strong, militarily and politically. He believes the king played the nobles off against each other and elevated and destroyed these men with a political purpose. There is quite a bit in this book about the nobles who surrounded the king and their impact on his reign as well as his mistresses and mignons who lived close to the king and played a role in his life. The last chapter covers the later years of Charles’ reign and how his illnesses affected him and his government.

Personally, I enjoyed the recounting of Charles’ relationship with his son Louis as well as Vale’s views on Charles’ personality. Vale has a lot of information on the illnesses of the king which is fascinating. He has several theories about what Charles suffered from. The highlight of this book is the reprint of a memorandum that Charles dictated to his secretary in response to demands from his son Louis. Louis had left the kingdom of France and didn’t see his father for many years. Charles refuses Louis’ demands for surety of his safety and status at court and questions why Louis is so fearful and suspicious. This is a unique insight into the mind of the king and his tortured relationship with his son. While this book is not a conventional biography, it is most interesting and I recommend it.

Book Review: “Yolande of Aragon (1381-1442) Family and Power” by Zita Eva Rohr

The subtitle of this book is “The Reverse of the Tapestry”. Rohr is using the image of the reverse side of a tapestry to describe the life of Yolande. There were many threads woven by Yolande in her diplomacy during the complicated Hundred Years War.

Yolande is an amazing woman. Born in what is now Spain, she grew up in the cultured and educated court of her parents. Several marriages were discussed for her but she was eventually wed to Louis II, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples. This brought her into the sphere of the Valois kings of France and the infighting of the nobles during the Hundred Years War. Yolande was a competent and able administrator and adept negotiator. Although there is no documented evidence, historians are pretty certain she was instrumental in introducing Joan of Arc to Charles VII, thereby creating a turning point in Charles’ fortunes. Yolande’s motivation throughout all of her life was the advancement of her family.

Rohr’s book is not a conventional biography. In fact, this is an academic work and is aimed mostly at history faculty and graduate students. I found the writing to be pedantic and for the most part off-topic. The order of the information provided is scattered. It wasn’t until the third chapter (the book is only 199 pages long) that we start to get a glimpse of Yolande as a woman and politician. This is the point where the book gets interesting. Perhaps it is due to the lack of sources that we don’t know that much about Yolande.

I would not recommend this book to a casual reader. It is expensive and not an enjoyable read. However, for an historian, Rohr has done her research and lays out what she found in the sources giving us what little is known about Yolande and her interpretation of her life. A conventional biography on this pivotal personality in Angevin and French history has yet to be written.

Book Review: “The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc” by Nancy Goldstone

I have a great deal of respect for Nancy Goldstone as an historian and as a writer. I’ve read of couple of her books and really enjoyed them. This one is no exception.

Goldstone posits her theory that Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily and Duchess of Anjou is responsible for introducing Joan of Arc to King Charles VII during the Hundred Years War. Most historians accept this theory even though there is no written documentation to confirm it. Goldstone tells how the story of Joan of Arc relates to the myth of Melusine, a female figure of European folklore. The story was created for political purposes for the Duke of Berry, uncle of King Charles VI of France to justify his appropriation of certain French castles.

This book tells the basic story of Yolande of Aragon and her political career and the fascinating life of Joan of Arc. Yolande is such a captivating character. She is strong, intelligent, politically savvy and perfectly capable of carrying out all of her intrigues and plans. Yolande’s motivation first and foremost is her family. She marries her daughter Marie to the Dauphin Charles, thereby eventually making her Queen of France. Goldstone gives us all the juicy details.

Although Yolande’s story is interesting, the story of Joan of Arc is enthralling. Goldstone tells us of her upbringing in Domrémy and how this shaped her mission. She tells us all the details of how she tried to gain an audience with Charles VII and of her dangerous journey through Anglo-Burgundian territory to meet him. Joan is given all she needs to fight and she is instrumental in chasing the English from the siege of Orléans thereby saving France from being overrun by the English. Joan was in the fight in armor and wielded her sword.

After some political maneuvering, Joan goes out on her own and is captured by the Duke of Burgundy who sells her to the English. With the help of a French bishop, the English put her through a sham trial and have her executed. All of this is recounted by the author. Nearly thirty years later, there is a reconciliation and Joan’s sentence is overturned by the French. This is history at its best. Goldstone is a master storyteller. I highly recommend this book. Now I must read the other’s on my shelf that are written by her.

Book Review: “Warfare in Medieval Brabant 1356-1406” by Sergio Boffa

After reading Richard Vaughan’s four part series on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, my interest in the history of the Low Countries was piqued. The medieval duchy of Brabant, along with Flanders, Holland, Hainault and Artois were all coveted by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in the mid-to late fourteenth century. Brabant was one of the most powerful of these principalities in the Low Countries and was subject to internal and external turmoil.

Boffa begins this book with a chapter on all the many conflicts experienced by Brabant during this time. John III, Duke of Brabant had no male heir and died leaving three daughters. He named the eldest, Joan as his successor and she married Wenceslas of Luxembourg. Joan would rule Brabant as duchess for almost fifty years, even after the death of her husband. A war of succession broke out after the death of John III. Louis of Male, Count of Flanders was married to Joan’s sister Margaret and thought he had a claim to the duchy. In addition, Brabant was engaged in some attacks on the Duchy of Guelders and other surrounding principalities attacked Brabant. It was a series of long drawn out conflicts. In the end, through alliances, Brabant was drawn into the Hundred Years War and finally succumbed to being annexed into the Burgundian Empire.

After these chapters of overview, Boffa tells us more details about medieval warfare in this era. He covers the place of warfare in the history of Brabant, the causes of war, the different phases of the war and the strategy and tactics. Next he recounts the powers that were engaged in the warfare such as the Duke and the Duchess and their entourage, the household and the Ducal Council. The combatants during the war included the nobility and chivalry of Brabant, the urban militias, mercenaries, the artillery and the specialists.

The most interesting chapters explain the organization of the armies, the revenues of the Duke, the declaration of war and mobilization, the movements of the troops, the means of transport, encampment and lodgings, provisioning, how orders were transmitted and the structure of the army. This is the most interesting part of the book. I found a notable anecdote here. Boffa explains that in the Low Countries, oats were fed to the horses. In the armies of England, the soldiers ate oats! The end of the book has an explanation of the size of the Brabançon army and military obligations and contracts in the Middle Ages. This is most definitely an academic and specialized book but anyone interested in the subject of medieval warfare will find it has substantial details about how armies worked.

Book Review: “The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe 1270-1380” by Malcolm Vale

This is a very informative academic work that considers the historical evidence of court life in the time period listed. Vale looks at the courts of England, Flanders, Brabant, Artois, Hainault and Holland. Interestingly, the first chapter considers the definition of “court” which historians are still discussing to this day. Vale explains there is no definitive definition.

Items discussed in the book include: Organization and structure of medieval princely households, consumption and expenditure, economics and accountancy, transport and logistics, residences and lodgings, court life and culture including courtly pursuits, ritual and ceremony. And finally, court art and style and court patronage. There is an explanation of livery and how the prince delivered clothing or cloth at certain times of the year to servants of the household and the different types of material they were made of. The household was also provided with food, a place to sleep, wood for fires and candles, etc.

Medieval households were rarely static and they traveled between castles and manors and sometimes stayed in inns or monasteries. I enjoyed the discussion on princely court pursuits. Vale talks about how important gambling was at court and playing games of skill and chance. The most popular games were chess, dice and tables. Hunting and the cult of the chase was a leading pursuit. This involved the keeping of horses, hounds and falcons. In addition to providing entertainment, hunting supplied the court with food.

This book has many black and white illustrations to demonstrate the author’s points. The book provides a large collection of charts and tables translated from the primary sources on many different topics and also several appendices. This is a detailed study of court life for anyone interested in the topic.

 

Book Review: “Charles the Bold” by Richard Vaughan

The final volume of Richard Vaughan’s four part series on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy does not disappoint! I have found Charles the Bold to be a fascinating historical personality for many years. Initially I read the biography of him by Ruth Putnam which was written in the early twentieth century. She relied on and quoted only primary sources and it is a really good read. Vaughan’s book is certainly more technical and doesn’t have as much of the personal information on the Duke that Putnam has.

Vaughan mostly concentrates on Charles’ pursuit of warfare and suppression of rebellions which define his rule as Duke of Burgundy. There is a good deal of reference to the hatred between Charles and King Louis XI of France, the subject of quite a bit of interpretation and discussion by historians. I really liked this aspect of the book. He also gives some detail on Charles’ marriages, his personality and his court.

Most interesting of all is the discussion of Charles’ many campaigns and warfare. Vaughan explains where he recruited his troops, how he gathered supplies, how he organized the campaigns and how he had weapons manufactured and delivered. Vaughan describes Charles’ talent and supreme ability to create and publish ordinances and organize troops. However, this didn’t translate into victories on the battlefield for him.

By far the best part of this book is the last few chapters where Vaughan recounts the conflict that arose in what is now Switzerland that resulted in Charles transporting his army there to fight. The descriptions of the last three battles he fought at Grandson, Murten and Nancy are gripping reading and spellbinding history. One has to wonder what motivated Charles to keep on fighting against overwhelming odds. He met his gruesome end at Nancy. They found his frozen body the day after the battle. For all intents and purposes, this was the end of the dynasty of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.

I didn’t want this series to end. These books have to be Richard Vaughan’s magnum opus. They are true masterpieces and I highly recommend all four of these books.

Book Review: “Isabel of Burgundy” by Aline Taylor

The subtitle of this book is “The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471”. I have to confess, I read this book a few years ago while doing some research. Recently, in reading the four volume series of books on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy by Richard Vaughan, I completed the one on Philip the Good and felt like I needed to revisit the life of Isabel in the context of her husband’s life and decided to re-read it.

It is unfortunate there is no definitive biography of Isabel and this book is not meant to be an academic recounting of Isabel’s life. It is a combination of historical fact with a bit of fiction. This is really unfortunate as the author has an academic background and is the former editor of three academic journals and could obviously have done better. Despite the unorthodox style, I found the book enjoyable because Taylor highlights the personal side of Isabel’s life.

Isabel is somewhat exceptional for a medieval woman of royalty. She was the daughter of King John I of Portugal, the first king of the House of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa, the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and son of King Edward III of England. Although there were many possible marriages discussed for her, she didn’t marry until she was in her early thirties. She would be the third wife of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Philip married her for her royal birth, ties to England and Portugal and for her ability to have children.

Isabel fulfilled her childbearing duty and would have three sons, of which only one, Charles, survived. However, Philip got a lot more than he bargained for with Isabel. She was highly intelligent. Her parents had educated her along with her numerous brothers and she was especially adept at accounting and negotiating and arbitration. These excellent skills were put to good use by Philip. He allowed her to negotiate peace and trade treaties for the duration of their marriage. Isabel’s English and Portuguese background would influence her efforts at mediation and facilitate good relations between Burgundy, England and France. Her greatest accomplishment may have been the triumphant marriage of her son Charles with the sister of King Edward IV of England, Margaret of York.

Taylor’s narrative in this book emphasizes Isabel’s accomplishments. There are many twists and turns to this era in Burgundian history, the most significant being the fact that Isabel’s husband sent her on many missions while working behind her back to make alliances and war with France. It’s hard to imagine what kind of tension this brought to Isabel’s marriage but it certainly makes an appealing story. The book is not written in chronological order. There are some footnotes which appear at the end of each chapter but there is no bibliography which is disappointing. Although this is an interesting read, a well written and researched biography remains to be written about this fascinating medieval princess.