Book Review: “Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI 1392-1420” by R.C. Famiglietti

Ever since I finished reading “Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500)” by R. C. Famiglietti, I’ve been searching for a copy of “Royal Intrigue”. I wasn’t having any luck as no library near me had a copy and the rare copies I could find for sale were ridiculously expensive. With persistence, I kept checking various used book outlets and as luck would have it, I found an affordable used copy of this book.

Famiglietti’s approach to history and his writing style are very hard to resist. And the subject of the mental health of King Charles VI France intrigues me greatly. It stands to reason any insight into the illness of Charles VI would have a bearing on that of his grandson, King Henry VI of England who suffered a similar disorder. As I opened the book, it became clear I had hit the jackpot. The first chapter is titled “The Mental Disorder of Charles VI”.

While it is impossible for anyone to diagnose a subject that lived over six hundred years ago, Famiglietti gives a very convincing argument. He first recounts the historical records from the chroniclers who describe Charles VI’s behavior to come up with a list of symptoms. He then consults with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to see what illness matches these symptoms. His theory is some form of schizophrenia because he exhibited three out of the five defining factors for this illness. Within the diagnosis of schizophrenia, there are several different types. Charles exhibited symptoms that overlapped with these different types but Famiglietti recognizes an underlying theme: persecutory delusions.

After doing this detective work in psychiatry, Famiglietti gets to work writing about the different factions at the French court and how they schemed and plotted to take power while the king was incapacitated and how his persecutory delusions dictated the king’s reactions to these different schemes and events. Here we meet the major characters: Louis of Orléans and his son Charles, Duc d’Orléans, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, the Dauphin Louis, Duc de Guyenne, the king’s eldest son, King Henry V of England and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy to name only the most important.

The opening salvo is the first psychotic episode Charles suffered in the summer of 1392 when he went berserk and killed four or five people. While he never had another attack this severe, for the rest of his life he moved in and out of calm and manic bouts, all the while suffering from the persecutory delusions. Famiglietti knows his sources and is able to reconstruct the history day by day if not down to the hour. He can tell when the king was having a good and bad day with his illness. He mentions letters which were issued either only in the king’s name or with the king and the council or letters written by other parties in the fight. He sometimes tells us where the principal character ate dinner and when they left to travel elsewhere in the kingdom. He has such wonderful insight into the personalities of the main players and even corrects other historian’s work where he thinks they have been mistaken in their conclusions.

All of this is pretty fascinating stuff! He covers the murder of Louis of Orléans and the assassination of John the Fearless. He explains the circumstances that led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Other than the first chapter on the mental illness of the king, the best chapter is the one in which he describes the Cabochien Uprising of 1413. The royal family must have been scared out of their wits when John the Fearless goaded the butchers and other merchants to revolt. They entered the actual palaces and even took prisoner some of the Dauphin’s servants and had them executed. The Dauphin would work against the Burgundians and the Armagnacs from that point forward until his untimely death shortly afterward.

I loved this book just as much as the “Tales of the Marriage Bed”. In doing some research into R.C. Famiglietti, I was unable to find out any information on the man himself. He was a professor at the City University of New York when he wrote these books in the 1980’s but I have no idea where is now. He is a very unique and innovative historian as well as a great writer. I plan on digging to see if he wrote any other books or articles and try to read more.

Book Review: “The Sister Queens: Isabella & Catherine de Valois” by Mary McGrigor

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There is very little existing historical information on Isabella and Catherine de Valois. Both were the daughters of King Charles VI and Queen Isabeau of France and both women were Queens of England. This book reflects this sparsity of information.

If you are expecting lots of detail of the lives of these two women, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are looking for compelling medieval French and English history, this book fits the bill. McGrigor puts these women into their context and fills in the blanks with good storytelling about the early lives of Isabella and Catherine. Isabella’s husband Richard II lost control of his government and was forced to abdicate the throne to his cousin Henry IV. It took some time but Isabella was finally allowed to return to France and was married to her cousin Charles of Orleans who was much younger than Isabella. This may have turned out to be a successful marriage according to McGrigor. Isabella had a daughter Jane and then died shortly after giving birth. McGrigor continues the story of Jane in this book.

Catherine was the youngest daughter of Charles and Isabeau. Her story is woven within the context of the Hundred Years War and the aggression of King Henry V of England who she eventually married. McGrigor gives us a good accounting of the life of Catherine in England and also of the politics in France during the reign of Catherine’s son Henry VI who was King of France as well as King of England. These details give the reader a good understanding into what led up to the Wars of the Roses in England.

However, I do have a few issues with this book. McGrigor is perpetuating the myth of the bad reputation of Isabeau of Bavaria of being a bad mother, having many lovers and being dissolute. This has all been debunked by several historians. The other issue that is a problem is the many grammatical and typographical errors in this book. I would venture to guess about a third of the dates are transposed and incorrect. For example, a date which should read 1422 reads 1522 or 1322. The History Press is doing a disservice by either not hiring editors to correct these errors or if they do hire editors, they do a terrible job. These issues aside, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in English and French medieval history.

Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England” by Helen E. Maurer

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In the course of my research on English queens, I searched for a biography of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI. There appears to be no contemporary biography of her which in itself is interesting but I did find this book. It’s not a recounting of her life in a biographical sense however but a thought provoking examination of Queenship and power in medieval England.

The author says she was introduced to Margaret of Anjou by seeing a performance of a Shakespearean play in Central Park in New York City. Later, while studying in school for a doctorate, she found an article where an historian called for an examination of Margaret’s role in the political upheaval in England now known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up writing this book.

This is not an easy read as it is definitely an academic exercise. She describes the role of a medieval queen in many different spheres such as motherhood, intervention and mediation, and aiding her retainers. A medieval queen, especially one of foreign origin, could never rule directly. Any influence she had would be through her husband the king.

Maurer tells us about Margaret’s upbringing which in many ways was extraordinary. She was highly educated and due to the influence of her formidable grandmother Yolande of Aragon, learned statecraft. Her marriage to King Henry VI came with great expectations of peace between England and France after the devastation of the Hundred Years War. When Margaret came to England as a teenager, her entrance into was celebrated with hopeful allegory. Maurer gives us a long description of these celebrations.

It was only after Margaret bore a son that she started to come into her own. At the same time of her pregnancy, her husband succumbed to madness throwing the government of the realm into chaos. Margaret did what she could to preserve the power of her husband and secure the interests of him, herself and her son, working within the boundaries of a medieval queen. Despite her best efforts, there was infighting and backstabbing among the nobility who were doing the best they could to preserve their own self interests.

In the end, Margaret became the figurehead of the House of Lancaster and even led her own troops. This was not really within the realm of the powers of a medieval queen as Maurer argues here. For better or worse, Margaret did the best she could and ended up losing everything. She just couldn’t overcome the restrictions placed on her as a medieval queen.

Maurer makes some very cogent and logical arguments here. She has some insight into the men Margaret was up against in her fight to preserve the power and prestige of her family. As stated, if you are looking for a conventional biography, this book isn’t it. But I would still recommend it if you have an interest in medieval royal women’s position, function and responsibility in history.

Book Review: “The Hundred Years War: A People’s History” by David Green

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As much as I love English and French medieval history, my knowledge of the Hundred Years War is minimal. I found this book in the bookstore and loved the concept of viewing the war from the people’s perspective. The book appears to be a selection of lectures Green has given regarding different aspects of the war and there is some repetition in some sections. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first chapter is an overview of the highlights of the war starting with the events leading up to King Edward III’s claim to the French throne. The war begins with raids and guerilla methods and then develops into battles (Poitiers, Crecy, and Agincourt), sieges and occupations. Other chapters address the mentality of the era such as chivalry and how it influenced the tactics of the conflict and the taking and ransoming of prisoners of war. There is some good information on how the introduction of artillery influenced military operations.

Green gives us great information on how the war affected different classes of people. Chapters are devoted to knights and nobles, the peasantry, the church and the clergy, soldiers and women. I especially enjoyed the section on women. One of the most interesting chapters is about the madness of kings. The proceedings of the war were influenced by the mental illness of two kings, Charles VI of France and Henry VI of England. There were also men who tried to broker peace which Green discusses.

In addition, Green tells us about the mechanics of occupation and how the war helped create national identities. I like how he explains what happened for both nations. The hardback edition of the book I have includes family trees for the Plantagenets, the Valois and the Lancastrians. There are maps of France denoting raids and occupied areas as well as a section of black and white photos depicting important people of the war. Green’s writing is a little academic but easy to read. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in medieval warfare and its history.

Book Review: “The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria” by Tracy Adams

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This is in no way a conventional biography of this German princess who was the wife of the mentally unstable King Charles VI of France and mother of King Charles VII in the early fifteenth century. This book is part of a series called “Rethinking Theory”. The author’s mission is to examine how Isabeau’s reputation as a reasonably competent regent and mediator came cascading down through the centuries until it was believed she was wallowing in debauchery.

Isabeau’s husband began suffering from periods of insanity and while he was ill, she would take on the role of regent for her husband and promoter and protector of her son the dauphin with the explicit trust and authorization of Charles by official ordinance. Her husband’s illness put Isabeau in unique and tenuous position. This period of French history was filled with strife as Armagnacs and Burgundians looked to take over control of the government from the ailing king while the English waged war and encroached on French territory. Adams explains medieval queens were allowed to perform the role of intercessor and mediator in various conflicts and Isabeau served as a mediator during these dark days of war and feuding among the nobility.

Adams gives us a chronology of the Queen’s life and roles throughout the book and examines all the chronicles and sources from the contemporary to the present day. She explains the various slanderous aspects of Isabeau’s reputation that appear in the sources. Then she dissects the origins of these slanders and gives plausible explanations for why they are inaccurate. There are no contemporary records of the Queen engaging in debauchery, having affairs or being obese. Also there is no evidence her household servants engaged in scandalous behavior. Adams says what biased passages in the chronicles that do exist had their source in the Queen’s enemies, namely the Burgundians. These slanders have been repeated over and over by historians for hundreds of years without footnotes and references.

The author is very clear in explaining the position of the feuding nobles and giving highlights of the history and Isabeau’s position during the troubles. She gives good arguments for her points and quotes the relevant passages from the chronicles in French as well as English. The book is full of exceedingly thought-provoking information and as a reference book on the roles of medieval queens it’s a tremendous resource. I learned a lot about this complicated and intriguing era of French history and Adams is good at defending her arguments. I highly recommend this book. It’s a terrific read.