Almodis, The Peaceweaver

Written by Tracey Warr
Review by Lynn Guest

11th-century Occitania is a collection of counties and walled cities ruled by families continually fighting and marrying among themselves to increase their lands and authority. Women and children are the pawns in these battles for political power. Almodis de la Marche is such a pawn, married to Hugh of Lusignan to bring peace between her family and his. A pious man, Hugh prefers a chaste life, so after Almodis has produced the essential three sons she is repudiated by Hugh, whom she loves, and married to the vile Pons of Toulouse. Ambitious and intelligent, she brings efficient government to the corrupt city as well as giving Pons his necessary sons but he, suspicious of her talents and eager for a fresh bride, attempts to confine her in a nunnery. Almodis manages to escape, but where will she be safe in the twisted, violent politics of Occitania?

The early chapters are hard going. A lot of information and history is thrown at the reader (although genealogy tables do help) but perseverance pays off. The story is told alternatively by Almodis and her maid, Bernadette, and this gives us a clever perspective on the action and on Almodis herself. Almodis was a real person and quite a woman: three husbands, twelve children, literate, politically astute and powerful at a time when a wife could be burned at the stake for adultery. Wisely, Warr portrays such a formidable character as admirable but vulnerable and yet not always sympathetic or likeable. She brings this relatively unknown period of French history vividly to life through the eyes of her fascinating heroine, a woman whose story should be better known. Recommended.