This is the paradox of patriarchy’s misogynistic logic: Women cannot govern, because they have not. But this big lie rests 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.
This logic did not save the legacy of Queen Brunhild (sixth century) and Fredegund (sixth century). For decades they ruled most of Western Europe, controlling armies and tax policies, as well as negotiating with popes and kings. They fought a decades-long civil war— against each other. Today, however, very few are able to identify their faces.
There is no question of the queens’ transformation in historical chronicles from fierce powerbrokers to mere footnotes being accidental, the result of poor translations, sloppy transcriptions, or even a handful of scribes with personal axes to grind. This was an organized and systematic effort. The biblical Jezebel story was a part of what made it possible.
Jezebel was the Phoenician queen who became the archetype of the wicked woman— promiscuous, greedy, and godless. She was accused of forcing pagan idolatry onto the Israelites, and harassing Elijah.
But this biblical story was written centuries after Jezebel’s death, and its version of events don’t match up with what scholars now know to be true. Jezebel didn’t import a pagan god, that was well established. Actually, there was religious pluralism and ethnic diversity in the kingdom. Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah the fundamentalist prophet after he mocked, then killed hundreds of Christians who disagreed with him. Feared, Elijah ran and plotted his revenge. Jezebel didn’t beg for mercy when Elijah and the rest of his followers won. She fought her way to the end, dressed in finery, applying kohl, and waiting for her killers.
Jezebel was later branded as a harlot after her death. Jezebel’s real crime seems to be something entirely different. In one translation of the Bible, she dares to tell the male prophet that she is his equal: “If you are Elijah, so I am Jezebel.”
Queens Fredegund and Brunhild similarly presumed themselves equal to men, but Jezebel’s story provided a convenient blueprint for rewriting their legacies after their deaths.
Queen Fredegund was a former slave to the palace and died in peace at her home. The body of Queen Fredegund was wrapped in linen strips, which had been treated with oil, aloe, myrrh and other herbs. Her body was then dressed with the finest silks and draped in some of her most stunning jewels. Finally, it was placed in plain stone sarcophagus. The queen was laid to rest in Paris with great fanfare, as she had desired, and next to her husband in the church now called Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
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Brunhild was a well-educated and sophisticated princess of Visigothic Spain. She died in a field. Brunhild was gruesomely executed by Fredegund’s son, King Clothar II. Afterwards, he went to great lengths to make sure Brunhild would never enjoy a prestigious resting place: “Her final grave was the fire. Her bones were burnt.”
Immediately after Brunhild’s execution, King Clothar II quickly moved to obliterate the memory and legacy of his aunt and, curiously, his own mother. In his most famous act of the reign, the 614 Edict of Paris he completely erased Brunhild’s descendants. Brunhild’s son and grandsons are not mentioned in the document, which lists taxes and tolls dating back many decades. All of the line was deleted from the public record.
Clothar II also doesn’t make mention of his mother. Fredegund, however, had paid her part of the tolls. Clothar II was presumably a dutiful son who said the usual Masses for the repose of his mother’s soul, but he did not allow her any legal recognition. Nor did he commission any poems or erect any churches in Fredegund’s honor. He did not seek to have her made a saint—even though the bar was quite low at the time. The chronicles, though, were scrubbed of reports of Fredegund’s potential infidelities.
While Fredegund’s image was sanitized, Brunhild was cast as a “second Jezebel.” Brunhild was involved in a dispute with Columbanus years before. The man he was from came to Europe from an Irish monastery that was known for strict austerity, corporal punishment and strict discipline. Although he wasn’t terribly convincing as a missionary, he also intended to convert all remaining pagans in border areas. Columbanus cut down the sacred oaks of those who still venerated Woden in areas that were not populated by missionaries and lit their temples.
Brunhild financed monks who arrived in Britain to convert Anglo-Saxons. They behaved the same way. The pope chose a moderater approach, but it was done quickly. Pagan temples might be rededicated for the Christian God, along with pagan custom feasts and sacrifices. Today, with many martyrs and saints. But Columbanus did not bow to the authority of the Roman Pope, and he certainly didn’t compromise. When his monks were assassinated in retaliation, he remained true to his scorched-earth ways and had to continue moving forward.
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Brunhild, like Elijah and Jezebel, was destined to some kind of conflict. Columbanus was a hardline fundamentalist. The queen, however, had a more liberal worldview as evidenced in the kind of missionary work she supported and her acceptance of Jews within her kingdom. While traveling through Francia, Columbanus made it a point to condemn one of Brunhild’s grandsons for his lax sexual morals. Brunhild was publicly shamed as he declined to bless her grand-grandchildren, who were unborn. Eventually, after clashes with local clergy and his fiery calls for Brunhild’s downfall, Columbanus had been forcefully driven out of the kingdom.
After Brunhild’s execution, Clothar II asked the brash Columbanus to come back to Francia. Clothar II helped promote his cult when the monk declined. A prophecy was fashioned and stuffed into the dead monk’s mouth: Columbanus had condemned Brunhild as a “wretched woman,” and predicted that Clothar II would rule all of Francia within three years. Clothar had only plotted her overthrow and death to fulfill the holy man’s prophecy.
A second prophecy was made by the monk, but it led to a completely different outcome. Columbanus refused to baptize Brunhild’s grandsons because he realized they were cursed: “They’ll never take up the scepters of kings.” The monk and Brunhild are also cast into a battle between good and evil: “The old serpent came to… Brunhild, who was a second Jezebel, and aroused her pride against the holy man.”
“Jezebel” had become a convenient shorthand for how to talk about, and disparage, powerful queens. Jezebel was said by Brunhild to exert undue influence on her husband. Fredegund was also accused. Jezebel is reported to have been promiscuous and the queens of being lovers. Jezebel died after being thrown through a window. She was then followed by horses who trampled her body. Her body was further obliterated, gnawed on by dogs; what remained of her was spread “like dung on the ground.” Brunhild’s execution was clearly designed to eliminate her in the same way. Fredegund was also destroyed, despite the fact that she had been given a prestigious burial. Every trace of Fredegund, the bold and brutal queen, was swept away by the winds, to be replaced by the peaceful, loving mother.
The ghosts of Brunhild, Fredegund and others refuse to remain silent despite all these attempts. A few bits of their stories are told in legend and myth, art and literature. Their determination to make their voices heard is constant.
These women were not in history books. However, I saw them in my childhood. They were the ones that my father warned me against. These strategies, which were used against Brunhild as well as Fredegund to deny female power are being employed again. From Queen Mary I, the Jezebel slur was used repeatedly against female politicians.Margaret ThatcherKamala Harris, Vice President.Today’s women in leadership positions are challenged to consider what is left between the suppressed past and the oppressive sound of stereotypes.
Source: Shelley Puhak: The Dark Queens – The Bloody Rivalry that Forged Medieval World Copyright © 2022 by Shelley Puhak. Bloomsbury Publishing has permission to reproduce this article.