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THE DARK QUEENS by Shelley Puhak


The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World

by Shelley Puhak

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-63557-491-3
Publisher: Bloomsbury

The lives of forgotten queens.

Poet and essayist Puhak makes her nonfiction debut with a dual biography of two fierce, indomitable sixth-century women: Brunhild and Fredegund, rival sisters-in-law who inspired the fictional story of the Valkyrie, immortalized in Wagner’s Ring opera cycle. Brunhild, the daughter of a Visigoth king, married King Sigibert, a son of Merovingian King Clothar; Fredegund, a slave, became the third wife of Chilperic, Sigibert’s vengeful half brother. Drawing heavily on primary sources, Puhak creates a richly detailed tapestry depicting a volatile, turbulent age. Fratricide, torture, betrayal, and execution—as well as deadly illnesses—were common: “Among the Merovingians,” writes the author, “intrafamilial violence was accepted as a hazard of the job,” and the two queens did not shrink from bloody conflict as they sought to consolidate power for themselves and their heirs and to wrest land from enemies. By the end of the sixth century, the dual queens had reigned for decades over an empire that “encompassed modern-day France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, western and southern Germany, and swaths of Switzerland. Only Charlemagne would, briefly, control more territory than these two women.” Moreover, Puhak writes, they “did much more than simply hang on to their thrones. They collaborated with foreign rulers, engaged in public works programs, and expanded their kingdoms’ territories.” They knew their worth as women who, through marriage or motherhood, could consolidate realms. After Sigibert died, Brunhild married his nephew, a strategic move: “Her new husband was to depose his father and rule Neustria; her son would remain king of Austrasia.” Fredegund’s alleged “talent for assassination” led foreign kings to solicit her services. Puhak takes a sympathetic view of their plights: widowhood that might relegate them to life in a convent; the death of children from illness or foul play; and their physical vulnerability as women. Her brisk narrative rescues two significant figures from misogynist historians who, in perpetuating rumors and scandals, have diminished their significance.

Lively, well-researched history focused on powerful women.