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The House of Medici, its bank and holdings, made it one of the wealthiest families in Europe during the 15th-18th centuries. They gained huge political power, produced three popes, created the double-entry bookkeeping system and married into the most important royal houses. However, perhaps they are best remembered in the person of Catherine de Medici whose reputation in history is now being recognized as exaggerated and unfair.
Catherine has long been viewed as a sinister Queen, reviled as a political poisoner and responsible for dark schemes that included the St Bartholomew massacre of thousands of Huguenots in Paris. Though contemporary historians now view her a progressive and a humanist, it was Catherine’s inability to produce an heir in the first decade of her marriage to King Henry II, her interest in the occult, and her friendships with astronomers and astrologers that tainted her reputation. She relied heavily on astrology and was a personal friend of Nostradamus and favored the Ruggeri brothers, famous astrologers of the time accused of black arts and necromancy. She is known historically to have employed her own personal poisoner and is depicted in the film Queen Margot, based on the book by Alexander Dumas, as responsible for the death of one of her own sons by poison. However, facts surrounding her reputation are elusive and unproven. As with many powerful figures in history, strong women in particular are subject to slander for political purposes.
Catherine’s mother died less than a month after she was born and her father Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medic died of syphilis a few days later. She was then passed around within royal houses, and, after a political coup, paraded through the streets on a donkey as a symbol of her failed family legacy. She was afterward taken hostage and placed in a series of convents in which she reported feeling safe and happy. When political coup was resolved she was plucked from convent life by her Uncle, Pope Clement, and married at age fourteen to Henry II of France who purportedly disliked her. Ultimately she bore him ten children but only four survived. The lives of her sons however were cut short, Francis died at 16, Charles at 24 and Henry III who was dead at 37. Catherine’s only surviving daughter, Margaret of Valois, also popularly known as Queen Margot, was horribly treated by her mother and brothers as a political pawn throughout most of her life.
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