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.