Friday, November 30, 2012

A Mother's Advice

Online version of this translation
Dhuoda's Liber manualis (Manual/Handbook) is a unique work by a female author from the 9th century. Fragments of a Carolingian era manuscript exist in a library in Nîmes, and a single 17th century copy of the original exists in the Biliothèque Nationale in Paris.

The Manual teases some biographical detail, such as in the Prologue when she asserts:
I, Dhuoda, though frail in sex, living unworthily among worthy women, am nonetheless your mother, my son William. To you the words of my handbook are directed now. For, just as playing at dice seems for a time most comely and apt to the young, amid other worldly accomplishments, or again, as some women are wont to gaze in mirrors, to remove their blemishes and reveal their glowing skin, concerned to please their husbands hear and now—in the same way I want you, when you're weighed down by hosts of worldly and temporal activities, to read this little book I have sent you, often, in memory of me: don't neglect it—use it as if it were a matter of mirrors or of games of dice.*
We know (she mentions this herself) that she is in Uzés near Nîmes, and it is not uncommon for men to leave their wives in charge of their estates, but this passage suggests—even while she shows familiarity with material concerns—that she resides in an abbey or convent. Still, wherever she lives and with whatever company, she is apparently managing estates (though with some difficulty):
To help my lord and master, Bernard—so that my service in his cause, in the Marches and in many places, should not be flawed, and that he should not sever himself from you or from me, as some men are wont to do—I realize I have burdened myself with great debts. To meet his needs, I have often had to borrow large sums, not only from Christians but also from Jews. I have repaid them as far as I could, ...
She asks William that, after her death, he determine her debtors and repay anything still owed. Her husband seems to be exonerated for any "exile" she has suffered when she says (italics are mine):
But when I had resided a long time in that city, lacking your presence, at my lord's command, happy at his exploits and missing you both, ...
She also shows herself to be well educated: she quotes from or alludes to the Bible throughout, and even quotes the great scholar Alcuin when counseling William against the temptations of the flesh:
O, how short, short indeed is that moment of fornication by which future life is lost! And how great is the strength and the enduring splendor of chastity, which makes a mortal man like a fellow citizen of the angels. (Liber de virtutibus et vitiis [Book of Virtues and Vices])
It is a very personal attempt by a mother to guide her son in the ways of the world as well as a good Christian life:
Even if, more and more, you acquire books, many volumes, may it still please you to read frequently this little work of mine—may you have the strength to grasp it profitably, with the help of almighty God. [...] So it is altogether necessary for you, my son William, to show yourself, in both ventures, as one who can be of service to the world and at the same time can always, through every action, give delight to God.
How he will be able to achieve this balance—to keep his mind on God while oppressed with worldly cares—is the purpose of the Manual, and it is a better Manual than other instruction because it comes from her:
My son, you will have teachers who will give you more lessons, and more valuable ones—yet not in the same way, with the heart burning within, as I with mine, my first-born one... .
Emphasis on her special role as his mother in teaching him is mentioned throughout the work. She also asks that he pass the book along to his younger brother, recently born and taken into his father's care almost immediately. It is an amazing work, written by a woman who devoted herself to duty to her husband and to her sons, even though she spent most of her life without their presence.

*Some quotations from Women Writers of the Middle Ages by Peter Dronke.

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