Nancy Goldstone is an American journalist and author who has written or co-written several history books, including Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe. Her latest book is The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, which examines the life of the 14th century queen of Naples and Sicily.
We interviewed Mrs. Goldstone by email:
How did you become interested in writing a book about Queen Joanna?
Joanna I was the great-great granddaughter of Beatrice of Provence, the youngest of a family of four thirteenth century sisters who all became queens. This family was the subject of my previous book, Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, and it was during the course of researching that work that I stumbled upon Joanna I. What immediately fascinated me about Queen Joanna was that she not only legally inherited an important, prestigious kingdom, but ruled it in her own right. Women were not supposed to be allowed to do that in the fourteenth century. In fact, at the very same time that Joanna ruled Naples, England and France were fighting the Hundred Years’ War over just this issue–whether inheritance could be passed through a woman–and the answer was a resounding NO. How then did Joanna do it?
You write that “History has not been kind to, or even honest about, Joanna.” How do you characterize previous accounts, by contemporaries and other historians, about Joanna?
Previous works about Joanna fall into two categories: those who villified her for killing her husband (by far the larger group) and those who tried to exonerate her for this crime. Neither group made any attempt at all to assess her reign in terms of effectiveness or political achievement, despite the fact that she ruled for thirty years. The drama of her story simply overwhelmed them. Also, these earlier works are, unfortunately, confused, riddled with errors and often reliant upon blatant conjecture. The Lady Queen is the first biography in English to not only unravel the narrative of her life so it makes sense, but to look beyond her notoriety and focus in a disciplined way upon her reign in order to weigh it in the context of those of her contemporaries.
You also find that Joanna had many accomplishments in her reign, which have often been overlooked. Do you think that Joanna was overall an effective ruler?
Joanna was a VERY effective ruler. Despite continual threats to her government, she helped her kingdom recover from the effects of both a major financial crisis and the plague. She fought off the powerful king of Hungary, put down insurgencies from her many ambitious male cousins, and kept the Free Companies (bands of maurading outlaws) out of Naples for an astounding thirty years, allowing for the return of peace and prosperity. She built hospitals and churches, encouraged women doctors, and was involved in every aspect of governing. Most importantly, though, she engineered a foreign policy that made her one of the most influential leaders in Italy–another achievement for which she gets absolutely no credit in the history books.
The story of Joanna is also one that deals with many political figures from throughout Europe, and even the internal divisions within the Papacy. Are there challenges in writing about medieval politics and making sure your reader does not get bogged down in the often complex details?
Of course there are! And it would have helped if everyone was not named either Louis or Charles. But Joanna’s story is no more complex than Edward III’s, or Henry VIII’s, or Elizabeth I’s. The difference is that these stories, and the names and details associated with them, are familiar to readers through repetition, and through plays and movies, while Joanna’s is not. I’m hoping that mine will be the first of many studies of this important queen–certainly, she merits it. And a mini-series wouldn’t hurt either; my goodness, in comparison to the romance and drama of Joanna’s family, those Tudors are as tame as the Brady Bunch.
We thank Nancy Goldstone for answering our questions