Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Man Who Believed He Was King of France

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri's book recounts the misadventures of a 14th century Sienese man who combined the "sacrality of royal power and the commercial culture of the merchant class." Born into the humble role of small-time trader, Giannino di Guccio is informed that he was switched at birth with Jean le Posthume, the King of France who was believed dead at infancy.

It was Cola di Rienzo, the political maneuverer, that cooked up this conceit. The fake history exalted a 38-year-old merchant into an immediate royal, which is of course slightly more than a mortal human being. Guccio embraced his new title but, as can be imagined, events were not kind to this pretender to a throne that was already in dispute amidst the sieges and magma-dousings of the Hundred Years' War. This made him a sort of Ross Perot circa '92: a trouble-causing idealist whose quest was over before it started.

The background of this book is a Europe in crisis mode. The Muslims have Jerusalem, the Pope's in Avignon, and the Black Death has ravaged the continent. Guccio's plan to seize the kingdom of France was not just egocentric--he felt the calling to right a sinking ship. This was at least in part an altruistic attempt to save Europe, which was then called "Christendom."

Medieval politics were not as media-sodden as the contemporary equivalent, and so the consensus reality was mutable. In those days, you could head out to the town square and proclaim things and if you weren't swiftly killed then you had some authority. As a medievalist the author is clearly drawn to this fungible quality of reality, which should also attract anyone that employs a contradictory and self-sabotaging regimen of problem-solving.

On the other hand, casting around for assertions of authenticity from the halls of power (Guccio's main strategy) carried great personal risk. A trumped-up letter from a Hungarian royal is as much a liability as an asset, and the great irony of Guccio's endeavor is that he sought what he believed was truth and justice through deception and forgery. Upon returning to his hometown, Sienese magistrates took him at his word, revoked his citizenship and clapped him in irons.

Many scholars assumed Guccio's story to be legendary -- stories by Alexandre Dumas and Mark Twain feature regular Joes seeking rightful royal status. Falconeri demonstrates that Guccio was real. Part of the proof for this assertion is the paradox of just how typical Guccio's story is--no supernatural interludes and no fawning maidens to the person of the King. It's a straight story about a businessman who sought immortality, sought to turn money into magic. The shitstorm of 2008-9 could use a few of this type of outside-the-box operators.