The Books of 2016, #12: The Borgias: The Hidden History, by G. J. Meyer

The_Borgias

G.J. Meyer has a shtick. He writes “provocative” histories about “provocative” subjects that are mostly designed to help him stack cheddah by serving as the basis for “provocative”, historical-ish drama series on cable TV.

You may recall his earlier book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, (and, man, revel in the sheer clickbaitiness of that very title) which was the source material for the BBC series, much like The Borgias provided the basis for Showtime’s canceled series of the same name. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it entertaining, but also ludicrous. Entertaining simply because you’d have to work very hard to write a boring book about the Tudors. Ludicrous because of the second aspect of G.J. Meyer’s shtick: his books almost always go against the “conventional wisdom” and sport theses that make pure academic historians spit blood. For example, the gist of The Tudors was, really, that Henry wasn’t an absolute bastard of a monster. Somehow. When, in fact: he totes was.

Likewise, The Borgias: The Hidden History, in which Meyer tries to argue that the Borgias were not the monsters that almost all of history has made them out to be, but were rather just typical of any ennobled family of the time in how they used their wealth and power to reinforce each other and that, further, much of the horribleness attributed to them is outright false. To Meyer’s credit, I think he makes a much stronger case here than he did with The Tudors.

The book makes its case by alternating chapters between the main chronological narrative of the three primary Borgias (Rodrigo the Pope, Cesare the alleged inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and Lucrezia, possibly the most vilified woman of the Middle Ages) and what I’d call “context” chapters. The context chapters are quite useful in terms of situating the reader in how, say, the Papacy worked during the era in which the Borgias were active with it. Likewise, he explains Italian politics, international diplomacy… basically any topic where the reader may have an understanding of how it operates _today_, but NOT how it operated then. So these chapters help educate the user AND reinforce one of Meyer’s main arguments: that while a lot of what the Borgias did may seem unsavory to modern mores, they were not at all out of line with contemporary standards (an argument Meyer makes, I think, successfully over the course of the book) and, actually, were near-saintly when compared to other major figures of the day (this argument, not so much).

At any rate, the framework is very solid and keeps the user properly informed on the context needed to understand the narrative events as they unfold.

As for that narrative, I wish the writing of it were more exciting. For being about an era positively brimming with strong personalities, amazing new art, sex, epic violence, etc., the book is a bit of a slog to get through.

Part of the slog is due to the voluminous chat about sourcing interspersed throughout. To Meyer’s credit, most of this is segregated from the main narrative in a way that makes it easy to skip over if source-talk ain’t your jam. I think this is partially an over-reaction to the eyerolls that greeted his thesis about Henry VIII in The Tudors being actually a nice guy, and partially the usual work of a historian going into detail about their sources to validate their interpretation of them. I found it interesting, and believe he did an effective job of highlighting how his sources (and, to be honest, primary sources on the Borgias are remarkably limited so he’s quite thorough about it), once analyzed for bias, actually rather strongly support his own arguments. You may disagree, but I didn’t have that sense of “wow, this author is really contorting things to make it work here” that I sometimes get when reading through a writer’s own analysis of their source materials as related to their argument.

Overwhelming sourcing chat aside, Meyer does move the reader along from the rise of Rodrigo from minor Castilian nobility to leader of the Church, through Cesare’s brilliant but notorious and violent rise and even more notorious fall, and finishes up with a good discussion of the whorification of Lucrezia. While the least “action-packed” part of the story, the sections focusing on Lucrezia were the most interesting to me, as they are basically a textbook for how shoddily any woman who rose to any sort of prominence could be expected to be treated both by her contemporaries and by later writers. Of the three main subjects of the book, I think Meyer makes his most compelling case regarding history having given these folks a bad rap when it comes to the unfortunate Borgia sister/bargaining chip/marriage prize.

So, yeah, I think Meyer does a solid job of making his case, if overselling it a bit with both Rodrigo and Cezare, in this book, but really wish he had somehow injected the spirit of the age he is covering into his writing on it. People and events this interesting shouldn’t turn into quite so much of a slog when set down on paper.

Author: Shawn Ritchie

Chicago, Whiskeys, Guitars, Blackhawks and Nerdery.

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