I work in Public History, but any good public historian (or historian of any stripe) will tell you that it is nearly impossible to know all eras and areas well. There are inevitable blind spots – you must choose where to apply your limited time. When this year’s Read Harder challenge asked us to read a history about a period you know little about, I was stoked, an excuse to go back further than I normally do and read about some women doing the leading. I had picked out Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe from my to read list (where it has been languishing since 2014) as my pick (and I will still be reading that history about 13th century queens) but Pooja’s review of The Dark Queens in January sent me scurrying to NetGalley and adding that book to my list immediately.
Before picking this book up, I knew practically nothing about 6th century France, or either Fredegund or Brunhild. But it was the subtitle that leapt out to me: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. In this work of narrative non-fiction, author Shelley Puhak is very clear about that as well as the methodology she used in the research and writing, the existent historical record is used to piece together roughly sixty years of history where Fredegund and Brunhild serve as the stabilizing force, while also upending the systems they were born into. As the European world wrestles with the fall of the Roman Empire, powerful families emerge to take the lead, but it is not a clean or easy affair and through these two women we are able to glean a view into that world. We also see how methodically the stories of their successes were erased or overwritten, how they were recast by those who followed, after their deaths their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend, and their legacies buried for over a thousand years.
Brunhild was a Spanish princess, raised to be married off for the sake of alliance-building. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a palace slave. Their paths cross in the middle of the Merovingian Empire where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children, and lost them. They fought a years-long civil war. But these two reigned over vast realms for decades – their combined empires only to be eclipsed by Charlemagne who would build his empire from the ashes of theirs 150 years later – commanding armies and negotiating with kings and popes and ruling as regents.
While Puhak captures the complexity of the women and the courts they lived and ruled in, and this unfamiliar time, striking at the roots of some of our culture’s stubbornest myths about female power, the book is at times uneven, and sometimes strays too far from the titular queens. The scope of this work is a big ask of any book, or any author, and the final copy I ended up reading (out from the library as I had failed to download my publisher provided copy before it was archived) had a few errors which confused matters. This is also a slow read, dense with names, dates, and details. Puhak provides a Dramatis Personae at the beginning, as well as maps throughout, and that’s good because I found myself needing to refer to them as I made my way through the narrative over the course of a week. 3.5 stars, rounding up.
I received an ARC of The Dark Queens from Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley, it has not affected the contents of this review.