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.)
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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).
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.
(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).
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 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).
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.