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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

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



384 pages, Walker & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0802716705

There were times when I was reading The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone when I forgot that Queen Joanna was actually the subject of this biography; very often Goldstone embarks on some genealogical or socio-political excursion in the book and Joanna fades into the background, only to emerge several pages later to remind the reader that she is supposedly the central figure of the book. In all fairness, as the author noted, primary Neapolitan material on Joanna I’s reign is very nearly non-existent, so it becomes mighty hard to examine the life and character of Joanna herself. Instead, we get to read about the Battle of Poitiers, the war for the crown of Castile, various machinations in the papal court of Avignon, and the subjugation of truculent Hungarian nobles by King Carobert. All well and good, but it does not really make for a good biography. Perhaps it would have been better to have re-drafted this of a history of the region with some emphasis on Joanna I.

Of course, Goldstone’s Feminist orientation makes a regional history somewhat problematic, since she wishes to put Joanna in the historical pantheon alongside women such as Elizabeth I of England, or Eleanor of Aquitaine. There is probably a very good case to be made for this; after all, one does not survive invasions, rebellion, civil war, and outbreaks of the plague and go on to rule for almost 40 years without having a certain amount of administrative ability and political acumen. However, the documentation just isn’t there, and so inevitably Joanna shifts into the mode of supporting character, again and again. Additionally, there certainly is a case to be made that Goldstone is overly slanted in favor of Joanna. Obviously, Lajos I of Hungary had a very legitimate claim to the Neapolitan throne as his father was totally screwed out of his rightful inheritance and his brother was murdered (with the possible acquiescence of his queen). Lajos had quite good reasons to invade Italy and reclaim what he considered to be his by birthright, but one always gets the impression that Joanna is always the victim here (also, the trial for murder, which is emphasized on the book cover and in the introduction, is barely discussed in the book itself. What’s up with that? I’m sure that the Vatican archives must have a reasonable amount of documentation on this, so why is there so little detail? I truly don't understand how the trial can built up and then be dealt with in such an anticlimactic way).

So why read this book? Because the life of Joanna I was a soap opera of a story which makes for pretty good reading (mostly). Some of this stuff is unnecessarily confusing (like the genealogical morass of the first 70 pages or so). There is no reason to refer to everyone as “Louis” or “Charles” here; at one point Goldstone observes that she refers to Joanna’s niece (also Joanna) as the French “Jeanne” so as to avoid confusion. Why not refer to Louis I of Hungary as Lajos, as he is usually known? Louis, Lajos, Ludovico – there are ways to help the reader keep referring back the genealogies every other page. Eventually, the reader emerges from the thicket and the book moves along at a pretty decent pace. Then we get to read about treachery and betrayal and what appears to a thoroughly dysfunctional, blood-soaked family. Ye gods, I would almost rather be a peasant during this time period as there seems to be nothing good about being at the top of the heap. The twists and turns never seem to stop, and finally, one crazy pope succeeds in bringing a turbulent reign to an end.

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