Travels with a Medieval Queen

Travels with a Medieval Queen

4.0 1
by Simeti
Two Women Set Out Across Europe in Search of a Dead Queen

The medieval queen in question is Constance of Hauteville, daughter of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, and mother to the Emperor Frederick II. In 1194, at the age of forty, Constance journeyed from Germany south to reconquer her father's throne. On


Two Women Set Out Across Europe in Search of a Dead Queen

The medieval queen in question is Constance of Hauteville, daughter of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, and mother to the Emperor Frederick II. In 1194, at the age of forty, Constance journeyed from Germany south to reconquer her father's throne. On the way she discovered that she was pregnant for the first time. She decided to give birth in public so that the world would know the child was truly hers. These intriguing facts, and very few others, are all we know directly of Constance's life.

Seventeen years ago, Mary Taylor Simeti promised in On Persephone's Island--her now-classic memoir of an American in Sicily--that she would someday tell the story of Constance (who was, like her, an expatriate and the mother of a bicultural family). In Travels with a Medieval Queen, Simeti keeps her promise: retracing Constance's route from Germany to Sicily, contrasting the exotic setting of Constance's childhood in Palermo with that of her married life in the north, and drawing on reading in contiguous fields to flesh out a spare legacy of historical facts. This is the beautifully illustrated chronicle of Simeti's twentieth-century travels, first in books, then on the road, as she searches the landscapes and the monuments that survive from the twelfth century for clues to the inner life of a mother who was also a monarch.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Simeti offers a delightful, reflective reconstruction of a journey undertaken in 1194-1195 by the Sicilian princess Constance from the dark forests of Germany back to her ancestral island in the company of her cold, conquering husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Simeti, who has lived in Sicily for 40 years and written about the island in Pomp and Sustenance and On Persephone's Island, retraces Constance's itinerary in the relative comfort of her car, creating a pleasant exchange between the two journeys. She empathizes intensely with the princess's more grueling travails, from the horseback ride across the Alps, to the dangerous experience of childbirth (which, with her first child, Constance chose to undergo in public to prove that the child was hers). Throughout the book's 12 chapters corresponding to the months of Constance's trip, Simeti renders her sense of connection with her subject: they are both expatriates caught between two cultures, maneuvering for space in a male world. As Simeti is aware, much of the reconstruction is a projection of her own experience, since few documents speak directly to Constance's life. The author senses and evokes possibilities, introducing invented characters like the princess's Arab nurse or fictitious relationships such as her wooing by the courtly poet Frederick von Hausen. She dips into medieval scholarship, rather than immersing herself fully, though her friendship with Columbia University professor Caroline Walker Bynum bears fruit in the discussion of individualism in the Middle Ages. Like another 12th-century traveler, Gerald of Wales, Simeti is fond of engrossing intellectual side trips (astrology, chess, medicine, etc.). 144 b&w and 10color photos. (Dec.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Constance of Hauteville, the medieval queen featured here, was the daughter of Sicily's king and the wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Few details about her life exist, but it is known that she had her only son at the age of 40 while returning to Sicily in 1194 to help her husband claim the Sicilian throne. Constance is buried in Sicily, which is where Simeti, an American who has lived there for almost 40 years, first learned about her and became fascinated by the mystery surrounding her life. Retracing Constance's return trip to Sicily, Simeti (On Persephone's Island) combines historical facts with her own speculations. The historical information, which fortunately makes up the bulk of the text, is well researched and quite interesting. The travelog sections, on the other hand, are flat. The reader often feels cheated by the author's contrived imaginings, which are neither fact nor fiction. In the end, it seems that the blending of genres simply doesn't work. Still, so little is available on Constance that this book fills an obvious gap. For libraries with medieval collections. Kathleen Shanahan, Kensington, MD Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Memoirist Simeti (On Persephone's Island, 1986, etc.) tells the story of Constance d'Hauteville, whose marriage linked the medieval Norman kingdom of Sicily with the Holy Roman Empire. In 1186, the 32-year-old Constance, heir to the throne of Sicily, married Henry, rock-ribbed son of the dashing Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and ten years her junior. When her half-brother William II died childless three years later and the succession went to another male relative, Henry, now emperor, determined to enforce Constance's claim and take Sicily for himself. It took two tries, and in 1194, en route to Sicily the second time, the 40-year-old empress discovered to everyone's astonishment that she was pregnant. The child she bore became Frederick II, one of the most powerful and controversial figures of the Middle Ages. Part travelogue, part history, Taylor's narrative moves between Constance's final journey and her own trip 800 years later along the same (reconstructed) route. Simeti, an American who has lived in Sicily for many years, offers lively descriptions of important Italian sites and buildings, illuminating background on medieval people and practices, and some reflections on the continuities and discontinuities over time of various human experiences: travel, selfhood, childbirth, and, naturally, expatriation. Articulate and well-grounded in medieval studies, the author is a self-styled "incautious amateur," filling gaps in the record with imaginative conjecture. Unfortunately, Simeti also invests her informed, intelligent reconstructions with the trappings of self-indulgent fantasy; she needlessly invents names for unattested figures, dramatizes undocumented relationships, and smuglyapologizes for doing so at every opportunity. Even worse, Simeti uses Constance's 1194 itinerary as an organizing principle for a story that begins more than 30 years earlier. (A chronology is provided-too late-at the end.) For the general reader unfamiliar with the major events of the late-12th century, this episodic approach would be confusing in any case; combined with Simeti's modern-day anecdotes and detours, it verges on incoherence. An engrossing story, sadly contorted in the telling.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
7.13(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.29(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: May

Arthur, good king of Brittany,
Whose knighthood teaches us

To be courteous, to be true knights,

Held court as a king should

On that holy day always

Known as the Pentecost.

--Yvain, The Knight of the Lion
Chrétien de Troyes, c. 1177

The tower of Trifels Castle beckoned, dark red against the pale spring sky and the new green of the tree-covered mountainside below. Princes, dukes, barons, and bishops came riding from all parts of Germany, summoned by their suzerain, the thrice-crowned Henry VI, King of Germany, King of Italy, and Holy Roman Emperor, to attend high court on the feast of Pentecost, which in 1194 fell on the ninth of May.

Each came with a party of knights riding behind him, and a mule train laden with arms and armor, for once the court session had ended, they would move south, following their liege lord, Henry, and his wife, the Empress Constance, crossing over the Alps and down into the Lombard plain like the waters of the spring thaw. An army bent on conquest, their goal was southern Italy and the fabulously wealthy Norman Kingdom of Sicily, claimed by Henry through ancient imperial right, and by Constance as the only legitimate heir of the Norman dynasty. Whose claim was stronger depended on one's point of view.

Trifels beckoned to me as well. Although I had never seen it, not even in a photograph, I knew that it stood among the wooded hills of the Pfälzerwald, the Palace Forest that forms the northern border of the Palatine Rhineland, the ancestral possessions of the Hohenstaufen family, into which Constance had married. It was from here that she began her last journey south, and I sensed that in every way -- culturally and emotionally as well as geographically -- it represented the farthest point of her travels, her greatest distance from home. I would not be able to arrive at any understanding of Constance if I had not seen Trifels.

My own arrival in Germany in 1996 was easier, quicker, and considerably less dazzling than Constance's had been: I brought no mules, carried no treasure, made no perilous mountain crossings. My major challenges were to succeed in driving the car on and off the overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples, and thence find my way north to an apartment in Rome, that of Marcella Serangeli, the friend who was to accompany me.

Marcella was packed and waiting: a cup of coffee, and we were off. She had been unable to travel for several years and was delighted to explore a recently reacquired freedom by accompanying me on this trip. Marcella is a retired social worker, almost the first person I had met when I came to Sicily in 1962 to work in a community development project. We were co-workers and neighbors for two years, and then she left Sicily to work in Spain and then in Central America. Never a true expatriate, she knows nonetheless about living in a foreign country. Our children are contemporaries, and many vacations spent together had long since proved that we make good traveling companions.

We had agreed by phone that while the itinerary of our return journey southward, determined by that of Constance, would follow the secondary roads, on the northward portion we would take the superhighways, driving as fast as we could in order to get where we were headed as soon as possible. Travel as motion, not as experience.

It was May, the days were long, and we left Rome at noon. Except for the usual traffic jam crossing the pass over the Apennines between Florence and Bologna, and heavy traffic around Milan, there were no problems, and we arrived at Como in time for dinner. By eleven the next morning, we had zipped under the Alps and were in Zurich. It felt as if we had robbed ourselves of time and space.

We crossed the German border near Schaffhausen and, going slowly now, drove west along the northern bank of the Rhine. The river itself is fairly wide in this part, but the fluvial plain is narrower: to the north a strip of rich fields tightly farmed with what appeared to be forage crops, and then a dark line of fir trees -- the southernmost hem of the Black Forest. Across the river and to the south, the Swiss side of the plain rose rapidly into foothills, beyond which the snow-covered peaks of the Alps closed the horizon like a freshly painted picket fence.

The vision of the distant mountaintops glowing in the sunset was tamed by the well-fed placidity of the Rhine in the foreground, the prosperous fields, and the highway running straight. Had it been the twelfth century, however, we would have found ourselves surrounded by bogs and marshes, rotting bushes and fallen trees obstructing our progress, our path blocked each spring by the floodwaters of the great river obese with roaring masses of melted snows, the rafts at the fords drawn ashore for the season, the wooden bridges torn from their moorings.

We would have felt menaced by that ribbon of black trees to the north. The Black Forest hid bandits, beasts both real and mythical, and even wild men, long-haired and naked, who lived on roots and berries and ran amok. We would be thanking God that at least the mountains were behind us and that we had been brought this far in safety, and praying that we would arrive at some sure lodging before darkness fell.

After an hour or so, Marcella and I picked a turnoff at whim and headed up into the twilight of the Schwarzwald, where we sank gratefully into the first pine-paneled, feather-bedded Gasthaus we could find, happily forgetful of our first exercise in historical imagination.

My idea of the Black Forest had always been strictly out of Grimm -- virgin, dark, and impenetrable, populated by Gauls who moved silently through the underbrush, as at ease as deer. Caesar claimed to have marched through it for months without seeing sunlight. So be it, but that wasn't the forest of today. It wasn't black, and it wasn't composed of Norway spruce. I hadn't realized that a forest of conifers cannot reproduce itself, since the saplings die for lack of the sunlight that their parent trees deny them. Without human maintenance, careful foresting, and clearance, the beech tree, the only tree that can reproduce itself in its own shade, will take over.

What we found as we drove northwest through gentle hills were stands of Norway spruce, dark indeed but with little or no underbrush, alternating with bright green meadows and threaded with carefully tended walking paths, quite crowded with young families, babies and backpacks bobbing on their shoulders, and older couples striding along with the help of stout wooden walking sticks.

The meadow grass grew paler as the mist crept over it, laying big banks of fog over the lower valleys. We had decided to take the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse, the upper road that would carry us up through the highest and densest part, which supposedly offered the most spectacular views. Here, however, the forest became white, ceding its black to the rain clouds closing over us; the long needles of the spruces taught thick strands of mist as if they were combing wool. We followed the red taillights in front of us while great glowing eyes glared up out of the fog and slithered past us to the left.

It was a relief to come down out of the fog and to cross the valley of the Rhine. The late afternoon sky was overcast and prematurely dark when we arrived at Annweiler, the small village that lies in the valley below Trifels. The clouds hung low over the hills, releasing intermittent and desultory rain, but the village streets were full of people, and it required two hours of increasingly desperate research to find a room on the outskirts of town.

We were lucky to find a bed, for it was the Friday of the Pentecost weekend, something we had not taken into our calculations. Pentecost has lost status in Italy, but in Germany it is still a major holiday weekend, and for many contemporary Germans, it signifies the opening of the hiking season. The paths of the Pfälzerwald, which more or less begins at Annweiler, compete with those of the Black Forest across the river for vacationers from the southwestern German cities.

That night my sleep was agitated by dreams involving Constance and the castle that we would be seeing the next day. I woke early, and while Marcella slept on, I lay in bed musing about Constance in the irregular thought patterns that belong to dawn, and gazing at the walls around me. The owner of the bed-and-breakfast was a big, sunny bear of a man who spoke only Greek, and the decor of his establishment had immigrated to Germany with him: souvenir amphoras and wall hangings embroidered with pictures of the Parthenon, Mediterranean kitsch rather than German Gemütlichkei. I felt at home here, as Constance would have: she had grown up in a polyglot society in which the Greek language and culture played a prominent role, and the sound of someone speaking Greek would surely have aroused her nostalgia.

*Endnotes were omitted

Copyright © 2001 Mary Taylor Simeti

Meet the Author

Mary Taylor Simeti, an American writer who has kived in Silcily for almost forty years, is the author of On Perephone's Island, Pomp and Sustenance, and Bitter Almonds.

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Travels with a Medieval Queen 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Simeti has brought Constance to life. If able to forgive a bit of fictionalizing, this book is enjoyable for those who wish to dig in and understand an era of history. I felt emersed in the age, empanthizing with Constance and what her tough life may have been like. Highly recommended.