A Woman of Letters: Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis

Liber Manualis: Paris, BnF, ms. 12293, XI, 2, 3-12 (Creative Commons Licence)

The Liber Manualis was written in Uzes (in Septimania) by Dhuoda, wife of Duke Bernard, between 30th November 841 and 2nd February 843 (XI, 2, 2-5). The text is addressed to William, his firstborn son. The title liber manualis  is a classical expression: a small book, easy to hold in the hands. It is the Latin equivalent of the Greek Έγχειρίδιον’; chosen by St Augustine in one of his works and sometimes used by Dhuoda’s contemporaries (eg Alcuin, Enchiridion seu expositio in Psalmos paenitentiales).

The text forms part of a specific literary genre, the Specula principum, ethical and pedagogical manuals used to instruct young members of aristocracy. Dhuoda states: ‘You will find [in the manual] a mirror in which you can contemplate the salvation of your soul’ (Prologus 21-22 e I, 7, 18). The meaning of the words ‘mirror’ or ‘manual’ in the Carolingian period is sometimes ambiguous. It is an ancient literary genre, already present in Latin literature (Seneca, De Clementia, Plinius the Younger, Panegyricus Traiano), also common within Byzantine and Arabic cultures (see G. Richter, Studien zur Geschichte des älterenarabischen Fürstenspiegel, Leipzig 1932). In the fifth and sixth centuries the genre seems to persist: the Institutionem Disciplinae, attributed to Isidore of Seville, is a moral and literary guide for a young aristocrat. In Frankish Gaul, the ‘mirrors’ were usually written by clerics to give moral guidance to the laity.

The origin of Dhuoda’s text is therefore interesting: it is not written by a cleric but by an aristocrat, furthermore a woman, and this is a unique case in early medieval Latin literature. Moreover, it is an educational book written for her son; a unique object.The only possible comparison is with the Vita Desiderii, which contains three letters of exhortation that Herchenfreda writes to his young son Didier, the future bishop of Chaors. There are common elements to the ‘mirrors’ of the Carolingian period: the struggle against vice, the practice of the virtues, respect towards parents, the crown and church, prayerfulness and so on. But through her manual Dhuoda hopes to make William feel the closeness of his mother even though he has been sent by his father to Charles the Bald. This book is thus a direct testament to a son far away, from which comes deep anguish and deep maternal love: ‘My son, you will have teachers that will give you lessons […] more useful, but not […] with a burning heart as well as I, your mother, do […]’ (I, 7, 20-23).

As many historians note, early medieval texts should be analysed with caution: they often cannot be seen as direct reflections of the author’s mood because the feelings expressed are often exaggeratedly low, or follow precise stylistic dictats (see F. Cardini, Dhuoda, la madre, in ‘Medioevo al femminile’, Bari 2010, p. 42). Indeed, it has been argued that we do not know if the manual is really written by Dhuoda or whether it is based on hypothetical assumption. Furthermore, the state of mind of this woman can be translated into topological terms: one topos is, for example, the announcement and the expectation of death; another topos is the contrast between the author, forced to be distant from her beloved, and others, who instead enjoy his proximity. Also a topos is the declaration of her own ignorance and smallness. Yet the Liber Manualis is remarkable in that it contains many autobiographical references that other ‘mirrors’ do not. Furthermore, Dhuoda writes during a crucial historical moment, between the death of Louis the Pious (840) and the signing of the Treaty of Verdun (843). This historical specificity suggests that the Dhuoda did indeed write the manual.

One of the fundamental features of this manual is the insistence on the idea of ​​God’s transcendence, so that the figure of Christ is left in the background, and rarely appears (IV, 5, 16), while the Holy Spirit plays a much bigger role. The reason for this lies in Dhuoda’s concern (one she shared with contemporaries) regarding the tendency of Adoptionist Hispanics to attribute excessive significance to Christ’s human nature. Dhuoda adheres to the anti-adoptionist theory neglecting the worship of the person of Christ, and consequently also of the Virgin, which is completely ignored in the manual; this is surprising in a text written by a woman.

God’s greatness is constantly reiterated, as opposed to her own misery (which, as we said previously, can be interpreted as a stylistic element) and to the humana fragilitas to which also Gregory the Great referred (see J. Leclercq, L’amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu, Paris 1957). Man’s journey is for Dhuoda an eternal battle in which the vices are opposed to virtues contraria contrariis, as arrow against arrow (IV, 2, 9 e IV, 6.): this is a topos that make her close to her contemporaries Ambrose Autpert, Jonas of Orléans and Alcuin, and which recalls fifth century monastic literature, including Prudencio and Gregory the Great. In terms of Platonic and Christian theories, the Liber Manualis considers human life as a continual preparation for death, and thus humanity as militia hominis super terram, called to pugna spiritualis.

In order to obtain the forgiveness of sins, Dhuoda refers to a direct dialogue with God, putting the clergy into the background. This probably recalls the reading of Isidore’s Sinonimi: her spiritual nourishment comes primarily from individual prayer and the reading of holy books. Dhuoda provides her son with examples of prayer that she takes from private prayer books, very popular during the Carolingian period (see J. Leclercq, La spiritualité du Moyen Age, Paris 1960, pp. 95-114). Among these, in the last chapter, she quotes a long extract from De Psalmorum usu liber, attributed to Alcuin, a practical guide for the organisation of daily prayer.

Dhuoda describes monastic life explicitly and demonstrates knowledge of the Rule of St. Benedict, although she never mentions the name (II, 3, 1 e III, 1, 62). In addition, she is particularly fascinated by the symbolism of numbers, which is significant in the culture of the Fathers, especially Augustine and Isidore, and also within the exegetical and symbolic culture of the Carolingian period (consider for example the Admonitio generalis, the Capitulary of 789 which prescribed the teaching of the computus in all schools). Dhuoda includes a long excursus on this subject, reflecting the sacredness of certain special numbers (such as 2, 3, 7 and so on), and showing the relationship between numbers and letters in a universe based on Verbum; an example is the exegesis of Adam’s name  (IX, 2, 1-22).

Dhuoda demonstrates she has received an education worthy of her rank; the Liber Manualis is the compendium of her readings. She has had in her hands the works of several grammarians, she quotes Elio Donato, and she likes to dwell on the etymology of certain words (as manualis, fides, caro, and so on). She probably had access to glossaries which enabled her to use non-classical Greek or Latin terms. Besides grammar works, we find computation books and digital processing, a branch very popular during the Carolingian period (for example the Liber de computo written by Rabanus Maurus).

Among the poets,  Prudencio’s Liber Cathemerinon is quoted three times, even though the author is never mentioned (I, 5, 58; III, 10, 127-146; IV, 1, 28-35). Among the Fathers of the Church, Dhuoda quotes a passage of St. Augustin’s Enchiridion (VIII, 10, 5-6), but she also knows the Enarrationes in Psalmos and the De civitate Dei. She also quotes Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job, a very influential text during the Carolingian period (see R. Wasselinck, L’influence des Moralia in Job de saint Grégoire le Grand sur la théologie morale entre le VIIe et le XIIe siècle, Lille 1956), and the Regula Pastoralis, which she includes in the heading. In addition, she refers to the already mentioned Sinonimi, written by Isidore, and quotes twice from Origines (II, 2, 32; II, 3, 2).

In all probability Dhuoda did not own all these works. Quotations, often paraphrased and without any explicit references, are certainly indirect. It is more likely that Dhuoda possessed some prayer books common among the laity (for example Eccardus and Eberhard’s libraries). The last chapter of the manual, as already mentioned, is drawn entirely from De Psalmorum usu liber, attributed to Alcuin. She must have been able to consult it.

The most important source for Dhuoda is obviously the Bible. The manual contains over three hundred biblical quotations. Some books are more present than others, such as the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Letters of St. Paul, the Wisdom Books, the Book of Job, and especially the Psalter (almost all the Psalms are quoted). The Psalter had great importance in Carolingian spirituality, playing a valuable role in the education of children. Most of the time Dhuoda quotes from memory, and fits the Bible verses to the context. Often quotations are not accurate, and it becomes difficult to determine whether she has used the best-known version of the Carolingian period, the Vulgate revised by Alcuin.

Dhuoda probably spoke the Romance language, as found in the Oaths of Strasbourg (842), but she writes in Latin. Studies seldom focused on the study of Latin of this period, as they often stop at the eighth century (cf M. A. Pei, The language of the eight century, texts in Northen France, New York 1932; D Norberg, Manuel pratique de latin médiéval, Paris 1968). The Latin of the Carolingian clerics is generally correct; Dhuoda’s less so. According to Meyer, it is close to the level of Gregory of Tours, while Löfstedt is very critical about her actual knowledge of grammar (W. Meyer, Ein merowinger Rythmus, in “Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. Philologisch-Historische Klasse”,  Göttingen 1908, p. 48; B.  Löfstedt, Zu Dhuodas Liber Manualis, in “Arctos 15”, 1981, pp. 67-83). For a comprehensive analysis of Dhuoda’s language it is necessary to remember that we own three different manuscripts in relation to her work (in Paris, Nîmes and Barcelona), and the spelling differs not only between them, but also within each manuscript. Morphology and syntax are broadly consistent, while there are many phonetic changes; for example vowels where a becomes i, e becomes a, o becomes u, and so on, and in consonants, b becomes p, d becomes t, t becomes c.

There are several examples of etymological recomposition (obprobrium, obpono, adquisitio) that testify to the desire to use a refined language. Conversely, Dhuoda often confuses variations (using pauperum, capitarum, tuas capitulas), as well as genders (ordo and iugor become female), conjugations (scandantes), deponents, and active forms, with the formation of new deponents such as cognoscor and conscribar. However these are very common mistakes even before the IX century (M. Bonnet, Le Latin de Grégoire de Tours, Paris 1980, p. 441)

Regarding syntax, Dhuoda essentially follows the general movement of linguistic evolution. The confusion about the cases (the accusative rather than the genitive, or the genitive rather than the dative), and especially the use of the accusative to express oblique cases, are usual for the time, and this leads to a more frequent use of transitive verbs (Bonnet, p. 533). Dhuoda frequently uses the conjunction ut (although this practice is already widespread in the 9th century), and the present participle. Finally, there is a great freedom in the correlation of prepositions: in with the ablative, de with the accusative, ob with the ablative.

Beyond the errors, Dhouda’s Latin is good in terms of consistency and has its own sophistication. Dhuoda loves alliteration, redundancies, pleonasms, antitheses and puns. She introduces rare terms, perhaps based on Greek, unknown to the majority of people. She has a good sense of rhythm, rhyme and poetry. In conclusion, while sometimes flawed, Dhuoda’s manual reveals that she was highly literate, and her style is more personal and original than that of many of her contemporaries. Dhuoda can certainly be described as an early woman of letters.


Roberto Del Monte

translated by Luigi Tuccillo

Note: References to the text are shown in this way: the Roman numeral indicates the book, the first Arabic numeral indicates the chapter, the second Arabic numeral indicates the row.