Book Review: The Dark Queens

Shelley Puhak

Rating: 3 out of 5.

published: 3rd March 2022
spoilers? none


Brunhild was a Visigothic 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 for decades, changing the face of Europe.

The two queens commanded armies, developed taxation policies, established infrastructure and negotiated with emperors and popes, all the time fighting a gruelling forty-year civil war with each other. Yet after Brunhild and Fredegund’s deaths, their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend.

From the tangled primary evidence of Merovingian sources – the works of the chronicler Gregory of Tours and the Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus – award-winning writer Shelley Puhak weaves a gripping and intricate tale, its characters driven by ambition, lust and jealousy to acts of treachery and murderous violence. The Dark Queens resurrects these two women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of a shadowy era and dispelling some of the stubbornest myths about female power.

Galley provided by publisher

The Dark Queens is a fascinating tale of two Merovingian women, who grasped for power and sometimes ruled over mid-first millennium mainland Europe, together whose domains spanned most of what is now France and Germany. These are two queens who have, for the most part in popular history at least, been consigned to the shelf, but Shelley Puhak brings them to life here in a very well-researched history.

The style of this book straddles something between a drier academic style and that of telling more of a story. It makes sense, really, because primary sources from the period are scarce compared with other periods, and secondary sources for these two women are distorted by the aims of the people writing them. However, I wouldn’t say it’s wholly successful in the latter aspect—it at times felt as though it couldn’t decide which style to prioritise. I’ve read plenty of history books which go for a much less academic style and are still clearly based on thorough underlying research. I do feel as though here that paucity of sources perhaps led a little to this straddling.

There are also a couple of things that I wanted more of and less of, respectively. The first of those is how these two queens’ reigns (although to call them reigns is perhaps misleading, since they never really ruled in their own right, by the sounds of it. It was always a regency, if only in name alone) led to the subsequent developments on mainland Europe. Basically, I wanted more of how all of this fit into the historical context. Because that was hinted at and, at times, it felt like the author wanted to take their examples and compare them to modern life.

Which leads me nicely to my next point! I have no issue, really, with the comparison to modern life, but for the fact that Puhak didn’t really follow through with it. But the way it was brought up, that’s what I wanted less of. Less of the whole “they have simply become bywords for the evil stepmother/female poisoner stereotype! Misogyny at work!” because, really, that felt trite. It isn’t just misogyny that turns historical figures into stereotypes and demons (think Richard III?), so to simply condense it down to that felt quite like saying “look! We women have never been allowed power! Men don’t like powerful women!” It was, in all, simplistic and somewhat of a disappointing end to the book. These are two very complex women, as Puhak notes, so it feels reductive to summarise their story by saying it’s all due to misogyny. (I hope this point makes sense, because I can no longer tell.)

However, in all, this was an enjoyable read. This was a period of time I’ve read very little about (except for British history), so I did like reading this book and the story it told. I just felt, with the end, that it was a bit of a let down.

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