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Royal Babylon: Fie upon thee, your Majesties!
Written: Dec 10, 2002
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros: more vicious dishing on the royals that you could ever imagine
Cons:focuses mainly on 18th c. and after, mostly British monarchs
The Bottom Line: Vicious gossip and tawdry tales to titillate even the most jaded palate.
After reading and being amused by Michael Farquhar's relatively tame Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors, I was on the prowl for more royal dirt. Yes, yes, I know the National Enquirer and its ilk can be depended upon to provide the latest in naked royal beach romps, toe-sucking and drunken debaucheries, but I knew that the shenanigans of the current batch of English royals are nothing compared to what their ancestors did.
Author Karl Shaw knows this too, which is why he wrote a book called Royal Babylon: The Alarming History of European Royalty, a wickedly gossipy book full of plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and irreverent comments about the ruling families of Europe.
"If you can't say anything nice about anyone...come sit next to me!"
History really is interesting, I keep trying to tell people. Unfortunately, most people develop a dislike of the subject while still in school, thanks to those horribly dry and often overly simplistic history texts frequently used in schools. Reading those will give the impression that Important Historical Figures are rather detached, dull creatures, and of course no one is interested in reading more about them. Luckily for us, Karl Shaw has rooted out all the juicy bits, the stuff that history books (certainly not high school history books) never mention, and it reveals that European royalty are, after all, flawed human beings. Sometimes very flawed, indeed. He lays out the chapters like this:
1. Lie Back and Think of Belgium: The Perils of Royal Marriage
2. Rex Noster Insanit: Our King is Insane
3. A Breed Apart: A Lesson in Royal Inbreeding
4. The Sport of Kings: The Secret of Royal Adultery
5. God's Baliffs: Absolute Power in Hohenzollern Germany and Romanov Russia
6. Hanover Family Values
7. First, Catch Your King: The Tragic History of the Fairy-Tale Monarchy
8. The Stud Farm of Europe: The Rise of the House of Saxe-Coburg
9. Duty, Dignity, Decency: The Windsors
Shaw also includes charts of family trees including the Royal House of Hohenzollern, Romanov, Hanover, Wittelsbach, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Windsor.
The book is not arranged in chronological order. Rather, various monarchs are roughly grouped by topic, starting off with insanity and one of the more famous royal cases, King George III of England. George III's case is covered in great detail, including his symptoms, sadistic treatment and relapses, but the author also brings up other lesser-known examples. King Christian VII of Denmark, suffering from mental illness caused by syphilis, was more or less a mad puppet king, his strange behavior explained away by the much more acceptable official story that he had been "sexually abused by page-boys when he was a child"!
Shaw continues to tear his way through the monarchy by discussing the enormous sexual appetite of Russia's Catherine the Great, the many bastard children of the Hanoverian kings, King Frederick William I of Prussia and his unusual hobby of collecting tall men and press-ganging them into his army, "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria who was actually a good deal bit more sane than many of his fellow monarchs and the German rulers of Britain renamed the more English-sounding "Windsor".
The Good Dirt
Shaw is very funny, in a terrible, shocking sort of way. I shamelessly devoured all these awful tales of royal escapades and enjoyed it thoroughly. If nothing else, the author's lengthy discussion of who married who gives you an idea of just how often the various royal families have intermarried--so often that inbreeding is no joke! The author's style is very humorous and fast paced, and very little is sacred in this book:
"Southern European monarchs in particular found it difficult to reconcile their sex lives with their religious beliefs. The mad Spanish King Philip IV fathered about thirty bastards, but being a good Catholic always felt bad about it. Spain's King Philip V made astonishing demands on his wife by insisting that she sleep with him three times a day for the whole of their marriage, but always atoned for his abnormal sexual urges by yelling for his confessor every time he'd had sex in case he died suddenly in eternal damnation."
Shaw goes on to describe the Sun King, Louis XIV as a man "only five feet four inches tall, but his libido was twelve feet tall in its stockinged feet" who "strutted around clutching his golden snuff-box, devouring food and women like a latter-day Elvis Presley." At times, he gets quite harsh, writing that the Habsburgs were "monstrously inbred and reduced to physical and mental decrepitude". The German house that became Windsor as one that "excelled at producing princes and princesses with gross personality disorders" and "riddled with syphilitics and adulterers". Prussia's Hohenzollerns were "a string of psychopaths and maniacs" and the kings of France, "sex-fixated epicures"!
No, there are no dull moments in this book, it's all cover-to-cover lurid gossip. And it sure makes you feel a lot better about the shenanigans certain Presidents of certain world superpowers.
The Bad Dirt
As much as I enjoy all these more obscure bits of history coming out, I wish Shaw would be more generous with his sources. One can't help but read the part where one Empress kept her dirty underwear under lock and key and think, "Is that really true?" and "How the heck did Shaw find that tidbit out?" While the author has a Bibliography in the back, he's not being specific about where he got what, and I'm dying to know how many liberties he may or may not have taken with the facts. It's just something one has to question in a book as salacious as this one, and my knowledge of history isn't so complete that I can always tell a fact from poetic license on my own.
For what it's worth, the parts I do know were covered accurately by Shaw. Catherine the Great really did put her would-be lovers through trial runs by a trusted friend, everything from an interview about reading habits to a romp in the sack to see if he was good enough for the Empress' bed. And she really did die in a most undignified manner, by keeling over of a stroke while on the toilet.
The other issue I have is that the book mainly focuses on rulers during the 18th c and after, and while it does discuss Russia, the main focus is definitely on western Europe, namely England. I realize this might have to do with the fact that there's a lot more information available on the English royals, but I was rather sorry not to have any discussions of medieval rulers. I also note that while Shaw has no problem implying that the current Prince of Wales is the natural end result of centuries of inbreeding, there is an obvious lack of discussion about Queen Victoria at all--just her children and relatives. Shaw also stops sort of any major discussions of any royals from Elizabeth II onwards.
Another tiny quibble is that I really, really with the book came with an index. There's just too many mini anecdotes here and they're not organized by chronology or even individual people. In fact, the organization is somewhat scattered, so Shaw might discuss George I in several different places throughout the book. An index would be incredibly helpful in looking up specific references.
If you liked Michael Farquhar's book on royal scandals but thought it didn't go into quite enough dirty detail, then Shaw's Royal Babylon will certainly not disappoint. I really can't think of a more raunchy and bold book on this subject, more so because many of the people discussed in here are fairly recent--and their descendants are certainly still around today.
People who like the dark side of history might enjoy this book if the shock value of it doesn't bother them, but I can see where Shaw's flippancy and lack of citations might trouble a serious historian. I liked it, but I'll take it with a grain of salt. It's a fun read and not at all dry, so it might even be a good way to sugarcoat the pill for history haters.
Aside from dishing out the dirt, Shaw doesn't really have one deep message about the monarchy and its role in the modern world. "Sentimental attachment to monarchy", he writes, "is a singularly British institution, like drizzle, fox hunting, soiled beaches and nostalgia for hangings". But, he states firmly, its an institution that is far from dead. After reading about all the monarchy has done and had done to them and realizing they're still around, I'd tend to agree.
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