Tracy Borman’s book about Queen Matilda (William the Conqueror’s wife, if you’re not keeping score at home) does a very good job with tracing the live of a medieval woman (much better than Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitane, but it is also only 3/4s the length of that book), but manages to be irritating on a regular basis.

The introduction of the book gives a commonly told story of Matilda, upon hearing that she was to be betrothed to Duke William “the Bastard” of Normandy, rejecting the idea that she (related to the King of France) would never stoop so low as to marry a bastard. William, hearing this, rides to her family’s palace in Flanders and finding Matilda beats her mercilessly. Matilda then decides that she would marry no one else as he was a man of high courage and daring. When Borman gets to this part of Matilda’s life in the narrative, she repeats the story, and then starts casting doubts on the story, pointing out that it is first mentioned about two hundred years after the fact, and that one of the primary sources for it has a strong anti-Norman bias. The section ends with a conclusion that we just don’t have any clear picture of what, if anything, happened between the two before they were married.

This pattern is followed in many parts of the book. Tales are given with a straight face, and only afterward are problems or alternate versions talked about. Worse, are the cases where something is mentioned as being from ‘a nineteenth century chronicler’ with no discussion as to where he got it from, or why we should think he knew anything about it. After the number of other unsubstantiated stories that are discussed, it raises alarms.

But despite these problems, it is a good book about Matilda. It is not as comprehensive, or detailed as, again, Allison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitane, but that book failed at being the biography it was supposed to be, while this one is a good biography that gives a much clearer picture of its subject.