Materiality in the Queenship of Isabeau of Bavaria
By Yen Duong
Master’s Thesis, University of Guelph, 2014
Abstract: This thesis revisits the origins of Isabeau of Bavaria’s notorious reputation – her ‘Black Legend’. Among medievalists, the commonly held opinion regarding Isabeau, Queen Consort of France (1385-1422), is that she was the scorn of contemporary writers. She is charged with a lengthy inventory of sins including profligacy, adultery and treason, among a myriad of other offences. However, by assessing the works of contemporary chroniclers and evaluating the material culture of Isabeau’s court, I propose that the foundation of her ‘Black Legend’ is linked to the problem of greed, over spending and taxation at her court – the only valid charges against the queen. Accordingly, research reveals that Isabeau navigated her queenship by performing expected gender ideology. By actively crafting her iconography modeled after the Virgin Mary using extra-literary devices and through conspicuous consumption, Isabeau was able to compensate for France’s lack of political stability and, ultimately, operated as a regnant queen due to the mental disability of Charles VI.
From the histories of one of the most tumultuous periods of Anglo-French warfare, and factional infighting among the French nobility arises the notorious ‘Black Legend’ of Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen Consort of France from 1385 to 1422. Historians have often accepted Isabeau’s alleged reputation as a debauched, immoral, and treasonous queen despised by contemporary commentators. She has been vilified as insatiably greedy and frivolous due to her exorbitant spending habits, and charged with incest and adultery for her rumoured affair with the king’s brother, Louis the Duke of Orléans. She has been accused of failing as a wife to support her mentally disabled husband, King Charles VI, and as a mother, for neglect of her children. Even physical descriptions of the queen have depicted her as repulsive and fat, paralleling the ugliness of her reputation. Deemed politically incompetent for her constantly vacillating alliances Isabeau was, according to some French writers, the queen who always remained an untrustworthy foreigner that sold the French throne to the English by agreeing to the Treaty of Troyes, which disinherited the dauphin in the process.
This negative posthumous reputation was promulgated by nineteenth century historians and writers alike, who used Isabeau’s history as inspiration for delightfully scandalous but highly exaggerated stories. For instance, the Marquis de Sade’s unpublished Histoire Secrète d’Isabelle de Bavière (1813) described the German princess in the following manner: desiring to possess everything but never knowing its price, capable of sacrificing all interests including that of the state for the benefit of her own, and possessing not a single virtue. He claimed that her cour amoureus – competitions of love poetry and songs among the nobility located at Vincennes – was actually a depraved temple of sexual impurity whose members included theologians, vicars, and chaplains. Such allegations propelled the historical facts of Isabeau’s reign into the realm of fantasy, and transformed her image into a symbol of sexual perversity much like the Isabeau depicted in Bertrand de Gélannes’ swashbuckling novel series from the mid-twentieth century.