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.

Book Review: “Isabella: The Warrior Queen” by Kirstin Downey

Isabella the Warrior Queen book cover

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Spain recently! There were two biographies of Isabella of Castile on my book shelf and I’ve now completed reading both of them. My interest in Isabella is a result of my lifelong love of Tudor history and the fact that Isabella was the mother of Catherine of Aragon. I tackled Peggy Liss’ biography first which was very interesting. Downey’s book is also a worthy read.

Downey explains in her afterword that she has a lifelong fascination in the life of Isabella. When she was a young girl living in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone, she was captivated by the ruins of Spanish buildings which have existed since the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Panama was a trade hub for the shipping of the treasures from the New World to Spain and beyond.

While Liss’ biography is an academic work with exceptional detail, Downey has a different, but still relevant approach to Isabella’s life. She writes about the life events of the Queen, sometimes giving a keen insight into her life and at other times giving an overall picture. There is a little more detail in Downey’s book about Christopher Columbus and his voyages and their impact on Spain as well as the entire world.

Downey covers some new material here as well. She describes the cannibalism the Europeans discovered in the Caribbean and tells us about the possible origin of the sexually transmitted disease of syphilis coming from the New World. She also believes, based on her own journalistic work, that there was a history of sexual abuse in Isabella’s family.

There is some good information about Isabella’s children, especially Prince Juan and her daughter Juana. I particularly enjoyed the details of the life of Juana. Personally, I go back and forth on whether Juana was actually mentally ill or a victim of the men around her. Downey makes the case that Juana was perfectly sane but was unprepared and untrained in how to rule. Juana just wasn’t up to the task. There are some great descriptions about how Juana’s husband, the Archduke Philip, basically abused Juana as well as accounts of how her father plotted to take the throne of Castile from her. This is some really intriguing information and I may have to look into the biographies of Juana listed in the bibliography.

Isabella was an accomplished administrator and a warrior. There are many things to admire about her. But there is also a dark side to her personality. Even taking into account the mindset of medieval and Renaissance Spain, Isabella’s personality is full of religious fervor and rigidity. This leads to some objectionable events during her reign such as the mistreatment and exile of Jews and Muslims as well as the evils of the Spanish Inquisition. Downey argues the Inquisition was mostly the brainchild of Isabella’s husband Ferdinand and he used it for his own purposes for political gains and to increase his personal wealth.

I don’t want to get into a comparison between Downey’s and Liss’ work as both books have their own merits. I will say that Downey’s work is an easier and more enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. Reading both books gives a complete historical rendering of the life of this extraordinary Queen.

Book Review: “Isabel the Queen: Life and Times” by Peggy K. Liss

Liss Isabel the Queen cover

My knowledge of Queen Isabel of Castile is very limited. She is remembered for the Reconquista, the Spanish Inquisition and of course for sponsoring the voyages of Christopher Columbus. And being a fan of Tudor history, I knew of her as the mother of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. But I’m interested in knowing more so I’m reading a couple of biographies about her, including this one.

Ms. Liss wrote this book in honor of the 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in North America and a revised edition was released in 2004 for the 500th anniversary of Isabel’s death. It is an academic work, printed by the University of Pennsylvania Press and has been on my shelf for some time. Liss is an expert on Isabel and the book is filled with many great details about the era and Isabel’s reign and personal life.

This is a comprehensive work. As I don’t know much about Spanish history, the short timeline Liss gives is most appreciated. Liss writes a great deal about Isabel’s motivations for her actions as monarch in the context of the history of Spain and she is possibly a bit of an apologist for Isabel. I realize we shouldn’t put our 21st century sensibilities onto an older era. But much of what Isabel did was repugnant as many of the aspects of this book describe.

There is also much to admire about Isabel. She and Ferdinand had something very rare; a loving marriage. She was adamant that her children be educated too, especially her daughters, giving them something she lacked as a child. Isabel worked very hard at consolidating government on the Iberian Peninsula and administering justice. While executing war on various surrounding kingdoms, Isabel acted as quartermaster, raising funds and supplies and getting them to the theater of operations. Basically, whatever Fernando needed, she delivered. When asked by her husband, she would appear before the troops to lift their spirits.

I loved the description of Isabel’s first meeting with her future husband Fernando of Aragon. It was quite romantic. There is an honest assessment of her relationship with her daughter Juana, also known as Juana la Loca. While Isabel knew Juana had mental difficulties, she followed tradition and wrote in her will that she was to succeed her as Queen of Castile. The epilogue of the book describes how a lot of Isabel’s lifetime work for Spain was undone by Juana.

To be honest, Liss’ grammar and syntax are dense and a little hard to read. This is not a curl up with the cat and cuppa tea read and is more suited for historical research. But I still recommend it if you want to learn more about this complex and admirable queen as the details of her reign are extraordinary. On to the next biography.