“Western Europe, Sixth Century
Rome has fallen.
On the empire’s former frontier, the old order and a new barbarian world clash. One family emerges to conquer the divide. From the Atlantic coast to the Alps, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, they rule.
Until a terrible civil war fractures the dynasty. This war will rage for far longer than the English Wars of the Roses, engulfing more territory and killing more monarchs.
This war will mark the end of antiquity and the beginning of the medieval era.
It begins with three weddings in quick succession – and one murder.”
The Merovingian dynasty flourished in the ashes of the Roman Empire. King Clovis united the Frankish tribes under one crown and, later, one religion after his conversion to Christianity.
Upon his death, his kingdom was divided between his sons. In the ensuing scuffle for power, only one – King Clothar – survived to reunite the lands. Then, upon his death, his kingdom was split between his four legitimate sons – Charibert (King of Aquitaine), Guntram (King of Burgundy), and Sigibert (King of Austrasia) and Chilperic (King of Neustria).
It is then, in the Spring of 567, that Princess Brunhild– and soon after, her sister, Galswintha– of the Visigoths (of Spain), marry into the Merovingian Dynasty. Brunhild is promised to King Sigibert of Austrasia, a promising young man with dynastic political ambitions. Princess Galswintha is packed off to Neustria, and is married to King Chilperic. A worrying issue, that Galswintha soon discovers, is that her husband is far too enamored with one of the palace slaves – a young woman named Fredegund. But Princess– now Queen– Galswintha needed not worry for long. Less than six month later, Galswintha was found dead in her bed, “strangled in her sleep.” And no more than three days later, “Fredegund stood at the altar, smiling up at Chilperic.”
The era of Queen Brunhild’s and Queen Fredegund’s rule, when it is recognized, is a rare period in the medieval world. A time where a large swathe of, what is today, modern day Europe, was placed under a dual-female rule. They accomplished much in their reign – collaborating with foreign leaders, expanding their own kingdom’s territories, cultivating public works programs – all whilst battling the overt misogyny placed on them by their own councils and nobles. Both Queen Brunhild and Fredegund ruled for far long than any king or Roman Emperor that came before them; Brunhild was queen for forty-six years, Fredegund for twenty-nine.
Despite this, their names, throughout history, have been tarnished.
The Romans had a practice, which was later named damnatio memoriae, or “condemnation of memory,” that sought to erase a person from the historical record completely.
Brunhild’s executioner, King Clothar II, moved quickly to obliterate and besmirch her memory. Her name, and the name of her descendants, were wiped from public record. Many of the crimes that her rival was accused of committing, was placed at her feet instead. The language historians and chroniclers “used to document her reign grew increasingly virulent.” Her execution – a rather brutal one – went from being a political motivated move, to being something that was justified. And Fredegund, Clothar II’s mother, was washed over her ambitious, ruthless tendencies, and recast as a humble wife, and a devoted, subservient mother. In time, however, she would be portrayed as a Jezebel, or a femme fatale. A woman who used her wiles to excise some control over the king, and lure others into doing her bidding.
The blame for the civil war that rocked the Frankish Kingdoms for nearly half a century, was placed solely on the shoulders of these two queens. Even though the Kingdom, and its bitter divisions and rivalries, predated both queen’s marriages into the dynasty.
Back in the Middle Ages, the dynamic of power was something that was inextricably male. The precedent that was held for male leaders, especially those who were, or were to be, kings – required them to be “supremely commanding and authoritative.” Characteristics that were, of the time, seen to be unbecoming of a woman. Women were meant to employ traditional feminine characteristics; that being gentleness, modesty, passivity, sensitivity, and meekness. When the Gesta Stephani would later comment on Empress Matilda’s (the historical figure that inspired the creation of Rhaenyra Targaryean from House of the Dragon) rise into power, the author would criticize her for not having the “modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex.”
But Matilda, much like her contemporaries, Brunhild and Fredegund, were ascending into a power that had been, at least in historical memory, a role that was held, and passed onto, male successors; essentially, they were trying to be a female king, a Queen in a King’s world. The model of power, especially political power, as it was traditionally perceived, was shaped on a masculine foundation.
But as Shelly Puhak says, “…the misogynistic logic of patriarchy is curiously circular: women cannot govern because they never have. But this lie rest upon a bed of induced 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.” (pg. 267)
The Dark Queens is available at the Bellevue University Library and is located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.
Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than Books, V. 26 No. 1, Winter 2022.