Carolingian Lay Literacy

25 Jul

My extremely busy 2-month work period ended with the close of a conference Thursday. Saturday morning I had the urge to post something – but there’s nothing medieval floating around in my brain. It’s full of 1st century BC stuff and I didn’t want to put anything up about Cicero stretching his neck out to be executed or Antony and Octavius either at war or peace, or even what Cleopatra may have looked like. Fortunately, Early Medieval Europe (EME) came to the rescue. 1

The new issue is out and it has some good stuff. So good that I did something I rarely do and printed off two articles to read more closely, one by Cullen Chandler and another by Jonathan Jarrett. Usually I just save the PDF’s and read them on my screen. This had an added, unexpected benefit. I couldn’t find my stapler (it was on the dining room table) and started digging through my desk – and found a “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Desk Calendar 1999.” THAT was a bonus – Heidi Klum has looked very good for a long time. Also, there was a review of Patrick Wormald’s and Janet Nelson’s (eds) Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2008). As always, I looked at the title wistfully, then decided to check the price. Sure enough – it’s still over $90, which is why the only thing I look at is the title – except Cambridge is releasing a paperback edition in September. Score!

First weekend without having to go in to work in a month, some fresh (well, maybe not so fresh) eye-candy, an unexpectedly affordable edition of a book I really want and some good articles so I can start to re-medievalize my brain – yesterday was a good day.

I’m gonna save Jonathan’s discussion of the Carolingian apriso for another day and start with “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues” by Cullen J. Chandler. 2

Those of you with any background or interest in the Carolingians will know of Dhuoda’s Liber manualis, commonly known as the “Handbook for William.” I’ll refer to it as the Handbook from this point forward. 3

For those who aren’t, here’s a very brief summary, complete with links to Wikipedia articles (please don’t hurt me!). William was the son of Bernard of Septimania and Dhuoda. Bernard was pretty high up on the Carolingian food chain. He was Count of Septimania and also named Duke of Barcelona. Both of these were pretty important, often contested Carolingian possessions, so having someone reliable in this position was important.

Map of Septimania, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Unfortunately, Bernard was only reliable until Louis the Pious died in 840. After that, for various reasons he chose the wrong side in the ensuing civil wars and was executed by Charles the Bald in 844. While this was going on, William had been consigned to Charles’ court. While he was there, Dhuoda sent him her Handbook.

We know little about Dhuoda other than that she very likely came from a wealthy family and was well educated. The Handbook is primarily a moral guide where Dhuoda describes to William how to live his life from a moral perspective. It’s also written in a fairly melancholy tone – reading it, you get the sense that Dhuoda isn’t a happy camper, whether it was because Bernard’s position was insecure, because he was sleeping around, because she didn’t see him much, or because William was stuck in the court of a somewhat hostile, powerful man. Or maybe she was just an anti-jovial person.

Apparently, the Handbook didn’t take – or if it did, the result couldn’t have been what she wanted. After his father’s execution William rebelled and, after some initial successes, was defeated and executed at the age of 23.

The Handbook is fascinating – a lengthy, well-written book indicating lay literacy – and female lay literacy. It hints at a role for Carolingian women of serving as the voice of morals and values. And it certainly tells us that noble Carolingian women could read and write quite well. But that’s not what Chandler’s article is about (not exactly) and not what I want to discuss.

The most complete edition of the Handbook was found in the manuscript Barcelona BC 569. This is simple enough. However medieval manuscripts frequently don’t contain just one text – they are often a collection. This particular collection included seven. Chandler included a very helpful table on page 273 which I’ll paraphrase here (because I’m currently too lazy to remember how to build a table in html – something about TD and TR):

  • Isidore of Seville’s Chronica – this is also known as the Chronica Majora, a brief history of the world.
  • Isidore of Seville’s Liber differentiarum, the section found in BC 569 is concerned with questions about the nature of the Trinity.
  • Expositio computus de diuisionibus temporum by Bede, a treatise on math and computation.
  • Dhuoda’s Liber manualis
  • Alcuin’s De uirtutibus et uitiis, a moral treatise.
  • Disticha Catonis, moral tracts/proverbs authored by Dionysius Cato in the 3rd century.
  • Commentary on Parabolas Salamone by Alcuin – a commentary on the parables of Solomon found in Proverbs.

The significance of this is well described by Chandler – all of the above works are those which might reasonably be expected to be found in an educated lay Carolingian’s library. Several of the texts are very similar to portions of Dhuoda’s Handbook. The Barcelona manuscript is a 14th century copy of an earlier work. He believes it likely that it was copied from a collection of documents which may represent William’s library, and that it is very possible that all of these works were sent to William by Dhuoda. If so (or even if not – this just provides added evidence), this is an excellent example of the type of education/literacy expected of a high-level Carolingian noble – and possessed by a woman of the same class.

As Chandler says, “The complete contents of BC 569 show nicely a Carolingian-era educational programme in which science as we know it was subordinated to, and indeed an element of, the knowledge of God. In fact, these texts embody the ideals of virtue and learning that Dhuoda herself held and wanted to impart to William.” (p 273)

Chandler notes that there is post-9th century material in BC 569, particularly “a list of Carolingian and Capetian kings from Pippin III to Louis VII”. (p 280) He believes it likely that this regnal list was added to Isidore’s Chronicle by a later copyist.

I won’t go into the complete details of Chandler’s argument, which includes an excellent discussion of each of the texts included in Barcelona BC 569. In general, he describes what each text is about, discusses how they would be appropriate for an educated Carolingian to have, and how Dhuoda’s Handbook utilizes material from them. The BC 569 texts provide a mixture of moral instruction and science – items that would fit in well with the education of a Carolingian noble.

While the theory that these texts originated from a single library cannot be proven, it is a very logical inference. Pierre Riché “concludes that the version of the Liber manualis in the Barcelona manuscript is closest textually to Dhuoda’s and William’s copies . . .” (p 275). The manuscript also includes other texts available to 9th century Carolingians and contains topics related to those included in the Handbook. It is reasonable to conclude that the texts in BC 569 came from the same collection – and the simplest explanation for the origin of that collection is that it came from William’s.

There are other possibilities. Perhaps William or (after his death) one of his associates augmented Dhuoda’s Handbook with other similar works. Perhaps a member of the royal court saw Dhuoda’s Handbook and said to William, “This is cool – here are some other things which go along with it.” Perhaps someone in the 12th (or any century up to the 14th) century collected these together. However the simplest explanation is that a) the texts all belonged to William and b) that they were sent to him by his mother. The one item that might clinch this is lacking – a reference in Dhuoda’s Handbook to other texts she is sending, or intends to send.

This does not keep Chandler’s hypothesis from being the simplest, and most logical. “It could be the case, then, that Dhuoda sent Isidore’s text along with her Liber manualis to William at court in the 840s. He later took it with him, along with some early additions to the narrative and other texts now in BC 569, to Barcelona, where he died in rebellion in 848.” (p 281)

In essence, it is a strong possibility, perhaps even likely, that Dhuoda sent all of these texts to her son in an effort to engage him in a fairly standard Carolingian educational program. This has important implications for details of lay literacy, education, and let’s not forget how much concern this shows that Dhuoda held for her son. Very good article that I enjoyed tremendously. And even though this is quite a long post, I haven’t begun to detail Chandler’s argument.  

1 As I’ve mentioned before, I encourage anyone with an interest to see if you have JSTOR access. EME is an excellent publication – there were 4 articles in this issue and I downloaded all of them.

2 Chandler, Cullen J., ‘Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues,’ Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010), pp. 265-291.

3 The edition generally cited as most complete and reliable is Riché, Pierre, ed. (1975). Manuel por mon fils (Paris). I have the English edition, based on Riché. Neel, Carol, trans. (1991 with 1999 addendum). Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for Her Son (Washington, DC). ISBN: 978-0813209388.


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8 responses to “Carolingian Lay Literacy

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    July 26, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Aha! I found out about this being out only this morning when I happened to check in to try and order offprints. Too late! It's been online since Monday, apparently, they might have said. And it's ironic that Cullen and I are sharing an issue, as you'll see. But on the other hand it sounds like a really good article he's contributed here, I shall look forward to getting my copy.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    July 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Yes – part of the reason I tackled Cullen's 1st was that after scanning yours I realized I'd have to at least read both your article and his 2002 article to do it justice (possibly more). I at least know a little bit about Dhuoda and the manuscripts mentioned. Aprisio I know by little more than name and (apparently) the state of my knowledge is less than I had believed.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    July 27, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Well, since my article basically asserts that everyone else has had it wrong all along, except perhaps Imbart de la Tour, you're not alone in that :-)

  4. Cullen Chandler

    August 4, 2010 at 1:19 am

    I got impatient waiting for my copy of EME 18:3 to arrive, so I got it via my online subscription. I started to read Jonathan's article, but then had to turn my attention to things I need to organize for the start of school. So I'll have to wait to finish it, but here let me say that Jonathan's not wrong. I could potentially be persuaded to revise my position here and there. Potentially. But just because he's not wrong doesn't mean I am, or that anybody else is, at least entirely. I can save more comment for when you get to post a review of Jonathan's piece, so I won't go on an on about it now. For now let me thank Jonathan publicly for thinking enough of my piece to publish a response. Being cited in a note is one thing, but spawning a whole article! That ought to help my chances for promotion!

  5. Cullen Chandler

    August 4, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Oh, and it is interesting that we share the issue, isn't it?

  6. Medieval History Geek

    August 4, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Jonathan's article is kicking my butt actually. My first draft started off as some sort of electron-fueled monstrosity – it was about to become the blog post that ate Indiana or something. I killed that and I think I'm going in a better direction but I had hoped to get it out by last night and now it may not be until Saturday.I'm not going to play point-counter point in it – "Jonathan says this and others have said that" but there are a couple of points of disagreement I'll explore a bit – mainly because I find them personally interesting.Glad you're reading this – I was debating whether to send you another e-mail once it was up.

  7. Cullen Chandler

    August 4, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Great. I'm impatient now waiting for your review of Jonathan's piece. If you'd like, I could throw in some thoughts of my own. But it's your blog, so I don't want to take any discussion public if you don't think it should happen here.Cheers!

  8. Medieval History Geek

    August 4, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Public is what it's all about! I have no problem whatsoever with you sharing your thoughts on what I put up. I hope you will and I'm sure I'll learn something. I'm reasonably certain Jonathan won't be bashful about letting me know what he thinks.Even if it's critical, if I'm going to put something in writing, I better be ready to face the response.Or, as they say, "If you aren't ready to hunt with the big dogs you better stay on the porch with the pups."


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