The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak (non-fiction)

Their ghosts are everywhere; we just need to know where to look.

This is a fascinating dual biography of two little-known medieval queens, Brunhild and Fredegund, who belonged to the Merovingian dynasty and ruled over large swathes of the lands we now know as France and Germany. I don’t often find myself drawn to non-fiction, but this book was a great choice for me as it’s both educational and entertaining – and every bit as readable as fiction.

Most people today have probably never heard of Brunhild and Fredegund and it seems there’s a good reason for that: as Shelley Puhak explains, following the deaths of the two queens, their stories were rewritten – and some of their achievements erased altogether – by the rulers who came after them, including their own son and nephew Clothar II, and later by Charlemagne’s Carolingian dynasty. And yet the influence of these two Merovingian women lived on, in legends and fairy tales, in the naming of roads, and in the character of Brunhild the Valkyrie from Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. Most intriguingly, a battle strategy of Fredegund’s appears to have inspired, whether directly or indirectly, the ‘Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane’ episode of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The two queens came from very different backgrounds. Brunhild was a princess from Visigothic Spain who was married off to King Sigibert of Austrasia in 567 as part of a political alliance. Austrasia was the north-eastern territory of the Kingdom of the Franks; Neustria to the west and Burgundy to the south were ruled by Sigibert’s brothers, Chilperic I and Guntram, respectively. Fredegund, a former slave, rose to power when she married Chilperic of Neustria following the death of his wife under suspicious circumstances. This was only the first of many murders with which Fredegund would be connected; she went on to be associated with a whole series of poisonings, tortures and political assassinations. Brunhild is portrayed as a much more sympathetic character, but the prejudices of the sources do need to be considered!

After the deaths of their husbands, both Brunhild and Fredegund reigned as regents on behalf of their young sons and grandsons. Their kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria were engaged in war for many years, fuelled by a rivalry between the two queens, which originated in Fredegund allegedly being responsible for the murders of both Galswintha, Brunhild’s sister, and King Sigibert, Brunhild’s husband. However, they were willing to work together where necessary and both queens proved themselves to be strong, intelligent, politically astute women in a world dominated by men.

The Dark Queens is not a particularly academic book. It’s written in the style of narrative non-fiction, drawing on the available primary sources such as the writings of Gregory of Tours and Venantius Fortunatus but sometimes finding it necessary to speculate in order to fill in the gaps. Despite this, it’s clear that Shelley Puhak has carried out a huge amount of research in writing this book and she does include a list of all of her sources, both primary and secondary, at the end, along with a comprehensive section of notes and references. Although The Dark Queens may not satisfy readers who are looking for something more scholarly, I thoroughly enjoyed it and am so pleased I’ve had the chance to get to know Brunhild and Fredegund. I’m surprised they haven’t been written about more widely; they would be wonderful subjects for historical fiction and would make a nice change from the Tudors!

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

10 thoughts on “The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak (non-fiction)

  1. Lark says:

    They are certainly two queens I have never heard of! But I love the sound of this book. Here’s hoping my library gets a copy. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I hadn’t heard of them either until I read this book, but they definitely deserve to be given more attention. I hope your library gets a copy soon!

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I read both the Nibelungenlied and quite a chunk of the beginning of Gregory of Tours History of the Franks many years ago, Helen, but much of the background has leached from my memory. Maybe I should seek this out as a prelude to eventually revisiting those two classics.

    • Helen says:

      It sounds as though you would go into this book with more background knowledge than I did, then. It was all very new to me and quite fascinating. She draws very heavily on Gregory of Tours as a primary source.

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