Book Review: Les rois maudits by Maurice Druon

By Louise Gay

A member of the French Academy, a veteran, and a resistance fighter against Nazi Germany, Maurice Druon (1918-2009) was one of the co-authors of the mythical Chant des partisans – the anthem of French Resistance. But among his many nationally acclaimed works, the Accursed Kings series of historical novels (Les Rois Maudits) crossed borders to become an international success. This seven-volume story is the result of  a collaborative team effort, and the names of his many collaborators can  be found in each preface. The first six books were published between 1955 and 1960, with a final seventh – more independent from the others – released in 1977.

The plot is set in fourteenth-century France, with occasional crossovers to England. It starts during the last year of Philippe IV’s rule (Philip the Fair) in 1314, and ends with the captivity of Jean II (John the Good) after his defeat at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. The authors based the story on a legend invented by Italian chronicler Paolo Emilio: while burning at the stake in 1314, the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay is said to have cursed the Capetians, the pope Clément V, and the French minister Nogaret to the thirteenth generation. The series then followed the “accursed” kings of France and their entourage through decades of scandals, succession rivalries, court plots, murders, and wars.

Druon’s Accursed Kings distinguishes itself from other contemporary historical novels for its thorough research, except for a few liberties taken for plot purposes. An astonishing number of medieval sources were gathered to recreate the political and familial structures, the material environment and journeys of the characters, and the ceremonies they took part in.

Though most of the protagonists are males, queens – and more generally women – play a vital part in the story. In terms of queenship, the traditional marriage/maternity framework is addressed on many occasions. Indeed, the adultery of the Capetian princesses in the first book is one of the narrative catalysts, for it affects the mechanisms of alliances and successions that are central to the well-being of the monarchy. The plot of the princes’ remarriages shows the interests which guide behind the scenes the choice of new royal brides. The indispensable maternity is also a common thread of the series. As the last three Capetian kings all yearn for – and fail – to produce a male heir, the reader gets a glimpse of the heavy pressure experienced by royal couples to ensure dynastic continuity.

The representation of queenly power in the novels was ambivalent. Most of them, such as Clémence of Hungary or Jeanne I of Burgundy, are depicted without political ambitions, even though the latter was countess suo jure of Burgundy. When the French monarchy was confronted for the first time with the possibility of crowning a regnant queen, the authors were careful, however, to contextualise and rationalise the exclusion of women from the royal succession. The exclusion of women from the French succession has often been interpreted as a sign of an extreme medieval misogyny, a thought fuelled by the accusations of regression and barbarism put forth by modern historians. The story of Edward II’s deposition by Isabella of France (the plot of the fourth volume) serves as the only remarkable example of queenly rule, though the queen is portrayed as a romantic in her relationship with Roger Mortimer. The most brilliant illustration of female power in the series comes from the portrayal of the countess Mahaut d’Artois, a leading character based on the real-life domina. A widow and an heiress, Mahaut was a resourceful and cunning leader that had the most agency to pursue her grand ambitions. She also defended her interests, both politically and military, against her nephew Robert – the quarrel between the two about the heritage of Artois being the main thread of the volumes.

The queens’ cultural functions are briefly discussed, most through the character of Clémence of Hungary. Embodying a model of piety during her marriage with Louis X, her activities recall the importance of devotion and charity for a queen. Later in the narrative, as a widow she was presented as an avid art collector – her education at the court of Naples having endowed her with a taste for luxury and refinement. In this regard, the authors were well informed: indeed, Clémence’s will testifies to the richness of her library and recent studies have shown the extent of her patronage.

That said, the series is not exempt from all criticism. The characters, male and female, are frequently essentialised. For the latter, we find the stereotypical roles discussed by historians such as Paul Strohm or Guy Bechtel: the whore (Marguerite and Blanche of Burgundy), the witch (Mahaut d’Artois), and the saint (Clémence of Hungary). Some combine two of these categories: for instance, the lady companion Béatrice d’Hirson, is both a witch and a whore in the story. But we could attribute this to how medieval sources themselves tend to describe women. Moreover, Druon and his team choose to incorporate rumours spread by chroniclers (Jean Froissart, Pierre Cochon, or the author of the Chronique des quatre premiers Valois, for instance) who were hostile towards female rule (e.g. Jeanne II of Burgundy’s evil personality and limp). An informed reader can only wonder if this was intended for intrigue purposes. If not, then these additions are the result of centuries of negative historiography unquestioned by historians before the rise of queenship studies.

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