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French medieval murder mystery unfurls from police officer's scroll

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One benefit of hindsight is being able to look back and spot a moment that changed the course of history. The brutal 1407 murder of Louis, brother of Charles VI of France, was one of those moments.

The city's provost (today's chief of police) Guillaume de Tignonville was called on to investigate the murder, and wrote his findings down on a scroll more than 30 feet long.

In Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, medieval expert, professor and author Eric Jager examines this fascinating relic and how the murder of one man had far-reaching implications for an entire nation.

Jager starts off by setting the stage, introducing the players and giving a detailed look at life in 15th-century France. He gives the reader a good handle on the politics and players of the age and creates interesting portraits of everyone involved.

He notes that "along with other surviving records spared by the teeth of time, the rediscovered scroll tells a story of conspiracy, crime and detection that would be hard to believe were it not true."

Living with a mental illness (based on descriptions of the time, Jager notes a possible modern-day diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia), Charles had designated Louis to act in his place when he was unable to rule.

Despite being a womanizer and a spendthrift with the royal coffers, Louis was a pious man interested in books and learning. Jager believes it was this appetite for knowledge that led to rumours it was his sorcery causing the king's madness.

More than a dozen men on horse and on foot, wielding axes and swords, attacked the Duke of Orléans just outside the city walls one night in November as he rode home from the queen's palace. His left hand was chopped off and his right arm seriously broken, but it was the two severe blows to the head that ended his life.

The scroll gives us the chance to hear from witnesses who typically wouldn't be part of the historical record, such as a shoemaker's wife, a page, a clerk and a salt-seller, and Jager manages to really capture the voices of these everyday people with his smooth, clear writing style.

Tignonville, a knight in his early 40s, was a well-educated man who had served as provost since 1401. He was notified of the murder almost immediately and started his investigation soon after.

Discovering the identity of the individual responsible had long-lasting and far-reaching effects. France was plunged into a gory civil war that would last for years, followed by an invasion by Henry V of England.

The latter half of the book focuses more on these repercussions than the details found on the scroll. Tignonville's role as the lead investigator isn't examined in enough detail, and only he is only briefly mentioned after the investigation was complete.

The book also could have used better maps. Quaintly hand-drawn, they're not consistent and are hard to match to descriptions in the text.

It's the first-person accounts that truly make this book different from other books focusing on European history. Eric Jager's Blood Royal will truly engage medievalists interested in new perspectives on a crime that changed the world for so many.


Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 8:35 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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