History, Italy, Medieval, Travel

The Joanna-of-Naples Cure

I don’t know about you but reading about antique hardships really warms my heart. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly; the pleasure comes not from the terrible suffering per se, but from my own near-complete immunity from afflictions like ergotism and death by boiling. An appropriate German compound noun might be Schauderdanke or ‘shudder thanks’.

So, if you’re feeling low, instead of keeping a gratitude journal or undergoing bee-sting therapy, why not take a trip down memory lane back to the fourteenth century? Nancy Goldstone’s book The Lady Queen: Joanna the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily is an excellent source of the unending horrors of life in medieval Europe and sure to put the pep back in your step.


Joanna I of Naples was born in 1328 and died in 1382, experiencing pretty much non-stop crises in the 54 years between. Part of the appeal of her story is that massive wealth and privilege in no way shielded her from what we in the twenty-first century would consider horrific trauma.  Though it seems pretty clear that serfs and slaves had a hard time back in the day, Joanna’s trials and tribulations have opened my eyes to the fact that, by our standards, ‘Queen’ was not such a cushy job either. Reading her story, you are forced to admit that, no matter what challenges you face right now, you should get down on your knees and thank the universe that you are not the Queen of Naples.

Joanna with her grandfather Robert the Wise

Eight Ways Joanna’s Life was Probably Worse than Yours

8. Vengeful Hungarian Relatives
Joanna’s problems began well before she was even born when her great-grandfather Charles II named as his successor his third son Robert rather than a child born to his older son. The twelve-year-old grandson (also named Charles) was instead bundled off to Hungary (where his maternal family had roots) to claim the throne
there. Young Charles had his hands full setting up shop in Hungary but eventually managed to establish his dominance and to increase royal revenue, largely thanks to productive goldmines.  He had five children with the formidable Elizabeth of Poland and Robert the Wise foresaw that one of them might later attempt to take Naples. He tried to
deflect future conflict by marrying Joanna to Andrew (she was five and he was four).  The Hungarians expected that Andrew would rule Naples jointly with her, so restoring the throne to the ‘rightful’ descendent. However, just before dying, Robert adjusted his last will and testament to deny Andrew any real power: cue shitstorm.

Elizabeth and kids: they’re so cute when they’re young.

As Robert the Wise was safely tucked up in his tomb, Joanna was left to manage the fall-out. The Hungarians repeatedly tried to convince the Pope to overturn Robert the Wise’s decision to deny Andrew the crown. Elizabeth of Hungary even made a special trip to Italy to pursue her case and is supposed to have bribed the Pope. Clement VI finally reversed his ruling and agreed to crown the young blister after all.  Meanwhile, though, Andrew had summarily ordered the release of brothers jailed for murder, rape, pillage, treason and ‘several other offences’, probably with a view to taking the crown by force with their help. Alarmed, the Pope changed his mind again and sent a message to Naples.

7. Her Kingdom was Invaded by a Nose-Chopper

Unfortunately, there was no email in those days, so the papal messenger got there too late. Believing the court was about to be overtaken by a dirty barbarian (the Neapolitans were quite racist), members of the royal court wished to deny Andrew the crown in a more permanent manner, i.e. by killing him. He was strangled after a hunting trip. Nancy Goldsmith doubts that Joanna herself was involved but suspicion fell on her anyway.
Pregnant with Andrew’s child, she recognized the need to marry again to some man who was able to militarily protect the Kingdom on her behalf. She chose Louis of Taranto (uh oh, big mistake!). As soon as the Hungarians heard about this, they were livid; they had expected her to marry Andrew’s younger brother Stephen instead. Although it was months since Andrew’s death, they started calling her a husband-killer and Louis I of Hungary prepared to invade Naples.

While Joanna herself had not initially been too popular with the Neapolitans, Hungarian Louis soon replaced her as the royal everyone loved to hate. One of the first things he did on entering the city was to demand exorbitant taxes. His methods of ‘investigation’ into his brother’s death (cutting off noses, fingers, ears and engaging in horrific torture) were so cruel that most noble families refused to have anything to do with him. Similarly, his men were cruel enough that potential allies closed their gates to him. Eventually he got injured and ran out of money, so returned to Hungary. Joanna returned to Naples, but her troubles were not over yet…

Louis I of Hungary

6. Her Second Husband was the Ultimate Manspreader

Soon after his marriage to Joanna, Louis of Taranto decided to take all of her power away and to keep everything for himself. He confined her to a room of her castle, purged the court of her supporters and made it a rule that nobody could talk to her unless he was present. Eventually Joanna managed to smuggle some letters to Pope Clement complaining about this treatment and Avignon sent two galleys to Naples to convince Louis to back down. While privately he continued to treat Joanna with contempt and violence, this was par for the course in the fourteenth century. Even so, he clearly stood out even by the standards of the time, as Petrarch described him as “violent and mendacious, prodigal and avaricious, debauched and cruel.”

He even had himself printed on the coins

5. The Popes were All Up in Her Business
As soon sixteen-year-old Joanna ascended the throne, the Pope started interfering. He sent a legate, intending to impose his direct rule, but the legate was so inept he ended up alienating everyone and was eventually recalled. From then on, Joanna was expected to inform His Holiness every time she passed wind. Admittedly (as in her problem with Louis of Taranto), a close relationship with popes could be a distinct advantage. However, it didn’t stop her from being spied on, double-crossed or excommunicated later on.

4. People Were Dying Like Flies
The Black Death came along in 1348, when Joanna was twenty. The disease coincided with bad weather, crop failures and an economic crisis, and killed an enormous number of people. Boccaccio, who spent several years in Naples, has the plague as a backdrop for his famous book The Decameron.

Illumination of The Decameron showing plague victims

3.  Her Three Children All Died Young

When Louis I of Hungary invaded Naples, he decided to kidnap his nephew Charles Martel, Joanna’s child born to Andrew before his assassination. Little Charles died soon after reaching Hungary. Joanna’s second child, Catherine, died at the age of one. Her last child, Françoise, died soon after Joanna and Louis were crowned in 1352, at the age of eight months. In her third marriage she conceived but miscarried.

2. Her Third Husband was a Lunatic 


When Louis died, Joanna was still of child-bearing age and time was running out to produce an heir. Her decision to marry James IV of Majorca may have looked good on paper, but he was not the sort of man most women would choose to father their children. From the age of 13, James had been imprisoned in a small iron cage and the experience had affected his mental health. As Joanna writes to the Pope, things went very wrong quite quickly:

“Eight days after I had joined my spouse in matrimony by God’s permission, Your Holiness’s consent, and the necessary exemption, he began to engage in insane behaviors, about which I did not excessively worry, thinking that they were caused by his youth and the filth of a long imprisonment which might have dulled his sensuality. But after the several days, afflicted with a fit of fever, he carried out even more outrageous deeds such that, on the doctors’ advice, I removed from his room the weapons, stones, wooden clubs and all such objects he could lay his hands on. But this too I kept silent, presuming that the infection from his disease was the cause of this. Later and as a result of familiarity caused by a more intimate association I began to notice that every month, sometimes at the change of the moon and sometimes just after the full moon he would have an outbreak of madness, with some clear-sighted moments at intervals.”

Inevitably, James tried to take power away from Joanna but with the Pope’s help she nipped that in the bud. Annoyed, James left to recapture Majorca only to end up captured by King Henry II of Castile. Joanna had to bail him out but  he wandered off again in another doomed attempt to recapture some territory and died of illness in 1375.

1. She Ended Up Excommunicated, Imprisoned and Assassinated

The Western Schism was Joanna’s downfall. To make a long story short, there were suddenly two popes Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon. Forced to make a choice, Joanna backed the wrong one—Clement VII.
She ended up being captured and imprisoned by Charles of Durazzo, her relative and a supporter of Urban VI. She was killed in the fortress of San Fele on 27 July 1382. Because Urban VI had excommunicated her, her body was tossed into a deep well on the grounds of Santa Chiara Church in Naples, a monastic complex built by her step-mother Queen Sancha of Majorca.

Cloister and gardens of Santa Chiara

Honestly, I could go on forever, but by this time you should be feeling as light as air and ready to kiss the twenty-first-century ground under your feet. Thanks, Joanna, you made my day!

2 thoughts on “The Joanna-of-Naples Cure”

  1. I think it’s the opening scene of Saramago’s Baltasar and Blumunda (set in the 18th century) in which we understand that the princess is being chewed on by bedbugs. It does give one perspective.

Comments are closed.