The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry that Forged the Medieval World by Shelley Puhak
For a detailed narrative nonfiction about those crazy Merovingians, for insight into history not often taught that you have to intentionally seek out, for an impressively well-researched piece of writing
Brunhild was a Spanish 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 the 6th-century Merovingian Empire, 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 and negotiated with kings and popes. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children and lost them. They fought a years-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 Brunhild and Fredegund’s 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.
Y’all this book is impressive as shit. It is so incredibly annotated and footnoted and it’s like every other sentence has a point of reference. That doesn’t distract or take away from the reading, and you can look at them after if you want and just sink into the narrative without pulling away to check out the notes, but boy was I impressed every time I saw the density of them on the page. The author and their cohort really did their work on this and it shows. Brunhild and Fredegund are absolutely incredible to read about and every new scene was compelling.
So not only is it well informed, but it is genuinely interesting and well written. This might be the only time I’ve seen nonfiction written about people we can hardly find documentation on and yet every emotional moment is footnoted with evidence backing up why they would have felt that way. It was so impressive to blend fact and emotion like this.
And if you like drama, oh boy! This family is all kinds of wildly messed up. The laws of the time really reflect the fact that they are originally barbarian tribes. And they live up to that current meaning behind the word barbarian in some ways. The amount of blatant lies and straight up murder is astonishing. To imagine people lived in that time!
That last sentiment is one that I really felt frequently. For example in the very first few pages it mentions something about how people must have genuinely thought the world was ending because it was just after the year where a volcanic eruption changed weather patterns across the globe and made all kinds of crazy shit happen like intense snow in places it doesn’t usually snow, and acidic ashfall that killed crops and stuff like that. And then on top of that there was also the plagues just casually happening as things they had to deal with. This made me think of those people as people and not just history. Just check out this article titled “Why 536 was the worst year to be alive” and it can put some context into the timeframe that this book takes place and all the wild things they were dealing with, ON TOP OF all the scheming.
Because it is so factual it does get kind of dense at times, and though it is narrative nonfiction and well done, it is definitely still a lot of political machinations and names to remember. So it’s like a history textbook that’s really really fun — but it is still a textbook.
This book made me wonder to myself why anyone wanted to be the ruler so badly. It seems pretty awful and more often than not, lethal. 🤷♀️
5 thoughts on “Review: The Dark Queens:The Bloody Rivalry that Forged the Medieval World by Shelley Puhak (nonfiction!)”
Great review! I saw this review just after I added it to my Kindle library after seeing someone else mini-review it and rate it 5 stars. NF is not my usual jam but this sounds really good and I’m intrigued. I wonder if the audiobook will help me get through the denser parts… I’m looking forward to diving into this one!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ooooh yeah of there’s an audiobook that’s probably a good idea! This was honestly a really slow read for me (over two weeks!!) but I kept wanting to go back to it, so I’d also say not to expect it to be a quick one haha