Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Carolingian Mother

Bernard of Septimania, whose fate interweaves the recent posts on Carolingian civil wars, married Dhuoda on 24 June 824. She bore him two sons: William on 29 November 826, and Bernard II on 22 March 841. Although she traveled with her husband for a few years, she spent most of the years between births in Uzés in what is now southern France. What little we know about her comes from details in the Liber Manualis (Book of instruction) which she wrote for her elder son. There are, however, assumptions we can make that are fairly safe and will serve to flesh out her background.

Liber Manualis, MS at Nîmes [source]
For one thing, it is likely that she came from a noble family, and that she and Bernard met through court connections. It was probably not simply a marriage of political convenience, since he not only bothered to have her with him for at least a few years, but also trusted her to run his estates from Uzés near Nîmes and visited her when he could—certainly in summer of 840, around the time of the death of Emperor Louis the Pious, just before Bernard ran off and got involved (disastrously for him) in the chaos fomented by Louis' remaining sons.

She would have seen her elder son very little, and her second son was taken from her by her husband before he was baptized or named. This separation, and concern for the shifting politics and her husband's risky involvement, may be what prompted her to write to William, to help him to steer clear of personal and professional dangers. She gives him practical advice for living, not just spiritual advice for the care of his soul.

We also know that Dhuoda learned Latin. This is not unusual, especially considering the emphasis Charlemagne put on education for all children. True, her Latin is far from polished, but she clearly knows the Bible as well as secular authors, and she manages to come across with both humor and gravity in 73 chapters. Her writing provides a unique glimpse into attitudes toward family structures. Unlike the Mirrors for Princes, her manual is highly specific: it focuses on her as a wife and mother caring and advising her son and only her son; she never suggests that this is a general purpose guide for anyone else. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "it is a treatise on Christian virtues, revealing the author's remarkable qualities of heart and mind, her intense affection for her sons and her husband."

Her position as his mother makes her uniquely suited to instruct him. As she says in the opening (I have added the italics):

You will be able to discover fully what rules you must fulfill for my sake. My son, you will have teachers who instruct you in many more useful lessons than I do but they do not have equal status with me or have hearts burning in their breasts as I, your mother, do, my firstborn child.
She tells us in the Liber that it was started 30 November 841 and finished 2 February 843. She speaks of herself as being weak and near death, and the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that her death, probably shortly after completing the manuscript, spared her the news of her husband's execution by Charles the Bald in 844.

Tomorrow we shall look at some of her advice from the Liber.

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