Book Review: “Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe” by Bethany Aram

Juana the mad book cover

Earlier this year I read two biographies of Isabella of Castile by Liss and Downey. Liss doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Isabella’s children but Downey has a great chapter on her progeny, especially Juana. So the debate about Juana is whether she was insane or not and Downey writes quite a bit about Juana’s abominable treatment by her father and husband, basically saying Juana was not mad. I was intrigued and looked at the notes and bibliography section and found Downey referenced this book. So I purchased a copy.

Bethany Aram is a professor of Spanish and European history at the Institute of International Studies, Seville, Spain. This book is one in a series of the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science. Aram spent many years in archival research and draws upon recent scholarship. Aram gives us a biography of Juana’s life along with a study in royal authority in the Renaissance.

Aram puts Juana’s life entirely in perspective for the times. The first section of the book explains several aspects of royal authority in Renaissance Europe. The sovereigns’ household was a microcosm of the government of the country. In this respect, Juana never had control of her own household. It was first controlled by her mother, then her husband, followed by her father and finally her son. Secondly, the sovereign was viewed as having two bodies: their personal bodies and their monarchical body. Juana was held as a virtual captive which didn’t allow her to bodily rule. Thirdly, a sovereign ruled by alternating fear and love. Aram gives a complete explanation of these concepts and how they applied to Juana’s situation.

Aram quotes all primary sources. Throughout the rest of the book, she weaves conventional biographical information along with putting Juana’s life into the context of the times. Juana was third in line for the throne and was not prepared to take the reins of government. When the time came, she was either unwilling or unable to take control. The political situation in Spain was not stable and would have taken a strong monarch to rule.

Aram gives us a jaw-dropping picture of Juana’s treatment by those who wished to control her and rule in her place. The descriptions of her life in Burgundy, her treatment by her husband Philip, her captivity in Tordesillas, Spain by her father and later her son are amazing to read. She had no say in who worked in her household her entire life. Philip was the epitome of the abusive husband, not allowing her enough money to even eat sometimes, let alone run her household.

Under the domination of her father after Philip died, she was a prisoner with no outlet. Some officials tried to get her to sign away her rights as queen but she always found an excuse not to sign. She complained loudly about those who had control of her household and greatly mistreated her. Aram gives an impressive explanation of why Juana held on to the body of Philip. She wanted to bury him in the family mausoleum of Granada for dynastic reasons and for political motivations, her father didn’t agree. Aram says there is only one chronicler who describes Juana opening Philip’s coffin. She explains this might have been to confirm his body was still there, not some kind of macabre obsession.

After the death of Ferdinand, Juana’s son Charles maintained her position in captivity. When a group of rebels gained access to her and tried to persuade her to rule in her own right, she basically signed no documents to that effect and kept her son in power. While her behavior may not have been royal and eccentric for the times, it doesn’t appear she was mentally ill. She either didn’t want to rule or was unprepared and chose not to rule.

I found this book fascinating and a real eye-opener. It’s not entirely an easy read as the academic explanations of Renaissance sovereignty are complex and deep. But it sets the backdrop and once the reader gets to the descriptions of Juana’s life, it’s a real page turner. If you want to know the true story of Juana of Castile, I recommend this book.

One thought on “Book Review: “Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe” by Bethany Aram

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile” by Julia Fox | The Freelance History Writer Notes and Reviews

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