Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dhuoda of Uzès: Writing to Save Her Life?

Dhuoda of Uzès (son William born 29 November 826)

Almost everything we know about the ninth-century Frankish noblewoman now known as Dhuoda of Uzès is recorded in the book she completes on 2 February 843. The day is specified in Dhuoda's text, the year conjectural: as she dates it, her work was "finished four days before the Nones of February, the feast of the Purification of the holy and glorious Mary, always virgin, under the favorable reign of Christ and in the hope for a God-given king." (After the death of Louis the Pious, the son of the Emperor Charlemagne, his three sons went to war with one another, a war that ended in August 843--thus Dhuoda's "hope" for an end to the question of who was to rule suggests she was finishing her book before the matter was decided.)

Detail from a late-tenth- or early-eleventh-century
fragmentary manuscript of Dhuoda's handbook
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

At first glance, the kinds of details we might want to know about Dhuoda are few: she was married to Bernard of Septimania at the imperial court of Aix-la-Chapelle in June of 824. After her marriage, she seems to have been taken to the town of Uzès, in southern France near Nîmes, where she spent the rest of her life.

Dhuoda tells us nothing at all about her parents, about her childhood, or about how she came to be married to Bernard. 

On 29 November 826 Dhuoda gave birth to her first son, William. On 22 March 841, she gave birth to a second son in Uzès. Scholars now indicate that child may have been named Bernard, but Dhuoda herself did not know his name. In writing to her older son, she says, "And when your little brother, whose name I still do not know, has received the grace of baptism in Christ, do not hesitate to teach him, to educate him, to love him, and to call him to progress from good to better."

Between the birth of her two sons, Dhuoda's husband, Bernard, who had been a close counselor of Louis the Pious, encouraged the emperor's son Pepin to rebel against his father--the civil war that followed (831-833) resulted in Bernard's loss of possessions and titles. During a subsequent revolt, this time by the emperor's son Lothair (833-834), Bernard remained loyal to Louis, and in 835 his titles and possessions were restored.

Still, Bernard's disloyalty--and suspicion that he had a sexual relationship with the emperor's wife, Judith--had resulted in more than the loss of his possessions. As one scholar notes, Bernard was "punished through his sister Gerberga"--a nun in the convent of Chalon-sur-Saône, in 832 Gerberga was accused of witchcraft, thrown into "a wine cask," and tossed into the river to drown.

Although Bernard survived, about the year 840 he removed Dhuoda's fourteen-year-old son, William, from her care and sent him as a hostage to the court of Charles the Bald, the third son of Louis the Pious, likely as a guarantee of his (Bernard's) continued good behavior. Later, after the birth of their younger son--even before he has been baptized, as we have seen--Bernard removed the infant from Dhuoda's care as well.

Isolated and now separated from her children, Dhuoda begins to write. As she tells us, she begins the composition of her "little book" on 30 November 841; or, rather, in her words, "This little book was begun in the second year after the death of Louis, the late emperor, two days before the Kalends of December, on the feast of St. Andrew, at the beginning of the holy season of the Lord's Advent."

As you can see, she also begins her book on the day after William's birthday. 

Dhuoda is quite specific about what her book is--it is, she says, a handbook, "the handbook of Dhuoda, which she sent to her son William." In this, she emphasizes the intimate, personal, nature of her work. It is the physical link that connects them, even though they are physically separated (Dhuoda is not even sure where William is): 
I wish that you eagerly take this work in your own hand and fulfill its precepts, after my hand has addressed it to you. I wish you to hold it, turn its pages and read it, so that you may fulfill it in worthy action. For this little model-book, called a handbook, is a lesson from me and a task for you.
As a woman, Dhuoda struggles with her role as author. She knows that her son has books "to read, ponder, contemplate, study, and understand," and she knows that he has, as well, "learned men" who will teach him--but she writes as his mother.

It still doesn't mean her task is easy. Many scholars have noticed the hesitations that are characteristic of the texts of medieval women writers, and Dhuoda's is no exception. The many and varied "beginnings" of her Liber manualis seem to represent, visibly, the difficulties and obstacles she faces--almost as if she needs to gather momentum, she starts with an incipit textus ("Here begins the text"), followed by an incipit liber ("here begins the book"), then an epigraph (Latin couplets with an acrostic that reads Dhuoda dilecto filio vvilhelmo salutem lege, "Dhuoda sends greetings to her beloved son William. Read."), then an incipit prologus ("Here begins the prologue"), and, finally the praefatio ("preface"). Only after all this can she "begin."

The Nîmes manuscript; a fourteenth-century
manuscript survives in Barcelona,
a seventeenth-century copy also survives
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Eleven books of advice, recommendations, cautions, instructions, information, and love follow: "Loving God," "The Mystery of the Trinity," "Social Order and Secular Success," "Moral Life," "God's Chastisement of Those He Loves," The Usefulness of the Beatitudes," "The Deaths of the Body and of the Spirit," "How to Pray and for Whom," "Interpreting Numbers," "Summary of the Work's Major Points," and "The Usefulness of Reciting the Psalms."

In the penultimate chapter, "Summary of the Work's Major Points," we again see Dhuoda's hesitations--as if she dare not sever the connection of the handbook, the only link between her and her son. This book opens with Latin verses "On the age you have attained," in which she begins, "You have now reached four times four years" (thus 29 November 842). Then there is another acrostic, each line of verse, she says, "begun with the letters of your name." Then there is a "postcript," beginning "Here the words of this little book conclude." 

Except Dhuoda can't end. She adds another section, headed "Returning to myself, I grieve." (Here too she refers simply to William's "little brother," suggesting that she still does not know the boy's name.) This section ends, "This handbook ends here. Amen. Thanks be to God." 

But then there is more. A list of members of Bernard's family. Then an epitaph, which she asks that William make sure is written on her grave--an epitaph that not only names her ("Formed of earth, in this tomb / Lies the earthly body of Dhuoda. / Great king, receive her.") but that also includes her name in an acrostic.

After all these "conclusions"--and what, really, could be more conclusive than her epitaph?--there's Book Eleven, on choosing and reading Psalms. And then one final conclusion: "Thanks be to God, the handbook for William ends here in the word of the gospel: It is consummated."

In the pages of her handbook, Dhuoda reveals her erudition--she is writing in Latin prose, composing in Latin verse (including the multiple acrostics), and demonstrating her familiarity with the Vulgate Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, including Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, her knowledge of Latin classics and Christian classics (such as the Rule of St. Benedict), and her familiarity with the work of Carolingian scholars like Alcuin. 

She conveys her knowledge of court culture and etiquette, something of her sense of diplomacy, and even hints at the reasons why Bernard has placed her in Uzès (she has been acting in Bernard's interests, and she indicates that, in order to "defend the interests" of her "lord," she has negotiated many loans, "not only from Christians but also from Jews"--she wants William to make sure all of these debts are discharged if she dies before she has completely discharged her obligations to her creditors.)

But I have to admit that I am most deeply moved by Dhuoda's emphasis on the physical connection that her writing maintains with her distant son. It is, as she frequently says, a book that travels from her hand to his. I love her repetitions of "I am your mother." William may have books and advisers, but "I am still your mother."

And, finally, I am deeply moved by Dhuoda's voice, reaching out to us over the course of the centuries. She is writing to William. She hopes William will share her book, certainly with his younger brother. But she also, it seems to me, imagines us
And as for any other who may someday read the handbook you now peruse, may he too ponder the words that follow here so that he may commend me to God's salvation as if I were buried beneath these words.
Find here, reader, the verses of my epitaph: 
† D † M † [the abbreviation for dis manibus, "into God's hands"]
Detail, with Dhuoda's "epitaph,"
Nîmes manuscript
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

 And again, one last plea: "Reader, if you are found worthy to see Christ in eternal happiness, pray for that Dhuoda who is mentioned here."

Dhuoda seems to have died not long after she completed her handbook (throughout the work she refers to her illness and declining health). I don't know that I am "worthy" in the terms that Dhuoda sets, but I do offer my prayers for her.

Dhuoda's work is available in Carol Neel's Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman's Counsel for Her Son, whose translation I have relied on here.

By the way, in case you were wondering: Bernard of Septemania rebelled again and was executed in 844. Dhuoda's son William was killed in 850, as Neel writes, "in an attempt to avenge his father." The younger son, whose name Dhuoda did not know, may be Bernard Plantevelue--if so, although he too tried to murder Charles the Bald (in 856), he was pardoned by Charles the Fat, granted the title of margrave of Aquitaine, among others, married Ermengarde of Auvergne, and had two children, William of Aquitaine, known later as William the Pious (he founded the Benedictine abbey of Cluny), and Adelinda, who married and had three children. If this is Dhuoda's son, he at least managed to live until 886 or 889. 

Update, 29 November 2021: Through the wonders of digitization, the Carolingian fragment of Dhuoda's manual (Manuscrits de la bibliothèque Carré d'art de Nîmes, formerly Ms 393) is now available through the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which authorizes its non-commercial use. The digitized manuscript was made available on 23 February 2020, so I have been able to update this post with new images and provide links so that you can view them (and the rest of this fragment of Dhuoda's text) yourself. 

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