Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Game of Europe

50. Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone

In the thirteenth century, the four daughters of the Count of Provence; Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice; each became a queen. Nancy Goldstone tells the lives of these four sisters in a straightforward manner that essentially sketches a thirteenth century history of Europe.

Marguerite, the eldest, becomes queen of France, the wife of St. Louis IX. Eleanor, the next sister, is the choice of Henry III, king of England. Shy and beautiful Sanchia is given to Richard of Cornwall, the king of England's brother, who later contrives to be elected King of the Romans, or much of modern-day Germany. Beatrice, the youngest, inherits Provence from her father, and attracts Charles of Anjou, younger brother of the King of France, who briefly conquers Sicily and crowns her queen.

Goldstone characterizes each sister and their respective spouses, as well as important players like their parents, Raymond Berenger V of Provence and his wife Beatrice of Savoy, and their mother's brothers, the influential Savoyards. The book is impeccably well researched, relying extensively on primary sources, and Goldstone represents my favorite attitude in a historian. She asserts facts only, and when she enters the realm of speculation, that is, the feelings of such-and-such in regard to such-and-such, or so-and-so's knowledge of some plot or other, she cites evidence that would support her, and then acknowledges that it cannot be determined for sure. She often uses short descriptions from contemporaries, such as Matthew Paris, an English monk who spent time in the English court and was familiar with the constant news and rumors, and Jean de Joinville, a friend of Louis IX, who wrote the Life of St. Louis. She quotes chronicles kept in contemporary monasteries and letters from the Provencal sisters themselves as well.

The history of thirteenth century Europe is a constant deluge of battles and political maneuevring. Kings, emperors, counts, dukes, and barons fought to defend their land and property, to seize others' land and property, and claim titles, distinctions, and glory. Marriages and the influence of women also make and break alliances. Continental Europe and England are the gameboard upon which they play. For these men and women, secure financially and socially, war and crusades were entertainment. They ostensibly fought for land and money, but any land and money gained was used to make more war.

Their behavior seems so quintessentially human to me. We have achieved a more peaceful world now, perhaps because of the rise of the bourgeoisie. The Provencal sisters' story demonstrates conflict between religion and politics, between smaller and bigger regions and spheres of influence, and most of all within families. Though much more dramatic than comparisons today, Goldstone shows us how much, and how little, we have changed.

1 comment:

Marie said...

Sounds fascinating!
To answer your question, no I haven't read Burnt Bread and Chutney- but I'm going to look for it. :-)