- The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria
Despite its title, The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria is not a standard biography of one particular Queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria (1371–1435). Instead it is a book about the making and unmaking of historical reputations, about the methodology of writing about lives long since passed and about how a critical approach to contemporary historical sources and historiography can alter significantly preconceived, negative views held about female rulers.
As Tracy Adams herself admits, at first she had assumed that Isabeau’s historical reputation – as someone who was cupidinous, dissolute, greedy, quarrelsome, fractious, obese, and an unnatural mother – was factual. A further investigation of the available sources revealed, however, that there was no documentation to support these charges and that these accusations could be put down to tried and true misogynist stereotypes. A small body of recent research on Isabeau had also found no evidence to sustain the charges against the queen, but the general negative historical view of her has held sway. Thus, the goal of Adams’s book is to examine why the ‘black legend’ of Isabeau of Bavaria has had such a strong and lasting resonance.
The book begins with an account of the key events in Isabeau’s life. Her father was the Duke of Bavaria, Stephen III, and her mother was Taddea Visconti. Her marriage to Charles VI gave her the title of Queen of France. Chapter 1 documents her periods of regency, which occurred because her husband was frequently mentally ill. Isabeau was at the centre of French politics during her lifetime, including in the Armangac–Burgundian feud – during which Isabeau frequently changed sides – that occupied much of her political energy. Involvement in feuds and frequently changing sides was the norm in fifteenth-century France, Adams informs us, and the constant changing of alliances was evidence of her skill as a political player. Yet it was her involvement in this feud and her regular changing of sides that was one reason for her later reputation amongst historians as someone who was politically incompetent. [End Page 189]
In the second chapter, Adams discusses Isabeau’s afterlife amongst historians from her death through to the few revisionist defenders. She establishes the wafer-thin evidence, misinterpretations, and biases towards this ‘foreign’ queen by historians of France, with her life becoming almost an archetype of the ‘bad’ queen. She was also compared to the often-misunderstood Marie-Antoinette – also portrayed as a ‘foreign corrupt and dissolute queen’ by her many detractors. It was common for queens and other powerful women to be portrayed negatively by contemporaries, and by later historians of medieval and early modern Europe as ‘foreign’ and it would have been useful if the hatred of the foreign Isabeau had been placed in this context.
The crux of Adams’s argument begins in Chapter 3, where she asserts that Isabeau adopted the role that her contemporaries expected of her as a mediator queen, which Fradenburg and others have argued was the role expected of queens in medieval Europe. Refracted through this lens, Adams argues, Isabeau’s life can be viewed in a totally different way. Her contemporary historical reputation was in fact a positive one – unusual for a ‘foreign’ female ruler in medieval and early modern Europe. Many of the accusations that historians have levied at her – of poor political judgement, licentiousness, and a lack of maternal feeling – can, when closely examined, be put down to a misreading or misunderstanding of the historical context of documents or indeed of Isabeau’s use of her mediating role to manipulate the varied and dangerous political situations in which she found herself. Her apparent carefree attitude to her son being held hostage was, in fact, a deliberate strategy, believed to be the best way to ensure his safe return. Isabeau’s betrayal of her last surviving son at the Treaty of Troyes was an action that rated her much opprobrium...