In Search of Better Stories

Spoiled children, flawed peacekeepers, and the corruptive nature of unchecked power

Her father believed in her, and it was precisely this confidence that propelled her into doing the impossible. For 30 years, she was the ruling monarch of one of the most powerful city-states in 14th century Italy, an incredible run when considering that most of the population could not even envision the concept of female rule. Everyone needs someone like Joanna’s father in their life.


Joanna was both loved and hated by her people. She was greatly respected and also called a whore and a Jezebel queen. Popes both loved her and excommunicated her. She experienced almost absolute power and was at other times a fugitive on the run. She was a good wife (4 times over!) but controlling, manipulative, and, as some people think, murderous. She comes off as genuine and compassionate and then other times duplicitous and vengeful.


The end was a violent one for the lady queen. Her’s was a similar fate to so many leaders of that era. A long-standing enemy captured her after her allies failed to rally around her. When it became clear to her captors that her death would better serve their purposes, they ignominiously snuffed out her life. This coming after weeks of deprivation and torture. To add further humiliation to the situation, Joanna had been excommunicated from the church. Instead of receiving a proper royal funeral, her mutilated body was tossed into an abandoned well reserved for vagabonds and criminals.


History has not been kind to Joanna. Nancy Goldstone takes umbrage against this sullied reputation, and her book sets out to dismantle this unfair and untrue depiction. Goldstone has waged a successful campaign to help set the record straight for this most remarkable Queen, who was so far ahead of her time.

Additional gleanings from this book:


  • Family Feuds: The leadership from all the city-states and empires throughout Europe were in most cases related to each other. The working theory was that alliances through marriage would reduce the likelihood of war. Well, that backfired! For 30 years, almost all of Joanna’s enemy combatants were cousins and uncles! Bring your sword to the family reunion!
  • Christianity failed to keep the peace and was a key part of the problem: It was religion in the end that would be Joanna’s undoing. She backed the wrong pope. Why were there two popes? The cardinals had selected Urban to keep a fragile peace between Italian Catholics and French Catholics. But Urban proved to be a petty, small-minded, ascetic with a bad temper and no people skills. He also couldn’t care less about French Catholic interests. The French were coming off of over six decades of papal rule from their city of Avignon; it was hard enough to stomach the return of the Papacy to Rome. Urban’s continued snub of them and combative nature proved to be too much. When their efforts to kill Urban failed, they resorted to subterfuge to regain power. Joanna got played as the new French pope Clement was selected. When Urban refused to step down, Joanna was forced to pick sides. Both popes gathered armies, and the fight was on. Joanna’s support of French leaning Clement over the Italian choice of Urban made her increasingly unpopular and spelled her doom. The church didn’t have any problem violently crushing whatever stood in their way. They had no problem hiring mercenaries to obliterate rebellious cities. Giving and taking bribes was commonplace in the church. Many of the cardinals believed that opulent lifestyles were evidence of God’s blessings.
  • Spoiled Children, Flawed Peacekeepers, and the Corruptive Nature of Unchecked Power: European leadership was essentially made up of rotten spoiled, arrogant children bent on getting whatever they wanted and destroying each other in the process. (Though Goldstone refuses to put Queen Joanna in that category) The Christian church had the unenviable task of standing in the middle of the mess, trying desperately to keep the peace but often failing miserably at it because they too were susceptible to the corruptive influences of power. — At least the church tried, I guess.
  • A Pack of Thugs in Your Back Yard — John Hawkwood and his “free Company” was an army of mercenaries that hung out in Italy during Joanna’s reign. They would do whatever dirty work needed to doing for whoever was willing to pay the highest price. Imagine if roaming about Alberta, there was an army of 10,000 men armed to the teeth, and any city or Province in Canada could hire them to put the smackdown on anyone they felt deserved it. What a disaster! We should not be surprised when Catherine the mystic wrote John an impassioned letter begging him to redeem his warrior spirit, form a crusade and go and kill Muslims instead of Christians. Of Course, John wasn’t interested in the venture; the dollars and sense of it didn’t work out, it was more lucrative for him to extort Christians feuding with one another.


John Hawkwood’s services were always available to the highest bidder.

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