Review: The Madness of Kings by Vivian Green

The Madness of Kings: Personal Trauma the Fate of the Nations (History) - Vivian Green

This is the sort of book full of weird anecdotes that I really enjoy - and madness is something that fascinates both by the horror of it (if you imagine such a loss of control/memory) and the oddness of how it differently it occurs in different people. Here the tragedy is repeatedly that these people are in charge of the lives of many, not to mention the future of an entire country.


The author does make it clear that many of these are very much theoretical diagnoses, because of the lack of medical records for many of the cases. And there is also the problem of bias from the writers of history - such as the accounts of the madness of Roman emperors. 


What's really amazing is the list of leaders - both foreign and US - who were incapacitated by health issues but doctors and family members or other politicians kept the matter hushed up, at least for some months until it became clear that the politician wasn't going to get better. These aren't so much cases of madness as illness (sometimes along with personality problems) and medication that makes a person incapable of making good judgments. Examples range from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Churchill. 


In case you'd think this was all rollicking fun and flower eating with the occasional murder (er, no actual cases of murderers eating flowers discussed, that just sort of popped out of my head) - the writing can get scholarly and, frankly a bit...difficult. The author has a love of commas that I've not really come across before - he seems unable to stop adding information that for some reason must all go into the same sentence. Here, let me give an example. Try and follow what's going on in this sentence:


p. 271: "...His father, Alois, who was a senior collector in the customs, was a strict disciplinarian and an inveterate smoker, which may explain Hitler's life-long detestation of tobacco, who never had an intimate relationship with his son."


If you read that quickly you may find yourself thinking, "wait, tobacco had a son?! what the-" and then stop, reread and then realize what the sentence is actually saying. This is not the only example of this - it's just the most humorous. The problem is that this occurs frequently enough that you wonder why an editor didn't just step in and advise breaking up sentences like this.


Still, for the topic I was interested enough to read on. A duller subject might have made me set the book aside early on.


Oh and be aware that the quotes that I've added here? These are the weird (or sad) parts that I personally found appealing or memorable. (Like the royal nose-picking description. I was all wth/snickering over that one. NOT something that comes up in many history books.) Also if you enjoy having authors recommend specific books (primary and secondary sources) the endnotes here are wonderful for that.


An example:


p 291, on Chapter 2 Roman Orgies: "...Both Dio Cassius and Herodian have been described as gossipy and anecdotal."


Which means I must now put them on my To Read list, as gossipy and anecdotal to me means lots of fun to read.








I. The Wilderness of the Mind

II.  Roman Orgies

III. Medieval Trilogy

IV. The Royal Saint

V. Happy Families

VI. Spanish Madness

VII. Great Harry

VIII. Swedish Saga

IX. Russian Bears

X. The Bewitched King and His Legacy

XI. Florentine Frolics

XII. Mad George

XIII. Danish Charade

XIV. The Swan King

XV. 'An Infirmity' of Politicians

XVI. Madmen in Jackboots

Notes (endnotes with discussion of primary and secondary sources used)

Genealogical Tables





I confess that the following is just the sort of story that I'd hoped to read about when I picked up this book.


The set-up: France's ruler, Charles VI is feverish, but goes on a journey with his followers on August 5, 1392.


p. 74: "...when the cavalcade emerged from the forest into the hot open plain, one of the king's pages, half asleep because of the heat, dropped the king's lance which fell with a clatter on the steel helmet of his companion. Charles, startled by the sound, at once drew his sword and shouting "Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!" struck out at everybody within reach, killing four or five of his own knights, among them a well-known Gascon, the chevalier de Polignac.


'My God,' the Duke of Burgundy exclaimed, 'the king is out of his mind! Hold him someone!' At last Guillaume Martel came up from behind and seized the king while others took his sword which had been broken in the melee. Lifted from his horse, Charles lay prostrate and speechless on the ground, his eyes rolling wildly from side to side. Eventually his attendants placed him in an ox-cart which took him back to Le Mans."





Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, son of King Phillip II of Spain:


p. 98-99: "   Even more worrying was his hasty and furious temper, which revealed that he had a strongly sadistic streak in his nature. For his enjoyment he had young girls whipped in his presence. ...When rabbits are taken in the hunt, or other animals are brought to him, his pleasure is to see them roasted alive...


...His accounts included payments made by way of indemnity to people whose children had been beaten by his orders. He treated animals in a similar fashion, maiming horses which had displeased him with such fury - twenty-three were mentioned - that they had subsequently to be destroyed."


p 104: "...a test of Don Carlos's virility was devised, operated by three doctors, his barber Ruy Diaz de Quintanills and his apothecary. They procured the services of a young girl, who was rewarded with the gift of a house for herself and her mother and 1,200 ducats. She was introduced into the prince's bedchamber but the results appear to have been inconclusive. The French ambassador informed his master, Charles IX, that it seemed very likely that if the prince married he would have no children."


p. 107: "...he [Don Carlos] employed a French engineer, Louis de Foix, to construct a device which enabled him to open and shut his door from his bed. A weight was placed on top of the door so that it could crush a man to death if he tried to make a forced entry."




Peter the Great:


p. 147: "In other respects there was perhaps nothing very remarkable about his childhood. He played with dwarfs, freaks from the Samoyed and Kalmuk plains who, garbed in raspberry coloured coats adorned with gold buttons and trimmed with white fur, drew the tsar in a miniature cart, barking, neighing, braying, cackling and farting as they did so. As he grew older, he became more keenly interested in military games, arranging mock battles between the stable boys, and experimenting with fireworks and other explosive devices, as a result of which the son-in-law of his Scottish favourite, Gordon, was burned to death."


Er sure, nothing at all remarkable in that. I'm now wondering about what the author would call remarkable...


Also the use of the word dwarves as being freaks - well, that's sadly typical of how the nobility categorized people in that time period. However that particular quote doesn't have a footnote attached or I'd cite where Green got the information.


p. 152: "...The tsarina had herself become the victim of her husband's suspicious rage, for indiscreetly she had taken a lover, William Mons, the brother of one of Peter's discarded mistresses. Mons was executed on 14 November 1724 and his head was placed in spirits in Catherine's bedchamber as a memento of martial infidelity."




Charles or Carlos II of Spain (1665-1700) whose life is so pitiable that I felt the need to share multiple quotes. At the link you'll see his wikipedia page and paintings of what the poor fellow looked like.


p. 154: "...The Hapsburgs hardly ceased to wage wars, but they intermarried with enthusiasm to the ultimate detriment of their heritage. First cousins  married first cousins; uncles married nieces."


p 156: "...For nearly four years he had to be breast-fed by a bevy of fourteen wet nurses. He was rachitic and unable to walk properly because his legs would not support him. At the age of nine he still could not read or write, and his general knowledge throughout his life was to remain feeble. ...his Habsburg jaw was so elongated that he found difficulty in masticating his food."


p 159: "...his queen, Marie Louise, was a lively seventeen-year-old girl, ill at ease in a land whose language she did not speak and whose customs she found too rigid... She eventually did what she could to fulfill her duty as the king's wife, but without avail. For it seems that although the king attempted intercourse, he suffered from premature ejaculation, so that he was unable to achieve penetration. The French king, anxious about the future, asked to be kept closely informed about the most intimate details of the king's private life. 'Finally, sire,' the French ambassador Rebenec told his royal master on 23 December 1688, 'she [the queen] once told me that she was anxious to confide in me...that she was really not a virgin any longer, but that as far as she could figure things, she believed she would never have children.' "


p. 160, Alexander Stanhope on the king's illness: "...He has a ravenous stomach, and swallows all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands so much out, that his two rows of teeth cannot meet; to compensate which, he has a prodigious wide throat, so that a gizzard or liver of a hen passes down whole, and his weak stomach not being able to digest it, he voids in the same manner."


p. 161 "...While the king literally tottered from one ceremonial function to another, rumour began to circulate that the king's health, more especially his impotence, may have been induced by supernatural agencies, in other words that he was diabolically 'possessed.'


....Theologians had in fact long recognized that impotence could itself be a symptom of demonic possession."



Phillip V of Spain


p 169: "...The French ambassador somewhat more realistically attributed his troubles to the demands which he was making on his wife. 'The king,' he reported, 'is visibly wasting away through excessive use he makes of the queen. He is utterly worn out.' "


p. 171: "...He was seriously ill again in the spring of 1727, at times lethargic, at others passionate and excitable, acting violently towards his doctors and his confessor. When the queen tried to curb his religious devotions, which she thought excessive, he responded by trying to beat her. He screamed and sang and even bit himself."


You know you've read a lot about mad rulers when you stop at that part because of the self-biting and not anything else. And hey! If you want a really creepy Greek myth relating to that - check out the story of Erysichthon. He ends up trying to eat himself.




George III of England


p 197: "...He was emotionally labile, sometimes bursting into tears, showing anger and constantly fidgeting. ...if a table cloth was laid, he also turned it round and round unable to keep his hands still...In the same manner his state of nerves seemed to compel him to roll up handkerchiefs...on which in some days he had not less than 40 or 50."




Christian VII of Denmark


p 208: "...The Danish psychiatrist V. Christiansen who published his classic study of Christian's madness in 1906, attributed its onset, humorous as this now sounds, in part to over-indulgence in masturbation."


p. 212, physician Johann Friedrich Struensee: "...He was accustomed to read in bed by the light of two candles resting in the hands of a skeleton."


(And that's all there is about that - no further info, no footnote, nada. I am full of curiosity about that.)


p 213: "...When he went to see the opera, the Buona Figliuola, Lady Mary Coke commented disapprovingly that he not only stood for the first act but 'lean'd over the Box with his elbows and head...He picked his Nose which you know is neither graceful nor royal."


"...Fora  time he installed an actress, a 'stripper' would be a more appropriate term, at St. James's, 'that Strange Girl,' Lady Mary Coke wrote, 'that you remember was used to put herself out upon the Stage, almost all her clothes off.' "


This page made me stop to look up Lady Mary Coke and make note of other books to check out. (I'll no doubt be sharing links later.)




Ludwig II of Bavaria


p. 227: "...'He was,' his minister of justice, Eduard von Bomhard commented shortly after his accession, 'mentally gifted in the highest degree, but the contents of his mind were stored in a totally disordered fashion.' "




Benito Mussolini, Italy


p. 268: "...He fostered a macho image of himself as a virile, tough, athletic figure, seen driving a fast car, riding a horse, flying an aeroplane. To Hitler's disgust, he even had himself photographed in the semi-nude."


And I immediately thought of all the weird photos Putin has had taken of himself, like the shirtless-on-horseback one. Er NOT comparing political styles here - just personal psychology. Just saying that both seem equally narcissistic and odd in this way.