Saturday, January 9, 2010

1. The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone

I read Goldstone's book Four Queens last year and was impressed with her scholarly work and the relative obscurity of her subjects. Here, Goldstone picks another little-known historical figure and places her within a tapestry of her time period. I had never heard of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, previously, though she is apparently notorious for murdering her first husband and being a key player in the Great Schism of the Catholic Church in fourteenth century Europe.

I did not enjoy this book as much, both because I found the subject less interesting (though still interesting) and Goldstone's scholarly style seemed to have suffered a little. I felt she made many more assumptions with this book than the previous book and her conclusions about the opinions of the Queen,her advisors and family members, and the various Popes who figure largely in the book, appeared far from obvious to me.

I also felt a little let down, as Goldstone begins with an arresting prologue about the Queen's entrance into Avignon to defend herself against the accusations of plotting her husband's murder , and then never follows up in detail. The whole story is generally explained, but I wanted the scene before me, I want to know what she said, not just that it was convincing.

It is more than possible that those words are not preserved, for though the public defense would have been recorded, Goldstone explains in her source notes that records and letters of Joanna's are hard to find, a huge collection of which was lost to Nazi marauders in World War II. Her sources are drawn from copies made by a graduate student who studied those documents before the war. He did not, of course, copy everything. Goldstone suggests that this is why she is the first to write a biography on Joanna in English in the past hundred years.

Like in Four Queens, Goldstone makes use of contemporary voices to describe Joanna's court and the political and economic situations in Italy and Europe at large. These voices include the prominent writer Boccaccio and legendary poet Petrarch, Niccolo Acciaiuoli, Joanna's advisor, banker, and diplomat, who immortalized himself in a biography Goldstone assures us is the epitome of self-aggrandizement, and others.

The value of Goldstone's work is to re-introduce a long forgotten historical figure (at least among those of us who are not medievalists), and to explain the circumstances of her reign and the religious, political, and socio-economic conditions of her time period and place. This is almost as much a history of the Great Schism as it is a history of Joanna, and also a history of Joanna's Angevin family, descended from the youngest of the four queens, Beatrice, and her husband Charles of Anjou.

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