The Man Who Believed He Was King of France: A True Medieval Tale

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Replete with shady merchants, scoundrels, hungry mercenaries, scheming nobles, and maneuvering cardinals, The Man Who Believed He Was King of France proves the adage that truth is often stranger than fiction—or at least as entertaining. The setting of this improbable but beguiling tale is 1354 and the Hundred Years’ War being waged for control of France. Seeing an opportunity for political and material gain, the demagogic dictator of Rome tells Giannino di Guccio that he is in fact the lost heir to Louis X, allegedly switched at birth with the son of a Tuscan merchant. Once convinced of his birthright, Giannino claims for himself the name Jean I, king of France, and sets out on a brave—if ultimately ruinous—quest that leads him across Europe to prove his identity.
With the skill of a crime scene detective, Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri digs up evidence in the historical record to follow the story of a life so incredible that it was long considered a literary invention of the Italian Renaissance. From Italy to Hungry, then through Germany and France, the would-be king’s unique combination of guile and earnestness seems to command the aid of lords and soldiers, the indulgence of inn-keepers and merchants, and the collusion of priests and rogues along the way. The apparent absurdity of the tale allows Carpegna Falconieri to analyze late-medieval society, exploring questions of essence and appearance, being and belief, at a time when the divine right of kings confronted the rise of mercantile culture. Giannino’s life represents a moment in which truth, lies, history, and memory combine to make us wonder where reality leaves off and fiction begins.

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Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
“Falconieri painstakingly pieces together the events surrounding his hero’s doomed bid in a narrative that reads like an adventure story.”
Bloomsbury Review

"A fascinating and fun historical read, a book that enlightens as much on medieval politics and ideas of kingship as it does on the perhaps naive, perhaps opportunistic merchant at the middle of one of the more unusual—and certainly audacious—scams in recorded history."

— Michael G. Cornelius

Patrick Geary
“The life of Giannino di Guccio, a.k.a King Jean I of France, unfolded from an infancy in France to the streets of Siena, to the Hungarian court at Visigrád, to the palace of the popes in Avignon, and finally to the prisons of Naples, against a backdrop of war, plague, dynastic intrigue, and millenarian hopes that defined the fourteenth century. Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri employs his deep knowledge of medieval Italy, his skills as a historian, and his flair for storytelling to lead the reader through a maze of forgeries, impersonators, con artists, dreams, and schemes that raise fundamental questions about belief, identity, and destiny at once rooted in this vanished world and yet timeless.”
Ingrid D. Rowland
“An incredible tale of changelings, revolutionaries, political intrigue, and middle-class rectitude told with evenhanded compassion and a profound sense of history.  Real life has never so resembled a picaresque novel, or a story from Boccaccio.”
Bloomsbury Review - Michael G. Cornelius
"A fascinating and fun historical read, a book that enlightens as much on medieval politics and ideas of kingship as it does on the perhaps naive, perhaps opportunistic merchant at the middle of one of the more unusual—and certainly audacious—scams in recorded history."
R. Howard Bloch
“I read The Man Who Believed He Was King of France with great pleasure. From the wonderful first sentence, it is a fascinating story and an engaging read. Unlike an Agatha Christie mystery, where all is revealed in the end, Carpegna Falconieri emphasizes the knots and twists of the skein of the tale, and we are as wrapped in it at the end as we were at the beginning.
New Yorker
"Falconieri painstakingly pieces together the events surrounding his hero's doomed bid in a narrative that reads like an adventure story."-New Yorker
Bloomsbury Review
"A fascinating and fun historical read, a book that enlightens as much on medieval politics and ideas of kingship as it does on the perhaps naive, perhaps opportunistic merchant at the middle of one of the more unusual--and certainly audacious--scams in recorded history."

— Michael G. Cornelius

Publishers Weekly

In 1354, the Roman governor Cola di Rienzo revealed to Giannino di Guccio, a wealthy merchant in Siena, a document revealing that Giannino had been switched at birth and that he was no merchant but Prince Jean I, heir to the French throne. Setting out to convince the world that he was the rightful king, he was thrown in prison, lost his fortune and died destitute. In this mostly elegant, sometimes workmanlike, study-part detective story and part history-University of Urbino medievalist Falconieri raises significant questions about the tale. Was Giannino a historical figure or a literary invention? Was he really the royal child switched at birth by a wet nurse intent on saving her marriage? Through an examination of other similar medieval tales and contemporary works that discuss such stories (e.g., Dante's Commedia), Falconieri answers these questions while offering fascinating glimpses into the intrigues of the medieval French and Italian courts and the weaving of classical Greek and biblical tales into medieval stories about the revelation of royal identity. 2 line drawings, 1 map. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Giannino di Guccio was a successful, wealthy merchant trusted with high office in Siena's government. But was he also the uncrowned king of France? In this compelling book, di Carpegna Falconieri (medieval history, Univ. of Urbino) recounts how in 1354 C.E. Giannino came to believe that he was in fact the lost royal heir, King Jean I, switched as an infant and raised as a commoner. He then sought to reclaim the throne of France. This unlikely story, drawn from the Istoria del Re Giannino, possibly authored by Giannino himself, was long thought to be a literary invention. It does contain all the attributes of a Dumas novel: greedy monks, mercenaries, and conmen attached themselves to Giannino, as did true believers. He was mocked and cheated and was possibly the unwitting pawn of the court of Navarre. He was also a forger of letters patent from various rulers. In the final chapter, di Carpegna Falconieri unleashes his critical skills as a historian to situate Giannino, debate the authorship of the Istoria, and examine the role of fabricated identity in Giannino's campaign to be recognized as king. Written in an accessible and captivating style-McCuaig also ably translated Chiara Frugoni's A Day in a Medieval City-this well-researched work is recommended for academic and large public libraries.
—Larry Milliken

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226145259
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri is director of studies in medieval history at the University of Urbino and head of courses in methodology of historical research and the history of the Middle Ages.
William McCuaig  has translated more than a dozen books from Italian and French, including Chiara Frugoni’s A Day in a Medieval City, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Table of Contents

Preface (2005)
Preface to the American Edition (2008)
Translator's Note
Map of Europe in 1360

Chapter 1. AT ROME

Chapter 2. AT SIENA

Chapter 3. IN THE EAST

Chapter 4. IN THE WEST

Chapter 5. IN PRISON




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