Book Review: “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan

This book is the second in the series of four by Richard Vaughan on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. The subtitle for this volume is “The Growth of Burgundian Power”. In the first book about John’s father Philip the Bold, Vaughan recounts how the Valois gained ownership of the duchy and county of Burgundy as well as other properties and the formation of the Burgundian state. This book details how John the Fearless enlarged that state.

John the Fearless is the most fascinating of the Burgundian dukes for me so far. It was during his tenure as duke that much of what is now the Low Countries came under Burgundian control. John was also a major player in the conflicts of the kingdom of France under the mad King Charles VI. John believed he had the right to act as regent during the king’s illnesses and he wasn’t about to let anyone stand in his way. He even went so far as to have the king’s brother Louis, Duke of Orleans murdered in the streets of Paris at night in 1407. This was considered a most shocking act. Most importantly, he never was forced to officially pay for the crime.

John’s reign as duke is filled with warfare, treachery, murder, mayhem, mistresses and illegitimate children. John gained his soubriquet “the Fearless” after a murderous battle he won over the rebellious subjects of the city of Liège on the field of Othée in what is now Belgium. In a chapter entitled “The Means to Power”, Vaughan goes into meticulous detail about the finances, the civil service and the Burgundian army. Some may find this dry material but I found it to be intriguing. There is even a chapter on how John’s wife Margaret of Bavaria ruled Burgundy on his behalf while he engaged in empire building elsewhere.

The last chapter concerns the assassination of John the Fearless on the bridge of Montereau in 1419. This came about due to John’s active interference in the government of France. He made many enemies due to his calculated murder of the Duke of Orleans. And the Dauphin Charles (the future King Charles VII) sided with the Duke’s enemies, the Armagnacs from the French civil war. Vaughan states there are many versions of the assassination on the bridge that create much confusion. But he has scrutinized all the sources and come up with common themes and consistencies to figure out the true course of events. For him, there is no doubt the murder was meticulously planned and the Dauphin, whether he delivered any real blows or not, was responsible for the outcome.

I find there is nothing better than French medieval history. This book is easy to read and jam-packed with detail and absorbing stories about an eccentric if not deranged personality. Moving on to read about John the Fearless’ son Philip the Good.

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.