Season 2: Episode 4: How did medieval women rise and why were they erased?
With Shelley Puhak
This episode, Kelsie and Brooke learn from Shelley Puhak, author of a new book The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry that Forged the Medieval World, which you can preorder now. The book is about two real life women who ruled most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and none of us have ever heard of them, because that's what their successors wanted. Puhaks promotion reads, "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 6th-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." Intrigued? So were we!
Kelsie Eckert 0:05
The Remedial Herstory Project is a nonprofit working to get women's history into the K to 12 curriculum to help us meet our goal. We produce media lesson plans, and so much more. Check it out on our website, www dot remedial history.com. The Remedial Herstory Project is funded through grants and by listeners like you. please head over to patreon.com and become a supporter of the remedial History Project. YouTube can help us reform education and allow women to be seen heard and complicated. In particular funds from patrons added from here on out will help us launch a crash course YouTube channel on women's history. We will be producing short 10 minute videos that educators can play in their classes telling women's history from era to era for both us and world history. Let's make herstory together.
Brooke Sullivan 0:56
Kelsie Eckert 0:56
Brooke Sullivan 0:57
Want to tell everyone what's happening in today's episode?
Kelsie Eckert 1:00
In this episode, we are going to be talking about two medieval queens who came to power in the sixth century and controlled almost all of Western Europe. And none of us have ever heard of them.
Hello, and welcome to Remedial Herstory: the other 50%, the podcast that explores what happened to the women in history class. Now here's your host, Kelsie Brook Eckert and her partner in crime, Brooke Niva Sullivan.
Kelsie Eckert 1:33
In this episode, we are going to be asking the question, how did medieval women rise and why were they erased? We have an incredible guest, Shelley Puhak, who has written a wonderful book called "The Dark Queens," which is coming out next year. And we are so excited for her to have a chance to tell her story. So for those people that aren't really familiar with periods of world history, and need me to help shape where we are in time, let me help do that. So Rome has pretty much crumbled Europe is in what people call the Dark Ages. Some people dispute whether they really were as dark as people think they were. But nonetheless, that's sort of generally where we are. It's been about 100 to 200 years, since Rome has crumbled. And we are in Western Europe. So think like Germany, France, regions of the world. And this is very cool that women came to power there. So similar to other episodes in this theme, one of the questions that I'm always curious about is how do women rise in periods like this, where they don't have a lot of rights, where they are pushed out of educational opportunities, and no positions of power are actually designed for them? So how do they get into those positions? And in the case of these women, I want to know how they fell because I've never heard of these women, and yet they dominated Western Europe. That's wild. So I'm so excited. And I would love if Shelley Puhak would introduce herself to you all?
Shelley Puhak 3:31
Hi, my name is Shelly Puhak. I'm a former English professor turned freelance writer. And I'd like to talk to you today about two rival queens Brunhild and Fredegun, who rolled over most of Western Europe in the sixth century, and I stumbled upon these queens by accident, researching a completely different topic. But when I learned about all they had accomplished I was stunned. Why had I never heard of them. And then when I found out that they were purposely erased from history, I was even more intrigued. So much so that I started writing a book. "The Dark Queens: the bloody rivalry that forged the medieval world" is coming out in the US at the end of February 2022 and in the UK in April 2022. And even though you too may be unfamiliar with these Queen's names, it turns out that they're everywhere, and you've already encountered them. If you've ever seen the opera stereotype of the woman in a horned helmet belting out of song. You've heard of these queens, if you've ever read Shakespeare's Macbeth, or Norse myth, or fairy tales about evil stepmothers or comic books or read or watch Game of Thrones, then you know these queens too. And here's just a little bit of background about the two of them. After the so called fall of Rome, in the West, a Germanic tribe called the Franks took over what was once Gaul and they expanded upon it to create their own Empire and the Empire we're talking about would encompass all of modern day France, but also the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Western Germany, and some parts of eastern Germany, two parts of Switzerland and Italy. So it's pretty huge expanse, and the kings who ended up ruling over this Frankish empire for about 250 years were a dynasty called the Merovingians. They were eventually replaced by a dynasty called the Carolingians, who are much better known because their most famous King is Charlemagne. You probably know of Charlemagne, but you probably don't know if not for these queens, we don't end up with him. So here's a quick recap of Brunhild and Fredegund's rise to power. It's important to know that the Merovingian dynasty does not practice primogeniture. So when a king dies, rather than giving everything to the oldest son, all of his son's legitimate and even illegitimate can get a part of the Empire and this leads to competing kingdoms. So Brunhild and Fredegund are going to start out as sisters in law, but they come from two completely different backgrounds. Brunhild is a Spanish princess and she has been raised her entire life to be married off for a prestigious alliance. And Fredegund on the other hand, is a former palace slave. So brunhilde ends up being married off to sigma Bert, who rolls over the Eastern Kingdoms, and Finnegan has elbowed out the first queen to become the mistress or possibly the common law wife of Kilpatrick, who rules over the western kingdoms. Now Kilpatrick finds himself jealous of his brother's new prestigious bride and he sets Ratigan decide, and actually Mary's Bruin helps sister. After a lot of drama brunhilde sister starts threatening to leave kill break the marriage is not a happy one. And rather than letting her we've killed work murders her and three days later, Mary's fredda gun show as you can imagine, there's considerable tension between these two new sisters in law and the two brothers. And as a result of this murder, the two kingdoms go to war. Just when it looks like Vernon Hills husband is close to finishing Cobra and Friday going off. Fred again saves the day by organizing a daring assassination plot and having him killed. So after this, after a lot of political maneuvering, and kind of various escapes brunhilde manages to become region for her son and ruin his name and then years later, when Fred Gunn's husband is also assassinated, and as a side note burned, hailed as one of the credible suspects. In that case, Fred again also takes over as region of her kingdom. And then, at this point, the two of them waged a civil war against each other battling for control of the entire empire in a real life early medieval Game of Thrones. And throughout this war, Fred again especially becomes renowned as it create military strategists, and Burnham shows that she has a real talent for diplomacy. A lot happens in Rome during their long rains. But just to give you kind of a quick overview of some of their accomplishments, both queens revamped tax policy, they build roads, schools and hospitals, the rivalry between them and the efforts of brunhilde lead to Britain becoming christianized converting to Christianity. And we have with both of them the first recorded instances in Europe of women serving as judges in the Royal Court. So the presiding over trials, and they're issuing verdicts. A lot of what they managed to do was just absolutely sort of stunning in its scope. And I want to focus today on why these women rose and why they were erased. And the fact that they were even able to come to power in the first place has so much to do with the environment they grew up in, which was one of climate change and a worldwide pandemic. That sounds eerily familiar. But both of them were born on the heels of one of the largest climate disasters. 541 has been deemed by some scientists, the worst year to be alive because we have volcanic eruptions in Iceland that lead to a more than two degrees Celsius change in temperature, they blot out the sun, they ruin the harvest. There's widespread famine and death. And also then we have the plague of Justinian which is the bubonic plague which ravages the Middle East and Europe. So these are really horrific situations to grow up in. And after the bubonic plague, you know, there's there's several other epidemics that they're going to live through. But it also strangely offers a lot of opportunities for women, because so many men have been abused. There's a lot of social mobility, things are changing so quickly a great family might die. alliances are completely, you know, constantly being re brokered, borders being redrawn, there's just a lot of uncertainty. And it's really an age that favors the bold. So out of necessity, there are a lot of women who are taking over whether that's family farms, whether that's towns, whether that's even ruling kingdoms. And as they're growing up, it's fascinating to know that around them, there are all these examples of other strong women ruling, there are other queens and other regions. So they're growing up in this world where, even though it's very patriarchal, there's this period of time where women are able to sort of seize power and make the most of it. Another reason why they're able to rise is because they're both educated. So we know even though this is in the middle of the so called Dark Ages, that both Queen's are literate in Latin, and also another language either their native Gothic or Frankish. Now, this isn't so unusual for brunhilde. She's a princess, she's one of two daughters, her father had no sons. And so both she and her sister were raised to be potential heirs. So they had an outstanding classical education, she most likely also, you know, learned to read or speak a little bit of Greek and a few other languages, and would have been familiar with all the classical texts, poetry, etc. But we're not exactly sure how Fredegund learned to read and write, there's a lot of evidence that she could, but we don't know whether she taught herself. Somewhere along the lines, one of her owners taught her. And we don't know if this was highly unusual for a female slave of the time period. There are examples of other slaves who are also able to rise quite high in this society, and also appear to be educated. Again, we know she's not the only one. But we just don't know how much of an anomaly This is. So in addition to these climate change, and the pandemic, and the fact that they're both educated, they both luckily, are the mothers of sons. So this is clearly less threatening than a woman seizing power in her own name and ruling outright, they're always issuing orders in the names of their sons, or the names of other men. And there is at least the illusion that their rule is temporary. It's just for five more years, or 10 more years, or maybe 18 more years. And the other thing that really guarantees their success and helps them rise is just sheer longevity. They are able to outlast the competition, whether that's through great luck, or just astounding immune systems, they don't die in childbirth, they have really strong stomachs, and they managed to dodge a lot of epidemics. So in this time period, it's important to know that dysentery is a real problem. There are warrior kings in their prime just dropping dead left and right. So that means that there's also a real lack of alternatives. brunhilde, for example, serves as region for her son when he finally comes of age and shortly after he drops dead. So she's region again for her grandsons. When they die in their prime she's region for her great grandsons. So she offers stability in a world where a lot of the biggest and strongest men do not. And both Brunhild and Fredegund managed to rule for a really long time longer than almost every king and Roman emperor who has who precedes them. So Fredegund's Queen for 29 years and regent for 12 of those and Brunhild's Queen for 46 years and region for 17 of them. And for the time period. That's a pretty long run. Throughout the reigns, even though they're lifelong rivals, they also face very similar challenges, and they deal with them in similar ways. They have to fight the misogyny of their own nobles and advisors. They have to deal with rumors about their romantic lives, innuendos that threaten the line of succession, for example, about the legitimacy of their children. And they have to be working mothers in the middle of constant war and upheaval and deal with things like pregnancy and childbirth and child rearing and really precarious situations. So we know a little bit about why they rose to power. But now talk about how could two queens who did so much and ruled for so long, the completely erased and only talk about why they were erased. Well, first, both of them died. Fredegund dies most likely of natural causes, although murder can't be completely rolled out. And Brunhild is executed in a very horrific fashion. It seems as though it's probably unmatched at least from what we know of recorded history. To this day, and for Brunhilde to be executed in this fashion. She is portrayed by some of her own advisors and nobles, and these men who are very wary of letting a woman who was ruled for so long continue to rule. They ally themselves with forces within the church. The church at this point is having a real battle between sort of liberalism and fundamentalism. And the fundamentalism and kind of the much stricter version of Christianity is winning out. And so these men within the church ally themselves with the secular officials, and altogether they decide that they're going to put Fredegund's son, who seems to be the only surviving male of a certain age on the throne. But in order to accept this deal, Fredegund, son has to agree to certain concessions limiting his power, and he has to agree not to give any woman too much power. Once he's established, this man King Leopold the second he moves to wipe both his own mother and his aunt from the public record. So he goes through and erases them from certain proclamations and from certain documents. And then in future generations, we get other women attempting to follow in the Queen's footsteps and rule as regions. And the nobles have learned their lesson and they don't stand for this for nearly as long. And once these women are disposed of, we see this really awful smear campaign arising to further malign the legacies of credit and improve health and the alliance that brings down Queen Brunhild gives birth to the next dynasty, the Carolingians, who will, of course, produce Charlemagne and this dynasty further rewrites history. I spent a lot of time documenting this process in my book, but I'm still really surprised at how coordinated and methodical it was. The two queens were positioned as being in some sort of lurid catfight instead of an actual war. And a lot was made of their sort of rise to power decades ago, when Fredegund may or may not have had a hand in the murder of her unhealed sister, but it was assumed that that's what they were still fighting about, not land, not power, not influence, not legacy, like a man might, but that they were many decades later still fighting over some sort of love triangle. And the parts of their story that weren't contained in that catfight narrative, essentially went underground, and were incorporated into myth and legend. So for example, the strategy of disguising your troops with branches as a moving forest was something Fredegund did in battle. And we see that strategy later borrowed by a Danish King, and then it's borrowed by Shakespeare and shows up in Macbeth, or for Queen Brunhild. She becomes Brunhild, the Valkyrie in Norse legend, and then makes her way into Wagner's Ring Opera, where she becomes this figure we know today, as the busty woman in the horned hat, the expression It ain't over till the fat lady sings at the end of the opera. I just loved researching and writing about these queens. And I think as more people have the opportunity to learn about Brunhild and Fredegund, they'll see how they've seeped into literature and legend, and pop culture too. I also hope that they'll serve these two queens as a call to arms. It's so fascinating that during the so called Dark Ages, we had two strong working mothers ruling Europe and in conversation with one another. Yet, 1600 years later, although we've had female leaders, they're always outliers. They're always the one woman kind of at the table with a group of men. And I think these queens challenge us to do better to say, all these years later, we still deserve the same. We have generations of children that deserve to see powerful women, learning from one another, reacting to one another in conversation with one another. Thanks so much.
Kelsie Eckert 19:30
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Brooke Sullivan 19:47
Thank you to Jeff Barbara, Christian Kent, Jamie, Jenna, Nancy, Megan, Leah, Mark, Nicole, and Sarah, Alicia and Katya.
Kelsie Eckert 19:55
What do you notice so awesome about this particular group of people No one, very few of them are actually educators. These are bad ass people who care so much about equitable and inclusive education that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is.
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Kelsie Eckert 20:15
Yeah, so cool. You too can become a patron of the Remedial Herstory Project by heading over to www.patreon.com. And becoming a sponsor of the Remedial Herstory project for just $5 a month. That's it. That's one latte.
Brooke Sullivan 20:32
I mean, it's, it's one of something but it's cheap! And you get all that stuff?
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All that stuff! You too can give up one latte for thousands of children and women.
Brooke Sullivan 20:44
You could also buy condoms for more than that. You could reduce reproduction for less than that.
Kelsie Eckert 20:55
Brooke, most importantly, instead of lamenting that women's history isn't being taught in high school, or that they didn't know these women, these people are putting their money, where their mouth is, and they are getting it in to the curriculum by funding us.
Brooke Sullivan 21:09
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Kelsie Eckert 21:13
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Duh. Thanks, patrons! We love you.
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Kelsie Eckert 21:18
And so I guess my first question for you is, are you inspired by these queens? And what sort of inspiration Can you take away from them? Given how dark this story is?
Shelley Puhak 21:32
Well, I think it's really fascinating to me that in the darkest, one of the darkest periods in human history, women were leading. So particularly for me, I find it inspiring when we've been through some dark times, recently, and there are certainly many dark days, you know, to come. So that sense of that maybe we're not, you know, kind of always in this, trying to progress towards some idyllic future, but like, able to go to the storehouse of the past and say, No, look, this is this has already happened 1600 years ago, in worse times than what we have now. Women were running the show women should be able to run the show, you know, again, there's no, there's no reason not to. So, despite how dark this history is, it's also you know, women have been besting the men at their own game. I mean, this was this was patriarchy at its most violent from the get go.
Kelsie Eckert 22:30
What do you think has like, I've never heard of these women before? What do you have to them out of history? And and really this whole saga? Right? This is a this is an epic? So how did this get left out?
Shelley Puhak 22:45
Well, I think it was a really systematic smear campaign that started right after both of their deaths and continued on. So it's not so much an issue of women being forgotten as women being purposely sidelined right from the get go. So I can't give you numerous examples. But even you know, a couple years after brunhilde death, her successor goes through and removes her entire branch of the you know, of the family from any notice. So of tolls a very minor thing. So this would be like a racing, for example, president of just saying, you know, nothing ever happened in that term, we're not we're not mentioning that person's name, they pass no laws, nothing, nothing happened in that period of time. And that's immediately thereafter. And then the dynasty that took over, after both of these women ruled, had some issues from the get go with women, holding them off. I'm Charles Martel, who was as we know, when the ancestors of Charlemagne was held off by a woman. And that was pretty, you know, pretty embarrassing, and they certainly did not want to give any more ammunition to this idea. There were a lot of women that were following in the Queen's footsteps attempting to be regions and the patriarchy was stomping them out, you know, as quickly as they could. So as that was happening, you also can trace through the historical Chronicles, which was really fascinating and see how they're changing the story, how they're manipulating it, how the chroniclers are going in, adding stuff, taking stuff out there adding prophecies in that say, these women were doomed from the get go and anyone who follows in their footsteps, these horrible things are gonna happen, then they're starting to lay at their feet, the destruction of you know, basically all of Western Europe. So people were, this was a very, very deliberate campaign. So I think that's part of the reason why and what little we do get has kind of been cast as either this sort of catfight or they've both been cast as kind of mothers you know, whether that's just like really overly ambitious mothers but let's put them in that category because that's safe.
Kelsie Eckert 24:51
So you must have uncovered so much research in this process and I can tell just by the, you know, rattling off the different editions of their story that you've uncovered, I am always thinking about how to, okay, so they have been erased. How do we put them back in and part of I think history instruction is, is also helping students understand how history is made, and how people can get left out. And I think it would be really cool to have some of those versions of her story, their story from different times to show the eraser over time, that would be really a neat way to do that in a classroom. You taught literature for a while and some curious, where do you see this story belonging or fitting in a K to 12 humanities curriculum?
Shelley Puhak 25:43
Well, I think there's a lot of potential ways to approach it. One is just the larger question of like, What does historical justice look like? Good, you're just saying and I think that ties into so much, whether that's the monuments debate from today, or just all of these, these figures, talking about who gets to privileged in the public sphere, you know, despite how long you've ruled, or how much you've accomplished, you can still have your face essentially kind of scratched out of the record. So I think they can work in that sense of as a warning, a warning sign, I think it's also really fascinating to see how marginalized people still managed to pass their stories on, because no one thinks they know these queens, but yet we all do. So for example, the way I came to these queens was in a Party City costume store in the aisle looking for, you know, a quick Halloween costume with the horned Viking helmet with the two braids, right? That's like an image that we're all familiar with. And that comes from the Queen's but it's been buried underground. So I think it's really fascinating for students, for example, whether it's with these historical figures or others, and I can give numerous examples of how they've worked on but to look for, in sort of the ordinary, the everyday pop culture literature, where are these Hidden Figures? Where else can we find them? So for example, these queens aren't just in opera, but we find them in Shakespeare's Macbeth, we find them in fairy tales and folklore in Norse legends. So I think that's also a really fascinating way to kind of approach how, despite sometimes the best efforts to erase certain people or certain accomplishments, sometimes bits of the story are still still managed to wriggle through.
Kelsie Eckert 27:24
It's still with us, I love that you found it in a costume store. That's amazing. I, you told me earlier that you taught this to middle schoolers, and we find that people are resistant to teaching dark topics like this to younger students, how did that go when you taught middle school or what grade in middle school?
Shelley Puhak 27:46
it was actually like a combination. So there were some six and 6/7. And eighth graders, I believe there are a few acres in the bunch, they kind of did a combination. And they were learning about the Franks and Charles Martel, and we're going through that period of history. And the teachers allowed me to come in and do a PowerPoint presentation for a period. And at least from my perspective, they were really engaged, they asked some great questions. I think that students are a lot smarter than sometimes we give them credit for, and that most of the history that they've learned, since they were very young, we forget that that's already pretty dark and bloody, whether that's the French Revolution, the American Revolution, we teach kids a lot about war. So they seem to take this in stride, that this was just a particularly, you know, dark period of time in our history. That was extremely bloodsoaked. And they were more engaged with the personalities involved, rather than kind of bogged down in being scared of that time period. And they were they had a lot of good questions just to about sort of the day to day life, like how did people manage in such a dark time so they had a lot of fun with it. I was actually really surprised at how well they took to this given that it's such an unfamiliar period for most of them.
Kelsie Eckert 29:11
Yeah, that's incredible. And I'm I'm genuinely very impressed that middle schoolers. I mean, I don't teach Middle School. So I I'm always very impressed at what teachers are able to do. That's so awesome. So um, your book is coming out this winter.
Shelley Puhak 29:27
It is! Just in time for Women's History Month in March of 2022. So it'll be out February 22 2022.
Kelsie Eckert 29:35
That sounds like a futuristic date like 2022 that's wild. I'm so excited. So where can people find the book?
Shelley Puhak 29:44
Well, I'll make sure to share links to bookshop or Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your favorite indie neighborhood bookstore, but it's out with Bloomsbury in the US and it'll be out in April in the UK with a head of Zeus. And it also be coming out in the future in both France and Estonia. So that's pretty exciting, too.
Kelsie Eckert 30:06
Oh, that's amazing. Congratulations. That's so exciting. I'm so excited. Well, we will put the links in our show notes for everybody to have access to so they can go track down your book and read everything. This is such a cool topic. And I think so important to get into our curriculum to undo the intentional eraser of these women.
Shelley Puhak 30:30
Thank you so much for having me, Kelsie.
Thanks so much for listening to Remedial Herstory: the other 50% please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to your podcasts to bring more voices to the conversation. We'd really appreciate that effort. Until next time.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Shelley Puhak is a poet and writer whose work engages with history in unexpected ways. Her prose has appeared in publications like The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, and Virginia Quarterly Review; been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing; and designated as Notable in four editions of Best American Essays. Her nonfiction debut, The Dark Queens, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury in 2022.
Shelley is also the author of three award-winning books of poetry. The most recent is Harbinger, a National Poetry Series selection, forthcoming with Ecco/HarperCollins in 2022. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, and Verse Daily and been awarded the Anthony Hecht Prize, the Towson Prize for Literature, and two Maryland State Arts Council grants.