I was a big fan of Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone’s The Friar and the Cipher, despite the false advertising I felt the publisher gave the book as more of a Da Vinci Code-type book than an intellectual history of reason versus faith (I also received an email from the author confirming that it was the publisher who insisted on it). Now, however, Nancy Goldstone has gone it alone with her latest history book, Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, and it’s a wonderful combination of detailed history and ease of reading so that anybody with even a mild interest in 13th-century European history will find something to like in here.
The four sisters in question are Marguerite (married to the King of France), Eleanor (married to the King of England), Sanchia (married to the King of Germany), and Beatrice (married to the eventual King of Sicily). Born and raised in Provence, these sisters played a large role in European politics for most of the 13th century. Goldstone gives us their history from the very beginning, from childhood until they married and influenced monarchs all over Europe. They were all supposedly beautiful and many were vying for their hands in marriage, but their father (ruler of Provence and vassal originally to the Holy Roman Empire) managed to snag royalty for each one of them.
Goldstone does a great job laying out the book, with chapters alternating between the four sisters as circumstances warrant. We travel from England to France, down through Italy and into the Holy Land, where King Louis IX is determined to lead a Crusade against the Moslems and almost meets his death. We see the details of all the royal courts, such as the relationship between Marguerite and her mother-in-law, who had ruled France well while Louis was coming of age and who was reluctant to give up her son once he got married. Goldstone brings these historical characters to life through primary source writings of bards and other historians of the day, as well as letters exchanged between the sisters, many of which still exist. Goldstone’s writing style brings you into the book and will make you want to read more when you really should be putting it down.
Four Queens is definitely a narrative history. There are no footnotes or endnotes, though Goldstone does provide a bibliographic note in which she details where she got a lot of her information, as well as a selected bibliography for those who may want to explore all of this further. Finally, she provides a brief family tree of the sisters, from their grandfather and uncles to their husbands and children. All of this information makes the book even easier to follow, but if you don’t need it, they’re all at the end so you don’t have to pay attention to them.
Goldstone does have a tendency to occasionally repeat information as though for emphasis. This may be just to make sure the reader’s aware of something before she shows why it’s important, but for those with a good memory or those who read carefully, it does get overly repetitive. Thankfully, she doesn’t do this too often, so it doesn’t really mar the book’s quality.
Another plus in the book is the quality of illustrations. Usually history books have a section near the middle of the book that’s full of pictures, and that’s all you get. While Four Queens doesn’t have this section, small illustrations are scattered throughout the book, usually related to what Goldstone is discussing at the time. This can be anything from the seal of Emperor Frederick II, king of Jerusalem, to a drawing of King Henry III sailing for an invasion of France. All of these illustrations are original to the time period, adding to the authentic feel of the book.
For a popular narrative history, Four Queens is quite deep and detailed. I was really impressed with Goldstone’s writing style, especially how she’s able to get across all of her research without sounding extremely dry (a problem with many history books that aren’t necessarily written for popular consumption). She tells an interesting story, rarely (if ever) putting thoughts in the heads of the people she’s writing about. When she does, it’s usually with a “possibly” or some other modifier to show that she’s not stating the reasoning as fact.
Four Queens is simply an enjoyable history book, one that won’t bog you down and will still seem satisfying. It may not satisfy the “scholar”, but for anybody who has a layman’s interest in Medieval Europe, this book is well worth a read. With this and her previous book with her husband, Nancy Goldstone has now earned a place on my “must read” list if she continues writing. I certainly hope she does.