The Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak

Second paragraph of third chapter:

From the upper windows of the Golden Court, Brunhild saw not just the river Moselle and the bridge spanning it. She could also see straight down into a small amphitheatre inside the city walls. Gladiator games had long been outlawed, but exotic animal hunts and bear baiting were still held there. These, sadly, seemed to be the main entertainment. The new queen quickly discovered that even what luxuries the Merovingian courts offered left something to be desired. There were mimes and actors in residence for instance – predecessors of the minstrels and jesters later found in medieval courts – but mostly, these performers recited long-winded national epics.

This is a book about two queens of the sixth century, both probably born in the early 540s: Fredegund of Neustria (died 597) and Brunhilda of Austrasia (died 613). You may not have heard of Neustria or Austrasia; these were old kingdoms of the pre-Charlemagne era, the tail end of the Merovingian dynasty founded by Clovis, King of the Franks, in the late 5th century. This is a period which we learned nothing at all about at school in Belfast, and if your native language is not French, Dutch or German, you’re probably in the same boat. My previous exposure to it amounted to a 2021 exhibition of Merovingian metalwork in Mariemont, off to the south of Belgium.

Neither of the two queens was in fact a Merovingian by birth, but they married two brothers, grandsons of Clovis, who ruled between them large chunks of what are now northern France, central Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of the Netherlands, with Burgundy also in the mix at various times.

Brunhilda was a Visigothic princess from Spain, who married Sigebert of Austrasia (the eastern bit) in 567. He was murdered, probably on her orders, in 575 and she ruled in Metz off and on, in her own right and as regent for the next generation, for four decades. Fredegund was a slave girl from the western chunk, Neustria, ruled from Soissons; she caught the eye of Chilperic, the local overlord, and replaced his wife (Brunhilda’s sister) as queen.

Brunhilda and Fredegund feuded bitterly until Fredegund’s death in 597, but eventually in 613 Chilperic and Fredegund’s son Clotaire managed to conquer both kingdoms, and Brunhilda (who must have been well into her 60s at this point) was executed by a gruesome method which remains obscure but definitely involved horses.

Both women have been largely written out of history. Clotaire emphasised his own legitimate descent from Clovis, not his usurping aunt or indeed his low-born mother. No men wanted to commemorate women who had survived and ruled for many years. The major contemporary witness, Gregory of Tours, is very partisan and clearly incomplete. Fredegund’s tomb has an image of her whose face has been erased. Brunhilda’s tomb has been lost, apart from two chunks of marble.

Shelley Puhak has done an entertaining job of pulling together the threads of history and legend to tell the story of the two women. She occasionally falters under the weight of detail, and at other times is forced to adopt a very chatty style to compensate for the absence of reliable sources, but one feels that she has done her best with what is available. I got what I wanted from The Dark Queens; you can get it here.

The largest menhir in Belgium is known as the Pierre Brunehaut; I visited it in February 2021. It is near to one of the many old roads known as chaussées Brunehaut in northern France and southern Belgium.

The Pierre Brunehaut near Tournai, which I visited in February 2021 with my friend J, who gives it a sense of scale.

Some speculate that the chaussées Brunehaut are the paths supposedly taken by the horses participating in her execution, but there are too many roads for that; I prefer to think that in her many years as queen, she dedicated state resources to the upkeep of the transport infrastructure, and (rather like Mussolini making the trains run on time) this has been dimly remembered by local lore. There are worse possible memorials.

The Paris Peace Forum, in comparison with a large science fiction convention

I have spent the last couple of days at the Paris Peace Forum, which takes place around 11 November every year in, er, Paris, in the old Bourse building, now the Palais Brongniard. There have been loads of interesting discussions about the state of the world, with guests including a dozen or so presidents and prime ministers (including Emmanuel Macron of course), but I found myself looking at it to an extent with a convention-runner’s eye, especially so soon after Chengdu WorldCon, which again was a bit different from the usual North American / European fan-run convention experience. Like Chengdu, the Paris Peace Forum had more resources poured into it than your average Worldcon; but even so, those resources are not infinite.

The most familiar aspect of the Paris Peace Forum was the fact that there were up to nine parallel programme items running most of the time.

The usual happened – it took me several goes to get used to the conference layout, two sessions which both looked interesting were scheduled against each other, also I was too late to get into the one panel that a work colleague was on. A couple of the panel venues were in more or less open spaces, with panelists miked up and the audience equipped with headsets for translation or just augmented hearing where needed, which struck me as an innovative use of space.

Almost everything was in-person, though one of the panels I went to featured a video message from President Zelenskyy, which again you’re less likely to get at a science fiction convention.

From the SF point of view, there was a particularly interesting panel on Safe and Sustainable Lunar Development, featuring the Lunar Policy Platform, which has been set up by the San Francisco-based Open Lunar Foundation. The good news is that there is lots of international law already applicable to the Moon, including a legal obligation on lunar bases to accept visitors from other lunar bases. The bad news is that there is no real way of enforcing this; and the prime real estate around the moon’s South Pole has a smaller area than the greater Paris region, so there’s less room than you might have thought.

Also of sfnal interest, Chen Qiufan, who now generally goes by Stanley Chen, author of the recent Chinese sf bestseller Waste Tide, was on a panel about the social impact of AI along with Brad Smith of Microsoft and Gabriela Ramos of UNESCO. We had a wee chat afterwards – he missed Chengdu Worldcon but was understandably keen to get my perspective on it.

Melissa Bell of CNN, Chen Qiufan and Brad Smith of Microsoft looking at Gabriela Ramos of UNESCO, while she appears on the screen behind them.

Most of the panels were on broad thematic issues and how they affect world peace, rather than specific conflicts or potential conflicts (I attended a private conference about many of those last weekend in Oslo). Perhaps as a result the discussions were fairly optimistic about the long term – with sufficient food will and energy, solutions can be reached, and many of them have already been identified. There were a couple of exceptions – Ivan Krastev was typically acerbic and thought-provoking about EU enlargement. He was one of many friends and former colleagues who I bumped into over the weekend.

Four people who used to work at the International Crisis Group, one of who then went back and now runs it.

After another panel, someone came up and asked me if I was the guy with glasses and a beard who had asked the last question. Unusually, I was not; it was the political scientist and former US government and UN official, Barnett Rubin, who is shorter, older and more American than me. I got a photo with him later to prove that we are different people.

Separated at birth? (Mine in 1967, his in 1950.)

There was a nice display area of projects seeking or already receiving support from the Paris Peace Forum and its partners. There were groups of stalls on topics such as gene editing and artificial intelligence which would not have been out of place at an sf convention; however others, such as “Fishing for Empowerment in Sierra Leone”, might be a bit further from fannish interests.

Rather than the fan-run parties of an sf convention, the Mayor of Paris invited us to the gloriously decorated City Hall for a reception on Friday night. It’s a fantastic venue, though I am sorry to say that the mayor herself spoke for a bit too long. However, the Prime Minister of Barbados then responded on behalf of the participants, a lovely emotional well-pitched speech. Her name is Mia Mottley and we will hear more of her, I expect.

Ángel Gurría of the Paris Peace Forum, Barbados PM Mia Mottley, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo

I don’t often write about work stuff here, but this was a bit out of my usual professional orbit and remarkable enough to be worth noting. And the closing ceremony had a lovely dance performance too.

Many thanks to Fabienne for the invitation.

My grandmother in Paris: Shakespeare and Company

I was recently contacted by Joshua Kotin, Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, who runs a fascinating resource: the Shakespeare and Company Project. Any of you who know Paris today probably know the current bookshop of that name, just across the river from Notre Dame. But today’s bookshop is its second incarnation; the first Shakespeare and Company, run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 to 1941, was a hub for expatriate Americans (and to a lesser extent Brits and Irish) between the wars, and most famously published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when nobody else would do so.

Shakespeare and Company was also a lending library, and Joshua Kotin and his team have been putting together as much as they can about the community who borrowed the books. There are some big names there: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Aimé Césaire, Simone de Beauvoir; there are some less well known names too, and one of them is Dorothy Hibbard, my grandmother, who lived in Paris from late 1918 until she married my grandfather in 1927 in Malaya (now Malaysia). She joined Shakespeare and Company for a month in August 1923, and renewed for a year in September 1923, September 1924, and October 1925. The address given in 1925 is 278 Boulevard Raspail, where she lived in a studio apartment from June 1924.

Frustratingly we don’t have the record of what she actually borrowed. Her own memoirs don’t name any books that she was reading, though she certainly read a lot (and her step-brother was the writer and critic Van Wyck Brooks). There is one tantalising note from late 1923, a couple of months after she joined the library, when her boyfriend of the time came to visit with his younger sister; she notes “We had some difficulty in finding a book in my library which was suitable reading for a well-brought-up French girl of sixteen!” I wonder what exactly she had borrowed from Sylvia Beach?!

The boyfriend, Loïc Petit de La Villéon, was a French naval officer whose first wife had died earlier that year, and I think his romance with my grandmother must have been a bit of a rebound for him, and as far as I can tell was her first semi-serious relationship (she was 24). He later married again and had several daughters. There is a marine scientist of the same name alive today, but it must be a great-nephew as he had no sons by either marriage.

The studio apartment at 278 Boulevard Raspail has a rather glorious history of its own. Ten years before my grandmother lived there, it was the base for Guillaume Apollinaire’s literary journal Les Soirées de Paris from 1912 to 1914, and hosted a concert by the musician and surrealist painter Alberto Savinio in May 1914. And ten years after my grandmother’s departure, it was the home of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan from 1936 to 1938. It still exists as a mix of offices and apartments. It’s close to the Catacombs which are among my favourite Paris attractions.

The oldest church in Belgium and the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe – menhirs; donkeys; forest; Wilfred Owen; Henri Matisse; August Bergin; the forum at Bavay

Anne and I had a little 24-hour excursion at the end of the long weekend just gone, mainly exploring the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe in the département du Nord of the Hauts-de-France region, a small corner of the Republic that ended up French rather than Belgian due to the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen which allowed Louis XIV to take it from the County of Hainaut. It has been rather neglected by its overlords in the 345 years since.

But before we got there, we stopped off at the Collegiate Church of St Ursmer in the small town of Lobbes near Charleroi. It is supposedly the oldest church in Belgium, and this year is celebrating the 1200th anniversary of its consecration in 823. Little is known of St Ursmer, a local boy who became bishop and is buried in the crypt (well, most of him; bits and bobs are in reliquaries). But the crisp, clean geometrical arches of the ninth-century church fabric are currently crowded with an exhibition of the iconography of the saint and how this affected the church.

The external view shows the ancient core and 19th-century spire.

St Ursmer’s major miracle was exorcising a demon from a nun, whose name has been forgotten, though artists agree that the demonic presence was expelled from her mouth.

The exhibition will stay in the church until, er, next Monday, and will then transfer to the former sacristy of the Abbey of Good Hope in Lobbes from 18 June, if you want to catch it there.

The church is only 10km from the border with France, and so we slipped across to the small French village of Sars-Poteries where various menhirs from the neighbourhood have been collected. My Celtic soul is still a bit revolted at the thought of moving the sacred monoliths from the places where their builders put them, but I suppose it is better than losing them altogether. One of them stands proud and upright in the centre of the village; the others recline in retirement nearby.

We stayed at Les Mout’ânes, a pension in the small town of Saint-Hilaire-sur-Helpe, where a luxurious double room with breakfast costs a mere € 89. Strongly recommended. They also have donkeys.

They don’t, unfortunately, do dinner for groups of less than four, so in the evening we headed down to La Petite Ferme de Lucien in Fourmies, a steakhouse in the style of an American diner except with French culinary standards. Very yummy.

On Monday morning we decided to explore the Parc naturel régional de l’Avesnois, which occupies most of the land surface of the arrondissement. This proved a little difficult; there are no real centres of tourist information, no established walks, and not a lot of information on the ground. We stopped at the arboretum in the Forest of Mormal near Locquignol where there are a couple of amusing wooden statues.

As we drove on to our next destination, we passed a sign labelled “Wilfred Owen”, and went back to investigate. Like all UKanian schoolkids, we were taught several of his gut-wrenching war poems in our English Literature classes. The house where he wrote his last letter to his mother on 31 October 1918 has been transformed into a large sculptural memorial, but sadly was not open on 1 May.

We parked there anyway and walked for twenty minutes through the woods to his grave in the nearby village of Ors; a few dozen British soldiers are buried in the municipal cemetery, including Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly a week before the war ended. The woods were alive with birdsong and the cemetery was quiet. It was a thought-provoking walk.

I should add that I had consulted many French tourism websites about things to see in the arrondissement, and not one of them mentioned Wilfred Owen’s grave. We found it completely by accident.

Our destination at that point was the Matisse museum in the former bishop’s palace at Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the town where he was born. As is often the case with such museums, most of his best known art is elsewhere – there are two other museums in France alone which have more of his work. But there is enough here to show his evolution as a painter, from the 1899 First Still Life with Orange:

…to the 1906/07 portrait of his daughter Marguerite:

…to his later experiments with cut-outs, as with the 1946 Océanie – La Mer.

Upstairs, the museum has a lot more art by modern artists – lots of Alberto Giacometti, some Miró, a Picasso, a few by Fernand Léger (who impressed me at the Kröller-Müller Museum last year); and a large collection of art by Auguste Herbin, another local boy who neither Anne nor I had previously heard of, but who completely wowed us. This is a case where almost none of his art is elsewhere and the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis has almost all of it. He started fairly representational, eg these early Chrysanthemums:

But then he went completely geometric in various media. Here’s a flat piece with the title Napoleon:

Here’s a more three-dimensional piece whose title I failed to record:

Here are two stools with Herbin covers:

And most spectacular of all, here’s a stained glass window, with the title Joy, that he designed for a local elementary school (this is an exact copy; the original is still in the school, where we later saw it from the outside).

This stunning museum charged us € 4 each as the cost of entry. I can certainly think of many occasions when I have spent five times as much to have five times less fun. It was practically empty and it was well worth the trip. (The same, sadly, could not be said for the lunch at the Restaurant du Musée Matisse across the street, where the service was slow and the food a bit disappointing.)

Finally we stopped off at Bavay for a look at the huge ancient Roman forum there; but unfortunately it was closed due to the bank holiday. We’ll have to go back.

Border poll – the precedents

There is much discussion in Northern Ireland – and in the Republic – on the conditions for a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, or become part of a united Ireland. I’ve been fairly clear in my own mind about this for a number of years. I wrote in 2014 that an Assembly election in which Nationalist parties exceed Unionist parties in either votes or seats, or two non-Assembly elections in a row where that happens, would surely be sufficient grounds for the Secretary of State to call a Border Poll.

I’m also fairly clear – and wrote about this in the Irish Times in 2019 – that for the pro-United Ireland side to win such a referendum requires three things to happen: 1) Brexit working out badly; 2) Unionists continuing to talk only to their own core voters and not to the centre ground; 3) Nationalists coming up with a better offer, especially on health services. The first two of these conditions are close to being fulfilled at present; the third, however, is also necessary and we are not there yet.

But there has been much less examination of where such votes have happened previously. Self-determination referendums and plebiscites are not exactly rare in world history. But it’s pretty unusual for the options to be restricted to a choice of which already existing state you want to be part of. Much more often, voters are choosing between independence, on the one hand, and rule by someone else, on the other. I was myself involved in the two most recent independence referendums to have succeeded, in Montenegro in 2006 and in South Sudan in 2011.

Referendums have their advantages and their flaws, and I’m not really going to go into the merits here, just present the historical detail. I’ll note that (of course) they are a pretty blunt instrument, offering little nuance or reassurance for minorities, and that not every one of these historical votes could really be described as having taken place under free and fair circumstances.

Historically I find the following internationally recognised precedents for a popular vote where the electorate were asked about future sovereignty, and independence was not one of the options. There are (arguably) twenty-one of them. In eight cases, voters chose to remain in the country they were currently ruled by. In ten cases, voters chose a change of sovereignty, though in three of those nine cases the will of the voters was not in fact implemented and they stayed where they were. And in the remaining three cases, the territory was split between the two states who wanted to rule it.

1527: Burgundy. The scholar Mats Qvortrup cites this as a very early example of a plebiscite. Under the 1526 Treaty of Madrid, Burgundy was to have been ceded by France to Spain; but King Francis I of France organised a vote of male property owners in Burgundy, who rejected the Treaty, and Burgundy remained French.

1860: Nice and Savoy. Between 1849 and 1870 there were a dozen referendums on self-determination in Italy, as states voted (usually by huge and dubious margins) to join with the new kingdom, effectively merging with Piedmont in the process known as the Risorgimento. Most of those votes do not count for present purposes, as the choice was between continued independence and Italian rule. However, there is one exception: the price for French support of the Risorgimento, under the Treaty of Turin, was the annexation of the town of Nice and province of Savoy, which had until then been under Piedmontese rule. Two referendums in 1860 ratified the transfer.

1868 and 1916, Danish West Indies; 1877, Saint-Barthelemy. A couple of interesting cases in the Caribbean, where on three occasions, islanders voted on which external power they wanted to be ruled by – the Danish West Indies choosing whether to be ruled by Denmark or the United States, and Saint-Barthelemy choosing whether to shift from Swedish to French rule. In all three cases, the referendum was in favour of change, but the US Senate rejected the annexation of the Danish West Indies in 1870, changing its mind almost half a century later; they are now the U.S. Virgin Islands.

1919-22, post-War Europe. The end of the first world war brought a number of new states into being, none of which chose to ratify their independence by referendum. However, there were a number of cases of border adjustments being made by holding a vote in the disputed territories. Only a minority of these votes resulted in a transfer of sovereignty. Two of them were frustrated, both in 1919, when the Vorarlberg province of Austria voted to join Switzerland, and the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland voted to join Sweden, but in both cases, the result was not internationally recognised and they were compelled to remain under Austrian and Finnish rule respectively.

In 1920, there were five such referendums, three of which resulted in votes to stick with the country they had previously been ruled by. So, in February 1920, the northern part of the German province of Schleswig voted to become part of Denmark – the only successful transfer of sovereignty from a single referendum. But a month later, in March 1920, central Schleswig voted to remain in Germany, and the planned vote for southern Schleswig was cancelled. Later that year, the formerly German towns of Eupen and Malmedy voted to join Belgium in a very dodgy process where there was no secret ballot; East Prussia voted to stay in Germany rather than join Poland; the southern zone of Carinthia voted to stay with Austria rather than join the new state of Yugoslavia. In 1921, the district of Sopron voted to stay in Hungary rather than join Austria.

The biggest and messiest of these referendums was the last, held in Upper Silesia in March 1921, in a situation of violence and vote-rigging from both sides. The vote was 60% for Germany and 40% for Poland; the territory in the end was divided, with both sides getting about half of the population, Germany getting more of the land and Poland more of the heavy industry. (It should be added that intimidation and violence were standard features of these referendums.)

1935, Saarland. In a hangover from the First World War, the Saar Basin Territory (now the Saarland), which had been under international rule through the League of Nations, was given a choice between the status quo, joining Germany, or joining France. The German option won more than 90% of the vote, with the status quo a very distant second. So few voters chose France that I hesitate to include it on this list. It’s a rare case of a referendum with more than two options, not that it made much difference in the end.

1947, India/Pakistan. I find only five more internationally recognised referendums in the last hundred years where voters chose between different countries, without independence being on the table. Two of them were parts of the Indian independence process in 1947, with both the North West Frontier Province and the District of Sylhet voting to join Pakistan rather than India. Sylhet was divided, with a small part of it staying in India and the rest now in Bangladesh.

1961, British Cameroons. There have been a number of referenda and plebiscites in Africa, but in almost every case independence has been one of the options on the ballot (including, as mentioned, Southern Sudan, now South Sudan, in 2011). The only exception that I have found was the former territory of the British Cameroons in 1961, in which the population were given the choice between joining the former French colony of Cameroon to the east, or Nigeria to the west. In 1959 they had already voted on whether or not to join Nigeria, and chose not, or at least not yet. In 1961, the Muslim north voted to join Nigeria, and the Christian south to join Cameroon, and that was what in the end happened.

1967 (and 2002), Gibraltar. The 1967 referendum on Gibraltar’s sovereignty clearly satisfies my criteria for inclusion on this list. It was the result of a talks process between Spain and the United Kingdom, and voters were given a choice between integration with Spain or continued British rule. They chose British rule by an overwhelming majority. In 2002 the government of Gibraltar held another referendum, but I don’t think this counts for my purposes: it was a declarative (and again overwhelming) rejection of unpublished proposals for shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain, without any positive option being on the ballot.

1973, Northern Ireland. It is almost fifty years since voters anywhere in the world were given the choice of which country to be part of, without independence being one of the options, and the last such vote was the March 1973 Border Poll in Northern Ireland. On a 59% turnout, 99% of voters supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, and only 1% voted for Irish unification. I find it interesting that 50-60,000 votes for the Union were cast by people who did not then vote for pro-Union parties in the local council and Assembly elections a few months later.

Next time, the result will certainly be closer.