I am not that familiar with French history, and I’ve probably spent less than a total of 48 hours in France. But even I have heard of the mystery of the man in the iron mask. He is the anonymous prisoner held captive by Louis XIV for 34 years and forced to wear a mask. During that time, no one saw his face or heard him say his name. Many books have been written about the man in the iron mask, but historians have never agreed on his identity.
Paul Sonnino, French historian and professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, may have solved the mystery. In this book, he thoroughly makes a case for who is and who is not the man in the iron mask. After ruling out the most often mentioned candidates, he discusses what knowledge Louis XIV would desperately want to hide, and who was in the position to have it. With this in mind, Sonnino methodically presents the facts that lead to his conclusion. He leaves no stone unturned.
Often when I read a historical book about a period unfamiliar to me, I have trouble keeping all the characters straight. I find myself backtracking and going back to the supplemental lists and charts to remind me who is who. I did not have that difficulty with The Search for the Man in the Iron Mask. Sonnino writes very clearly and is easy to follow. He is not merely spouting facts at the reader, but he injects the narrative with humor and personality (often complaining about the heat and weather he encountered in France on his many research adventures). The writing is also very descriptive. One passage, regarding Louis XIV’s serious illness and treatment (or mistreatment) by his doctors, made me want to get down on my knees and thank God for modern medicine.
This book will not appeal to all readers. However, those who love history and have read or seen any fictional portrayals of the man in the iron mask, will enjoy it. I recommend it to all French or European history buffs.
Author: Paul Sonnino
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield (Academic)
Date Published: January 5, 2016
Source: Net Galley ARC