Monday, November 16, 2009

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily

I came of age in the 1970s at the height of the Women’s Movement. It was a heady time full of marches and protests and petitions. Women’s Studies departments were formed at colleges and universities. The study of history, full of dead white men, was expanded to include herstory, bringing to light the lives and achievements of women in the past.

Women have come a long way since then, now full partners at home, in the workplace and in the history books. But I still find myself, when confronted with a choice of books, always reaching for the one by or about women.

It was with great anticipation that I began reading “The Lady Queen”. Imagine, a woman ruler in medieval Italy, surrounded by “chauvinist” aristocracy and popes who shamelessly exploited women. How did she come to rule? How was her rule different from the men who preceded her and then followed her? How did her subjects feel about being ruled by a woman? What, if any, changes did she make to Italian culture?

Sadly, only my first question was answered. The rest of the 300+ pages were filled with the usual battles, funerals, coronations, plots and counter-plots found in most history books. This book was written for a popular audience, yet it is all the things that everyone hates about history. Just a dry recitation of dates and historical figures.

Ms. Goldstone tries to excuse the paucity of material concerning the actual life and rule of Joanna on records that were lost during WWII. What I found most frustrating were the tantalizing hints of her life. Her concern with and improvement of healthcare, the arts, and religious orders are mentioned again and again but never expanded upon. I kept hoping for more details on them which would, directly or indirectly, tell me more about Joanna as a person and as a queen.

Joanna’s life was ended by assassination. There was a problem with what to do with her body because she had been excommunicated and couldn’t be buried in hallowed ground. A religious order, of whom she had been a benefactor, came up with a solution. I just wanted to scream. What had she done for them they were willing to put aside their religious convictions and provide her with a resting place?

Alas, this book does not live up to its title. I know very little more about Joanna and her “notorious reign” than I did before I read this superficial biography.

Review copy courtesy of Walker & Company

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