Dr. Karen Palmer
Dhuoda’s parentage is unknown, but her education and her connections indicate that her family was wealthy. She married Bernard, Duke of Septimania, at Aachen on 24 June 824, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Another source specifies the date of the 29th of June, 824. Bernard was the son of William of Gellone, Charlemagne’s cousin, who was later named the patron saint of knights.
Their first son, William of Septimania, was born on the 29th of November, 826, and the second, Bernard Plantapilosa, on the 22nd of March, 841. In the interim, the couple probably lived apart most of the time: she in Uzes in the Rhone Valley of Southern France, and he at court in Aachen. Dhuoda herself mentions very little of him during this time. According to Dhuoda, she spent this time struggling to maintain her husband’s authority in their land and on the border of Francia. She fulfilled the administrative and military responsibilities of Frankish Septimania of Louis the Pious’ behalf. One scholar has suggested that a daughter was born in 844, as one chronicler reports the marriage of William’s sister.
What little we know of her life comes from her book, the Liber Manualis, or Manual, which Dhuoda wrote for her elder son, William, between 841 and 843. It is known to have been sent to William in 843. It was a work written when Dhuoda had been separated from both her husband and her two sons, the victim of the conflicting ambitions of Charlemagne’s descendants. William had been sent as a hostage to the court of Charles the Bald in order to secure the loyalty of his father; Bernard was taken from her before his baptism and was sent to Aquitaine in order to keep him safe.
- Listen to an audio summary of Dhuoda’s life.
The context of France at the time
Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, died in 840. His three sons (Lothair, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald) fought over the partition of the empire. Eventually they divided Europe at the Treaty of Verdun. Louis would hold onto authority over the eastern Franks, Charles established himself in the west, and Lothar received territory that cut north to south from the Low Countries to Italy.
Dhuoda wrote that the Carolingian house’s enmity had started over ten years before when the emperor’s sons started to rebel against their father’s authority. The struggle for power embroiled the nobility with the heirs, including her husband, who held a great amount of power as the ruler of Septimania. Because of this power, Dhuoda and Bernard’s son, William, was held hostage at the court of Charles the Bald, while their other son Bernard lived with his father in Aquitaine.
Eventually politics caught up with her family. Her husband, Bernard, was condemned for rebellion and executed in 844. Of her sons, William was killed in 850, Bernard in 885.
Dhuoda’s work is the only one written by a woman to survive from the Carolingian period. Her work is important in that it offers insight into the education of women, the raising of children, the order of society, the importance of fathers, and how Christianity impacted the lives of the Frankish nobility.
Here’s a video from Khan Academy describing the lives of Frankish women in the Carolingian Dynasty:
Pierre Riché, the 1975 French translator of Dhuoda’s work, said that Dhuoda’s intellectual background was representative of the education that was offered to women during the reign of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious.
Dhuoda stresses often the importance of obeying fathers, even above kings. The Frankish society was extremely patriarchal. She says: “Now I must do my best to guide you in how you should fear, love, and be faithful to your lord and father, Bernard, in all things, both when you are with him and when you are apart from him.” (Book 3)
Dhuoda often references works by thinkers including Alcuin of York, Gregory of Tours, and Augustine of Hippo, among many others.
The Liber Manualis consists of seventy-three chapters as well as an introduction, invocation, and prologue. The book is full of practical moral directives aimed to help guide her sons through life. It is an invaluable document both for the general history of the Frankish era, but also for the history of education and the standards of education which could be attained by women even within the prescriptive bounds of early medieval society. It contains numerous quotations from and allusions to the Bible, and some references to secular writers, though some of the references are incorrect and the Latin is not overly polished.
Dhuoda wrote the Liber Manualis for her son William, whom she entreated to share the work with his younger brother when he became older. It is intended to be a moral compass and a guide to how a young Christian man should behave at the time.
The Liber Manualis was divided by the 1975 editor into the following books:
- Prologue – the author and her reasons for writing
- Book 1 – loving God
- Book 2 – the mystery of Trinity
- Book 3 – social order and secular success
- Book 4 – moral life
- Book 5 – God’s chastisement of those he loves
- Book 6 – the usefulness of the beatitudes
- Book 7 – the deaths of the body and of the spirit
- Book 8 – how to pray and for whom
- Book 9 – interpreting numbers
- Book 10 – summary of the work’s major points, more on the author
- Book 11 – the usefulness of reciting the Psalms
The work is known from a manuscript of the seventeenth century in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and from fragments of a manuscript of the Carolingian epoch, found in the library of Nîmes.
Quotations from the Manual
- You will find in it [the handbook] a mirror in which you can without hesitation contemplate the health of your soul, so that you may be pleasing not only in this world, but to him who formed you out of dust. (Prologue)
- Among the human race, to attain perfection requires the application of great and constant effort. We must apply to various evils the remedies that are their antidotes. (Book 4)
- We know that poverty and want are found not only among the least of men but also frequently, for many reasons, among the great, So it is that a rich man too may be in need. Why? Because his soul is wretchedly needy. And then there is the poor man who gathers riches with great ease. Or the rich man who envies the poor man, or the poor man who wishes to become rich, just as an unlettered man wishing to become learned may desire this completely but never accomplish it. (Book 4)
- Pray for the past, if you have been neglectful, that you may finally forget this; for present evils, that you may always escape them; for the future, that you may beware those evils and that they not continue to pursue you there. (Book 8)
- Because the recitation of the Psalms has such and so many powers, my son William, I urge and direct that you recite them constantly, for yourself, for your father, for all the living, for those persons who have stood lovingly by you, for all the faithful who are dead, and for those whose commemoration is written down here or who you command be added. And do not hesitate to recite the Psalms that you choose for the remedy of my soul, so that when my last day and the end of my life come for me, I may be found worthy to be raised up to heaven on the right with those good folk whose actions have been worthy, not on the left with the impious. Return frequently to this little book. Farewell, noble boy, and always be strong in Christ. (Book 11)
- Dhuoda from Wikimedia Commons