Book Review: “Charles VII” by M.G. Vale

This volume is an English language biography of King Charles VII of France first published in 1974. As the author states in the Preface, this is not a conventional biography. His intention is to write a study of this enigmatic king by utilizing the evidence in a selective manner. Vale gives a contemporary assessment of Charles as both a king and a man as its starting point. He states in the beginning that there is precious little evidence about this king’s reign as many of the records no longer exist.

The first chapter is an overview of the king and his reign as it is viewed by historians in books from the past and how the reign is viewed in context. Vale then begins with a view of the king’s early years up until his meeting with Joan of Arc and his coronation at Reims. Other chapters recall his relationship with Joan of Arc, his son Louis and the nobility of France. The last part of the book cover his later years and then there is a section on the ceremonial king. Vale recounts several ceremonies Charles VII participated in and ends with a long description of his funeral.

Vale has a great deal of insight into the personality of Charles. Where some historians view him as a weak and fearful king, Vale believes just the opposite. He interprets Charles’ personality as very strong, militarily and politically. He believes the king played the nobles off against each other and elevated and destroyed these men with a political purpose. There is quite a bit in this book about the nobles who surrounded the king and their impact on his reign as well as his mistresses and mignons who lived close to the king and played a role in his life. The last chapter covers the later years of Charles’ reign and how his illnesses affected him and his government.

Personally, I enjoyed the recounting of Charles’ relationship with his son Louis as well as Vale’s views on Charles’ personality. Vale has a lot of information on the illnesses of the king which is fascinating. He has several theories about what Charles suffered from. The highlight of this book is the reprint of a memorandum that Charles dictated to his secretary in response to demands from his son Louis. Louis had left the kingdom of France and didn’t see his father for many years. Charles refuses Louis’ demands for surety of his safety and status at court and questions why Louis is so fearful and suspicious. This is a unique insight into the mind of the king and his tortured relationship with his son. While this book is not a conventional biography, it is most interesting and I recommend it.

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.