I am delighted to share my review today for The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World by Shelley Puhak. This is a brilliant non-fiction book that is such an addictive read. Two formidable women from history doing their utmost to survive and continue their hold on power.
My huge thanks to Jade Gwilliam at Head of Zeus for sending me a gorgeous hardback copy of this book. When it comes to history and books I prefer physical books simply because I can flick back and forth easier to look at maps, graphs and other stuff that is often included.
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.
The Dark Queens is a brilliantly researched book about two queens who helped and ruled parts of Europe in the mid – 500Ad.
Brunhild, born 543AD came from Spain to marry the Merovingian king, Sigibert in 567AD. Her sister-in-law Fredegund was a palace slave, who then went on to also become Queen.
The author has done a fascinating and fabulous job of bringing the lives of these two women to life. Mid 500AD is not a time when women have any power, the only power they have is that they bear sons. Their worth is in their fertility so how on earth did two women rise to become the most prominent rulers of their time?
Using manipulation, spies, poisons, assassins, being quick-witted, devious and above all willing to do what they must. At times doing what men would do.
This is an era when sibling rivalry, family squabbles and arguments can lead to all-out war. Europe is not settled and when kingdoms are split between brothers then there is always going to be sour grapes if one has more than another. The more land one has, the more the others want and so it is important to be aligned with the right side, although which side is the right side is always open to contention. Of course, sides can be swapped.
The author makes the history of Brunhild and Fredegund so easy to read, while there are dates and facts they are incorporated in such a way as to make this really enjoyable reading. Not lists of dates, or who was married to who and when this one killed that one and succeded the throne. But, instead, it follows an almost storylike style. Many times I actually forgot I was reading a factual or non-fiction history book as the author had made it so exciting. It does have a fiction feel and this makes it really accessible reading.
I discovered so many things about these two women and just how hard they worked to get where they got and also to remain there. I was aware of both women from history but didn’t know hardly anything about them.
As I read this I imagined Europe as a chessboard with the Queens, Kings and others being the pieces on a bloody and vicious board. Each one trying to outwit the other, trying to out-think, out-manoeuvre and predict where the other would next strike.
If you have an interest in European history, especially from Medieval times then you really need to pick up this book. It is the story of two women who became powerful leaders in a world of men. Quite an inspiring book and one that shows just what it took to be successful way back in the later part of 500AD.
It is a book I would definitely recommend, brilliant reading, well researched and also loads of notes, bibliography and the like at the end for further reading.
Shelley Puhak is the author of The Dark Queens, which is her nonfiction debut. Her essays and articles have appeared in publications like The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, and Virginia Quarterly Review; been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, and designated as Notable in four editions of Best American Essays.
Shelley is also the author of three award-winning books of poetry. The most recent is Harbinger, a National Poetry Series selection, forthcoming with Ecco/HarperCollins in 2022.
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