Seminars CXXX: a woman in a high castle

Seminars in both London and Oxford have now restarted, and I haven’t even reached the summer term yet with the reports, but what is to be done but carry on? And, by a curious coincidence, just as the term in London opened with a paper by none other than Professor Dame Janet Nelson, or Jinty as it is well-documented she would prefer to be known, a paper moreover to which I could not go drat it, so I now find myself with one of hers in Oxford to blog.1 This was a paper before the Medieval Church and Culture Seminar on the 6th March, entitled “Putting Dhuoda in Context”.

Supposedly a illustration showing Dhuoda, wife of Marquis Bernard of Septimania

There are no contemporary illustrations of Dhuoda and when I’ve searched for later depictions, before as now, this is all that comes up, which appears to be from something like a Unicorn Tapestry; if anyone knows more about it, I would love to… The page it’s from reprints a 1930 biography of Dhuoda in French.

Dhuoda is (as many of you will know) one of the very very few female authors known to us from the early Middle Ages, and extra interesting for me as the wife of one of the first Marquises of Barcelona, the unlucky but tenacious Bernard of Septimania. We know of her largely because she wrote a handbook of advice for their eldest son William, who like his father ended up dead in a rebellion against King Charles the Bald, and of whom I have often said that it could justly be said that he should have listened to his mother.2 As Jinty said, in what was throughout an entertainingly personalised paper, she has spent much of her lifetime reflecting on this person, whom the historian Pierre Riché’s wife apparently knew as “that woman” with whom she had to share her husband, who was similarly afflicted.3 The trouble is therefore finding new things to say about her, but this is less hard than it should be because she has not often been looked at as we might look at a male noble of the period, in terms of ancestry, property, influence and so on. She does certainly have one important distinction that most of our medieval writers do not, that of being a parent (which helps us deal with silly ideas about indifference to children and so on—when your source-base is primarily generated by celibates, well, what might you expect?). But, because what we mainly know of Dhuoda is that she loved her husband and son and encouraged the latter to loyalty whereas he got into trouble despite her advice, it has been kind of assumed that she was powerless. Not so! She wrote her book at William’s coming of age, when he was leaving the fold, over a period of fourteen months, and largely it seems in Uzés, where in Bernard’s absence she was more or less acting as countess between time, or rather, writing the book in what were probably precious few idle hours. During the hours of business, however, she was running a decent chunk of the Spanish March for Bernard and fund-raising for his campaigning. Furthermore, she was on the border in several ways: Uzés would soon be shunted into the Middle Kingdom of the Franks by the Treaty of Verdun that brings me so much of my search traffic here, and she dates the book, “Christo regnante” and regem spectante”, two clauses which sing straight out of a great many of my Catalan charters to me; these are the dating clauses you use when you do not know who the king is, or, significantly, have decided he’s not legitimate.4

The high castles of Uzés (tours de duché, de l'évêque, and two others)

The high castles of Uzés, all rather later than Dhuoda but giving you an idea of how she might have surveyed the town

To see Dhuoda as anything less than a political player in a sensitive position, therefore, is to miss a major trick. This added an extra dimension for Dhuoda for me that I hadn’t previously got, though since it’s due to Jinty that I know enough to think of queens as not getting much time to sit down when the king’s away, perhaps I should have thought it this far through.5 Typically also for Jinty we got a discussion of the other family who were in the area, the wider networks of which Dhuoda was part and through whom she got and sent her news, and which sometimes, indeed, included Bernard; he was not always absent. Jinty also pointed out that they presumably met at court, and that Dhuoda was not writing advice on how to handle yourself there from a position of ignorance.

A Nîmes MS of Dhuoda's Manuelis pro filio meo

The Nîmes manuscript of Dhuoda’s Manual

Looking back at this paper, therefore, apart from the affection that Jinty brought to her subject and which the capacity crowd demonstrated for her, what stands out for me is that if all we had was the career pattern, some kind of itinerary (which in fact we don’t have) and the odd reference in other texts, except for being married to a man this career would look like a respectable one for any courtier of the period: get educated at court, marry someone you met there, wind up with an administrative position for which you’re partly qualified by your ancestry in a difficult position during a time of civil war that ultimately costs you most of your family… I mean, there are male relatives of Bernard’s about whom we cannot say as much or even demonstrate them as important.6 Just because the title of countess was not yet used by powerful women of the Midi as it would be a century later doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at one of them when we read this text, and that is important because it reminds us that powerful people of all stamps could probably also suffer loss and enjoy affection, even if only one of them for this period really cared to write about it.


1. It’s documented, for example, in Paul Fouracre & David Ganz, “Dame Jinty Nelson… An Appreciation” in eidem (edd.), Frankland: the Franks and the world of the early middle ages : essays in honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester 2008), pp. 1-6 at p. 1. It’s important to get it in early on you see!

2. The most relevant translation, though there are many, is probably Marcelle Thiebaux (ed./transl.), Dhuoda: Handbook for her warrior son, Cambridge Medieval Classics 8 (Cambridge 1998). There did also come up in questions the rather poignant reflection that one of the manuscripts of the Manuel is now in Barcelona, where indeed it has been studied by none other than Cullen Chandler, in “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 265-291, and one possible explanation for the text having been preserved there is that perhaps William did in fact listen at least to his mother’s injunction to keep the book with him, and so it wound up in a Barcelona library when he was killed there…

3. Lately accumulated in Janet L. Nelson, “Dhuoda” in Patrick Wormald & Nelson (edd.), Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world (Cambridge 2007), pp. 106-120.

4. Jinty offered the former interpretation, and the latter is not something I’d quite want to attribute to Dhuoda, but it’s certainly how one needs to read the later charters: see (with all the usual cautions) Michel Zimmermann, “La datation des documents catalans du IXe au XII siècle : un itinéraire politique” in Annales du Midi Vol. 93 (Toulouse 1981), pp. 345-375.

5. I suppose that my default reference here is Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume 2: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 387-430, but it probably ought to be Nelson, “Medieval Queenship” in Linda E. Mitchell (ed.), Women in medieval western European culture (New York City 1999), pp. 179-207.

6. Starting with Bernard’s brother, and sometime co-Marquis, Gaucelm, if you want someone to research (please…). This is not the first time that I have expressed amazement that there is so little literature on such a crucial figure of the Carolingian period, given some of the people who’ve had monographs: there is, quite simply, no focussed study of Bernard of Septimania other than Lina Malbos, “La capture de Bernard de Septimanie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 76 (Bruxelles 1970), pp. 5-13, which is, you know, not a lot. More can be added via Martin Aurell, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La Royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve d’Ascq 1998), pp. 467-480 or Josep María Salrach, El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136-137 (Barcelona 1978), vol. I, but this is somewhat of a local historiography.

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13 responses to “Seminars CXXX: a woman in a high castle

  1. As you may have expected, I do happen to know more about that first image… It is part of the rather famous “The Lady and the Unicorn” series of tapestries, dating to the late 15th century. There is a fairly decent Wikipedia entry dedicated to these tapestries, so if you want to learn more just follow the link.
    There is still a certain amount of scholarly debate going on regarding the tapestries‘ symbolic/allegorical meaning, but the one thing we may safely say about them is that they have absolutely nothing to do with Dhuoda. It looks to me as if someone on the internet simply thought „Dhuoda was a medieval woman, that tapestry is medieval and shows a woman, so that’ll do for an illustration…“ ;-)

    • Drat! I feared that something like that might be the case. Oh well: I can do no better for an illustration myself, alas… But thankyou for confirming my fears!

      • Well, I’d say the important thing is that you explained how you came across the image in the caption and expressed your doubts regarding its relevance for your subject matter instead of just putting it up without further comment and thereby implying that it *was* connected to Dhuoda (as apparently somebody else has been doing). Besides, I just love those unicorn tapestries and any excuse, no matter how faint, for using them as illustrations is good enough for me…

  2. Well Jonathan, I’ve loved this post. You have given me a marvelous read and more Spanish history to chase. I’m married to a Swedish-Spanish lady.
    Thanks for a delightful post, even though the Unicorns are out for the present…

  3. Too much to say… Dhouda’s Liber manualis to me is an example of ‘Diplomacy’, that I like to counter point with the ‘diplomacy’ exemplified in the letters of Alcuin to Felix d’Urgell.

    But It’s not only that the tragic destiny of the sons of Wilhem of Gelone has not received due attention, the whole family image has been severely distorted imo by the identification of Bernard Plantapilosa as the young son of Dhouda, an identification I cannot accept (after reading Auzias, Levillain, Donht, etc) that makes the Guillemides ancestors of Cluny.

    • I certainly agree that both sources show us diplomacy in action, in as much as Alcuin may be telling Felix all the ways he’s wrong but Felix still remains in office for fifteen years; presumably he is necessary, and I have a chapter on the way out that suggests that we have evidence of this. On the other hand, though, is Dhuoda’s text actually diplomacy, or do you mean that it shows us William’s position at court, which is a piece of diplomacy in itself? If the Manuel itself be the diplomacy, who is the audience and what's the aim, as you see it?

      • Well, Alcuin letters are an example of ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’, soft words to crunch people, rethoric at the service of violence.

        Dhuoda’s manual it’s a mother to son last will made in public, love and thruth desire under public examination, Diplomacy at his bests, imo.

        She is a noble woman and knows that his personals words have to be made public to reach his beloved son, she cannot control who the audience will be, but she’s wise and brave to not to bend to social or ideological accomodations for the heal of the soul of his son. I can only call this Diplomacy, with large letters, don’t you think?

        • I see the contrast you’re drawing, at least, yes. We could probably argue about how far she is bending to social or ideological accommodations, though; for that one would have to know how well she could foresee the outcome of Bernard’s stance towards Charles the Bald. If Dhuoda is telling William, effectively, you are in the king’s power, obey him for your own good, and leaving out her own and Bernard’s less loyal stance (“Christo regnante”…) then that’s got several levels to it, both diplomacy (leaving a connection active in the court and securing family interests by ensuring one heir should be able to inherit either way—little Bernard is with her!—) and ‘Diplomacy’ (publically advising him not get into trouble). If, on the other hand, as Matthew Innes sees it, she’s calling on the family reputation (and her family, not least) to try and stop William from doing anything stupid in support of his father, to remind him he has more loyalties than just Gellonid ones… well, then yes, ‘Diplomacy’ (or family politics at least) but not without political effects either… (For Matthew I’m thinking of “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 247-267 at pp. 249-252.)

          • Well, I wish I had access to the articles of Nelson & Innes you mention – it seems that it takes years for some publications to reach latitude 41 :( -. So, I cannot answer on that, but if you are talking about family property, I think it has to be understood in terms of the end of a dynastic pact, started probably with grandfathers Theodoric-Pipin, continued by Wilhem-Charlemagne/Louis, and drastically ended on Bernard/Dhuoda generation. But that’s mostly an speculative topic as we have very fragmentary information about-it.

            But I was not only/specially thinking about properties when talking about accomodations she refused to bend to, I was thinking about the ideological standards that she seems to refuse/ignore. We have a woman openly teaching his son about religion, and his ‘religion’ is quite different from catholic standards (no saints, no virgin mary, no pope or public ecclesial institutions, priests biblically leveled with dogs, DM in the epitaph, etc), and one has to remember that the family was accused of sorcery (Bernard being called antichrist, and Gerberga drowned in the Saone).
            So yes, she is drawing a clear distinction to William between his kin and king’s court, but imo what it make-it ‘Diplomacy’ is that it’s a mother to son public testament/last will, and that’s much more than a simple tactical advice, and give us a privileged glimpse at what it could be to be an noble unorthodox catholic in C9th Gothia.

            • I have the same sort of problem with Catalan publications coming north, as if that’s a comfort! Something may be possible, however, watch your e-mail in a few weeks once my desk clears somewhat. Matthew also discusses Dhuoda somewhat in his “Keeping it in the Family: women and aristocratic memory c. 700-1200″ in Elisabet van Houts (ed.), Medieval Memories: men, women and the past 700-1300 (London 2001), pp. 17-35 at pp. 17-23. I hadn’t considered Dhuoda’s orthodoxy at all, however, and I don’t think he does either. That’s an interesting set of questions to open!

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