This illustration, from Henriette Guizot de Witt’s Vieilles Histoires de La Patrie (released in 1887), re-creates one of the most famous scenes from the 6th-century dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship between Queen Fredegund and her daughter, Rigunth. Fredegund is the assailant in this scene, pressing down on the lid of the chest, and Riguth is the unfortunate one caught in the ornate vise. The relationship between the two had not always been so bad—when an engagement between Rigunth and the Visigoth prince (and future king) Reccared was finalized in the year 584, Rigunth was said to have lovingly kissed her parents good-by before heading off toward the Spanish border with a large dowry. Alas, Rigunth’s father (King Chilperic) was assassinated later that year, causing the girl’s bright future to implode. Her marriage to Reccared was canceled just as she was reaching the borderlands, her dowry was stolen, and her guards and servants abandoned her in a rebellion-riddled land. The now-widowed Queen Fredegund had to send agents to whisk the despoiled princess to safety, but mother and daughter would seemingly never be a cheery family again. Assassinated loved-ones, smashed dreams, and the unstable fortune of their royal family placed both women on edge and made them moody and angry. These were dangerous qualities, especially in Queen Fredegund, as there was a ruthless and brutal side to her personality. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a contemporaneous bishop to that time, described how the relationship between Fredegund and Rigunth spiraled out of control:
“She [Rigunth] would always insult her mother to her face, and they frequently exchanged slaps and punches. ‘Why do you hate me so, daughter?’ Fredegund asked her one day. ‘You can take all of your father’s things which are still in my possession, and do what you like with them.’ She led the way into a strong-room and opened a chest which was full of jewels and precious ornaments. For a long time she kept taking out one thing after another, and handing them to her daughter, who stood beside her. Then she suddenly said: ‘I’m tired of doing this. Put your own hand in and take whatever you find.’ Rigunth was stretching her arm into the chest to take out some more things, when her mother suddenly seized the lid and slammed it down on her neck. She leant on it with all her might and the edge of the chest pressed so hard against the girl’s throat that her eyes were soon standing out of her head. One of the servant girls who was in the room screamed at the top of her voice” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.34).
Such is the scene that is playing out in the illustration above. It shows Queen Fredegund thrashing the lid of the chest against her daughter’s neck in a moment of rage. The servant girl who screamed for help can be seen in the background of the artwork, frantically calling through the opened door. Fortunately for Rigunth, servants and guards rushed into the room to pull Fredegund away from her shocked daughter. As can be expected, this peculiar incident only caused the relationship between mother and daughter to worsen.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.