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Fairy Tale Review: The Yellow Issue (2013) — Avustaja — 15 kappaletta

Merkitty avainsanalla


Washington, D.C., USA
Professor of Creative Writing



We are taught history in a way that often gives us the impression that women didn’t have a place or a voice in the medieval ages. “Dark Queens” dispels this myth by exploring the lives of the Queen Brunhild and Fredegund, Frankish queens during the 6th century. Unwanted or widowed queens were typically sent to a convent for the rest of their lives, but both of these women carved a place for themselves as their sons’ regents. I found the writing style to be accessible and the chapters were short and engaging. I didn’t know much about the medieval world going into the book—and almost nothing about French history—but this was a great gateway read and I’m planning to explore that world more.

*Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
… (lisätietoja)
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caaleros | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 17, 2024 |
My review of The Dark Queens is probably going to come across a bit like damning with faint praise. As a "narrative non-fiction" account of the lives of two Merovingian queens, Fredegund and Brunhild, written by a non-specialist, it's better than I expected it to be. Shelley Puhak has clearly read the limited primary sources carefully, contextualising them with archaeological evidence and secondary scholarship, and she does try to grapple with the methodological issues of using fragmentary and opinionated sources to do medieval women's history. I could see this working well in the college classroom, not because I agree with all the choices Puhak made in narrating what she imagines of Fredegund and Brunhild's lives—there's use of imaginative "must haves" to fill in the inevitable gaps—but because I think it could be a useful springboard to get students to grapple with methodological and conceptual choices.

The "Fredegund felt this" and "Brunhild may have done that" parts did irk me, but it feels churlish to critique Puhak for them overly when she's very clear that she's not writing a traditional academic history. But what actually made me pencil the most question marks in the margins of The Dark Queens were the tired invocations of the tropes of "the women who've been written out of history"/"I never read about these women when I was younger therefore everyone must have been ignoring them"/"why don't historians write more about these women", etc.

It's undeniable that because of sexism and/or misogyny, medieval chroniclers paid far less attention to women than they did to men, and that as best we can tell those chroniclers were men. But to say that Fredegund and Brunhild were erased from history isn't true—how then would we know anything at all about them? What we have is a historiographical tradition which often caricatures these queens in service of later political goals, as Puhak touches on in her last chapter—a less sexy proposition but a more complex one to grapple with. The fact that Brunhild and Fredegund don't crop up much in history books for kids in the U.S.—nor, I would imagine, do many Merovingians, male or female—might tell us something about geographical biases in the Anglophone world, but it doesn't mean that children everywhere are ignorant of who they are.

And I'm increasingly irritated with the kind of pop history that breathlessly decries how historians! don't! write! about! medieval! women! When since the 1970s there's been a steadily widening body of scholarship (building on a foundation laid from the late 19th century on) on women in the Middle Ages, generally by women scholars. But all that careful work on medieval women and power, ethnicity, memory, patronage, religion, lordship, etc, isn't as sexy as the promise of "the women they don't want you to know about." Ironic.
… (lisätietoja)
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siriaeve | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 14, 2024 |

This is a book about two queens of the sixth century, both probably born in the early 540s: Fredegund of Neustria (died 597) and Brunhilda of Austrasia (died 613). You may not have heard of Neustria or Austrasia; these were old kingdoms of the pre-Charlemagne era, the tail end of the Merovingian dynasty founded by Clovis, King of the Franks, in the late 5th century. This is a period which we learned nothing at all about at school in Belfast, and if your native language is not French, Dutch or German, you’re probably in the same boat. My previous exposure to it amounted to a 2021 exhibition of Merovingian metalwork in Mariemont, off to the south of Belgium.

Neither of the two queens was in fact a Merovingian by birth, but they married two brothers, grandsons of Clovis, who ruled between them large chunks of what are now northern France, central Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of the Netherlands, with Burgundy also in the mix at various times.

Brunhilda was a Visigothic princess from Spain, who married Sigebert of Austrasia (the eastern bit) in 567. He was murdered, probably on her orders, in 575 and she ruled in Metz off and on, in her own right and as regent for the next generation, for four decades. Fredegund was a slave girl from the western chunk, Neustria, ruled from Soissons; she caught the eye of Chilperic, the local overlord, and replaced his wife (Brunhilda’s sister) as queen.

Brunhilda and Fredegund feuded bitterly until Fredegund’s death in 597, but eventually in 613 Chilperic and Fredegund’s son Clotaire managed to conquer both kingdoms, and Brunhilda (who must have been well into her 60s at this point) was executed by a gruesome method which remains obscure but definitely involved horses.

Both women have been largely written out of history. Clotaire emphasised his own legitimate descent from Clovis, not his usurping aunt or indeed his low-born mother. No men wanted to commemorate women who had survived and ruled for many years. The major contemporary witness, Gregory of Tours, is very partisan and clearly incomplete. Fredegund’s tomb has an image of her whose face has been erased. Brunhilda’s tomb has been lost, apart from two chunks of marble.

Shelley Puhak has done an entertaining job of pulling together the threads of history and legend to tell the story of the two women. She occasionally falters under the weight of detail, and at other times is forced to adopt a very chatty style to compensate for the absence of reliable sources, but one feels that she has done her best with what is available.
… (lisätietoja)
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nwhyte | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 24, 2024 |
Pick this up, and you won't be able to put this down. You might even find yourself re-reading certain passages because it's just that good. Easily the best book I have read all year, and one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read period. I finished this a couple of weeks ago, and I still think about it on a regular basis. The people, the assassinations, the machinations, all of it puts Game of Thrones to shame. This made me want to read more, about this period and even fantasy, because it's just that inspiring to the imagination.

Shelley Puhak did a fantastic job breating life into Fredegund and Brunhild, and I hope she keeps writing more nonfiction like this. Originally a poet, her prose is both vivid yet approachable. She infuses a narrative quality into her subjects as she tries to imagine what they might have thought or felt. Some might think this is taking too much liberty because we have no record of how someone would have felt, but I really appreciate this approach. While I know that everything should be taken with a grain of salt, I find the infusion of humanity really helps me understand the subject. Compared to a book like Weir's Eleanor biography, which I found dull at times and distant, this book is so poignant.

One of the things that I really appreciate the most is the way Puhak turned a feminist eye on her subjects. For example, Fredegund is described as almost hysterical after the birth of her second son, Samson, freaking out about witches and the like who might be trying to kill her child. While Puhak offers some explanations that would make sense for the time period, she also offers the modern insight that Fredegund may have been suffering from postpartum disorder. This is entirely possible, and I find the erasure of women's pain in nonfiction to be so frustrating and even alienating. Yet, Puhak made Brunhild and Fredegund feel as real as they were cruel. It bridged the gap between myself and the two Early Medieval queens.

Really, the research that went into this is just astounding. There is very little information available today about Fredegund and Brunhild, but I feel like I know these women. I hope other writers follow in Puhak's footsteps to fill in the gaps. Dark Queens follows the women from the time they are teenagers and marrying their husbands (or killing their rivals, in Fredegund's case) to the time of their death in their sixties and seventies. Even though there isn't much about the women's lives, there is an abundance of information about their husbands, sons, and contemporaries by comparison. Despite this imbalance, Puhak managed to deftly weave together the stories of the men with the queens to give a fuller picture. I never felt like I was learning about the various kings and pretenders at the expense of the queens, like I did with Weir's Eleanor. I apologize for the unfavorable comparison. It is only fresh in mind since I read both books this year, but I came away from Weir's novel feeling like I barely learned anything about Eleanor while I came away from Dark Queens feeling like I just had a crash course in the Merovingian dynasty.

If you like medieval history, women's history, or royalty, you simply must read this book.
… (lisätietoja)
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readerbug2 | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Nov 16, 2023 |



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