Liber Manualis: mother wanted perfect son & provided handbook

representing Dhuoda, Liber Manualis, and her son

Image a mother writing to her fifteen-year-old son: “I urge you to be a perfect man. … And I would show you how to become such a man with God’s help.” Her son was already in active military service. She declared to him that she would be “your mentor in all things.” Those aren’t the words of a delusional single mother from Hell. They are the words of Dhuoda.[1]

Dhuoda loved and appreciated men personally. She was intensely loyal to her husband and two sons. Since Dhuoda shouldered significant administrative burdens in the ninth-century European royal court of Louis the Pious, she undoubtedly knew well men outside of her immediate family.[2] But the burdens of public work and divisions of gender meant less to Dhuoda than her relation to her son. She confessed her weaknesses and failings to her son.[3] She nonetheless believed that she could, with God’s help, show her son how to be a perfect man. Such a man, “traversing the earth, tramples mud and clay underfoot because of his worthy merits.” Men traversing the earth could be treasures far above earthen vessels. She wanted her “noble boy” to be such a man: “I wish you to show him to me.”[4]

Dhuoda’s love for her son was deeply Trinitarian. Not actually attempting to be his mentor in all things, she demurred from explicating for him the Holy Trinity:

The Holy Trinity, then, as we read, my son, encompasses Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What I might be capable of composing for you in this portion of my little book, I neither dare, nor have the right. Read the volumes of the orthodox Fathers, and you’ll find what the Trinity is.

Dhuoda described understanding of the Holy Trinity as arising in holy Fathers’ mirror vision:

Many among them contemplated as in a mirror the figure of the Holy Trinity, before the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and they confessed and worshiped the Most High. So it is told that one of them, while seated beneath the oak of Mamre, saw three men coming down the road toward him. Gazing on them as the semblance of the highest Trinity, he speaks to the three as one, and so on. “He saw three, and worshiped one.” One in three and three in one, that is the Trinity.

Dhuoda also recognized the Trinity in threefold patterns of words. Showing confidence in her son’s capacity to perceive what she didn’t mention explicitly, Dhuoda wrote:

another among the Fathers, whose name I believe is not hidden from you, expressed himself this way in one of his poems, saying, “May God bless us, our God, may God bless us!” The first time he says ‘God,’ he means the Father. The second time he says ‘God,’ he means the Son. The third time he says ‘God,’ he means the Holy Spirit.[5]

Dhuoda didn’t understand the Trinity atomistically. Discussing the Trinity led her to writing on hope, faith, and love. She quoted the Apostle Paul, “There are three things — hope, faith, and love –and the greatest of these is love.”[6] Like the Libro de buen amor, Dhuoda’s book is generically diverse. The unity is in love.

Dhuoda didn’t believe in or impose on her son an oppressive, totalizing ideology of matriarchy. Trinitarian love is key to understanding the mysterious beginning of her text for her son:

This little book has been set up to reveal a threefold design. Read the whole work, and by the end you’ll be able to grasp it more fully. I want the three guidelines to be marked with equal emphasis in the very useful sequence of my teachings: Precepts, Form, and Handcraft. Each of these parts of the discourse pertains to us both in every way. Precepts come from me, the Form they realize is within you; Handcraft is as much from me as it is for you, composed by my hand and received in yours.[7]

Dhuoda summarized her little book of handcraft in a way that might evoke in a teenage boy tedium, misery, and chores:

this is a speech from me, giving work to you

{hoc est sermo ex me, opus in te}[8]

Elsewhere, however, Dhuoda summarized her handcraft more elaborately in a simile connecting response to the Holy Trinity to response to her work:

(As with the Trinity) just as with what you have found in this little work of my insignificance — take it, believe in it, and complete the work

{Sicut in hoc opusculo parvitatis meae inveneris, tene, crede, et opere comple}[9]

Dhuoda called her son to complete with her the work of living a life of love. Precepts, Form, Handcraft — Father, Son, Holy Spirit: these trinities express relationships of love. “Each of these parts of the discourse pertains to us both in every way.”[10] The Holy Spirit is Dhuoda’s love for her son and his love for her. It will be realized in the breath of her son reading aloud the handcraft that he received in his hands from her. The Precepts are from God for Dhuoda and her son. The work of realizing the Precepts in this world gives Dhuoda and her son the Form of the Son. If that seems mysterious, just understand that it mirrors the Holy Trinity.[11] It’s not about authority, but about love.

For Dhuoda, Godly love is inextricably associated with worldly joy. She began her text with the Trinitarian description of its design. Following that she wrote, “In the name of the Holy Trinity.” Then she wrote more clearly in a variety of ways. She wrote a simple section of longing and concern for her son. She wrote acrostic verses spelling, “Dhuoda, to her beloved son William. Read!” Far from sermonizing, she wrote heartwarming blessings for her son:

In jubilant joy, may he run a glad course,
shining with virtue and reaching the heights.
Obtaining all just things — may this be his aim
You who give without scorn, grant him good sense
Verily to know you, to believe you, to love you,
and praise you with redoubled thanks, Holy One.
Visit upon him your bounteous grace,
with peace and safety of body and mind.
In this world may he and his children flourish,
and have good things here, while not losing them there.[12]

Dhuoda complemented the profundity of her Trinitarian design with figures of simple pleasure:

The game of backgammon, among other pleasurable pursuits, is agreed to be a most congenial and apt pastime for young people. And some women will customarily peer at their own faces in the mirror so that they may cleanse away the spots of dirt and show themselves radiant and, in a worldly way, give pleasure to their husbands. In just such a way, I would like you, in spite of the pressures of your worldly occupations, to give your devoted attention — for my sake — to the reading of this little book which I have addressed to you. Give it that same degree of attention and zeal that others give to looking in the mirror or playing backgammon.[13]

That last line is better interpreted as subtly playful, rather than sarcastic. Dhuoda’s text has similarities to a mirror for princes. She almost surely was familiar with the mirror for princes genre.[14] Love can be a simple pleasure, like playing backgammon or pleasing your spouse. Whether rewriting an Ovidian love elegy or advising her son to take as “mistress” of his fleshly birth “the Greek system of numerical calculation,” Dhuoda subtly played with the popular mirror for princes genre to express love and joy.[15]

The mirror for princes genre concerns seeing yourself  in the other. That’s a common human mode of personal imposition. Dhuoda was a holy, loving mother, as well as an elite public figure in the ninth-century Frankish royal court of Charlemagne’s son. Rather than offering her son a conventional mirror for princes, she lovingly offered him a mirrored Trinity of relationships: Father, Son, Holy Spirit — Precepts, Form, Handicraft.

Dhuoda didn’t seek to circumscribe Williams’ development. She encouraged him to pursue a broad course of book learning. She urged him to cultivate friendships with young and old men. She implored, “learn all that you can from men who are great and intellectually able.” She showed William that he could learn from behavior of animals such as stags and doves.[16] Dhuoda was Williams’ mentor in all thing in the fullness of her Christian love.

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Read more:


[1] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis (Book of Handcraft), “The chapters of this book” & 6.2 (be perfect man), 7.1 (active military service), 11.1 (mentor in all things), from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) pp. 55, 185, 191, 233. Id. includes the Latin text. All subsequent quotes are from id. with minor changes reflecting my sense of better translation. Neel (1991) provides an alternate English translation. Dhuoda’s text has prompted monstrous interpretations of her:

Once “entombed,” Dhuoda continues her utterances from the vantage point of the next world, all the while perpetuating her authorial stance. … The stratagem of the epitaph seems paradoxically to energize the speaker, to reaffirm her creative vitality. The unextinguishable mother rises up out of the grave, exhuming herself to start a new chapter, for now she must instruct William on the Psalms!

Thiébaux (1998) intro., p. 34. The son to whom Dhuoda wrote was William. A early medieval scholar declared:

William could have been a highly placed and a lifelong adviser to the king if things had worked out differently. Perhaps, if William had followed the examples his mother provided on giving advice at court, things would have.

Chandler (2010), p. 271. Dhuoda was far from a guilt-tripping parent. She cannot fairly be imagined to have ever uttered a “if you had just listened to me …” reproach after her husband or child experienced painful failure. Id. doesn’t suggest that she would have uttered such a reproach.

[2] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis, 10.4, id. pp.227. In 2012 Janet Nelson presented a paper at Oxford entitled, “Putting Dhuoda in Context.”  Jonathan Jarrett reported his impression of that paper:

Looking back at this paper, therefore, apart from the affection that Jinty {Professor Dame Janet Nelson} 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. 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

Although titles like courtier or king typically haven’t been applied to women historically, women have always been intimately associated with power. One under-appreciated gender difference, however, is that men have been more likely to be killed, and their deaths have been of less social concern. A similar pattern also holds for rape.

[3] Dhuoda confessed that she was “sluggish in praising God.”  Id. 10.4, p. 225. She declared, “I, Dhuoda, slothful and negligent, fragile and always inclining toward the abyss, do not delight in prayers — not only long ones, but not even short ones.” Id. 2.2., p. 79. Regarding her instruction to William about God, she stated: “I am not able to deliver a wholly perfected discourse, nor have I the power, nor is it my responsibility.” Id. 1.4, p. 63.

[4] Id. 6.2, p. 185 (perfect man traversing the earth). Cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7. Dhuoda called her son’s attention to “him who formed you from clay.” Id. Prologue, p. 49. Dhuoda refers to Willam as “noble boy” (nobilis puer) four times. Id. 4.7, p. 145; 9.5, p. 215; 10.4, p. 227; 11.2, p. 237. “Show him {perfect man} to me.” Id. 6.2, p. 185. Isaiah 64:8 (“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; / we are the clay, and you are our potter; / we are all the work of your hand.”) excuses failings. Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis provides further handcraft to seek perfection.

[5] Id. 2.1, p. 73 (three prior quotes). The Psalm verse in contemporary numbering is Psalm 67:6-7. The Psalms are traditionally attributed to King David.

[6] Id. 2.2 p. 75.

[7] Id. Incipit textus, p. 41. I’ve used “Precepts, Form, and Handcraft” for the Latin “Norma, Forma et Manualis.” Thiébaux has “The Rule, the Form, and the Handbook.” After stating, “this little book in the form of handcraft consists of speech from me, giving work to you” (see subsequent text above), this section concludes pointing to God: “I have taken my work to its end in him who is called God.”

[8] Id. Incipit textus, p. 42, my Latin translation. Id. combines the relevant Latin into a broader clause: “this little book in the form of a handbook consists of words from me, and their actualization in you.”

[9] Id 2.1, p. 74, my Latin translation. Sicut (like / as) seems to me to be quite significant in context (see above). Thiébaux gives sicut no significance and has: “What you will have found in this little work of my insignificance — take it, believe in it, complete the task.” The translation in Neel (1991), p. 16, also gives sicut no significance.

[10] Id. Incipit textus, p. 41.

[11] Mayeski (1995), which addresses Dhuoda’s Christian understanding at length, fails to recognize Dhuoda’s original use of Trinitarian understanding:

Her book on the search for God is followed by some chapters on the Trinity and the theological virtues. Dhuoda seems greatly concerned that William’s understanding of this central Christian teaching be completely orthodox. Undoubtedly this is a reflection of the trinitarian controversies that had divided the Carolingian kingdom in the previous century, and Dhuoda’s thought contributes nothing original.

Id p. 58. Liber Manualis in modern published versions consists of 11 books. That division doesn’t imply that Dhuoda abandoned her “threefold design.” The division of Liber Manualis into 11 books is a modern textual convention.

[12] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis,verse inscription, p. 45. These verse in id. are indented as couplets. Blessing is an important component of Dhuoda’s work. A common pattern in Liber Manualis: Dhuoda offers precepts (moral rules of conduct) not of her own, but taken from scriptural texts and theologians, and then she invokes related blessings for William.

[13] Id. prologue, p. 49. Translating tabularum lusus and tabulis,  I’ve used the more specific “backgammon” rather than Thiébaux’s “game of tables” and “board game.” Cf. id. n. 23, p. 241 and p. 28.

[14] In addition to the women looking at their own faces in a mirror to see how to make themselves more beautiful for their husbands, Dhuoda refers to a mirror three other times. Immediately following the figure of the women looking at their own faces in a mirror, she writes:

You will find in this book in succinct form all that you want to know. You will also find in it a mirror, in which without a doubt you can fix your gaze upon the health of your soul.

Id. Prologue, p. 49. Another figure of mirror replaces William’s self with Dhuoda:

you have here as a memento of me this little book of moral counsels. And you can gaze upon me as an image in a mirror, by reading with mind and body and by praying to God

Id. 1.7, pp. 69. 70. The references to body and praying to God turn that figure away from visualizing a spiritual master. Dhuoda refers to Abraham “contemplating as in a mirror” the Holy Trinity in seeing three angels. Id. 2.1, p. 73. That’s not a simple typological figure. It presents Abraham as a typological interpreter avant la lettre (and before the New Testament) who is himself implicated in the mirroring. Taken together, Dhuoda’s figuring of a mirror is far from simple and conventional.

[15] Id. 7.1, p. 191, rewrites a quote from Ovid, Amores 3.11b. In Amores 3.11b, the poet’s voice laments that he is enslaved to his lover’s carnal beauty, but repelled by her lack of virtue. Dhuoda insist that William understand Ovid’s verse as meaning that spiritual and fleshly life cannot be separated: “The one cannot exist in the human race without the other.” Dhuoha’s brilliant re-writing of Ovid leads immediately into her witty figure of a mistress:

No one is ignorant of the fact that in our our first birth {in the flesh} each one of us is born in sin. You will gain an insight into this, to some extant, from the Greek system of numerical calculation, which I entreat you to learn. This is an art worthy of the most expert scholars and in all ways a mistress who will provide great illumination.

Id. 7.2, p. 191. Scholars have tended to under-appreciate Dhuoda’s joyful whimsy, while making her into much more of a contemporary over-bearing mother than her personal sophistication and deep Christian love suggest.

Dhuoda’s Handbook for William, then, presents itself as a source of consolation for a grieving mother. Through this work, she represents her influence on and her love for her absent children. … Dhuoda’s work belongs, like these, to the long-lived genre of the enchiridion or speculum, the moral handbook or mirror.

Neel (1991), introduction, pp. ix, xvii.

Her support of the patriarchy is unimpeachable; yet with all her humble protestations, she expresses a vigorous subtext of maternal authority. … Dhuoda endures as a mother’s voice from the grave, a mother’s mirrored image, her name and book in her own words.

Thiébaux (1998) pp. 3, 37.

Gender did not preclude Dhuoda’s writing for a public, nor the transmission of her work. … She wrote, in short, not only as a mother for her son (and that repeated invocation of him is itself perhaps a bit of literary legerdemain), but as a would-be giver of a second birth in the mind and spirit of other women’s sons.

Nelson (2007) pp. 119-20. Primate societies, which include human societies, have always been and still remain gynocentric. A self-absorbed, over-bearing mother is a microcosm of gynocentric society. But Dhuoda was no such a mother.

[16] Chandler (2010) makes clear that Dhuoda encouraged William to pursue a broad course of book learning. On cultivating friendships with young men and old men, Liber Manualis 3.5, p. 99; great men, id. 3.9. p. 109; stags, id. 3.10, p. 133, and doves, id. 4.1, p. 129.

[image] Composite work meant to evoke Dhuoda and her son. On left, portrait of Isabella of Portugal, from Portrait of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, 16th century, oil on panel. On right, young nobleman, first half of 16th century, Portugal, oil on panel. Images thanks to Museum of Fine Arts (Ghent, Belgium), National Museum of Ancient Art (Lisbon, Portugal), and Wikicommons. Dhuoda lived in the ninth century. To some eyes, she and her son may have little resembled the image I have constructed to evoke them.


Chandler, Cullen J. 2010. “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues.” Early Medieval Europe. 18 (3): 265-291.

Mayeski, Marie Anne. 1995. Dhuoda: ninth century mother and theologian. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

Neel, Carol, trans. 1991. Dhuoda. Handbook for William: a Carolingian woman’s counsel for her son. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2007. “Dhuoda.” Pp. 106-20 in Wormald, Patrick, and Janet L. Nelson. Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda. Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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