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.

Theodora by Stella Duffy

Theodora by Stella Duffy is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. The book follows Theodora’s rise from her early days as an actress to her position as one of the most powerful women in the Empire.

Theodora’s story begins in 6th century Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When her father, a bear-keeper at the Hippodrome, is killed by one of his own bears, Theodora and her two sisters are sent to the teacher Menander who prepares them for a career in the theatre. Menander gives the girls and their friends instruction in dancing, singing, acting and acrobatics, but Theodora finds that her true talent is in making her audience laugh. A successful stage career follows but the darker side of this is that the girls are also forced into a life of prostitution from an early age.

When Theodora attracts the attention of Hecebolus, the newly appointed Governor of the Pentapolis (five cities in North Africa), he asks her to accompany him. She agrees to go to Africa with him but she knows that as a former actress she will not be allowed to marry and that Hecebolus will eventually lose interest in her. It’s not until she spends some time with a religious community in the desert that Theodora finally reaches a turning point and starts to think about what she really wants from her life.

Theodora is the first book I’ve read by this author and I thought it was a fascinating and inspirational story. This is not a period of history that I’ve ever been particularly interested in reading about and so I didn’t know anything about Theodora until now (I don’t mind admitting I had never even heard of her). This means I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the book, but judging by the author’s note and bibliography at the back of the book Stella Duffy has obviously carried out a huge amount of research into both Theodora’s life and into the time period in general. I thought there were places where the amount of historical detail, particularly regarding religion and politics, slowed the story down too much, but most of it is very interesting and helps to paint a full and vivid picture of Theodora’s world.

As well as having an eventful and unusual life, Theodora also has a complex personality, which makes her a great subject for historical fiction. I didn’t find her very easy to like as a person, but I loved her as a character! She’s tough, outspoken and daring, but despite her hard exterior she does have a heart. She’s not perfect; she makes mistakes and says things that she shouldn’t, but this only makes her more human. One thing I really liked is that although Theodora does grow and develop as a person over the course of the novel, the changes that she goes through are completely believable and she doesn’t change so much that it’s unrealistic.

I was pleased to discover that there are plans for a sequel as I would love to meet Theodora again and find out what happens to her after her marriage to the Emperor Justinian.

I received a copy of this book from Virago for review.