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A warning from the duke of Durazzo

October 03, 2006|Nancy Goldstone | NANCY GOLDSTONE is the author, most recently, of "Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters who Ruled Europe," to be published by Viking in the spring.

MY HUSBAND and I have been engaged in a running argument about the use of torture in interrogation. He abhors the practice but believes that it may be appropriate in cases of hardened terrorists such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. I, on the other hand, feel that torture is immoral and has never proved to be reliable or effective. To bolster my position, I reminded him of the 14th century case of Charles, duke of Durazzo, and his cousin, Joanna I, queen of Naples.

Joanna inherited the kingdom of Naples from her grandfather in 1343 when she was just 16. Her youth made her vulnerable to usurpers, and no one coveted her throne more than her cousin, Charles. Calculating and ambitious, the duke of Durazzo went so far as to marry Joanna's younger sister in a clandestine ceremony to legitimize his claim to sovereignty.

Joanna, in accordance with a treaty negotiated by her grandfather, earlier had been forced to marry Andrew, the boorish and unstable prince of Hungary. Joanna's countrymen despised Andrew and, two days before his coronation, the future king was hanged from a balcony by unknown assailants in the home he shared with Joanna. Although there was no evidence linking the queen to the crime, rumors circulated at the time, and have persisted since, that Joanna was complicit in her husband's death.

The rumors gave the duke of Durazzo the opportunity he had been waiting for. If Joanna could be implicated in the conspiracy to murder Andrew, she could be deposed and executed. Charles and Joanna's sister would then lawfully inherit the kingdom.

Charles took it upon himself to investigate the crime with the aim of persuading someone in the queen's inner circle to denounce her. His interrogations, conducted in secret in the dungeon of his castle, were notorious for their savagery. Those who did not tell Charles what he wanted to hear had their tongues cut out, and because everybody knew what he wanted to hear, he soon had enough evidence to accuse Joanna's aged nurse, Philippa the Catanian, and Philippa's granddaughter. It was then only a matter of coercing them into implicating Joanna.

Confident of success, Charles made a very public display of the arrest, torture and execution of Philippa and her granddaughter. The duke was expert in these matters, and their suffering, which lasted for three days and was later documented by Giovanni Boccaccio, was terrible. Philippa had her entrails removed and died from her wounds on the way to the official site of her execution; her granddaughter survived long enough to be burned at the stake. Although they could have ended the misery at any time and died quickly (they were always going to die), both Philippa and her granddaughter foiled the duke's scheme by refusing to implicate Joanna.

Their defiance leads me to wonder how effective torture really can be against all these tough guys we've captured -- and are holding indefinitely at Guantanamo and hidden prisons around the world -- if it didn't work on an old woman and a teenager? (And don't believe that old saw about people who lived in the past being less sensitive to pain. It hurts to have your eyes put out no matter what century you live in.)

Historians often caution against trying to draw present-day conclusions from past episodes, and I am the first to agree with them. This story does, however, provide one inescapable fact. As a result of his actions against Philippa and her family, Charles' historical legacy was secured. For the last 650 years, the duke of Durazzo's name has been synonymous with cruelty, barbarity and evil. About that, there is no argument.

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