Travels With A Medieval Queen

Written by Mary Taylor Simeti
Review by Ilysa Magnus

The queen of the title, Constance of Hauteville, daughter of Roger II of Sicily, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and the mother of Emperor Frederick II, lived in the late twelfth century. She is perhaps best remembered for having given birth to Frederick in 1194, at age forty, in public at Jesi, Italy. Her reason: after many years of barrenness, she wanted the people to know that Frederick was truly hers – not the product of a surrogate – and, thus, of royal lineage so that he could take his proper place in Norman Sicily.

Seventeen years ago, Simeti promised us in her classic story of an American living in Sicily, On Persephone’s Island, that she would write this travelogue about Constance. The book is a journal of sorts about the journey of Simeti and her friend through the Italy which Constance would have travelled – the churches, inns, mountains and fields – some modern and disparate from the world of Constance, some strikingly similar.

Since there is not a great deal known about Constance, Simeti takes certain liberties, assigning her a lady-in-waiting, a protector and others who would have accompanied the Empress. Simeti extrapolates from extant texts about what route Constance took to Jesi, what she wore, what she ate, how she spent her days awaiting the birth of her child. The pages are literally peppered with pages from illuminated manuscripts, photographs of twelfth century churches Constance probably visited, cloth she might have worn, goblets from which she might have had wine.

Even though this is a wonderful effort, I found Simeti’s comparisons to modern Italy jarring. Having just finished The Blood Remembers (see review this issue), which deals with a fictionalized and romanticized account of the Hauteville legacy in Norman Sicily, I was looking to this book to fill in the interstitial spaces. Instead, I found myself bored at times and not a part of either Simeti’s or Constance’s journey.