The best books that restore vilified early-modern European queens and noblewomen

Who am I?

After working on the writings of the 15th-century French writer Christine de Pizan for a while I turned to researching the queen of France whom Christine addresses in some of her works. As I read the primary sources, it quickly became clear to me that poor Isabeau of Bavaria’s terrible reputation had been produced by misogynistic and nationalistic nineteenth-century French historians who promulgated images of political women as promiscuous harridans. I was astounded. How could it be that we were still circulating simplistic old narratives of incompetence and debauchery without critically examining what people of the times had to say? I have been studying the afterlives of infamous noblewomen ever since.

I wrote...

The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria

By Tracy Adams,

Book cover of The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria

What is my book about?

The fascinating history of Isabeau of Bavaria is a tale of two queens. During her lifetime, Isabeau, the long-suffering wife of mad King Charles VI of France, was respected and revered. After her death, she was reviled as an incompetent regent, depraved adulteress, and betrayer of the throne. Asserting that there is no historical support for this posthumous reputation, Tracy Adams returns Isabeau to her rightful place in history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Catherine of Aragon: Infanta of Spain, Queen of England

Why did I love this book?

Displaced by the fascinating Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), first queen of Henry VIII, is often depicted as a bitter old woman. Not so, says Theresa Earenfight. Although this book will not appear in print until December 2021, queenship scholars have a good idea of what is coming: Earenfight has been lecturing on Catherine for several years now, and we can hardly wait to get our copies. By exploring inventories of Catherine’s material belongings, Earenfight, a meticulous and imaginative scholar, reveals a whole new side to this allegedly drab and austere queen. We already knew that Catherine was intelligent and loyal, but she turns out to have been stylish and fashion-conscious, a vibrant woman with many interests and connections.

By Theresa Earenfight,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Catherine of Aragon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Catherine of Aragon is an elusive subject.

Despite her status as a Spanish infanta, Princess of Wales, and Queen of England, few of her personal letters have survived, and she is obscured in the contemporary royal histories. In this evocative biography, Theresa Earenfight presents an intimate and engaging portrait of Catherine told through the objects that she left behind.

A pair of shoes, a painting, a rosary, a fur-trimmed baby blanket-each of these things took meaning from the ways Catherine experienced and perceived them. Through an examination of the inventories listing the few possessions Catherine owned at her death, Earenfight…

Book cover of Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman: Mariana of Austria and the Government of Spain

Why did I love this book?

Mariana of Austria (1634-96) has long been underestimated. Regent for her young son, Carlos II, last Habsburg ruler of Spain, she is reputed to have been pig-headed, incompetent, and not very bright. The famous Velasquez painting showing her in a skirt too wide to fit through a door and hair stretching out like an accordion has not helped her reputation. But Silvia Mitchell has mined the archives and produced a wonderful revision of this queen’s regency, showing how, over the course of her regency, Mariana led the Spanish monarchy into transformative military and diplomatic alliances with the English and the Dutch and, through her style of ruling, helped bring about a new political culture. This study makes clear how much our picture of pre-modern politics has been distorted by the failure to take female roles seriously.

By Silvia Z. Mitchell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Philip IV of Spain died in 1665, his heir, Carlos II, was three years old. In addition to this looming dynastic crisis, decades of enormous military commitments had left Spain a virtually bankrupt state with vulnerable frontiers and a depleted army. In Silvia Z. Mitchell's revisionist account, Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman, Queen Regent Mariana of Austria emerges as a towering figure at court and on the international stage, while her key collaborators-the secretaries, ministers, and diplomats who have previously been ignored or undervalued-take their rightful place in history.

Mitchell provides a nuanced account of Mariana of Austria's ten-year regency…

Book cover of Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe

Why did I love this book?

Older sister of Catherine of Aragon, Juana the Mad (1479-1555)— infamous for her bizarre attachment to the remains of her dead husband, Philip, son of Holy Roman Emperor, Philip—has been even more badly treated by history. Bethany Aram offers a complex portrait of Juana, who unexpectedly inherited the throne of Spain after the deaths of the first three heirs. I especially love Aram’s description of the resistance that Juana met when she first moved to Burgundy as Philip’s wife. Noblewomen were expected to further their family’s interests in their new homes. But Juana never had a chance: her household was sent back to Castile and replaced with Burgundian attendants. Was she truly insane? Aram gives us a nuanced response, showing that much of what observers took for madness were really strategies to preserve the throne for her son, who would become Charles V.

By Bethany Aram,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Juana the Mad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born to Isabel and Ferdinand, the Catholic Monarchs whose marriage united the realms of Castile and Aragon, Juana "the Mad" (1479-1555) is one of the most infamous but least studied monarchs of the Renaissance. Conventional accounts of Juana portray her as a sullen woman prone to depression, a jealous wife insanely in love with her husband, and an incompetent queen who was deemed by her father, husband, and son, unable to govern herself much less her kingdoms. But was Juana truly mad or the victim of manipulative family members who desired to rule in her stead? Drawing upon recent scholarship…

Book cover of Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy

Why did I love this book?

My first three picks are scholarly studies. This book is more popular history in the sense that it lays out Lucrezia’s family and cultural contexts in detail for non-specialists. Bradford brings the period to life and shows the extent to which Lucrezia’s reputation was the inevitable product of the intrigues that surrounded her. She was nothing like the promiscuous, depraved, monstrous creature she is supposed to have been. The contrast that Bradford gives us between the bloodthirsty legend and the cultured and intelligent human being is so stunning that you will never take anything you read about an infamous woman at face value again.

By Sarah Bradford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lucrezia Borgia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah Bradford's Lucrezia Bogia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy is the first biography of Lucrezia Borgia for over sixty years

.Lucrezia Borgia - an infamous murderess or simply the victim of bad press? Lucrezia Borgia's name has echoed through history as a byword for evil - a poisoner who committed incest with her natural father, Pope Alexander VI, and with her brother, Cesare Borgia. Long considered the most ruthless of Italian Renaissance noblewomen, her tarnished reputation has prevailed long since her own lifetime. In this definitive biography, a work of huge scholarship and erudition, Sarah Bradford gives a…

Book cover of The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen

Why did I love this book?

This book is a delight, from start to finish. I read it in one sitting. Like Lucrezia Borgia, it is both popular and erudite, but it does not recount the titular protagonist’s biography. Instead, it goes through all of the myths that have been floating around this unfortunate queen since her own lifetime. Bordo separates contemporary slander from fact, but then goes on to follow how the legend of Anne Boleyn was developed over the centuries in histories, fiction, and film. This study is also explicitly a study of how a legend takes hold and evolves.

By Susan Bordo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Creation of Anne Boleyn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne's life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination.

Why is Anne so compelling? Why does she inspire such extreme reactions? And what really was the colour of her hair? And perhaps the most provocative question concerns Anne's death, more than her life: how could Henry order the execution of his once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and popular culture, Bordo probes the complexities of one of history's most infamous relationships and teases out the woman behind the myths.

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