- The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria
This fascinating and meticulously researched book takes a fresh look at the career of one of France's more controversial queens. Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of the "mad" Charles VI, who reigned from 1380-1422, and mother of Charles VII, who would eventually claim his throne in 1429 with the help of Joan of Arc, has been the victim of a black legend that, as Adams convincingly demonstrates, is both tenacious and unfounded. Examining the evidence with thoroughness and clarity, Adams shows that Isabeau was respected and beloved during her lifetime, serving as regent during her husband's episodes of madness, and working tirelessly to mediate in the feud between Armagnac and Burgundian factions that was the defining conflict of French politics at the time. Yet after her death she gained a reputation as dissipated, adulterous, and treacherous. Adams' compelling recounting of Isabeau's life and her posthumous transformation is a sobering reminder of the ways in which the telling of history is shaped by ideology.
The first two chapters of the book survey Isabeau's "life" and "afterlife." While Isabeau's career as a mediator queen was ultimately not a successful one, Adams argues that this "must be attributed to bad luck rather than incompetence" (36); had any number of factors turned out differently, she might have been remembered today as an exceptional and influential figure. Adams uses Pierre Nora's theory of the lieu de mémoire to explain the development of Isabeau's black legend, arguing provocatively that the queen's actions have been understood in hindsight as acts of treachery against the "French," even as the "French" have been arbitrarily defined as the winning faction in the Armagnac-Burgundian feud (the Armagnacs). "As a lieu de mémoire [Isabeau] has served from the very beginning as a repoussoir against which to construct French identity, and thus the created meaning of her career has always been more significant than the truth" (39).
Adams then devotes an additional six chapters to closer examinations of important aspects of Isabeau's career. While such an arrangement might be seen as repetitive (and indeed this reader spent some time flipping back and forth), it does have the advantage of being extremely clear and accessible to those who are not familiar with Isabeau, first building a broad foundation before proceeding to more detail. Studies of the role of the mediator queen in its medieval context, Isabeau's contemporary reputation, and her handling of the [End Page 104] kidnapping of the dauphin Louis by the Burgundian faction in 1405, are all compelling and clearly researched, while a look at Isabeau's personality, physique and relationships and their subsequent distortion by historians makes for fascinating reading. Perhaps the crux of the book, however, is Adams' examination of the circumstances leading up to the treaty of Troyes, the 1420 document in which Isabeau withdrew her support from her son, the future Charles VII, thus placing herself on the losing side of history (ch. 7). As Adams shows, while Charles VII's eventual victory, aided by that defining symbol of Frenchness, Joan of Arc, made Isabeau's action seem treasonous in retrospect, within the volatile and uncertain climate in which it was made, the queen's decision was an attempt at peacekeeping and mediation.
Finally, Adams not only repudiates the black legend that has clouded Isabeau's memory, but argues convincingly that the queen "is worthy of interest for reasons beyond the mythology that surrounds her and that her career merits further study" (249). As Adams argues in her conclusion, Isabeau's roles as regent and mediator queen can help us understand women's political power in the fifteenth century. Ultimately, Adams' book becomes a fascinating study of historiography as well as an important work of historical scholarship in its own right. The shaping of Isabeau's posthumous legend around an arbitrary and historically contingent definition of Frenchness reminds us that history is written by...