Sure, the Plantagenets fought each other for a couple of generations, and the Tudors had wives and dynastic rivals beheaded. But if you think their reigns were bloody, just wait until you meet the Merovingians, the riveting royal family in Shelley Puhak’s The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. The violent struggles of House Brunhild and House Fredegund make those later conflicts look like kindergarten playtime.
The Merovingians were the rulers of the Franks in the Middle Ages, in territory now encompassing most of France and western Germany. History books have tended to neglect them—but two Merovingian queens have survived in legend and art, in much distorted forms. Puhak, an acclaimed poet, now brings a feminist eye to Queens Brunhild and Fredegund, who in real life were savvy, powerful and dangerous women.
Brunhild, a Visigoth princess, and Fredegund, a formerly enslaved woman who charmed her way to a throne, were married to half-brothers, each of whom ruled over part of the Frankish territory. The brothers were deadly competitors, and after they were both assassinated, their widows took power as regents for young sons and continued the savage rivalry.
Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: This book has them all. Fredegund, the more vicious ruler, attempted 12 assassinations and succeeded at six. Brunhild maneuvered her way into regencies for her son, grandsons and great-grandsons. One queen died in her bed; the other met an end so horrible that it’s the only thing many French people know about her.
The king who ultimately succeeded to both their thrones consciously erased them from history in a Stalin-esque purge. Later medieval writers vilified them as bossy harridans. Bizarrely, Brunhild lives on in name only as the “Brünnhilde” of the German epic poem “The Song of the Nibelungs” and Wagner’s Ringoperas.
Puhak doesn’t pretend these women weren’t ruthless in their pursuit of power, but she also acknowledges the misogynist social and political context that shaped them. Most of all, The Dark Queens demonstrates that Brunhild’s and Fredegund’s names deserve to be in the historical annals as much as any king’s.