A Medieval Mother Tries Distance Learning


Arts & Culture

Details of a miniature from the Moral Proverbs, France (Paris), c. 1410.

Imagine you’re a mother, living in the ninth century, and your son is handed over to your husband’s political rival for “safe keeping.” You are miles away. There are no emails. You are living in what was once Charlemagne’s great empire, now being contested by his heirs. Even though you’re an aristocrat, you’re isolated. You do want to make sure your boy is growing up good, strong, devout, and, most importantly, respectful to his royal captors, who are punishing your husband for his disloyalty. You’re afraid for your son, body and soul. Also, you want him to remember you.

And as aristocrat, you have certain privileges most other women (peasants, really) of your time do not. Having survived the rigors of childbirth, you’ll likely live longer. Your clothes are finer, your diet heartier. In some cases, you wield political power behind the scenes and, when your husband is away at war, you are the face of the operation; all are answerable to you. (If you had been a queen consort, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would have ruled an empire.) You have some education. You can read, but perhaps you never learned to write, which meant at the time that you weren’t truly literate. Literacy is for clerks, but you have access to those.

Your son, William, is fifteen. His younger brother—your other son—was a baby when he, too, was taken away. You don’t know him. William is older and might listen, even from a distance. What do you write to him?

Before we go any further, there is something you should keep in mind. All medieval literature is derivative. That’s not to knock medieval literature. Not in the least. Originality is overrated. We fetishize it, but mainly because we can’t admit it doesn’t really exist. In the Middle Ages, they weren’t only not trying to be original, but originality was highly suspect. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you emulated the ancients. Aristotle for philosophy, Augustine for self-flagellating autobiography. When medieval writers committed their ideas to parchment, there were tried-and-true models they could follow. Didn’t matter what it was. Poetry or Biblical commentary or chronicles or rental accounts … and the rule certainly applied to advice literature.

That is what the duchess, Dhuoda of Uzés, decided to gift her son. The Liber Manualis is a handbook of her wisdom, one that he should read, internalize, and apply to his own young life to navigate the complicated feudal politics of the age. Though there are other such books in this genre, Dhuoda’s stands out. First of all, it’s rare that we have a book composed by a woman in this period. I’m a medieval historian, and speaking for the weirdos in my tribe, we cherish anything of this nature we can get. Second, its abundance (some might say overabundance) of maternal touches gives us a window into Dhuoda’s turbulent, emotional existence. Despite her relatively privileged life, things weren’t easy for her. We empathize with her, even though she seems a bit smothering. Though I’m Jewish and Dhuoda was devoutly Catholic, her advice sounds, on the whole, like it came straight out of my mother’s mouth. Or my aunt’s. If they lived in a castle and had nowhere to go.

We get a picture of Dhouda’s daily life in some small details she reveals. It’s clear that she’s lonely in Uzés, without her family. Her only companion is a female attendant. Her feeling of isolation was probably lessened, somewhat, by having a library—she talks to her son about looking through books and trying to find the right words to write. When the pandemic hit, I was reminded not only of Dhuoda’s isolation, but of her handbook, divided in eleven parts. It served as a kind of medieval lesson plan for distance learning. It’s not completely a one-to-one comparison—most parents now are at home with their children, rather than away from them—but her story hits so many familiar beats: learning outside classrooms, general gloom and doom, and, occasionally, glimmers of hope.

What got Dhouda into this pickle? In two words: the husband. He made bad (or, rather, unlucky) choices. But she doesn’t badmouth him to William. She’s careful, diplomatic. There’s frustration, but it simmers underneath. In this sense, ninth-century gender politics are still with us in 2020. In the end, she stands by her man.

Instead of Zoom, teachers in the Middle Ages had a feather off a bird and a sheet of parchment, and when the lesson came, it plopped down in front of you as a hundred-and-twenty-page Latin manuscript. And just what was a medieval mother’s education curriculum for her son?

Well, first and foremost, there’s lots of advice about loving God, praying to God, loving priests, praying with priests, loving your dad, praying for dad, and so on. That part’s nobody’s favorite. There are sections of her book that are laughably impossible for any son to follow, no matter how saintly he might have been (and William was certainly no saint): “I urge you to be a perfect man.” There is very practical advice for William’s tricky political situation, in which the young man (under pressure) had to swear fidelity to the future king Charles the Bald: “Accommodate yourself to greater and lesser men,” she counsels. “You are far from me, and so must continually take note of that yourself.” It’s when she goes off script, and gets less formal and more personal, that things start to get interesting.

She says to him if fornication “should tickle [his] heart” that he should fight it with chastity—after all, he will be irresistible to “harlot women.” And he will have to, she yells, “fend them off!” Reading this section from our perch in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to note how it is different from the advice given to young men today, where the focus on sexual abstinence is more imposed upon girls than boys. Dhuoda’s lesson also involved the medieval version of warning against “boys will be boys.” She told William that it wasn’t only bad women, but also his “lascivious companions” that could lead him astray. Dhuoda’s ideal was that William either keep his “body in a virgin state” or his chastity within the “bond of the marriage bed.” Though she must have known how difficult it would be for William to comply. To that end, she could only counsel, “Courage!”

Because this was a world without modern medicine, Dhuoda also had some choice advice for what William should do if he were to get sick (in short: pray). Dhuoda herself seemed to be frequently sick. And she, like so many of us in this quarantined world, was deep in debt. At the end of her little book, she tells William that she’s borrowed a lot of money, “not only from Christians but also from Jews.” (This was a world without banks.) If she should die, she asks that he should see that her debts are paid off like the good son she hopes he’ll be.

William did nothing of the sort. He eschewed all her good advice on being a good vassal to his lord and got himself killed during a rebellion against Charles seven years after receiving her book. So Dhuoda’s curriculum didn’t help William much, in the end. But maybe it helped me understand, here in 2020, with schools shuttered for the fall semester, that advice given at a great distance can only ever go so far.


Esther Liberman Cuenca is assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria. She has published in Urban History, EuropeNow, and Studies in Medievalism.