As a fan of history, have you ever been led by an author into a period in which you never thought you would have an interest? Yet because you enjoy the author's work, you'll follow him or her anywhere? That exact circumstance is behind my picking up and reading Nancy Goldstone's The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I. I've read a lot of medieval European history books but for some reason never really bothered with the Italian peninsula. Joanna was the queen of the kingdom of Naples in the late 14th century, as well as Jerusalem and Sicily at some points in her life, and Goldstone paints her life with fascinating swatches of color. She was the first European queen - in this period, anyway - to rule outright and not as an extension of her husband. She guarded this status vehemently, too.
Goldstone gives a short history of the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, setting the scene for Joanna's eventual rise to the throne, followed by Joanna's family history - including her father's desire to take over Sicily and add it to his domain. Joanna was betrothed at the age of seven to her cousin Andrew of Hungary, a political marriage that would make Joanna's life even more difficult. They even grew up in the same palace together. Joanna dominated that marriage, though Andrew eventually tried to assert himself politically. When Joanna's father, Robert, died, Joanna was elevated to the throne, the first European queen in centuries.
The first chapter of The Lady Queen actually begins shortly after Andrew is murdered, as Joanna is brought before the Pope to answer for the alleged crime of ordering Andrew's assassination. Goldstone showcases Joanna's nobility as well as her calm manner and quick mind, returning to it many times as Joanna's life is filled with political marriages that are desperate attempts to keep the throne for herself and keep it away from any husband who may want to usurp her authority.
What is fascinating about Joanna's life, as well as the constant political intrigue on the Italian peninsula, is how tightly involved the Vatican was in all of the political affairs taking place. I knew the Church was heavily politicized in the Middle Ages, but I hadn't realize just how much control it had. Joanna lives through a succession of popes; as they die off and are replaced, her life becomes either easier or a lot harder, depending on how sympathetic he is to her plight. The various popes give their blessing and support to her then take it away at the slightest affront, changing sides depending on which faction's cardinal is closest to the pope at any one time.
I enjoyed Goldstone’s extremely readable prose style in The Four Queens and even more
so here. The narrative style of history does not detract from the scholarship of the book at all. Goldstone reprints many letters that criss-crossed the peninsula, between Joanna and the current Pope, or between the various factions at play in the struggle for Italian supremacy. These sources lend even greater legitimacy to the story Goldstone tells.
The only strike against The Lady Queen , as against so many history books recently, is
its notation system. Once again, I mostly ignored the notes because they are in my least favorite style of notation. In the back of the book, there is a Notes section where a page number and a snippet of text are given, immediately followed by the note. There is no indication in the body of the book that there is any note to be found. After having to have two fingers in the book - one to mark the Notes section - I finally just gave up.
Goldstone does provide an extensive bibliography of her sources, as well as a short chapter on how and why she used the sources she did. This is extremely valuable for anybody who wants to do further research and decide if they agree with Goldstone's conclusions.
That I relished The Lady Queen isn’t surprising considering how much I
generally appreciate Goldstone's work. She paints a vivid picture of a historical figure about whom many people know nothing. That service in itself is praiseworthy. The fact that she makes it interesting as well is the icing on the cake.