The Dark Queens
A gripping tale of power, ambition and murderous rivalry in early medieval France
by Shelley Puhak
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Pub Date 03 Mar 2022 | Archive Date 31 Mar 2022
Head of Zeus, Apollo
'Brings the Merovingian empire to thrilling, bewildering, horrifying life' Helen Castor
'Restores two half-forgotten and much-mythologized queens to their proper place in medieval history' Dan Jones
'Fredegund and Brunhild have finally found a worthy champion' Literary Review
Brunhild was a Visigothic princess, raised to be married off for the sake of alliance-building. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a lowly palace slave. And yet – in sixth-century Merovingian France, where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport – these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms for decades. The two queens commanded armies, developed taxation policies, established infrastructure and negotiated with emperors and popes, all the time fighting a gruelling forty-year civil war with each other. Yet after Brunhild and Fredegund's deaths, their names were consigned to slander and legend.
From the tangled primary evidence of Merovingian sources, award-winning writer Shelley Puhak weaves a gripping and intricate tale, its characters driven by ambition, lust and jealousy to acts of treachery and murderous violence. The Dark Queens resurrects these two women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of a shadowy era and dispelling some of the stubbornest myths about female power.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 35 members
In sixth century Europe, men ruled and women had no voice. However two Merovingian Queens managed to survive and wield great power through dynastic ambition. The two could not be more different, Brunhild was a Visigoth princess from Spain sent to forge a powerful alliance, Fredegund was a former slave who rose to marry the King. Widowed early both acted as regents and were sworn enemies of the other but as their power waned both were almost forgotten.
This is a great book, it is readable and yet learned. There are few sources of evidence from the 'dark ages' but Puhak has used the contemporary sources to weave together a complex tale of rivalry and politics. I haven't read much about this era so found it incredibly interesting
We don't know a lot about Merovingian queens, something more about Charlemagne's mother, and I was happy to learn something more about this age and these women.
Well researched, informative, and gripping.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
I don't read a lot of history and when I do, its usually either hyper-specific small scale or big picture global history pieces. Kings and Queens are not really my area of interest, the story of people who think they have been given the divine right by God to be dicks to lots of people is not my bag. So The Dark Queens should not be up my street, except the Dark in question is the "don't call them the Dark Ages" and the Queens in question are Brunhild and Fredegund - two Queen Regents who were in power in the Merovingian Empire in France for thirty years. I'm also not that used to narrative history and Shelley Puhak's previous work as a poet lifts this to a page turner that is near novelistic.
The problem with writing about this period of history is how few sources there are, and this comes across in the book. Gregory of Tours and the Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus are the two main sources here, particualrly the former when it comes to the non-stop scheming of Brunhild - and there is a frustrating final section where the souurces die and we are left with little. But up until then we have a rollocking tale of marriages, deaths, assassinations and being sent thee to a nunnery. Fredegund in particular is partial to a poisoning or two, and Brunhild manages to act as Queen Regent to two generations of her own family - and clearly command loyalty of her non-countrymen (Brunhild initially being Spanish). It is full of some extraordinary political chicanery, slices of the story would make incredible shorter stories or films.
The narrative history style here is on the whole pretty honest. Occasionally Puhak dips into th ebrains of her protagonists and takes a punt on what they might be thinking, which is probably breaking the rules but in most cases these are just after people have been assassinated or they themselves are awaiting execution. The larger point stands anyway, Fredegund and Brunhild have been largely written out of history despite staying in power agains the odds. Indeed Brunhild's name has been usurped for the Valkyrie in Wagner, as a name with a certain amount of warrior prowess, The Dark Queens did a lot to not only tell me of these particular people but also the world they lived in, the shape of post Roman, Early Holy Roman Empire Europe, and works as both feminist history and a solid read about the period.
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