You may not know this about me, but I’m a major Spanish history and literature nerd. Specifically, I love the medieval and early Renaissance period. And I’m obsessed with Isabel I (as in Isabella of Columbus and Ferdinand fame), which means I’ve also been obsessed with the Spanish television series about her. I’ve been unsure what to do with my Monday afternoons now that the series has ended, but fortunately just in time to help me deal with what the Spanish media calls an “Isabel hangover”, a new biography of Isabel has been published in English.
Isabella, The Warrior Queen, by Kirstin Downey (Random House, 2014) is a solid contribution to the Isabeline bibliography. While Downey is not specifically trained as a historian, her journalism background and writing style make this biography eminently readable, and she brings fresh insights into the thinking of an extraordinary woman. I found myself at the beginning somewhat annoyed by Downey’s assumption that the reader knows very little (do modern readers really need an explanation of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions?), but as the book progressed I found that I quite appreciated the way she clarified fifteenth century Iberian peninsular politics. I’ve read A LOT about that period, and I found that her approach served to clarify relationships and events across Europe and the Middle East that were still somewhat muddled in my mind.
A quick word about names. I much prefer the original Spanish “Isabel” (or “Ysabel”) and “Fernando” to the Anglicized “Isabella” and “Ferdinand”. It seems odd to me that Downey would use the Spanish names of most of the rest of Isabel’s family (her brother, Enrique, and her father and son, Juan, for example), but I suppose since she’s writing for a predominantly non-Spanish speaking audience she choose the more widely known versions of the names. I just have to say that I find it historically and linguistically annoying.
That said, once I got past the name issue I found much to recommend in this book. Downey’s suggestion that the behaviors of Isabel’s father and half-brother were perhaps the result of childhood sexual abuse was especially interesting. I think it’s dangerous to try to analyze historical figures psychologically, especially at a five hundred year remove. After all, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate diagnosis even when the person is sitting right in front of you. But Downey’s parallels with what we now know about the results of this trauma are worth considering. And she is especially effective at explaining aspects of Isabel’s character that have bothered me. While I have always admired her as a strong woman moving adroitly in a male-dominated world, I have also always struggled to reconcile that admiration with actions that I find reprehensible. Isabel was, after all, the monarch who – along with her husband, Fernando – presided over the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish and later, Muslim, populations. Downey takes special care to explain what was happening in the Mediterranean world as a whole, and concludes:
She was a religiously fervent Catholic, living in an era when the Ottoman Turks seemed on the verge of wiping Christianity off the map. I am convinced that much of what she did was a reaction to this perceived threat, and to her belief that she was being called upon to bolster the faith against a very formidable enemy.
Downey’s analysis of other members of Isabel’s family, in particular her husband, Fernando, and her daughter, Juana “La Loca”, are also worthy of note. The author certainly doesn’t see much to admire in Fernando, concluding that “when he ruled with Isabella, he could rank among the great kings of Europe and be viewed as a man of consequence. Without Isabella, he produced almost nothing of significance and frittered his time away in pointless international intrigues.” Her conclusion: “Love can be inexplicable.” Ouch. She also clearly tends toward the modern view that Isabel’s daughter, Juana, was not so much mentally ill as abused, maligned, and marginalized for political ends, first by her husband, then by her father, and finally by her son.
I read and study history not only because I’m a nerd and find it fascinating, but also because I find lessons there to help me understand my own world and life. Isabel had characteristics that I can admire, and in her flaws I discern permission to confront and accept my own. She was a highly educated and erudite woman of indomitable will who achieved a power and influence rarely granted those of her gender at that time. Yet she still experienced seemingly unbearable loss and heartache. In the last four years of her life, Isabel suffered the death of her mother, her two oldest children, and two grandchildren. She also saw her heir, Juana, exhibit behaviors that made her doubt her daughter’s capacity for rule, and she died unsure of whether what she had accomplished could be maintained. Isabel’s dignity in the face of events she could not control makes her, in my estimation, worthy of respect.
Isabella, The Warrior Queen is a book I can recommend to anybody with an interest in European or Latin American history, or to anybody interested in strong female characters. It makes a complex woman and her story accessible, and that might be Downey’s best accomplishment.
Just in case you’re interested, here’s a link to the series “Isabel”:
And these are two books in Spanish that I cherish and consulted as I read:
- Itinerarios de Isabel la Católica: 15 rutas de una reina viajera (Guías acento, 2004).
- La España de Isabel: Un viaje por los lugares que marcaron la vida de una reina, Teresa Cunillera Tugues (Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014).