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.