Jager, Eric: Blood Royal
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I read Eric Jager's The Last Duel (my review) some eight years ago, and it still stands out for me as one of the best books I've read since I began blogging books. I was delighted, then, when the author sent me a copy of his new book, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris. As the subtitle promises, Blood Royal tells the story of a crime, the murder of Louis of Orleans, who was struck down one night in 1407 by a gang of assassins. This was no ordinary murder, because Louis was the brother of the King of France, Charles VI (a.k.a. Charles the Mad). Charles' intermittent bouts of insanity led to disputes between Louis and a cousin, John of Burgundy, over the regency and guardianship of Charles' young heir. Louis, then, was more involved in the government of France (and, incidentally, with Charles' wife Isabeau) than he would have been were his brother not crazy.
Roughly the first half of Jager's book tells the story of the build-up to the assassination and the investigation of the crime by the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville. Jager also provides us with backstory about Tignonville and the prisons and executions he oversaw--very interesting, gory stuff. Tignonville's original police report is extant, happily, preserved on a parchment scroll, and it allows Jager to paint a detailed account of what happened in the days leading up to and immediately following Louis' murder. Ordinary Parisians, by virtue of living near the scene of the crime, were suddenly part of a nationally important investigation, and their everyday movements, documented by interrogators, became part of the historical record. As Jager writes in his epilogue, "The events of November 1407 lit up their lives like a flash of lightning, and the Provost's scribes briefly captured their excited and worried voices, which then fell into silence and near oblivion." I can't emphasize enough how interesting I find this sort of history, getting a glimpse of the lives of ordinary people from a lost world going about their ordinary business: a purveyor of wicker baskets, a nosy neighbor woman who slept in the nude, watercarriers who made their living delivering buckets of river water to private residences.
The second half of the book deals with larger issues, the national and international ramifications of Louis' murder: civil war in France, renewed hostilities with England, the unthinkable savagery of the Hundred Years' War. Tignonville is mostly missing from this part of the book, and ordinary folk are looked at only in the aggregate. This larger story is of course the big picture stuff that changes history, but for me Jager's story--and nonfiction generally--is most successful when it focuses on and fully unpacks small events. And Jager is expert at doing so.