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Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played…

Isabel of Burgundy: The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of…

by Aline S. Taylor

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From the middle of the fourteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth, Burgundy was one of the most powerful states in Europe. Nominally a duchy of France, Burgundy also controlled the Low Countries and acted as an independent state, financed by the woolen trade. (If you remember your Shakespeare, the Duke of Burgundy mediates between the Kings of England and France in Henry V).

Dukes of Burgundy tended to acquire nicknames – the dynasty was founded by John the Good, who was followed by Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, Charles the Bold, Marie the Epithetless, and finished with Philip the Handsome (who married Juana the Mad). The particular subject of this work is Isabel, duchess to Philip the Good.

The book carries a “Biography/European History/Women’s Studies” classification on the back cover; I keep making unfair assumptions about the quality of work described as “Women’s Studies” and keep finding myself embarrassingly wrong. There’s no radical feminist posturing here. (I note the subtitle of the book is "The Duchess who Played Politics...", which is rather pejorative, as if Isabel only "played" at politics instead of being intimately involved). Author Aline S. Taylor sometimes allows herself to speculate a little too much on Isabel’s mental state and her feelings for her contemporaries; however, as with most medieval lives the actual data is quite sparse and if a few speculations weren’t allowed it would be a pamphlet instead of a book. There’s a sort of digression on Joan of Arc in the middle, but as Joan was vitally important to the restoration of the French monarchy (which in turn had monumental effects on the Duchy of Burgundy) it’s excusable. A little bit more fact checking, proofreading and spell checking would have been useful; at one point Isabel positions “canons” on the parapet of a fortress (to hurl anathema at the enemy, perhaps?) and later Taylor speculates that Philip the Good was poisoned with arsenic because the almond-flavored milk he liked hid the almond taste (it’s cyanide that tastes like almonds; arsenic compounds – at least the ones available in the middle ages – are tasteless, sweet or garlic-flavored).

Just minor quibbles, though’ Taylor makes a good and well-documented case for Isabel as one of the most important personalities of the time. Her husband the Duke apparently spent most of his time with a bevy of mistresses, while Isabel conducted negotiations with the English and French, placated rebellious burghers, and did the duchy’s accounting, usually with success. I can’t think of another medieval woman who was that heavily involved in politics. Interestingly, there’s no evidence of any contemporary criticism of her for not knowing a “woman’s place”; all commentary on her is positive.

There are excellent maps – needed to display the complexity of Burgundian political boundaries; it consisted of two separate parts and was partially in France and partially in the Holy Roman Empire. Some handy genealogical tables display the medieval phenomena of all the nobility being related to all the other nobility. Isabel was fortunate enough to be around at the start of the era of great Flemish painters and appears on the book cover and in the plates; unfortunately she favored the “shaved forehead” style popular for women of the era, which makes her look like a Conehead (especially when coupled with the contemporary headdress). A good read. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 12, 2017 |
A very readable book about a woman married at 31 to the most Powerful Duke in the West. She brought with her learning, ability at diplomacy, and the ability to bear an heir at 33. She was powerful without the need of having a weak spouse to overcome. ( )
  reginaromsey | Aug 11, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0752423150, Paperback)

Portuguese princess Isabel married Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1429, a time when the powerful Duchy of Burgundy teetered on the brink of becoming a kingdom separate from France. From her marriage until her death in 1471, this remarkable woman rebelled against the social constraints of her time and played a major role in international negotiations on behalf of Burgundy; after mediating several crucial conferences, she sealed a series of trade agreements with England, her chosen ally, despite the pro-French sympathies of her husband and other members of his court. In Isabel of Burgundy, author Aline Taylor tells the dramatic story of Isabel's battle against the pro-French faction in Burgundy and its network of spies, her support of English monarch Edward IV during the Wars of the Roses, and her attempts to gain a crown for her adored son Charles. A true-life historical drama, Isabel of Burgundy is a story of pageantry and royal splendor, plots and counter-plots, betrayals, an uprising led by Joan of Arc, and devastating warfare. It is also the personal account of a woman, wife, and mother, and the tragedies she faced as she tried to keep her family together.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:48 -0400)

Isabel (1397-1471), third wife of Philip the Good Duke of Burgundy, played a powerful role in the court politics and foreign affairs of this small duchy until her machinations led to her banishment. Taylor's accessible narrative history sets Isabel's life and her struggles for personal and financial independence against the fascinating backdrop of civil war, family feuds and warfare, notably Burgundy's betrayal of Joan of Arc.… (more)

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