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

September 18, 2008

Identity fraud is not a modern invention. History is rife with impostors claiming to be long-lost members of royal families. One of these "hidden kings" is Giannino di Guccio, an Italian merchant who claimed to be the son and heir of the French king.

Louis X had died in 1316, leaving a daughter, Jeanne, and a pregnant wife. The barons refused to accept Jeanne as queen, establishing the principle that no woman could inherit the French crown, and were delighted with the birth of a boy, immediately accepted as King Jean I. Within a few days, tragedy struck when the infant died, and so the throne passed to Louis X's brother, Philippe V. Nearly 40 years later, Giannino, the son of a merchant from Siena, claimed to be King Jean I, building upon the rumour that the infant had been secretly exchanged for the dead child of a French noblewoman named Marie. From 1354, "King" Giannino travelled across Europe, seeking support at the courts of Cola di Rienzo in Rome, King Louis I of Naples and even the papal palace at Avignon, collecting legal documents and testimonies in support of his claim, and ultimately attracting a small army of mercenaries to fight for his cause. But his dream came to an end in December 1360, when he was captured in Provence and thrown into the papal prison.

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri narrates a wonderfully engaging story that raises fascinating questions about identity and memory in the Middle Ages. In truth, King Giannino is little more than a footnote in history, given the lack of real evidence that anyone took him seriously. Yet his persistence in chasing his dream, forging documents and desperately pleading for powerful men to take him seriously, makes him a compelling and even tragic figure.

As a work of history, The Man Who Believed He Was King of France is less convincing, precisely because it navigates the same space between truth and fiction as the tale of Giannino itself. Carpegna Falconieri happily colours between the lines offered by the historical evidence with all of the enthusiasm and imagination of a historical novelist. He adopts the guise of a detective in an Agatha Christie story, an apt image less because of any unusual insight that he offers into this historical puzzle, but more because of the way in which he holds back the most important evidence until the end of his book. Only in the final chapter does the storyteller become a historian, revealing that his tale is almost entirely based upon the Istoria del Giannino di Francia, a biography written around a century after its hero died. Does the Istoria describe a real person? What relationship does it bear to any autobiography by Giannino himself, if it ever existed? Is the Istoria historically accurate, or influenced at all by similar stories and models that it certainly seems to echo?

Carpegna Falconieri has interesting responses to all of these questions, but the tale has already been told in a remarkably uncritical manner, unaffected by the problems raised by the Istoria. Equally discomforting is the way in which the author implies that his detective work has brought to light crucial "independent" documents that, in reality, have long been known to historians, not least because Latino Maccari published them in his 19th-century edition of the Istoria.

Ultimately, this entertaining book adds little to our historical knowledge of King Giannino, and the professional historian will question the author's grand claims that his "experiment in writing" successfully presents "a correct relationship between analysis and narrative".

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

By Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri (translated by William McCuaig). University of Chicago Press. 224pp, £13.00. ISBN 9780226145259. Published 1 October 2008

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