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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Royal Blood by Eric Jager

Rather than just mentioning a recently read book in passing because of a train of thought it triggered, I am writing this to specifically recommend one. 

The story of Royal Blood begins with the discovery in the 1660's of a thirty foot parchment scroll which was the original police report of a murder in Paris 250 years earlier, in 1407.  In charge of the investigation was Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris, who in many ways was history's first detective.  Rather than relying on the standard crime-solving technique of the day, forced confession through torture, he directed a massive investigation through an examination of the crime scene, the dispositions of witnesses, and countless interviews with anyone who could possibly possess a helpful lead in his honest and courageous search for the truth.

In his epilogue, author Eric Jager writes of the scroll in and doing so zeros in on some of the reasons I find his book so fascinating:

"Besides providing a record of Guillaume's diligent sleuthing, the scroll preserves the only lasting trace of dozens of ordinary Parisians otherwise lost to history.  The events of November 1407 lit up their lives like a flash of lightning and the provost's scribes briefly capture their excited and worried voices, which then fell into silence and near oblivion.  Theirs is a story of everyday life and an extraordinary crime.  Centuries later, they speak to us:  the baker and the broker, the water carrier and the florist, the interrogator and the carpenter's apprentice- and, of course, the provost himself."

I like views into everyday life among ordinary people in the past.  That's why I like looking at paintings from the Dutch Renaissance, and this was indeed an extraordinary crime, a major assassination whose fall-out was felt throughout France and beyond the borders.

It's difficult to make a comparison with the assassination of Louis of Orleans to a hypothetical modern situation.  Louis was the king's brother and often the default acting king when his brother was incapacitated by one of his periods of insanity. Since France was involved in the Hundred Years War with England, we can wonder what if Franklin Roosevelt was so ailing during much of WWII that his Vice President assumed the responsibilities of his office and then was assassinated?  This isn't a satisfactory comparison because, among other reasons, it doesn't take into account the defused power structure of feudalism and how a feudal country can break apart under stress.

In addition to the glimpse it provides into the lives of everyday people, Royal Blood gives the reader insight into the Medieval tensions between the universities and the surrounding communities ("Town and Gown"), the judicial system and the military weaponry of the day, and the personal and political rivalries among the French and their English enemies. 

Royal Blood also contains enough sex and violence to hold our attention when we're less inclined towards appreciating historical themes.  Its story is suspenseful and contains a hero.  A dust jacket blurb about another of Jager's books says it should be the one to read if one reads only one book about the Middle Ages, but I think that description could also apply to this one.

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