Goodreads: The Dark Queens
Age Category: Adult
The remarkable, little-known story of two trailblazing women in the Early Middle Ages who wielded immense power, only to be vilified for daring to rule.
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 lowly palace slave. And yet—in the 6th-century Merovingian Empire, 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, changing the face of Europe.
The two queens commanded armies and negotiated with kings and popes. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children and lost them. They fought a years-long civil war—against each other. With ingenuity and skill, they battled to stay alive in the game of statecraft, and in the process laid the foundations of what would one day be Charlemagne’s empire. Yet after Brunhild and Fredegund’s deaths—one gentle, the other horrific—their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend.
In The Dark Queens, award-winning writer Shelley Puhak sets the record straight. She resurrects two very real women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of an unfamiliar time and striking at the roots of some of our culture’s stubbornest myths about female power. The Dark Queens offers proof that the relationships between women can transform the world.
Shelley Puhak’s The Dark Queens is one of the most riveting books I have read this year–and one of the most fascinating nonfiction books I have ever read. This narrative nonfiction delves deep into history to recover the stories of female power and leadership that later generations wished to erase. The result is a story so wild, it rivals fiction in its sheer scope of intrigue, wickedness, and just plain weirdness. A recommended read to all who enjoy medieval history or even fiction set in medieval-esque worlds.
One of the key traits that I associate with great nonfiction is readability. It is a talent to be able to draw in a non-specialized audience to a work one is intimately familiar with. Puhak does this seemingly effortlessly, weaving her research into a tapestry so rich and varied it feels like settling down to hear a story from a bard. It possibly helps that Puhak has written a narrative nonfiction, a work rooted in research and real events, but one that sometimes has to fill in the gaps a bit with phrases such as, “Perhaps she felt,” or, “She may have then.” That is, we do not always know exactly what happened or why, but Puhak can make reasonable guesses based on the evidence.
The story itself verges on the fantastic, with Queens Brunhild and Fredegund matching wits in a decades-long struggle for political supremacy. They are surrounded by a rich cast of characters–loyal friends, treacherous villains, smug priests and politicians–who help keep the tale lively and, again, very, very weird. My favorite interlude was the nuns’ revolt, where a group of the sisters essentially barricaded themselves in to endure a siege because they were unsatisfied with the conditions at their convent. This is the kind of history I want more of! Just as Briana noted in her review of The Dark Queens, I found myself gasping aloud.
The Dark Queens is a highly accessible, highly entertaining introduction to an overlooked period of medieval history, as well as an incisive look at whose stories get told and why. I highly recommend it to one and all–not just nonfiction readers!
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