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70 of 77 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sibling rivalry and politics in thirteenth century Europe, May 13, 2007
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This review is from: Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe (Hardcover)
I've always enjoyed reading history, especially that set in Medieval Europe, that time between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance. Perhaps it's the glamour and pageantry of the period; or maybe that so many of the stories are so romantic and personal in scope. I'm not certain exactly why, but I continue to indulge myself whenever I can.

One recent volume of history tells the story of the daughters of Raymond-Berenger, the Count of Provence. Living in what is now the south of France, he and his wife, the formidable Beatrice of Savoy, controlled a vital part of the medieval world, creating a semi-independent kingdom that was rich in trade and culture. Without a son to inherit, this prize of lands and castles would be divided up somehow between their four daughters, all of whom were talented and beautiful, and so started one of the more intriguing dynastic tangles in history.

The eldest, Marguerite, would be married off at the age of thirteen to the equally young Louis IX of France. Marguerite was clever and attractive, and to become the queen of the most powerful realm in Europe must have been intoxicating. But the king was under the control of his mother, Blanche, and she evidently made her daughter-in-law's life miserable. Marguerite managed to be patient and when she managed to give France an heir, she discovered that she had another rival for her husband -- Crusading. Louis XI would lead the country into one of the more disastrous Crusades, and he would take his wife and her sister Beatrice along with him through a terrible saga of lost troops, imprisonment and ransom -- and then twenty years later do exactly the same thing again...

The next daughter, Eleanor, was just as ambitious as her sister, and married young as well. Her husband would be Henry III of England, a king who would prove to be not so lucky on the battlefield. To England, Eleanor would bring her Savoyard uncles, a pack of crafty politicians who would batten on English lands and wealth, and if that wasn't bad enough, Henry's half-brothers the Lusignans showed up for their cut of the spoils. All of this infuriated the English barons, and soon enough, there would be civil war, lead by Simon de Montfort, a very able military man who was married to Henry's sister...

The third daughter, Sanchia, was destined to have a rather convoluted courtship among several suitors before finally being married to the younger brother of Henry III. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, was a widower who was much older than his young bride, and had made himself a brilliant name by going to the Holy Land to ransom French prisoners of war. Unlike her sisters, it seems that Sanchia was a quiet, gentle woman who had no desire for a crown, and only wished to be a good wife and mother. But when her husband was chosen as King of the Romans -- what is now Germany -- that hope was shattered for good...

And what of the youngest, Beatrice? She was her father's darling, and as we see, just as hungry and ambitious as her sisters for the good life and especially a crown of her own. It was her luck to be married to a younger brother of Louis, Charles of Anjou, and he was just as determined as she was. He also had the wisdom to make Beatrice his partner, and not just a wife, knowing that she could keep the needed wealth from Provence flowing into his coffers. Needless to say, once the opportunity arose for a grand prize in Italy, the pair didn't let anything stop them either...

This is popular history that is written with a light touch, without drowning the reader in too much detail. Nancy Goldstone focuses on the personal lives of these four remarkable women, and presents the drama of their lives in a more or less chronological order. Her writing style is filled with humor and biting quotes -- my favorite is the response of Emperor Frederick II to a Mongol emissary who demanded that he surrender to their authority -- the emperor replied that he would consider it, but that they should keep the position of falconer open.

The book is filled with these sorts of asides, showing the inner workings of these great ones. Petty jealousies lead to warfare, sisters snub one another over who is sitting with who, and so forth. Goldstone never lets the narrative bog down, and keeps things moving at a lively pitch, and helps to unravel a lot of the more odd behavior of medieval knights and ladies.

My only disappointments with this were the few illustrations that were scattered throughout the book. Instead of presenting them in a high quality insert, these are reproduced in rather muddy halftones, and most of them are taken from Chronicle written by Matthew Paris, a contemporary of everyone involved in this story. While quite a few of them are very interesting, especially of a troupe of musicians being carried on the back of an elephant, it would have been good to have other illustrations and perhaps a few photographs to round out the story.

Maps, genealogical charts, notes, and two essays on medieval money and a lengthy author's note provide more clarification.

Summing up, I really enjoyed reading this and happily recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about the role of queens, crusaders and how the simplest of mistakes can sometimes lead to mammoth blunders. It's an entertaining read, and provides a gateway to more serious study -- Goldstone proves a list of 'what to read next' at the end.

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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 2, 2009, 12:29:00 PM PST
Marguerite married Louis IX, later "St. Louis," not Louis XI, later "the spider king."

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 5, 2009, 3:17:20 PM PST
Thank you very much for catching my error. Sometimes my fingers move faster than my brain does, alas.

Posted on Sep 9, 2009, 1:31:08 AM PDT
FeriJun says:
If Gabriel Stein's 0 star review is accurate-and given the examples that he provides, I am inclined to think he is-I really don't see how this book can deserve so much praise. It may entertain some readers, but in my opinion there is nothing worse than bad scholaship.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2011, 3:06:43 AM PDT
Rachel says:
Or maybe it's a case of difference of opinion. Just saying.
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