Book Review: The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak

Today I bring you a book review of THE DARK QUEENS by Shelley Puhak. This is a narrative nonfiction book about two women who ruled most of what is now France during the Early Middle Ages. I absolutely loved this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys an accessible read about women’s history.

Author: Shelley Puhak
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publish Date: February 22, 2022
Print Length: 384

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Official Synopsis

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 foreign 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 sixth-century Merovingian France, where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport-these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms, 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 decades-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 the queens’ 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.

My Review

THE DARK QUEENS by Shelley Puhak is a phenomenal narrative nonfiction about Brunhild and Fredegund, two early medieval queens in what we know now as France. During a time when the patriarchy reigned evermore supreme, these women certainly found ways to hold their own and challenge the royal status quo. Puhak writes about these women through the female gaze. She tells the tales of Brunhild and Fredegund through their own actions and probable reasonings rather than as accessories to male power.

The amount of time and research Puhak spent to write this book is evident. The breadth of this book is even more impressive when one stops to consider the effects of time and history. First, primary sources from the 6th and 7th century are not as plentiful relative to the second half of the dark ages. Second, recorders of history were heavily biased or omitted events in an effort to not offend royalty. Third, important people deemed offensive were often stricken from the historical record to deprive the world knowledge of them. This was the ultimate insult. Thus, when these two queens died, the threat of female power fell silent and the victors manipulated history. (Hold this last thought.)

As a result, it’s impossible to write detailed biographies about Brunhild and Fredegund. However, through careful research and understanding of past customs, Puhak uses inferences from the female perspective to provide potential machinations and infill knowledge gaps. History, or rather history dominantly told from the male gaze, has not been kind to these women. So I loved that Puhak focuses only on them and gives them their long overdue reckoning in the history books.

Many events unfold in THE DARK QUEENS, but for the most part I found it fairly easy to follow. Because the names of the people are not as familiar to me as western names today, it took me a couple of chapters to correctly remember who was who. Thankfully, there is a list of family and important players at the beginning of the book along with maps interspersed throughout the text.

Brunhild was the daughter of a Visigoth king, in what is now Spain, who married one of the Merovingian kings in Francia. Fredegund was a slave who became a queen’s handmaid, caught the eye of another Merovingian king, and ultimately married him after he deposed his queen. The highly educated Brunhild learned how to politic whereas self-taught Fredegund was just as cunning, if not cruel. Both women served as trusted advisors of their husbands. And when those kings died, Brunhild and Fredegund were more than capable of ruling their territories. Moreover, as so many marginalized communities know, they were more than capable as they had to navigate a world that was not friendly towards their type of rule: that is, not male.

It is absolutely astounding how long Brunhild and Fredegund held their ground given the turmoil of the time. There was the establishment of Catholicism and its mercurial rules. Heirs often dying due to sickness, which upended plans. And supporters switching allegiances when the wind turned. It was not an easy world to live in.

If anything, this book made me frustrated and disappointed with the world’s longheld institutional view that male is default. Although there’s no point in asking “What if?” about the past, it’s hard to not wonder. This book also offered a glimpse at the beginnings of Catholicism, which further enforced my personal skepticism of organized religion. Moreover, it also shows, in the end, that the act of manipulating history is nothing new. It was happening 1400 years ago and it still happens today. Just look at certain current and recently current figureheads and how they and their followers respond to accusations. (Don’t worry–this book isn’t a commentary on current politics, but my mind still went there.)

In the end the gatekeepers of history essentially erased Brunhild and Fredegund as a power move. Thus, all we know of them in popular culture, until now, is their reduction to caricatures or the villain in long told fairytales. Puhak brought Brunhild and Fredegund back to life, showing the reader that strong leadership, even in the face of adversity, is not limited to one sex or gender.

On that note, I’ll leave you, dear reader, with my favorite quote, found in the Epilogue:

“The misogynistic logic of patriarchy is curiously circular: women cannot govern because they never have. But this big lie rests upon a bed of indicued historical amnesia, the work of numberless erasures and omissions, collectively sending the message that the women who have ruled haven’t earned the right to be remembered.

[…]Between the silence of suppressed history and the oppressive blare of stereotypes [of women], what space [other than hatred or ridicule] remains?”

Loc 4927

Rating: 5
Content warnings: death, brief mentions of torture
Reading format: Library e-book

For additional thoughts about THE DARK QUEENS, check out reviews by Pages Unbound and Tea Leaf Reads.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak

    1. I agree–I also like the narrative style for nonfiction. As someone who has never been that much into history, it helps make the information more digestible and, to an extent, relatable. If you check it out I truly hope you enjoy it. I ended up buying my own copy to refer back to because I loved it so much.

    1. Oh, definitely look! I think you’ll appreciate this one and it’d be a good addition to your annual nonfiction reading goal. It didn’t even occur to me how difficult it can be to piece together history from the early Middle Ages.

    1. Yessss!! I ended up recommending it to a couple of people who immediately downloaded it from Libby. Hopefully they read it and let me know what they think. So glad I saw this book on your blog.

  1. I would be ordering this for myself RIGHT NOW if I don’t always make a big deal about my family – particularly my brother – buying things for themselves right before Christmas. The odds of anyone thinking to buy me this are SLIM but I’m not going to risk losing the ability for harassing my brother for doing the same thing I’m contemplating now XD. But this sounds incredible and something I need to read as soon as possible! Thank you so much for putting this on my radar!

    Over the summer I read Kate Lister’s ‘A Curious History of Sex,’ another exhaustively researched book that looks at the intersection of history with patriarchal and matriarchal forces, and I found myself wondering with almost every page how I could have a degree in history and have never learned any of this. It sounds like this book would fall into a similar category – and I absolutely want to read it for that!

    1. You’re very welcome!! It always makes me happy when a book recommendation looks interesting to someone else. If it doesn’t end up in your pile of gifts, definitely pick up a copy to read. I learned a lot about a period of time of which I knew almost nothing. I happened to be in France while I was reading this and visited the first burial place of Fredegund. I hadn’t reached the end of the book yet so I didn’t know that (so sad) she had been moved 5 miles away, so I didn’t get to see her burial stone (or whatever marks her final place of resting). But it was still super cool to visit a place that had significance to the book.

      I haven’t heard about “A Curious History of Sex,” but your brief summary piqued my interest. This is definitely something I’d probably pick up for myself. I’ll look it up (and probably add it to my TBR :-P).

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