Tag Archives: medieval children

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.