Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge
By Eleanor Herman
Sex With Kings is the sort of niche history that really gets me going. I love it when a historian bites off a little corner of history and chews on it for 200-300 pages, especially if it is a subject that has otherwise been left to rot on the side of the plate. Subjects such as the etymology and evolution of the word fuck or the history of the human fear of premature burial arouse in me a curiosity that must be satiated.
When I came across Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge (via someone else's book blog, but I forget whose. If you read this and it was your blog let me know and I will edit in your credit) my insatiable curiosity was roused. How could a history of royal mistresses not fail to entertain as well as inform. So long as it didn't focus on the detritus one finds in the British tabloids, this should have been a fantastic read.
Well, it is.
And it isn't.
First, one must give Eleanor Herman her dues. This book is an exhaustive piece of research. One wonders whether she was able to get her hands on every single existing letter written by or about royal mistresses since the reign of Louis XIV and if it isn't the definitive work on the subject, it should be.
This book is stuffed with juicy details into the private lives of the kings and queens of Europe. From the sorcery that some mistresses performed to maintain their relations with the king to the knifing ways in which they batted off pretenders to their position to the manner in which each of them was cast aside upon the death of their royal benefactor. It is a veritable historical gossip rag full of exposes and scandals.
But it that was it, if the sole purpose of Herman's work was to satisfy the leering eyes of historical royal worshippers then this book would be pointless. Herman also examines the ways in which mistresses have shaped the history of Europe. How some wars were the direct result of the meddling and others were settled due to the soothing hand of a king's dangerous liaison. In the case of King Ludwig of Bavaria, his mistress Lola Montez directly caused the revolution of 1848 that eventually forced the King to abdicate his throne and move into exile.
But I did have some problems with this book. First and foremost is the title of the book. When I first heard about this title I was excited to read the way in which mistresses were kept and perceived in a wide variety of royal and imperial settings. Sex With Kings suffers from excessive Euro-centrism. This wouldn't have bothered me so much had it been mentioned in the title. something like Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge in Europe, but it wasn't called that. I wanted to know about the Imperial courts in Japan and China, the harems of Middle Eastern kingdoms and the such. But it concentrated primarily on Europe (and if I'm being honest, it focused even more primarily on Western Europe, Russia and Serbia only factoring in on a couple of occasions).
I also didn't enjoy the organization of the book. I understand that this is always a problematic point for anyone writing history. Do you write your subject chronologically, thematically or do you write it as a character study. Here, Herman chooses a thematic organization with such chapter headings as Beyond the Bed - The Art of Pleasing a King and Loving Profitably - The Wages of Sin. I suppose this organization was as good as any other but I found it difficult to juggle the names of kings, queens and mistresses from chapter to chapter. When Herman refers to Madame du Pompadour for the umpteenth time in chapter 10 I was forever trying to remember whether she was the mistress of Louis XIV or Louis XV. I would have preferred a character study that was divided either by king or by mistress.
Nevertheless, Herman is forgiven any personal problems a reader might have with her work. As it stands, she has bitten off a chunk of history to call all her own. As of this moment, Eleanor Herman is the official authority on the history of royal mistresses in Europe.