…as dangerous women in nineteenth-century France

Heta Aali is a Ph.D. student at the University of Turku (Finland) in the department of Cultural History. Her thesis is entitled The Representations of the Merovingian Queens in the Early-Nineteenth Century French Historiography. She has published articles related to the themes of her thesis, for example one entitled “Fredegonde – Great Man of the nineteenth century” (in Les Grandes figures historiques dans les Lettres et les Arts, 2013) and she has co-edited a book entitled Memory Boxes, An Experimental Approach to Cultural Transfer in History, 1500-2000 (transcript, 2014).

What did it mean to be a dangerous woman in nineteenth-century French historiography? What attributes were associated with women that were seen as dangerous? By looking at historiography one is not only looking at descriptions of past women but also at the way historians – men and women – defined, strengthened, and challenged the norms of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour for women. The question here is not whether or not certain Merovingian queens were dangerous. For that I have no answer. Rather it is the question of how and why they were made to play the role of dangerous queen in early nineteenth-century historiography.

In early nineteenth-century France history was not written or studied for its own sake but in order to find answers to current political, economical, social, and dynastic questions. History’s primary function was to teach and instruct readers. Most historians were not professional historians but so called amateurs. The period saw a new enthusiasm for Middle Ages in historiography, arts, and literature which contributed widely to the interest on the early medieval royals, the Merovingians. In the age of nationalism historians wanted to find the roots of their nation and national institutions such as monarchy. The further in history the roots were the better. This growing interest in history and especially in Middle Ages resulted in increasing number of publication both in nascent academic and popular history. The number of both female and male readers increased all through the century together with the number of authors and published books. This was the period of institutionalization of historical research and teaching in higher education and the beginning for history to be seen as an established field of study.

Who were the Merovingians and why were they popular in the early nineteenth-century France? The Merovingians were a Frankish dynasty that ruled in the area of modern France (and somewhat in the area of modern Germany) approximately between 490s and 750s. Their importance lies in the perceptions of them as the first Christian dynasty in the area and as the first dynasty of French monarchy. Sometimes they were even entitled as the first French kings. They were given the credit of Christianising the Frankish (or French) monarchy, and moreover, making the monarchy Catholic (even though, naturally, Catholicism did not exist in the Merovingian period).

Yet, despite this religious importance, the Merovingian period was generally perceived in the nineteenth century as degenerated, uncivilized, and barbaric era. The polygamous Merovingian kings were more famous for their love affairs than for their politics. But the era was also famous for the great number of saints, especially for saint queens such as Saint Clotilde (d.545), Saint Radegonde (d. 587), and Saint Bathilde (d.680). The era was thus characterized by opposites of high and low culture.

The most famous Merovingian queens, however, were no saints: Queen Fredegonde (d.597) and Queen Brunehilde (d.613). In the early nineteenth century the saint queens were popular in biographies and devotional literature as ideal role models for female readers. Fredegonde and Brunehilde, on the contrary, were most often described as warning example of unsuitable female behavior. Examining their representations, the features that historians emphasized in their works, makes it possible to discover what it meant to be a dangerous woman. I shall study the criticism historians gave to these women, what were they seen doing wrong, and then I will discuss what was the threat they were seen imposing. I will especially focus on Queen Fredegonde for she was perhaps seen as the most dangerous of the Merovingian queens.

First noteworthy feature in the representations of Fredegonde is that she was pictured taking an active part in the initiating of her marriage with King Chilperic (died 585). For example, one of the early nineteenth-century France’s most famous historians Augustin Thierry (1795-1856) wrote that Fredegonde had been Chilperic’s first wife’s servant when he had fallen madly in love with her because she was so beautiful. Thierry continued that this could have been very dangerous for Fredegonde because the situation could have led to Chilperic’s wife revenging her but Fredegonde was not afraid of this for she was ambitious and cunning, according to Thierry. She managed to deceive Chilperic’s wife and got Chilperic to divorce her and to send her to a convent where Fredegonde had her killed fifteen years later(1).

The more the historians wanted to emphasize Fredegonde’s negative qualities, the more active she was presented. The royal princesses Clotilde and Brunehilde were pictured very differently and as passive objects of their marriage contracts. For example, Thierry presented about Brunehilde’s marriage that King Sigebert, her husband, had decided he wanted to have only one wife and that she should be of royal descent. The King of the Goths, from modern day Spain, had two daughters of which the younger one, Brunehilde, was much admired for her beauty and thus she was Sigebert’s choice for a wife, according to Thierry(2). No historian ever pondered what Brunehilde might have felt when she had to marry Sigebert. Both Fredegonde and Brunehilde were always pictured as very beautiful women but only Fredegonde, who was of obscure background, was made to actively pursue the royal marriage. Whereas for other women external beauty could signify inner beauty, for Fredegonde beauty was only pictured as a means to pursue her (political) goals. Yet, the way of imagining female activity as dangerous in certain areas of life did not apply to Fredegonde alone. Whenever a historian wanted to disgrace a queen (or any woman) her activity was emphasized, particularly in politics, using adjectives such as “ambitious”. It was acceptable to be active in religious and charitable duties, converting pagans, and teaching religion but not in politics or in relations with the opposite sex.

The dangers of Fredegonde were often related to her relationship with her husband King Chilpéric. She did not submit to Chilperic but she was pictured as wanting to rule beside him. According to the biographer Joséphine Amory de Langerack (1847), Fredegonde had a seducing smile that had conquered the most barbaric tyrant of all, Chilperic, and she knew how to bend Chilperic to her ironclad will because she was the only ruler of his heart(3). Furthermore, Langerack argued that it was not enough for Fredegonde to become a queen; she wanted to be both queen and a king(4). Fredegonde’s and Chilperic’s relationship was described with words such as passion which was a negative term in relation to women. Langerack wrote in Fredegonde’s biography that it was by chance that Fredegonde had woken the “unjust passion” in the heart of the “infidel monarch”(5). Even in marriage passion could be considered a negative feature because it implied that there were more carnal desires than virtuous emotions between the spouses. Fredegonde’s and Chilperic’s marriage was often described with sexual and carnal adjectives rather than with tender and affectionate terms.

The Merovingian saint queens’ sexuality was a virtually non-existent topic in historiography, whereas Fredegonde was described as having, or attempting to have, extra-marital affairs. For example the Swiss historian Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) wrote that first Fredegonde had tried to seduce a man in order to have her stepson, Chilperic’s son from his first wife, murdered. Later Sismondi even implicated that Chilperic’s death could have been a result of Fredegonde’s conjugal infidelity(6). This way of defaming a queen was not a new concept in the nineteenth century. Attacking queens’ sexuality has been a popular way to denigrate them all through history. Furthermore, Fredegonde was of humble birth, she was not born in a royal or noble family which made her even more unsuitable to be a queen, according to the nineteenth-century historians. Fredegonde did not only have the bad qualities of her gender, but she also had the negative qualities associated with the Franks, violence and barbarity. According to the nineteenth-century historians, Fredegonde had attacked her own daughter and plotted revenge against people whom she saw that had wronged her(7). She was, thus, passionate, active, violent, revengeful, and she had a lust for power.

Fredegonde was not only a singular example of a bad woman and a queen from a distant history but she was made to represent much more – the danger of female nature to a civilized society. The “natural order” of marriage, husband above wife, was turned upside down in Fredegonde’s and Chilperic’s marriage. Man, who was perceived as “naturally” more capable of ruling especially over the “weaker sex”, was not in charge there but the wife was. Historians presented Chilperic subordinate to his wife in order to emphasize the abnormality of their marriage which had started with her initiation. And when the natural order of marriage was in jeopardy, the whole order of society was in danger. Yet, historians did not leave the discussion there. Because Fredegonde was described ruling over her husband, she was also perceived somehow responsible for the wars that had raged between the Merovingian kings, brothers, nephews, and uncles, in the late sixth century. The civil wars between especially brothers were a complete abhorrence to the nineteenth-century historians who used them as an example and as a proof of the uncivilized nature of the Merovingian period. The Merovingian period with gender roles turned upside down (and as a result, the whole “natural order” turned upside down) and with constant civil wars was perhaps even seen as the negative reflection of the “civilized” nineteenth century. The “unnatural” gender roles and wars were an anomaly of the normal functioning society, and emancipating women could risk a similar chaos as the Merovingian period had presumably seen.

Fredegonde was not only pictured dangerous to her adversaries but to the whole French society and she was used as a warning example of what might happen if women started behaving like she had done, at least according to the imagination of the nineteenth-century historians. The figure of Fredegonde was quasi transformed into a she-monster and she was used to highlight the political views of the historians. Fredegonde’s political power was exaggerated in order to make her seem more dangerous whereas the saint queens such as Radegonde and Bathilde were pictured having less political power in order to argue that “good” women were not to meddle with politics which was perceived belonging to a masculine sphere. But this was a paradox. Women who behaved “well” were invisible in historiography and in society, and the “dangerous” women were given space page after page in historiography and historical literature about the Merovingian period. Even though women like Fredegonde were condemned they were the figures that left a mark in history books. Authors and readers could not get enough of them.


(1) Augustin Thierry, Récits des temps mérovingiens (I), Paris: Jost Tessier, 1842, pp. 380-382.
(2) Thierry, 1842, 382-383.
(3) Joséphine Amory de Langerack, Galerie des femmes célèbres depuis le Ier siècle de l’ère chrétienne jusqu’au XVIe siècle, Paris: Mellier frères, 1847, 177.
(4) Langerack, 1847, 178.
(5) Langerack, 1847, 176.
(6) Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, Histoire Des Français (I), Paris: Treuttel et Würtz, 1821, 347 & 371.
(7) Langerack, 1847, 191.; Sismondi 1821, 388.