Murder most foul was as much a medieval as it is a modern problem. With a nod to Bob Dylan’s recent song title, murder most foul was not uncommon in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This will come as no surprise to any fan of Game of Thrones. Nor to any historian of the period.
Foul Murders: A Novel Approach
Popular historical murder mysteries about foul murders abound. But histories or fiction about actual murders is less common. Yet several excellent books exist about foul murders close to the French throne, as exciting as any fictional account. Today I will review a few to encourage you to read them.
Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager is a bit early for my usual period but is quite a thriller. Another is a medieval series of six novels, The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon.
The third book I will review today, Murder of a Medici Princess, by Caroline P. Murphy is somewhat different. Set in Renaissance Italy, as its title suggests it investigates the murder of a princess.
Blood Royal —The Murder of Duke Louis I d’Orléans
The author, Eric Jager is an academic and expert in his period. Contrary to the popular stereotype he is a gripping writer. The story he tells is a masterly combination of mystery, thriller, detective story and political history of the period. The murdered man, Duke Louise d’Orléans, was extraordinarily unpopular. As regent for his brother King Charles VI during his period of madness he frequently raised taxes. He was also a seducer of other nobles’s wives. They did not take kindly to this. So he made many enemies. Thus, there were many suspects.
The provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the hero-detective of the story, knew he must solve the crime quickly. As he investigates, we learn medieval techniques from De Tignonville’s methods. Within days, he discovered both the murderers and the man behind it. Accusing the suspect proved much more difficult, and the reason is fascinating. So he he changed the way he dealt with it.
Jager describes medieval Paris in meticulous detail until we feel we are walking its cobblestoned streets with the provost. No-one voluntarily entered his headquarters and city morgue, the vast, dank Châtelet, formerly a fortress-prison. We stand on the streets with the crowds pelting convicted criminals with rotten fruit and vegetables as they are carted through the narrow streets to the great gibbet. In the perpetual stench of Montfaucon, we hold our noses as hangmen add them to the three-story structure capable of hanging 60 at a time. We cheer as they join the bodies already putrefying, their gruesome companions feeding the crows and ravens that make their nests in the gallows itself. Even for a murderer it is a foul death.
A Motion Picture Delayed
Jager has written others true crime stores, also very popular. His The Last Duel, another swashbuckling thriller was scheduled to appear as a film this coming Christmas. But our modern plague, Covid 19, appears to have preempted the foul medieval murder this year.
Many Foul Murders—The Accursed Kings
Maurice Druon, prolific, acclaimed French historical novelist and member of the Acadamie Francaise until his death in 2009, wrote the series about the last five Capetian kings of France (Philip IV to Charles IV) in the 1950s. Translated into English in the 1970s they were reissued. They include: The Iron King and The Strangled Queen (2013); The Poisoned Crown, The Royal Succession, The She Wolf, The Lily and the Lion, and The King Without a Kingdom (2014)
Druon mixes fact with fiction to create swashbuckling tales that speed along like an oncoming train. Lust, incest, and adultery; homosexual dalliances coupled to abuse and corruption, transnational political intrigue, clashes between secular and religious power, judicial corruption leading to murder, malignant competitiveness, poisoning, baby-switching, and every imaginable vice occur daily. The series is based upon the premise that King Philip IV—cold, smart, handsome, and ruling with an iron hand—brings a curse upon himself and his descendants through his greed—hubris in action. He sets off his own and his family’s fate by destroying the Knights Templar, seizing their assets, and executing their revered Grand Master, Jacques de Molay.
The Books in the Series—From Better to Worse
The series starts out with a bang. I defy any reader to put down The Iron King after beginning it. The characters are larger than life, the situations fraught and the descriptions riveting. One book flows into the next, each leaving the reader hanging on the edge asking, And? What happened then? Bur inevitably even foul murder becomes ho hum after the umpteenth time.
Historical novelists ask themselves often how much they can play with the facts when they write. I think most would come down far closer to the facts than did Druon. So, enjoy these books as fiction. I hope they inspire their audience with the desire to learn about what actually happened.
In fact, the cleric, Jean de Montreuil, provost of Lille, after a spirited dispute on the topic with Christine de Pizan, deliberately forged the documents to invent the Salic Law in the early 1400s. Those kings whose commissions examined the texts rejected his proofs, though not publicly. In short, there was no ancient Salic Law that forbade rule by women in France, as humanist scholars admitted in the 1500s discovered when they unearthed medieval copies of the Carolingian Salic Law Code and discovered the forgery. (Sarah Hanley, “La Loi Salique,” in Nouvelle Encyclopédie historique et politique des femmes.)
Although these novels are older, they are exciting. I can recommend them to anyone who loves gripping murder and mayhem stories. As long as you don’t care that the fiction predominates over the history.
Who Murdered the Medici Princess?
Switching countries, centuries and genders, the next foul murder is set in 16th century Italy. Who murdered the young beautiful Medici Princess, Isabella de Orsini, Duchess of Bracciano? And why? These are the questions that Caroline Murphy sets out to answer. Her tightly woven biography brings to life this lively Florentine fashionista.
Favoured Daughter of an Enlightened Duke
Born in August 1542, Isabella grew up as the favourite daughter of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de Medici. Himself a sagacious ruler, he was also a doting father. Because she was the brightest star in the heavens as her father saw it, Grand Duke Cosimo encouraged Isabella to test the limits that restricted the lives of most women from the moment she could toddle. He did not wish for her subservience to her husbands and an unrecorded life within the the confines of his home. Supported by the Grand Duke,Isabella enlivened Florentine society with her exuberant personality, extravagant entertainments and literary and musical pursuits.
His favourite of the eight of his children who survived infancy, Isabella grew up surrounded by her siblings, supervised by secretaries, ladies-in waiting, tutors and nurses, and waited upon by maids and servants. The Medici children received an extensive humanist education on which Isabella thrived. Unlike the majority of his peers, Cosimo loved and valued the female sex, was devoted to his wife, the beautiful Eleanor de Toledo, and adored Isabella. She reciprocated his affection. Throughout their lives, they were each other’s greatest admirers.
From Favourite Daughter to Disregarded Duchess
It was still the Renaissance and children were resources. So Duke Cosimo’s delight in Isabella did not prevent him from marrying her to advantage. Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciono sat at the head of one of the two most important families in Rome. In order to strengthen the security of the southern part of his Tuscan duchy the Grand Duke chose Orsini. Orsini’s known improvidence and philandering disgusted Isabella. It comes as no surprise that Isabella and Paolo did not take to each other. But who would dare to murder a to murder Medici Princess ?
But since Duke Cosimo paid the bills, Isabella held the upper hand in their marriage, a state of affairs that the grossly fat and extremely misogynist Duke took in very bad part. As the years wore on, and Isabella’s manner became more imperious, their relationship deteriorated.
The Death of Grand Duke Cosimo I
When Duke Cosimo died, his favourite daughter, Isabella’s life suddenly became more difficult. Still, she did not expect that it would alter completely. She was still rich, young and beautiful. As mother to Orsini’s heir and close friend to the late Duke’s mistress, Bianca, she led Florentine society. With her young niece and dearest friend, Leonora of Toledo, wife of her youngest brother, she continued her life of luxury and leisure.
But her father’s untimely death exposed her to the jealousy of her elder brother, Grand Duke Francisco and his mistress —later his wife—Bianca Cappello.
Until, in July 1576, it all suddenly changed…. Then she discovered that the rancour felt by her own husband Paolo Orsini, could lead to bizarre results.
But would it be he who would dare to murder the Medici princess who was the mother of his children? Or the brother who was outraged by her licentious behaviour? Or one of Grand Duke Cosimo’s other children resentful that as favourite daughter Isabella inherited an unfair share of the family wealth?
With a remarkable combination of clear, fast-paced prose, careful attention to detail, and excellent but unobtrusive scholarship, Murphy not only maintains the suspense while she develops her argument, but she also paints a picture of the life of women in the Italian courts of the late Renaissance. The Medici family also provided several queens to the French royal family.
Caroline Murphy has also written several other biographies of fascinating Italian Renaissance women of influences, such as The Pope’s Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere, and Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna. I can also recommend these biographies.