The Medieval Review 11.03.01

Tracy Adams. The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria. Rethinking Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. 338. $55 ISBN 978-0-8018-9625-5. .

Reviewed by:

Sean Field
University of Vermont

Tracy Adams begins her book in the first person: "I first encountered Queen of France Isabeau of Bavaria (1371-1435) in Christine de Pizan scholarship. The queen in this context is frequently deployed as a foil, her greed and turpitude contrasted with the moralizing Christine's righteousness" (xiii). The author goes on to explain that she became increasingly curious about the evidence for claims (encountered in "histories of medieval France") that Isabeau was a fat, empty-headed spendthrift who had an affair with her brother-in-law (Louis of Orleans) and lacked both maternal and political instincts. Looking more closely, Adams realized that specialized scholarship on the wife of Charles VI had, in fact, already shown that these charges had no evidentiary basis. Adams thus set out not to rehabilitate Isabeau--since this, she admits, had already been done--but to further that rehabilitation and explore the reasons why this queen's "black legend" has proved so tenacious. Throughout the book, the author seems to keep a particular eye on her fellow Christine de Pizan specialists. The result is a historically-minded study written in a presentist style that muses at length about the evidence and concludes that Isabeau is best understood as a "mediator queen."

Chapters One and Two together form a satisfying "Life and Legend" of Isabeau. We first get a new telling of the life of "Elizabeth von Wittelsbach," beginning with her family background and marriage to Charles VI in 1385. Adams divides Isabeau's political activities into four phases: The first is defined by the queen's early engagement with issues including the Great Schism, the Imperial title, relations with England, and the emerging Orleanist/Burgundian feud, all in the context of her husband's intermittent insanity; the second runs from 1402 and her appointment as a arbiter in the feud to the assassination of Louis of Orleans in 1407; the third, in which she worked successfully behind the scenes to establish the dauphin's authority while playing both sides of the feud against one another, lasted until the deaths of the dauphin Louis in 1415 and his younger brother Jean in 1417. In the fourth "phase," however, Isabeau was finally forced to throw in her lot with the Burgundians when her youngest son Charles aided the assassination of Jean sans Peur, even as Henry V was conquering Normandy. Isabeau sought peace in 1420 by signing the Treaty of Troyes, which married her daughter Catherine to Henry V and assigned the throne to their heirs. Her public role at this point ceased, though she lived until 1435.

The second chapter examines the rise of Isabeau's "black legend," treating her as an instance of Pierra Nora's lieux de mémoire. The story that Isabeau engaged in adulterous affairs and that her son Charles VII was therefore illegitimate dates to around 1430 (during her own lifetime), but Adams suggests that evidence for the fifteenth-century circulation of these rumors is limited. Starting in the sixteenth century, some historians of the French monarchy saw Isabeau as politically vacillating and fickle, but it was eighteenth and nineteenth-century authors who combined these strands into a cautionary image of "an adulterous, luxurious, meddlesome, scheming and spendthrift queen" (58) which was then passed on to the twentieth century. Adams argues that even after scholarly debunking, this black legend lives on because Isabeau functions as a foil against which French-ness can be constructed--as the foreign, fleshy opposite of Joan of Arc.

At this point the organization of the book becomes somewhat more haphazard. Chapter Three steps back to examine the whole idea of "mediator queens" and how this framing helps to illuminate Isabeau's actions. Adams provides an overview of recent scholarship, a look at how Christine de Pizan theorized royal women's intercession, and a list of historical examples of other mediator queens, before arguing that in a society "structured by feuding" (89) Isabeau's shifts from one political side to another were displays of the qualities expected of a mediator--a desire for peace and justice and the protection of her family and the kingdom. Specifically, after 1402 when Isabeau was designated a mediator between Louis of Orleans and Philip of Burgundy and named the king's substitute on the royal council, she pursued any policy that might lead to political harmony. If the result might look like vacillation, it was really a series of attempts as arbitration.

Chapter Four then circles back to the question of what Isabeau's contemporary reputation actually was. Adams argues that the few sources that reflect negative views turn out to be better understood as Burgundian "planted attacks" (140) in the ongoing feud with the Armagnac faction, and that they therefore say nothing about wider popular opinion. We receive here rather an onslaught of reasons to doubt Isabeau's unpopularity: The minimal nature of these attacks really shows that the queen was held in high esteem; the most negative source, the anonymous poem known as the Songe véritable, by prophesying that the queen will lose her bon renom actually shows the reality of her contemporary good reputation; the attacks themselves demonstrate that she cannot have been unpopular (why try to ruin the reputation of an already unpopular queen?); and anyway, popular opinion is a difficult concept to define for the fifteenth century. One senses a certain willingness to try every argument, even if some are contradictory.

Chapters Five, Six and Seven examine specific elements or events that the author finds particularly revealing. First is the Cour amoureuse. A copy of the document chartering this institution was discovered in the eighteenth century, and its ties to Isabeau then became fodder for her reputation as a frivolous luxury-lover. Some recent scholars consider the Cour to have been a fiction, others a real space of courtly amusement where the poems of male courtiers were judged by ladies of the court. Adams sees the (real or rhetorical) creation of the Cour in 1400 as an element of Isabeau's prestige as a mediator, as "a forum where she could reinforce her authority as arbitrator of peace..." (152) Next is a closer look at the Enlèvement du dauphin. In August 1405, in an attempt to seize power during one of the king's bouts of madness, Jean sans Peur occupied Paris and "kidnapped" the dauphin (Louis of Guyenne) as the royal children were departing the city to join Isabeau and Louis of Orleans in Melun. Isabeau has sometimes been described as slow to react to this affront, but Adams sees her as playing an astute waiting game, letting Jean exhaust his resources and popularity in Paris for two months and only then negotiating when the situation had become more favorable. Central here is Adams' analysis of the "Epistle to the Queen of France," written by Christine de Pizan and dated 5 October 1405. Since the letter urges the queen to act, it has been taken as evidence that she had been passive to this point. But Adams provides a persuasive reading of this text as an open letter intended to elevate Isabeau above the fray and position her as an effective mediator in the dispute. Adams further ties in here Christine's portrayals of female regency in the Cité des dames and the Trois virtues, written at about this time. Finally, the author returns to the Treaty of Troyes. The idea that the wording of the Treaty was intended to cast doubt on Charles VII's paternity has been disproven, and Adams quite rightly argues that it is unhelpful to frame the Treaty in terms of whether it somehow betrayed France. Yet there is still the basic question of why Isabeau agreed to disinherit her own son. The author's argument is that after Charles' followers murdered Jean sans Peur in September 1419, he had become so allied to one side of the ongoing feud that the queen decided--reluctantly and under heavy Burgundian pressure--that the only hope for peace was to seek a solution without Charles. Again, Isabeau becomes above all a mediator seeking peace.

The book ends with an assessment of Isabeau as a wife, mother and friend, areas where her "black legend" has depicted her as particularly faithless. Not surprisingly, Adams turns this assessment on its head: She was a loving and loyal wife to Charles VI, a devoted mother to her twelve children, and an affectionate friend to the upright ladies in her household.

This study will be of substantial interest to scholars interested in medieval and early-modern queenship, the French monarchy, the (so-called) Hundred Years War, and the writings of Christine de Pizan. No doubt it will become a standard English-language work on Isabeau's career. And yet (as the author hastens to point out more than once) it hardly closes the book on this queen. The most obvious criticism that can be leveled here is that whereas nineteenth-century scholars had at every turn placed the worst possible interpretations on Isabeau's actions, Adams goes to the other extreme by placing every scrap of evidence in the most flattering light, in terms of both Isabeau's character and her importance. Perhaps, after Adams' corrective, a more balanced assessment will emerge. The book is also overly lengthy, partly because its structure guarantees repetition by constructing the first 72 pages as a "life and legend" and then returning to specific elements and events over the next 181. Moreover, every foreign language passage from medieval sources or modern scholarship is cited first in the original and then translated. While one appreciates the rigor of such a practice, much of this documentation might have been safely placed in the notes. Finally, one wonders about this book's place in a series on "rethinking theory." The "rethinking" in this book is largely in terms of historical evaluation, and "theory"--beyond a few light interdisciplinary touches--seems merely a license to pursue a rather fragmentary approach rather than a comprehensive study of Isabeau's career. The result, however, is a thought-provoking study, whose sharp angles and the soft shadows seem to reflect back upon the reproduction of Picasso's 1909 Queen Isabeau that graces the cover.