The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry that forged the Medieval World

I read

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in March 2022.

OH YES.

1. This has pretty much everything I love about a history book.Rediscovering, or repairing, or reframing, previously maligned historical figures.
1a. In particular, women. And here, Puhak does it to not one but TWO women, living at the same time, with lives that were interwoven and had an enormous impact on each other.
The late 500s in what is now France was a remarkable time: it was, as Puhak points out, a time of “dual female rule” – Brunhild and Fredegund, one a Visigoth princess and the other a former slave, were regents for their grandson and son respectively. Together they controlled nearly as much land as Charlemagne would a few centuries later. This dual female rule wouldn’t be repeated in Europe for another thousand years. And why don’t we know about it? Because, Puhak claims – with some pretty strong evidence – there was a concerted effort at damnatio memoriae; getting rid of all memory of the actions of these two queens from history. A lot like what happened to Hatshepsut in Egypt. Either expunge the actions of the women, or cast them in as completely evil or irrelevant light as you possibly can. Because how embarrassing to remember that women had been instrumental in leading and shaping your kingdom for decades!

2. I learned many new things.
A lot about the Merovingians, of course – which I had no knowledge of, except for the name, and (as Puhak ruthfully notes) as the name of a character in a Matrix film. But I also learned that the Latinised version of ‘Clovis’ – whose name I did know – who was the first Merovingian king – is LOUIS and there you get the beginning of, what, 17 kings with the same name.

3. Utterly readable.
Puhak says that this is “not an academic history; it is a work of narrative nonfiction based on primary sources”. And I think this is a really intriguing way of putting it. I guess the ‘not academic’ aspect is strictly accurate, although I do think Puhak is underselling herself. There aren’t footnotes – but there are extensive references at the back, and my goodness her bibliography is incredible and IF I HAD THE TIME (and access to them) I could glut myself on following them all up. I love the use of the primary sources here; she uses the various histories from the time, and later, judiciously – weighing up their perspectives and their intentions and figuring out what makes sense. And it ends up being absorbing and riveting.

4. What a story.
Honestly, you could present this as fiction and people would believe you. Marriages brokered, broken, and occasionally seen through; so many murders and possible-murders; kingdoms divided and reunited; treason, scheming, bargaining… Puhak argues that Cersei from Game of Thrones is inspired by these two women, in some sense, and I’m not quite convinced of that but it tells you something about their lives.

What a fantastic book.

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