Dhuoda and Her Handbook – A Mother’s Cry

In 841, Dhuoda’s world fell apart. William, the son she had nurtured and loved for fourteen years, had just left for Aachen (in today’s Germany), to live at the Frankish court. It had been a sudden decision, made by Dhuoda’s husband Bernard in order to prove his allegiance to the new king, Charles the Bald. What’s more, Bernard had taken their six-month old son from Dhuoda, allegedly for the baby’s safety. She didn’t even know his name, because he hadn’t been baptized. Later, she found out he was called Bernard after his father.

            Dhuoda’s husband had been absent for a long time. Her second pregnancy was the result of a brief visit. She was used to her role of single mother and had devoted much time to William’s education. As most noblewomen at that time, she also worked to maintain her husband’s properties and to preserve his reputation (a duty Bernard made increasingly difficult).

            A mother’s work is never done. Deprived of her children and fretful about their future, she set her mind to write a long letter to her firstborn son. This task was, in a way, to her benefit as much as to his, as it eased her anxiety and her “longing to be useful.” It turned out to be an actual book – an instruction manual in 27 chapters - written over the course of 15 months.

            Dhuoda took her task seriously. She researched her subjects and added frequent quotes – mostly from the Bible but also from several authors from her book collection (such as Augustine of Hippo, Alcuin of York, and Gregory of Tours). Moving back and forth between poetry and prose, gravity and playfulness, she included prayers, theological lessons, word games, and some medieval interpretation of numbers.

            She began with a recognition of her limitations. She was not a theologian but compared herself to a little puppy who gathers crumbs under her master’s table – in her case, gleaning thoughts from God’s Word for herself and her son.

            She then moved on to praise the majesty, greatness, and mercy of God in several pages of passionate doxology.

Trust that God is above and beneath, within and without, for he is higher, lower, deeper within and farther without. He is above, because he presides over us and rules us: he is sublime and, as the Psalmist says, “his glory is above all the heavens.” He is beneath because he supports us all. “In him we live, we move and exist.” In him we remain always. He is deeper within, because he fills us and satisfies us with good things, as it is written, “Earth will be filled with the fruit of your works” and “You fill with your blessing every living thing.” He is farther without, because with his unassailable rampart he surrounds and defends and protects us all, as it is written, “He surrounds with a rampart and places a crown like a shield.” And I, your mother, worthless though I am because of the paltriness and narrowness of my understanding – believe this about him who is God, blessed throughout the ages. Amen.[1]

            Dhuoda reassured her son she would always be there for him as long as she lived, but death is a common reality. In fact, in spite of her young age (given the common age of marriage in her times, she was probably between 30 and 35) she believed she would not live long. She might have been ill, and life expectation was low in those days. In any case, the book would remain for him as a reminder, but also as a “mirror,” reflecting her image of mother, which she believed was important.

My son, you will have learned doctors to teach you many more examples, more eminent and of greater usefulness, but they are not of equal status with me, nor do they have a heart more ardent than I, your mother, have for you, my firstborn son![2]

            Her book included instructions for William to continue his studies, respect the king, and remain chaste until marriage. She urged him to respect his father, support him in his old age, and pray that he might get along with others. Concord was, at that time, more than a cherished ideal. It made a difference between life and death. There is, in Dhuoda’s prayer, the hint that she knew her husband’s weaknesses. She doesn’t dwell, however, on this thought, exhorting William to pray for everyone, friends and enemies alike.

            She also included specific instructions on prayer (with examples to imitate) and meditation on the Psalms. She didn’t put herself as role model. In her prayers, she admitted, she was “slothful and negligent, fragile and always inclining toward the abyss.” Her trust, however, was not in their length, quality, or quantity, but “in Him who grants to His faithful permission to seek Him.”[3]

            The pages ring with earnest for her son’s soul, from her opening chapter, where she pleads her “beautiful and lovable son” to learn about God and “implore him, cherish, and love him,” to the last few pages, where she utters her final wish, “Farewell, noble boy. Flourish ever in Christ.”[4]

            Sadly, William died seven years after receiving this book, killed by Charles the Bald, who had also ordered the execution of Bernard senior. In spite of Dhuoda’s sacrifice in giving up her son, neither Bernard nor William had been able to prove enough loyalty to Charles to preserve their lives. We can only hope William committed his soul to the Christ his mother loved, recognizing him as his true “guardian, captain, comrade, home, way, truth, and life.”[5] Dhuoda knew this is ultimately all that counts.


[1] Dhuoda, Handbook for Her Warrior Son, Liber Manualis, edited and translated by Marcelle Thièbaux, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 79

[4] Ibid, 238-239.

[5] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr