These days I’m not reading many Big Fat History Books that I’m prepared to recommend to the Marginalia. It’s not that I’m not reading. At the moment I have five different library cards on active rotation in my wallet and carefully segregated piles of books from three different libraries on my study floor. When I reach the point where my brain is too bleary to write or brainstorm, I settle down with the latest BFHB and a stack of slightly used sticky notes, prepared to learn more about the woman warrior who is next in the queue. For the most part, they (the books, not the warriors) are solid, scholarly works, written with thought and care and impenetrable prose. They come with a full complement of footnotes, bibliography, maps, and genealogy charts. They are very good, but they are not the kind of books that I review here.*
But there are exceptions. Last Sunday I settled down on the porch with a glass of ice tea and read Katharine Scherman’s The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops and Long-Haired Kings. I was on the track of Brunhild and Fredegund, a pair of rivals queens in the sixth century CE who stood at the heart of forty years of war between the Merovingian kings in what would later become France. I came to the conclusion that for my purposes they were not women warriors, though they often appear in biographical dictionaries of the same.*** Brunhild was embattled, which is not the same as going to battle. Fredegund appears to have led troops into battle on occasion, but she is best know for hiring assassins**** to get rid of her political rivals, not to mention people who just irritated her.
Scherman not only convinced me that Brunhild and Fredegund were critical historical figures, she placed them beautifully in the complex world of post-Roman Europe. ***** She combines lively prose with a gift for explaining complex events and ideas. I came away with a clearer sense of Roman Gall, the Germanic tribes, the confusion of new kingdoms that arose out of the dust of empire, the role of the Church, and the transition from the Merovingian kings to their Carolingian successors. By the end, the Dark Ages were a little less dark as far as I was concerned.
I’m happy to have spent an afternoon with Scherman, even if it mean voting Brunhild and Fredegund off the island.
*I’m also spending time with another breed of book that I don’t review: special pleading built on sloppy scholarship. These are largely useless, though carefully reading will sometimes produce a thread back to something interesting, usually in the footnotes.**
**Always read the footnotes. Especially in books built on sloppy scholarship.
*** Which may simply mean the authors/editors are working from a different definition of what constitutes a woman warrior. As I discussed in a recent edition of my newsletter, the definition is a matter of debate. (And speaking of my newsletter: if you’re interested in discussions about the process of writing history and hot off the presses news about speaking gigs, etc, you can subscribe here: http://eepurl.com/cobpk9 )
****Or perhaps seducing them into doing her dirty work. Contemporary accounts suggest she was a femme fatale in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense.
*****For those of you who like to place things in the Big Timeline: The western Roman Empire officially “fell” in 476 CE, when the Germanic leader Odacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus. The eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantium) survived, and even thrived, for another thousand years.