Collections: A Trip Through Dhuoda of Uzès (Carolingian Values)

This week, we’re taking another trip, this time through a medieval author, in this case looking at a selection of passages from Dhuoda of Uzès, Duchess of Septimania’s Liber Manualis (“Handbook”) for her son William and discussing the model of noble relationships it presents.

Dhuoda is a fascinating figure both for the ways she is unusual in the source tradition and for the ways in which her work is quite representative and even ‘typical.’ Dhuoda is, of course, unusual in that she is a woman author in a period that gives us fairly few (although female authors in the European Middle Ages are not quite so vanishingly rare as in antiquity). And in many ways, Dhuoda’s status as a woman in elite society is not merely incidental to the text – it is something she draws attention to repeatedly, in both self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating ways.

At the same time, Dhuoda is a brilliant exemplar of so many things. She is a learned writer clearly situated within the Carolingian Renaissance who wants the reader to see her command of Latin and literature. She is an elite author openly laying out, in handbook form, a guide to the values of her class – including (our topic for today) ideals about lordship and vassalship. And Dhuoda’s Handbook is in many ways a far more ‘typical’ example of the genre – mirrors for princes – than most student’s first introduction to that genre (which is almost always Machiavelli’s The Prince, a profoundly unusual mirror).

My impression is that, though Dhuoda’s work never went away and has been known to scholars since the late 1800s, it’s really only been since the 1980s that it has become a classic of medieval studies. These days, it seems de rigueur for textbook-readers of medieval literature, a position I will argue that Dhuoda’s humble Handbook well deserves, both because it is neat in its own right, but also because it is a fixing post for a wide range of lessons about the time.

(Bibliography note: many of my details here follow Marcelle Thiebaux, Dhuoda: Handbook for Her Warrior Son, Liber Manualis (1998), which I’ll note also contains an excellent introduction for putting the work into context. I’ve used Thiebaux’s Latin text as the basis for my translation below. Unfortunately, it’s not really priced for normal mortals. Carol Neel’s translation is also good and more affordable, but doesn’t include the Latin original.)

Oh and as a reminder, if you want to support this project, there is a Patreon. Finally, if you want email updates when I post new things, click the button:


The Author: Dhuoda of Uzès was married to Bernard, Duke of Septimania (now part of the province of Occitanie, it was roughly equivalent to pre-revolution Languedoc; these days, it’s mostly covered by the departments of Gard, Herault, and Aude), as she tells us, on June 29th, 824. We don’t know her parentage or birth date, but her parents must of have been wealthy; given the date of her marriage, a birth date in the first decade of the 800s seems likely. The marriage was important enough that it was celebrated in the Carolingian capital, in the palace at Aachen. She had two sons, named William and Bernard and possibly a daughter (Ademar of Chabannes, an eleventh-century chronicler, reports the wedding of the sister of ‘William of Toulouse,’ likely Dhuoda’s son); writing in 843, Dhuoda mentions only the two sons, so the daughter may have been born in 844 or 845.

We know little else about the events of Dhuoda’s life – though it should tell us something about her values and the values of noble women of the period that these details are the ones she shares with the reader – how she defines herself, even to a familiar audience. We can suss out a few more things for the text. Dhuoda is clearly well educated. She writes in Latin and solid (if not fancy) Latin at that; medieval Latin, even from elite sources, often varies highly in terms of the quality of grammar and spelling. Unlike many sources of the period, I find that Dhuoda’s Latin gives me (trained in classical, rather than medieval Latin) few, if any, difficulties. She shows a comfort with Latin too, playing with verse and acrostic – perhaps showing off a bit for her son, maybe to make her lessons seem a bit more important and credible or perhaps just as a sign of motherly love and care.

Dhuoda is clearly quite well read (and she exhorts her son to read frequently as well). Her work is studded all over with Biblical citations, but also a range of other theological writers (Pope Gregory I, Isidore of Seville, St. Augustine, Prudentius) and even a couple of references to the writings of Pliny the Elder. It’s not always clear if Dhuoda has these works to hand, or merely quotes them from memory (the latter almost certainly in some cases where the quotation is inexact). Books were expensive and rare (although this is a period of rapid book copying by medieval standards); Dhuoda’s apparent learning and library rate as fairly impressive, especially for a lay-woman.

Alas, we know functionally nothing about her life after her writing, save for the affairs of her husband and sons.

The Work: Liber Manualis, literally “A book for the hand” (a handbook) is Dhuoda’s only known work a ‘letter’ (it clocks in at about a hundred pages) to her son William. The context here is crucial. When Dhuoda got married, the Carolingian Empire, built by Charlemagne, was still being held together by his son Louis the Pious – but not well. Louis had four sons and the Frankish custom of partible inheritance left all of them unsure of their position after his death, leading to repeated civil wars and rebellions during Louis’ reign, which he could never quite quell. Dhuoda’s husband Bernard was pulled into this morass in 831 (it rapidly became impossible not to take a side, but Bernard didn’t really try the path of neutrality either); he tended to back Louis’ second son, Peppin (and later his son, creatively named Peppin II). The continual warfare meant that Bernard was rarely at home and it’s clear from the text of the Liber Manualis that Dhuoda was doing a some of the administration (e.g. 10.4).

Via Wikipedia, a page from a manuscript of Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis. The manuscript record for the Liber Manualis hinges on three texts (I am following Thiebaux here); this is MS 12293 at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The other two are MS 569 at the Biblioteca Central in Barcelona and MS 393 at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Nîmes in (surprisingly) Nîmes.

Louis’ death in 840 triggered renewed warfare between the brothers (which would eventually result in the Treaty of Verdun (843), splitting the empire three ways). Trying to placate Louis’ youngest son, Charles the Bald, Bernard sent his eldest son, William, to offer homage to Charles, effectively making the young William (then about 14 years old) both a hostage and vassal in Charles’ court (Charles, I should note, was only three years older than William!). Meanwhile, it seems Dhuoda’s younger son, Bernard, was out with his father.

Dhuoda thus writes her advice to her eldest son in the context of an extremely volatile political situation. Bernard (the husband) would be executed by Charles in 844, just a year after her letter to William (Bernard had remained loyal to Peppin’s line against Charles, as eventually would young William). Dhuoda’s text thus rings with the anguish of a mother (any parent, really) whose family is being quite literally scattered and threatened by the outside world.

But she’s also writing within a well established genre: mirrors for princes. While many places and cultures had this genre (there are several Greek and Latin works that would seem to qualify), the European Middle Ages features an unusually robust genre of these sorts of books. Typically presented to new or young rulers, they featured advice on how to rule, often couched in either Biblical morality, historical example or both (Dhuoda is focused on the former, but many mirrors mix the two quite liberally). Dhuoda’s work sits within a veritable explosion of works during the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of literary culture under Charlemagne and especially Louis the Pious. There is a temptation to dismiss Dhuoda’s advice on how to behave at court and as both a vassal and a lord because she is a woman – this temptation is to be resisted. Dhuoda was the daughter, wife and mother of military aristocrats, and her moralizing advice fits in well with the genre as a whole. She is an exceptional author, but the values she lays out are not exceptional for her time.

Via Wikipedia (FR): Front page of the Psalter of Charles the Bald (c. 869), which shows his grandfather Charlemagne. The Latin above him reads cum sedeat karolus magno coronatus honore est Josiae similis parque Theodosio; “When he sat, Charles (Charlemagne), crowned with great honor, was just as Josiah, he was an equal to Theodosius.”

(The importance of the Carolingian Renaissance for text-preservation, by the by, is immediately relevant to anyone who has looked at almost any manuscript tradition: the absolute crushing ubiquity of Caroline minuscule, the standard writing form of the period, is just impossible to ignore (also, I love the heck out of Caroline minuscule because it is easy to both read and write – which is why it was so popular in this period; an unadorned, practical script – I love it; it’s the only medieval script I can write in with any meager proficiency). The sudden burst of book-copying tends to mean – for ancient works, at least, that if they survived to c. 830, then they probably survive to the present. Sponsored by Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, the scribes of the Carolingian period (mostly monks) rescued much of the Latin classical corpus we now have from oblivion. It is depressingly common to hear ‘hot-takes’ or pop-culture references to how the ‘medievals’ or the Church were supposedly responsible for destroying literature or ancient knowledge (this trope runs wild in Netflix’s recent Castlevania series, for instance) – the reverse is true. Without those 9th century monks, we’d probably have about as much Latin literature as we have Akkadian literature: not nothing, but far, far less. Say what you will about the medieval Church, you cannot blame the loss of the Greek or Roman tradition on them.)

I could go for ages here, but let’s get to the passage. I’ve selected passages which focus on our theme (lordship and vassalship), but Dhuoda’s own writing ranges much more widely (in particular she focuses quite a lot on religious devotion, which was a very important part of daily life in the period, but not what we’re focused on today).

The Passage

Since we’re focusing in on themes of vassalage and court behavior, we’re going to draw from Book 3 (of ten) of the Liber Manualis, since that’s the part which is focused on those topics. I have, save for one example of the type, skipped over Dhuoda’s examples; she gives numerous examples (mostly Biblical) for each point she makes.

[1.7] Now, I remind you, oh my son William, beautiful and adorable, that among your mundane concerns of this world, you take care lest you fail to acquire a great number of books…

[3.4] Hold to Charles still, whom you have as your lord, since God, as I believe, and also your father Bernard, in the beginning of your youth chose for you a flourishing strength for service [to Charles], for he descends in his lineage from great nobility on both sides of his family. Serving not just such that you are pleasing in his eyes, but also with fit insight both for body and soul; Hold a pure and certain faith to him [read: be faithful to Charles] in all practical matters.

Moreover. Consider the beautiful conduct of the servant of the patriarch Abraham, who traveled to a far country to find a wife for his master’s son. Thanks to the faith of Abraham who ordered this, and the worthy obedience of the servant, the order was accomplished and the wife secured great riches and a great blessing through her great progeny…

[I’m skipping over a number of other biblical examples Dhuoda uses to illustrate her point]

That is why, oh my son, I exhort you that you keep faith [with Charles], and hold it in body and mind, for your whole live. It will be most useful to you and your followers, as I believe, and increasingly so. Never once let yourself fall into evil reproach from insane faithlessness, nor ever let such arise, not growing in your heart such that you manifest it in infidelity to your lord in any respect at all. Those who do such are harshly and most unfavorably spoken of. But in you and your companions-at-arms [given the context, we might read the word here ‘militantibus’ as ‘retainers’ or even ‘knights’ although the latter might be a bit premature, date-wise] I do not think that will be the case; such behavior, they say, never appeared at all in your ancestors; nor does it now, not in the future, not ever.

You, therefore, my son William, you arise from their stock. To your lord, conduct yourself as I have exhorted you, such that you speak candidly, alertly, usefully, and nobly; and in all business be most useful to the royal power, with all the strength God gives you, both privately and in public be prudent. Read the sayings and lives of the holy fathers who have gone before us, and you will discover how and in what way you ought give service to your lord and give him fidelity in all things. And when you have discovered this, be eager to complete faithfully his orders. Consider also and watch closely those who serve [‘militant,’ ‘serve as a soldier’ – Dhuoda knows exactly what sort of service William ought to do] him most faithfully and assiduously, and learn from them how to serve; learned from their example, with the aid and help of god, you will be able to accomplish more easily what I have remembered to you already. Let God and your lord be to you in all things favorable and kind, a guardian, a leader, an alms-giver [almificus – normally an epithet for saints, I’d almost read this as ‘your bailer-out-in-tough-times’] and guardian, and in all of your actions may he deem to be your helper and constant defender!

[3.5] On Taking Counsel

If God should lead you such that one day you merit to be called into the counsel of magnates, examine prudently what, when and how and by what means you would be able to show forth worthy and apt advice. Act with the counsel of those who prepare actions wholesome for your body and mind…

[3.6] More on the subject. On counselors.

There are not a few who consider themselves to be sort-of advisors, who are not, thinking they are wise although they are not at all. “If I speak less, I am more” However, this is not the fail of him in who all possible utility thrives [read: God]. There are those who give good advice but who do not give it well, which is of no use to them nor lifting to anyone else. Why? Because such advice does not seek the highest and perfect [thing]. And there are many who give bad advice which doesn’t apply to the matter. There are many different ways of reacting to various matters. There were in the old days many worthy and useful and truthful people; these days are very different in many respects. What is it to us? …[3.7]…if, with the aid of the supreme creator, you reach the time I mentioned before [when he would be a key counselor], be on guard against the wicked and choose the worthy; flee from evil men, stick to pious men; do not take counsel from malevolent, or cowardly or wrathful men. Such men will gnaw at you like a woodworm, and he will never rest secured in your commands. Wrath and his accustomed envy drag him easily headlong into the abyss.

[3.10] Accommodating with both greater and lesser men.

For sure it is not necessary for me to tell you that the great men, lords and the best leaders, along with the lesser men, ought to follow the example given by their leaders. But for him who is far from me, you must continually note for yourself. However, do not doubt that lesser men can be raised up by following the examples. And I exhort you that you not fail to join them to yourself by being useful to them in both great and small matters…Although you may seem among your fellow-warriors to be the smallest in body, however you are firm in your perception; The shape of the examples of the greatest men (concerning whom you already have [instructions] written above), I beg you do not fail to observe them closely and follow [their example]. Treat the great men as sublime, the equals as higher, the just like you as if they were your superior, so that you are able to advance with them to the ranks [read: noble titles, duties, etc] of your ancestors. I beg you to rejoice in all those of your hosuehold who gain advancement as examples of submissiveness and humility.

[3.11]…Priests are to be revered, my son, because they are chosen to serve in the ministry of God…

[8.1] I urge you to read and pray zealously.

In sacred reading you will find how to pray and what you should guard against, what you should avoid and what you should seek or what you ought to observe at all times. Everything of that sort will be made plain to you…of this I entreat you, in reading and in worthy prayer, that you let your mind be a helper to you, watchful and alert, always chaste and innocent. Read and pray so that the the hearer of all may choose to hear you.

Dhuoda’s Advice

Dhuoda’s advice throughout Book 3 is clearly a single coherent whole, built around exhorting William to live up to a very specific moral code of conduct within a band of aristocratic military men. That variations on that moral standard appears in other contemporary works (for instance in Alcuin’s De virtutibus et vitiis (“On virtues and vices”) or in the judgments of Einhard’s Vita Karoli (“Life of Charlemagne”)). I should stress at the outset that this code of conduct in no way prohibited a career of military violence – as would be expected for a military aristocrat like the young William – and while Dhuoda says very little about that, the fact that William and his companions are militantes “fellow soldiers” permeates the background to this advice.

We can quickly hit the main points: Dhuoda exhorts William to keep faith with Charles, holding to the oath William made when he paid Charles homage (though we will get to, in a moment, the massive loophole that William will eventually drive an army through). She tells William, should his advice be asked, to consider it carefully and contrasts both men who have nothing useful to say, but also men who have a useful thing to say, but don’t know how to say it well. She strongly advises William to avoid wrath, but also avoid wrathful men in general. She advises him to be humble, treating his fellows above their station (while being careful to repeatedly remind William of his own station, as the son of a Duke – note her reference to his followers – even at his young age, William has a retinue of fighting men) and to revere priests as well. And – at some length – she encourages William to read, frequently and widely (and is, of course, at some pains to demonstrate her own reading).

Via Wikipedia, Charles the Bald with his court, presented as a heavenly gathering. This illumination, amusingly, shows Charles receiving the very book (the Vivian Bible, presented to him in 846) which it is in. So there’s some illumination-inception going on here.
Note how Charles’ court is imagined here (by individuals who would have been in it!), with the tonsured clerics below (you can tell them by their hair-cut; that donut is called a ‘tonsure’) and the aristocrats (the fellows wearing either trousers or armor). While there are more clerics in the image (fitting for the presentation of a bible), the composition balances both groups, with each taking up about half of the space.

In everything, Dhuoda exhorts William to act by Christian morality, setting a biblical example. I have skipped over nearly all of Dhuoda’s biblical quotations and examples in the selection above, but they are extensive – each point is typically amplified by several, often with quotations either directly from the Bible or from theological writers. Dhuoda is by no means alone in this respect. There is a tendency, I think, to dismiss this frame of thought out of hand as not being fitted to the ‘tough military men’ of a Carolingian court – as if it belonged only to ecclesiastical writers like Hincmar, Alcuin or Bede – but it rings through contemporary secular works as well, like those of Einhard or, of course, Dhuoda. Dhuoda expects William to rise each day with prayer, to read from the Bible daily, and to ground his every action in religious observance.

Carolingian Aristocratic Values

As I noted earlier, Dhuoda is valuable as a source for a wide number of reasons but the one I want to focus on is how she exemplifies a certain set of values which permeated the Carolingian aristocracy (which in turn provided the foundation for much of the continental European aristocracy – it is not an accident that the later heroic medieval chansons de geste, “songs of deeds” are almost invariably set in the Carolingian period or shortly after). Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis is, of course, not alone in this – indeed, it is the very typicality of her advice which makes her useful – but her work generally, and book 3 in particular, provides that value-set condensed into explicit, imperative forms. You might also get the same thing from learning Latin and then marinating for a few years in Alcuin, Hincmar, Einhard, Gregory of Tours, the Venerable Bede and so on, until the value-set soaked in to you like seasoning on a steak. This is just more immediate (and Dhuoda has the advantage of not being a clerical source).

In presenting that value-set, I also think Dhuoda provides a valuable corrective to current pop-cultural assumptions about the values and behavior of the medieval aristocracy (often considered with little concern for the variety created by the vastness of the period). In this pop-imagining, the nobility is cynical and machiavellian: they break faith regularly, are at best irreligious (and frequently actively anti-clerical), they often brutish, largely holding ‘book learning’ in contempt, and hold to strict realpolitik (‘power is power’).

We might call this the Game of Thrones aristocratic values (if it seems like I pick on Game of Thrones a lot here, it is because it is by far, above and away the most culturally impactful representation of the Middle Ages – albeit in fantasy form – in the last decade at least), but the same basic framework shows up in the nobility of The Witcher (novels, games and series) and dozens of lesser works; those sets of assumptions in turn seep into works that at least imagine themselves to be historical (particularly the crop of middling historically set medieval political dramas that emerged in Game of Thrones‘ wake, most of which, it seems, feature scheming, amoral, irreligious and often brutish aristocrats).

And of course it doesn’t come from nowhere – the grim turn in the presentation of the medieval nobility is itself a reaction against an older trend of presenting the European Middle Ages as a lost period of morality, a ‘clean’ past (think The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) or even to an extent the Lord of the Rings (but only if one has not read the Silmarillion)). And that vision – all chivalry and little violence (a vision which is itself a terrible misunderstanding of what chivalry was and to whom it applied) – is worth reacting against. The courts of the actual Middle Ages were not inhabited by perfect, pious Sir Galahads. These were military aristocrats; they did quite a bit of fighting, much of it very nasty. In a week or two, we’ll take a closer look at some military aristocrats writing about violence (Bertran de Born and Antarah Ibn Shaddad, to be specific); their attitude is hardly pacific.

But for now, I want to focus on the contrast between Carolingian values and the Game of Thrones aristocratic package. In no small part because, quite frankly, I find the GoT aristocratic package showing up more and more in my own students and the assumptions they make about how people in the past viewed their world: that learning was devalued, that religion was viewed cynically, and that ‘power politics’ was normal and accepted (you may sense the presence of some of the underlying assumptions of the Cult of the Badass there as well – if knights were powerful fighters, mustn’t they be badasses as well? But this is an anachronism – the medieval vision of the great fighter (e.g. Roland from the Song of Roland) has precious little to do with the modern ‘badass’ action hero)

And Dhuoda is a practical antidote to this simplistic way of viewing the medieval aristocracy.

Of course the most obvious difference is in Dhuoda’s emphasis on William keeping his vow of homage, both because such an oath was literally sacred and people in the past generally believed their own religion, but also because – as she quite clearly flags – breaking troth without justification could be well and truly dangerous in a society that functionally ran on oaths of fealty. These social dictates meant something quite important to this class.

Now of course ‘without justification’ provides the grand loophole: things change if you could plausibly claim that your lord already broke faith with you. For William, that claim would be provided in 844 when Charles had William’s father (Dhuoda’s husband) Bernard executed; such an act broke the feudal bond and replaced it with an equally strongly culturally embedded duty of vengeance. William would, along with Pippin II ambush Charles near Angouleme later that year, opening a war against Charles. But I think it is a mistake to view this as cynical calculation. Rather, William is acting neatly in accord with the code of conduct laid out by authors like Dhuoda – holding to his bond of vassalage until that tie is broken by Charles, at which point he retaliates.

Another clear difference is the value placed on counsel and learning. The GoT aristocrat often attends councils but rarely take counsel meaningfully; they bark at their subordinates, belittle their ideas and generally bully them (this isn’t restricted to Game of Thrones of course; cf. both Richard and William Wallace in Braveheart for instance). But Dhuoda stresses the need to both offer good counsel and to listen to it as well. This is by no means unique to Dhuoda – cf. Einhard on Charlemagne’s temperament in court (which in turn becomes a fixture of the chansons – the old, often wise king, patiently holding court and listening carefully to his advisors; often this figure is, as in Roland, quite literally Charlemagne). An important component of the ideal lord was one who took counsel effectively, and an ideal vassal offered it eloquently and intelligently (note that Dhuoda stresses both the content of the advice but also the quality of its delivery).

And of course that was important. The advisers to high lords and kings were themselves (along with a handful of scholars and clerics) important military men. Were a king to opt, instead of listening patiently, to berate and shame his subordinates, he might well end up with a war on his hands (as, of course, Charles eventually does when he executes Bernard; while William dies in 850, his brother (also Bernard) remains a thorn in Charles’s side until the latter’s death in 877.) And in a military system where armies were composed of a retinue-of-retinues generating consensus among the major aristocrats (the men Dhuoda calls magnati) was crucial for actually winning those conflicts.

And where the GoT aristocrat is often dismissive of ‘book learning’ of any sort (GoT, in contrast to its books, quite clearly concludes that Tyrion’s book habit is a useless waste of time and he seems to be the only member of the nobility who engages in it), Dhuoda is adamant: reading is important, as are learned men at court. I honestly wonder why the nobles of Westeros continue to maintain maesters given that they never listen to them. Contrast Dhuoda’s advice: read, and collect a lot of books, she tells William. And she is demonstrating that emphasis; Dhuoda is at pains to show off her own reading and learning throughout – one imagines as a way of building credibility with her reader (her son). That performance of education is one she expects will be understood and respected by other military aristocrats.

In this, Dhuoda is not unique, but an exemplar of her historical moment, the Carolingian Renaissance, a resurgence of literacy and interest in literary culture. Einhard goes on at some length about the education Charlemagne made sure his children had (and how Charlemagne himself, starting late in life, strove to be proficient at reading and writing, but was never more the middling). Charlemagne even went to considerable lengths to assemble scholars in his court (particularly through Alcuin of York; one of these learned men recruited by him was Einhard). That emphasis that the king and his court ought to be learned continues through the later Carolingians (Dhuoda’s contemporaries) and into the High Middle Ages (the period c. 1000 to c. 1300). Whereas the Carolingian era effectively ends in the tenth century, literacy continues to widen over the following centuries; in a sense, the Carolingian Renaissance doesn’t really end.

And finally, this was a society that – rather than being cynical about their religion – was absolutely soaked through with it. Religious thinking was not limited to Church or prayer, but suffused how these fellows thought about politics and every day life. Major political decisions were made with deference to religious concerns (demonstrated most dramatically, perhaps, in the ability of a series of Popes to humble a sequence of German emperors during the investiture controversy). Secular leaders – including the aforementioned Louis the Pious most famously – poured resources into religious observance both to demonstrate piety, but also in the very real fear for their own souls. Even ruthless monarchs were often quite religiously observant (Edward I Longshanks, – the villain of Braveheart – for instance, was a very regular church-goer).

Now, does all of this mean that medieval courts were a paradise of proper conduct? Of course not. The annals of the periods feature their share of rogues and scoundrels who are accused of defying the standards of aristocratic values in one way or another. And even within the standards, there was plenty of space for violence – conflicting obligations, situations where multiple vassals felt entitled (through inheritance or promise) to the same land or title and so on. There was no shortage of potential justifications for conflict, but those justifications are typically framed with within the aristocratic code of conduct, as a product of its conflicting obligations, rather than simple, opportunistic realpolitik.


Dhuoda is a significant source for any number of reasons. She provides a window into the concerns and values of aristocratic women in Carolingian society, into the literary culture of aristocrats more generally, and also – as I hope I’ve demonstrated here – into the values of the broader Carolingian aristocracy.

Contrary to the popular image of a boorish and brutish group, it was an aristocracy that valued literacy and learning and placed great store in a shared code of conduct (which, again, was not a peaceful code of conduct – there were rules, but those rules involved quite a lot of violence and did almost nothing to protect most commoners) and tremendous weight on religious observance. The ideal Carolingian warrior-aristocrat was literate, pious, considered and slow to anger, taking counsel from their greater vassals, fearsome on the battlefield and fearful in the Church.

And here I think it is an unusual but great misfortune that the only mirror for a prince that most folks will ever read is one of the most unusual: Machiavelli’s The Prince. Of course The Prince is a tremendously influential book, a keystone of both humanism and political realism and quite worthy of its standing. But it is so fantastically atypical (something seen in the robust reaction against it, even in its own time) that, as a sole representative of the genre, it gives a wildly misleading impression of the fundamentals of medieval rule (it is also, of course, written for an Italian context where the apparatus of rule and government was quite different).

But if you want to get a sense of what the medieval Carolingian aristocracy thought an ideal warrior-aristocrat looked like outside of battle, Dhuoda is well worth a read.

61 thoughts on “Collections: A Trip Through Dhuoda of Uzès (Carolingian Values)

  1. Interesting, thank you. I’m looking it up now.
    One point, at “…effectively making the young Charles (then about 14 years old) both a hostage and vassal in Charles’ court…” I think you mean “…effectively making the young WILLIAM (then about 14 years old) both a hostage and vassal in Charles’ court…”?

  2. Typo: “Sponsored by Charlemagne and Loius the Pious” ITYM Louis.

    “(though we will get tin, in a moment, the massive loophole that William will eventually drive an army through).” tin?

  3. Looking at the Carolingian minuscule, it reminds me of some of the scripts Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings, especially the ‘a’ and the ‘t’. (Unfortunately, I don’t have my copy at hand, so I can’t figure out where in the book it is) Tolkien, of course, would have been familiar with the minuscule, but I’m curious how familiar. Is that a script that would have been used in Anglo-Saxon documents?

    1. The lone MSS for Beowulf, the Nowell Codex, is written in a mix of what I see (though I am not a paleographer) as Caroline minuscule (the first hand) and a second hand writing in an older insular script (that insular script style itself being a key foundation for Caroline minuscule). Edit to clarify: the insular script is older than Caroline minuscule (‘insular script’ being a specific writing system), but the two hands are contemporaries of each other.

      So, yes! Probably the single most important Old English document is written in a similar/the same script.

    2. I’m just a layman with a broad nib pen but Carolingian miniscule seems to be one of the several scripts used in the various maps of Middle Earth. (I’m ignoring non-latin alphabets like the Runes on the Hobbit map)

      The scripts used are Uncial and Carolingian Miniscule.

      The map annotations use these as if they were upper and lower case, respectively.
      The uncial can be recognised by the rounded ‘M’, the distinctive form of the ‘A’ and the angular ‘N’ (as opposed to rounded ‘n’). The form of the ‘t’ is more or less the same in the two scripts.
      Using uncial for title text, the beginnings of lines/sentences, other emphasised text with carolingian for the rest is pretty common. The above excerpt from the manuscript shows this (but also uses some more roman-looking capitals). See the third line from the bottom and the start of the lines.

      To make things more legible for modern readers, Tolkien (or Tolkiens) used the final form of ‘s’ instead of the long ‘ſ’ which was used at the beginning and middle of words in those days.

      These scripts were used in the British Isles, alongside others such as Insular Script.

  4. Thank you for this. I get so irritated at the way shallow imaginings of “medieval” aristocracy are sometimes held up as “what it was really like” — when they really read more like modern capitalist images projected back into the past. Religion is meaningless, people will always grab for power and profit the first chance they get, and honor is nothing more than a lever you can use to control chumps who aren’t as smart as you are. Not to say that historical aristocrats couldn’t be rampaging bastards . . . but the *way* in which they were rampaging bastards was flavored by their faith, their ideals, and the pressure of the society around them.

    1. They can’t even see how technological differences would require changes. It is very difficult indeed to control vassals by violence if it takes you a month to learn of the revolt, and two to get your army there. And your vassal is going to administer law.

      1. Yes! This is one of the ‘recurring characters’ in my lectures: “man on horse.” As I tell my students, its important to remember all of the changes you have to make when the most advanced communications technology available is “man on horse.” It’s a bit silly – like most of my recurring characters – but it makes things stick. You get a chuckle, and they remember. And it is so crucial – so much changes without instantaneous communication.

      2. Fantasy writers often invent something that acts like a cell phone. Magic mirrors, pigeons, supernatural messengers, telepathy. I think this is going to get stronger because fewer and fewer people remember the times before cell phones.

        1. We should be so lucky —

          Often they just let the communications happen and never think to world-build a reason. Rather like never providing a light source underground but letting all the characters see just fine.

  5. A major expansion of scope, but how do the values of aristocrats vary with political environment and broader context? For instance, what would a Senator of the Middle Republic or a Classical Greek elite find agreeable and disagreeable with Dhouda’s Mirror and others like it from the Early-High Medieval Periods? How do differences in political institutions, cenatralization, social and economic complexity, and religion affect aristocratic codes and values? Do we see hints of a transition in aristocratic values in Late Antiquity?

    Obviously this is a really broad topic, and if it can’t be done in a blog comment I’d be very interested in books on aristocratic conduct both in ideals and in practice. Religion in both its major and minor details probably forms a big difference between aristocrats across time, but surely there was some continuity in behavior as well?

    1. Oh my. That is a huge expansion of scope. There are, I should note, very real differences. Roman virtus/disciplina is very much not the medieval knightly code of martial valor. And Roman honor/dignitas is not medieval honor/dignitas.

      For the Romans, I think the best entry-points to military/aristocratic values are going to be J.E. Lendon’s Soldier’s and Ghosts, Lendon’s Empire of Honor and Carlin Barton’s Honor: Fire in the Bones. Read Soldiers and Ghosts first, it’ll provide a foundation for the other two.

      For the Middle Ages, I have less ready to go. Where is Hergrim when I need him? You might start, at least, with M. Bennett, “Military Masculinity in England and Northern France c. 1050-c.1225” in Masculinity in Medieval Europe, ed. D.M. Hadley (1999), if you can get it from a library.

  6. Interesting! Making a note to check this one out whenever the university library is open again.

    In 3.7, “Such men will knew at you like a woodworm”, is “knew” correct, or is it a typo?

  7. Interesting post, as usual!

    Not to defend Game of Thrones too much, but I do note “leading to repeated civil wars and rebellions during Louis’ reign” as part of the justification of the ‘cynical’ pushback. 🙂 And I’ve noticed that the English succession between 1066 and 1688 was peaceful maybe half the time, if that; not sure if that’s typical or not, but it sure undermines “stable hereditary monarchy”. (That said, they did keep the crown in the extended family, vs. total replacements like Roman or Byzantine dynasties.)

  8. William’s subsequent career is interesting. According to Wikipedia, he fought against Charles, lost most of his lands, then seized the County of Barcelona. There he allied with Muslim lords against Charles’ partisans and was eventually killed in Barcelona by Charles’ followers after a military defeat, his mother’s book in hand. Clearly the imperative of vengeance outweighed formal allegiance and Christian piety (his brother also pursued the feud with Charles, and got lands and office back after Charles died).

    An interesting feature of the period is that the aristocracy does not seem to be tied to any particular patch of land. They move around, rise and fall, as the fortunes of their royal patrons dictate. They have areas of interest, but nothing well-defined.

    1. That’s very much how the Carolingian aristocracy worked. Rather than having compact and coherent territorial powerbases, they had landed estates scattered across different localities, regions or (after 843) kingdoms, and in other regions would hold military governorships (margrave or count) or lay abbacies/ advocacies over monasteries. Their fortunes were indeed very dependent on those of their royal patrons, and it was broadly in their interest to have strong and effective kings. But after 840, with all the dynastic civil wars and partitions of the empire,, they had a lot of choice over who their royal patrons could be, which made life extremely hard for ninth century Carolingian kings like Charles the Bald.

  9. The advice sounds pretty much like modern management advices: especially the part about also listening to “the people beneath you”.
    I had a recent training about project Management and there it was stressed that you better listen to your experts even when their paygrade is beneath yours, but that it is important to be aware that you are the head of the team. their also was some lessons on being loyal, but to also to demand and expect loyality of your boss.

  10. First of all, let me congratulate you for your blog – as a total outsider to history, I’m finding it thoroughly enjoyable and informative!

    Apologies if I’m veering off-topic, but the long parenthesis about the Carolingian Renaissance really made me think:

    The sudden burst of book-copying tends to mean – for ancient works, at least, that if they survived to c. 830, then they probably survive to the present.

    Many classical works were not lost in the Middle Ages, but possibly in Late Antiquity, then. I guess most of them were lost accidentally, but I wonder if a sizable fraction was not, i.e. someone deliberately destroyed them or deemed them not worth the effort of copying?

    Then again, I’m probably getting this idea from my pop-cultural tropes of Late Antiquity, e.g. Christian zealots in ‘Agora’ (2009) burning down those heretical works of Pagan philosophy… Is there any popular book on the topic that you could recommend?

    1. The murder of Hypatia was a thing that happened, though Agora takes so many liberties (including the library burning) as to be effectively historical fiction.

      As for the preservation of literature, I think the issue here is that most people go into the question looking for the ‘moment of destruction’ – I get asked over and over again ‘when was the library of Alexandria burned’ or ‘who destroyed it.’ But that’s beside the point (also, the library wasn’t burned – though Julius Caesar damaged it – it became obsolete as the center of wealth and power shifted away from it.). There is no grand moment, or even grand period of destruction.

      There is the painfully slow and undramatic phenomenon of not copying. Here’s the thing: classical literature was, for the most part, written on papyrus scrolls. Outside of *extremely dry* climates (read: Egypt), papyrus’ average shelf life is a few decades to perhaps a century assuming no one reads or uses it. A little worse than good modern tree-pulp paper (if you’ve ever handled a century old book – and I have – you have to be *delicate* with them). The codex – that is, a book – is introduced in the in the first century AD but really only achieves widespread use a couple centuries later. A work in a codex may last longer, because the covers of the codex can product the paper inside (scrolls were sometimes carried in cases like this, but we often see in drawings of Roman or Greek libraries from the period, the scrolls were frequently shelved un-cased).

      That means no intentional destruction is necessary in order to lose a work of literature. It just needs to not get copied for a few consecutive decades. The first few centuries after the fall of the empire in the West represent the key discontinuity here: if no one copied something from say, 500 to 700, then it was gone: every papyrus roll had probably rotted away. Book production is *expensive* – it requires both expensive paper (real expensive, I’ll explain in a second) and expensive skilled labor. It is slow and painstaking.

      So all you need is a collapse in book production for certain works to just not get copied, because you only produce so many new copies per year and they just don’t make the cut. Non-specialists often assume that certain works were intentionally excluded for religious reasons, but the irony is that when it came to copying non-religious texts, practical concerns – in particular Latin instruction – dominated everything else, which is why we tend to have quite a lot of MSS (=manuscripts) for the key ‘teaching’ authors like Virgil and Cicero.

      Two things break that sad state: the first is a change in medium. Medieval scribes are no longer copying onto papyrus (which they can’t really get anyway), but parchment. True parchment – not the fancy printer-paper that sometimes calls itself such – is ****expensive****. True parchment is actually a leather, scraped extremely thin, meaning that to make a good, you have to kill some cows (or sheep, or deer, or whatever).

      BUT! Parchment *lasts.* My God, but it lasts. I’ve handled a couple of high medieval codices – *900* year old pages. Obviously, one needs to be careful, but they were still quite legible and we could handle them with just gloves. Unless your bury it in the hard Egyptian desert, no papyrus lasts like that. Modern paper *sure* doesn’t. These things don’t last forever on a monastery book shelf, but they can last centuries.

      The second big break is the Carolingian Renaissance’s burst of book production: near enough to the modern era that many of its manuscripts could survive to the age of the printing press.

      Anyway, looking at all of this, maybe this needs to be a full post at some point (I’ll add it to the list). In the meantime, I don’t really have much bibliography to give you – I don’t do transmission or reception studies. What I’ve got on the shelf is Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1990) which has a chapter on manuscript production and preservation. Honestly, everything I know about this subject, I learned from Robert Babcock (all errors are from my bad memory, rather than his teaching); he has a new handbook out (The oxford Handbook of Latin Palaeography) which might have up-to-date bibliography for you. It’s hideously expensive, but if you have access to a university library, that might be an option.

      Sadly, I can’t do much more – I can’t really look much up, given that the libraries are all locked down.

      1. As an archeologist and historian (mostly medieval) who works now in a state archive, thank you for that very deserved praise of parchment.

        We have in my work place documents from the 10th century until just nowadays, and I am totally sure that the medieval writs will survive some hundred years longer – but not any newspaper, document or book between 1840 and 1980.

        Older paper (between late middle ages and the 18th century) has better chances, because that stuff was not cheaply made from wood but from rags. Letters of princes of the 16th century we have here can still behandled quite comfortably, without breaking.

        But parchment is king.

        Oh, and I share your enthusiasm about carolingian miniscule – specially after trying to decipher german writings from the 17th to 18th century, That ended in my case with judging that these guys deserved the Thirty years war…

      2. Any dramatization is historical fiction, but Agora is more like historical fantasy. Hypatia basically got caught up in one of Alexandria’s ubiquitous political lynchings, during a dispute between the bishop and the governor, with no particular religious element despite one of the two factions happening to center on a bishop—it could just as easily have been the governor’s faction that murdered her. Her death was the standard Alexandrian procedure for lynchings; the same steps are recorded in lots of other cases. (Edward “not even a great ape” Gibbon misinterpreted the Hellenistic Greek slang “oyster shells” for roof tiles, used in stoning, as meaning she was skinned with actual seashells.)

        So far from a scientist, she was a Neoplatonist mystic who despised the physical world. Including sexuality and her femininity—she responded to a would-be suitor by showing him bloodstained menstrual rags and telling him that was what he loved—which is inconvenient to those who would try to make her a mascot for 21st-century feminist views, just as her dabbling in divination makes her inconvenient to those who want to make her one for 18th- or 19th-century secularist “rationalism”. She was a late Roman-era Greek or Hellenized Egyptian, not the person from the modern era living in Roman-era Hellenized Egypt that things like Agora (or Gibbon) would have her be.

        1. This is quite false. First Hypatia was not a “mystic”, she belonged to the Alexandrian school (not surprisingly) which opposed the theses of Jamblicus and Proclus. In the environment of Neoplatonism she was clearly on the side of the “rationalists”: that is, those who considered philosophy above theurgy. Moreover, she wrote geometrical treatises and was more generally interested in mathematics and astronomy, so she unambiguously deserves to be called a scientist – if she is not, nobody is. The fact that she practiced divination is of no importance. All of them did it, we are not going to say that all the people of the antiquity were anti-rationalist mystics…

          Then I wonder where the assertion that she “despised the physical world” comes from. Believing in the Platonic realm of Ideas is not enough for that. As far as sexuality is concerned, it is certainly reported that she maintained a rigorous abstinence. This is probably true, even if I think it is exaggerated in order to support the trope of the virgin depositary of wisdom ( in the image of Athena).
          If she is, at times, a “feminist mascot” it is because she is an educated woman at the head of the Platonic school in Alexandria, in other words a woman in a position of power – rare at the time. This is certainly true and it is enough.

          Finally, it is wrong to say that the struggle between Cyril and Orestes had “no particular religious element” and that it was incidental that Cyril was a bishop (!). Certainly, she was not killed because she was a pagan (although this justification was put forward a posteriori) but this does not undermine the context of the conflict.

      3. “But parchment is king.”

        Then fired clay tablets are Pope and Emperor combined. :p

        Is Carolingian minuscule easier to read just because it’s ancestral to our modern lower case, or are Germanic blackletters genuinely shitty, and if so why were they used?

        To me Arabic looks like doctors’ signatures and Armenian looks as bad as blackletter, a stream of ‘mululumu’, but I’ve always assumed that’s my utter ignorance of how to read them.

        1. I can’t really speak much to non-Latin/Greek scripts. But when looking at Latin scripts, what you tend to find is a trade-off between style and readability. Caroline minuscule places the emphasis on ease of writing and readability – the letters are simple, they’re not easily mistaken for each other, and the major strokes are kept very clear. Part of this is, of course, drawn from the insular scripts that caroline minuscule derives from, but it can’t be an accident that – for a revival of literary culture – this is exactly what you’d want: an easy to write, easy to read script.

          But maybe you want something with a bit more flair – caroline minuscule is work-a-day, unadorned. The contemporary option was ‘beneventan script’ which arises in Italy. It features a lot of ligatures (combination letters, like when you see ae written to share the center stroke; & (‘et’) is the one remaining really common ligature in English), lots of sharp lines and manipulation of the hold of the pen to produce stark contrast between thin lines and thick ones (in the case of beneventan, the pen is kept pretty rigid in it’s position for most letters, which produces a sort of ‘stacked diamond’ look to some letters). Consequently, Benevantan *looks* really cool, but letters blur together – I remember the horror of looking at the word minimus in Benevantan. It’s hard to explain clearly without pictures, but the top-connector lines are very slight and the short verticals (called ‘minims’, ironically) are effectively identical, making ‘minimus’ look like it was ‘iiiiiiiiiiiis’ on the page.

          Looks cool, hard to read. The Gothic scripts, like German blackletters/fraktur, etc – they have the same trade-off. They’re full of flourishes, with lots of perfectly vertical lines (hard to write, hard to read, look really cool).

          For an era when books were very expensive luxury goods – and often highly adorned holy books to boot – you can see the appeal of a very artificial, ‘dressed up’ and fancy writing style that both looks pretty and takes a lot of time, effort and care to produce well. But of course, for the modern scholar, all we feel is the difficulty in reading the damn thing.

      4. Thank you for the detailed response! I wasn’t aware of the important differences between paper and parchment, and had been wondering why medieval monks used the latter while early modern printers used the latter.

        My university library does have a copy of Bischoff’s book (printed in paper, I presume?), so I’ll try to get it on loan once the lockdowns are lifted.

    2. Specifically about the Library of Alexandria – the myth tickles my appetite for mystery, but I read that most of the works actually survived as copies in other areas. Few books that burned down were actually unique to the library. The event was spectacular, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

      1. The event did not happen. The library was not dramatically destroyed at any point. It was damaged during Julius Caesar’s taking of the city (but by then had already been in decline for nearly a century), but we are told it was operational afterwards. Strabo went there, Claudius expanded the library.

        The thing is, it was in slow decline – starting as early as the 140s BC. By the late first century BC, it was no longer a crucial center of learning. But it persisted, continued to exist, into the third century (the last reference is in the 260s, by which point it was a properly unimportant place).

        There was no dramatic destruction, nothing spectacular.

  11. I love this post, and your blog in general. Thank you so much for writing it!

    You mention here the practice of an aristocrat being a hostage in another’s court, something that comes up often in medieval politics. But I’ve always wondered, but haven’t found a good answer, what would the hostage actually be doing with their time?

    1. Learning to be a military aristocrat, with the other boys of the household – diplomatic hostages were raised with the keeping family’s own children, usually.

    2. One thing about diplomatic hostages, what happens when the condition is violated? Is it “Sorry kid, but you dad revolted against me, so I have to hang you. Nothing personal.” Or is it just things like “tragic riding accidents”?

  12. Crusader Kings has a pretty good system for pursuing politics of power while ostensibly remaining within the boundaries of medieval ethical constraints.

    To belabor the obvious, the fact that a system of conduct is taught, endorsed and rarely publicly contradicted does not mean it was actually meaningfully binding. (Long-winded list of historical, fictional and concurrent examples removed in the interests of brevity and coherence).

    1. People do not ordinarily parse their motivations. We, from the detached stand point in the 21st century may see how ideals supported practical interests but that doesn’t mean the people in the thick of it could.

      The Crusades are a poor example as they were in fact a failed conquest. While many a knight and commoner went to the Holy land for the sake of his soul and maybe a bit of loot, very few chose to settle there. The Crusader kingdoms were always undermanned and precarious

  13. I know Dhuoda’s work from the Gies’ book on the medieval family. The emphasis is on Dhuoda’s unhappy situation, separated from her menfolk, which apparently distressed her a great deal, and probably working to hold together the family’s economic base. Titles were not yet hereditary and noble families were not yet strongly linked to a specific territory. They owned land of course but in was all over the place. Possibly Dhuoda did a lot of traveling herself between those estates. The emphasis was less on ancestral lineage and more on the present day kin group including both sides of the family with links not going much farther back than grandparents. The patronage of the Carolingian monarchs was quite important as they were the source of titles and offices. No wonder there was an emphasis on loyalty and keeping faith with one’s Lord. But that doesn’t mean aristocrats were cynical about it. Ideals can support ones practical interests yet be no less sincerely held.

    1. > Ideals can support ones practical interests yet be no less sincerely held.

      I think that is an excellent way of putting it. I may borrow that phrasing in my teaching.

  14. “The GoT aristocrat often attends councils but rarely take counsel meaningfully; they bark at their subordinates, belittle their ideas and generally bully them.”

    Perhaps this is to deliberately show that the GoT aristocrats are incompetent and lousy role models?

        1. Stalin’s underlings often went to their deaths thinking that if only Stalin knew, he would surely stop it. No underling of a GOT aristocrat would thus think.

    1. Or it’s a matter of poor adaptation. The books have scenes of various kings and high lords listening to and taking advice from their subordinates; the only examples I can think of where someone outright ignored such advice are cases of exceptional incompetence and occasions (admittedly common in King’s Landing) where the advisor is/works for a political rival.

      While I’m on the topic, the lords in the books generally don’t traffic in GoT’s antichivalrous realpolitik. There are some who come close, most notably the Lannisters; however, while the show frames them as ultimately correct in their understanding of reality (if not always in their goals), the books highlight the flaws in this line of thought and the strength that honor can provide.The latter is clearest in how willingly the Northern lords stick with the Starks, who have ruled justly and honorably for decades, if not millennia. The former, is exemplified, once again, in the Lannisters.
      Whether it’s Tyrion coldly preparing King’s Landing for a siege without worrying what the smallfolk might think, fulfilling his expectations that they would hate him, or whether it’s King Joffery and Lord Tywin being betrayed and killed by people who should have been among their closest supporters (if it wasn’t for them being assholes), the Lannisters are undone by their lack of honor. Oh, and Jaime actually tries to re-earn his honor in the later books.
      Obviously, the books also show the flaws of being “too honorable,” or at least deontologically honorable (ie, Robb marrying the first girl he slept with and breaking his promise to marry a Frey). It’s nuanced, where the show is realpolitik all the way.

      Also, while plenty of characters question whether the gods ever help people, plenty of others are overtly pious. (It’s easiest to identify when they’re POV characters like Catelyn, but with such examples it’s safe to assume that most of the characters who express piety are doing so honestly.) And even the most impious wouldn’t just blow up the religious authorities—certainly not without losing all of their supporters and any goodwill(/lack of malice) the smallfolk might have had for them.

      Yes, I’m a member of the “Distance ASoIaF from GoT as much as possible” club.

  15. “ She shows a comfort with Latin too, playing with verse and acrostic – perhaps showing off a bit for her son, maybe to make her lessons seem a bit more important and credible or perhaps just as a sign of motherly love and care.”

    I wonder, given the didactic purpose of the text, if these weren’t also something in the way of mnemonic devices? Patterned or versified language is easier to remember & has inbuilt error-detection; and we use mnemonic acronyms all the time today in fields where memory is important (eg emergency medicine).

    So if she wants her son to live by the book without having to interrupt council meetings to say “let me check the manual…”

  16. QQ: What’s a good general overview book on the Carolingian era? I just realized I know literally nothing about it…

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