Book Review: “Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500) by R.C. Famiglietti


This book was listed as a reference which I found while researching Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of King Charles VI of France. I happened to find a used copy of the book although it wasn’t cheap. There is an interesting section on her in which he describes her as the “perfect wife”. I decided to read the whole book.

Published in 1992, this is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I love French history. What makes this book unique is it delves into the lives of the people of France, from royalty down to ordinary people. It’s more of a social history. Most of the stories related deal with the nobility including the petty nobility. As it states on the book cover, “The vignettes, episodes in the lives of married couples, allow us to observe the vast panorama of life in medieval France and to explore the mores, attitudes, and concerns of the time.”

Sections of the book deal with the following topics: incest, choosing a mate, negotiating a marriage, weddings, elopements and abductions, mistresses and bastards, adultery, abuse, murdering a mate, the perfect husband and the perfect wife. Some of these tales are gruesome. In some of these instances, there were court cases brought to justice. This gives Famiglietti a chance to describe the workings of the justice system in medieval France. These stories definitely give us a glimpse of the status of women during this time period and it certainly isn’t pretty.

I especially liked the description of a wedding in Bordeaux in 1460. One episode relates a ghastly tale of a wife being murdered by her husband. There’s a long drawn out case of incest in the fourteenth century. There’s a description of a marriage where the husband beat his wife and one where the wife was kept locked up in a tower. All of these are true tales which Famiglietti found in historical sources.

This book has a map of medieval France, an extensive bibliography, sixty-eight black and white plates depicting some of the characters in the stories along with extensive explanations for the illustrations. This book is well researched, well written and fascinating to read. Famiglietti also wrote a book about royal intrigue during the reign of King Charles VI. I’m looking for a copy of that one for a reasonable price.

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


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

Adams Isabeau cover

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.