Dhuoda for fathers deprived of custody of their children

Dhuoda's vision of fathers' love for their children

In November 30, 841,in the European Carolingian kingdom, the duchess Dhuoda began writing a book for her eldest child William. She was living apart from her husband and without physical custody of her children. William, fifteen-years old, had been placed in the sworn service of the king in violent circumstances five months earlier. Dhuoda’s second child, also a son, had been born eight months earlier. Her husband had quickly taken the baby from her to be under his protection.[1] Dhuoda loved her sons and longed to be with them. Her book has poignant immediacy today for the many fathers deprived of physical custody of their children.

Like many fathers today, Dhuoda grieved deeply from being deprived of her children. Her book includes impersonal observations and recognizes the objective value of being useful:

I have observed that most women in this world take joy in their children. But, my son William, I see myself, Dhuoda, living separated and far away from you. For this reason I am somewhat ill at ease, and eager to be useful to you. I am happy, therefore, to address this little book to you [2]

Most men take joy in their children and are eager to be useful to them. But parents, women and men, long more deeply to be with their children. Dhuoda wrote to her son:

I have been long deprived of your company, and I dwell in this town because my husband commands it. Though I am happy about the success of his campaigns, I am driven by my longing for you both. … despite the many cares that consume me, this anxiety is foremost in God’s established design — that I see you one day with my own eyes, if such is the Lord’s will. [3]

Husbands legally separated from their wives and deprived of custody of their children might feel similar longing. Beaten down in anti-men family courts and in a culture that treats men as disposable, fathers both yearn to see their children and internalize belief that they don’t deserve that joy:

Much too long, it seems to me
I’ve yearned to gaze on the shape of your face.
If I had the power! But this joy for me is
Undeserved. [4]

The anguish of fathers longing for their children lacks impelling expression in today’s elite culture. Dhuoda’s book, imaginatively read, expands to give fathers’ anguish a powerful voice.

Dhuoda’s charity in anguish was godly. Fathers deprived of custody of their children often have good reasons to be furious at their ex-girlfriends or ex-wives, and at the world. Dhuoda had such reasons with respect to her husband and her society.[5] She nonetheless retained good will toward all. She prayed for her children’s father in her prayer to be re-united with her children:

Grant me, mother of two male children,
my prayer to the loving Creator: may God
Exalt to the heights the father of these children,
and join me to them in the heavenly realm. [6]

She prayed for happiness for her son William and for his father:

May the Almighty God, of whom — despite my unworthiness — I speak so often, render you, together with your father Bernard, my seigniorial lord, happy and cheerful in the present world. May He give you prosperity in all things. And once the course of this life is ended, may He see to it that you joyously enter heaven with the saints.

Dhuoda’s relationship with her husband Bernard was strained. She was concerned that he might divorce from her. Yet with periphastic words she invoked blessings even for other children Bernard might have with another woman.[7] In praying to be received at the heavenly banquet, Dhuoda put her children’s father first, and herself, last:

To this banquet and this house, may the kind Lord in His kindness deign to lead your father, along with his children and me as well. Amen.

Bitterness toward her husband had no place in Dhuoda’s heart. Fathers can find in Dhuoda inspiration to relate to their children’s mothers with respect and kindness.

Despite all intervening circumstances, Dhuoda believed that she and her son were irreplaceable in relation to each other. Dhuoda declared to her son:

There is no one like you I leave behind among the living, no one but you to champion my cause.[8]

Dhuoda’s personal characteristics and status in society was irrelevant to what she meant to her son:

I, Dhuoda, although of the frail sex and living unworthily among women who are worthy, I am nonetheless your mother, my son William. It is to you that the words of my handcraft are now addressed.

Dhuoda’s words would apply equally well today to David and his daughter Wilma:

I, David, although of the disposable sex and living unworthily among men who are worthy, I am nonetheless your father, my daughter Wilma. It is to you that the words of my handcraft are now addressed.

In family courts, welfare agencies, and prisons and jails, fathers are crushed in systems that relate to them as cases in a queue of cases. But a father’s relationship to his child cannot be transferred to another.

Just as a father’s support for his child goes far beyond paying money to the child’s mother, Dhuoda’s support for her son was all-encompassing. Dhuoda wanted her son to be a perfect man. She wanted to be his mentor in all things.[9] These aspirations reflect, not her seeking to dominate him and determine his life, but the breadth of her love for him. In good times and bad, Dhuoda wanted to be there for her son: “In every eventuality I stand by your side.”[10] Dhuoda wrote the book and sent it to her son so that she could always be with him:

Dhuoda is always here to exhort you, my son, but in anticipation of the day when I shall no longer be with you, you have here as a memento of me this little book of moral counsels.[11]

Dhuoda’s book offers much more than moral advice. It’s a little book in the sense that she hand-wrote it for her son Williams’ hands. It’s a huge book in the sense that with it Dhuoda seeks to give William all that she possibly can. Dhuoda urged William to offer God continually in prayer “a sweet gift of honey and honeycomb.” Fearing that she would not live to see her son’s face again, she offered him her handcraft of words:

Here’s a kind of sweet brew with honeycomb mixed
As food for your lips: sip it always, I bid you.[12]

Dhuoda loved her son as the son was to love God. In Christian understanding, there is no greater love.

Many fathers today can find in Dhuoda’s text profound understanding and inspiration. Dhuoda’s great work of handcraft is wonderfully fecund.

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[1] Dhuoda’s second child was taken from her before the child was even baptized and named. Liber manualis, Preface & 1.7, Thiébaux (1998) pp. 51, 71.

[2] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, In the name of the Holy Trinity (prefatory text section), from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) p. 43. All subsequent quotations of Liber Manualis are from Thiébaux’s translation, cited by book.section and page number, with some minor changes that I’ve made in accordance with my sense of a better translation.

[3] Id. Preface, p. 51.

[4] Id. 10.2, p. 223.

[5] Dhuoda might have felt that her husband, who apparently was away from her for long periods of time, was insufficiently attentive to her wants and needs. In addition, he gave her the difficult and expensive responsibility of maintaining the Carolingian kingdom’s frontier at the Spanish March. Id 104. p. 227.

[6] Id. Verse inscription (preface) p. 47. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from 1.7, p. 71; 2.2 p. 77. In Thiébaux’s translation, I’ve replaced “sire” with “father,” and “offspring” with “children.”

[7] On Dhuoda’s fear of divorce, 10.4, p. 227. After calling down blessing on her children and explicitly mentioning the birth of her second child, Dhuoda wrote vaguely:

Quod si plus, Deo auxiliante, fuerint, id consequantur una vobiscum, quod a me invocatum est supra {And if more, with God’s help, be subsequently among you, may the others also obtain what I have asked above}

2.3, p. 81. Neel (1991), p. 120, n. 31, comments here, “Dhuoda means if she has grandchildren.” Dhuoda could also have meant her having another child. The chronicle of Ademar of Chabannes indicates that Dhuoda had a daughter born in 844 or 845. Thiébaux (1998), introduction, p. 7. Dhuoda’s words could also mean her husband having another child with another woman. Dhuoda’s unnecessarily indirect phrasing suggests that she considered that possibility.

[8] Liber manualis, 10.4, p. 227. The subsequent quote is from id., Prologue, pp. 47-8.

[9] After providing text for her epitaph and just before the closing of her book, Dhuoda includes a section on reading Psalms. Id. 11.1, pp. 232-7. Her text there adapts Alcuin’s preface to a treatise on the use of Psalms, De Psalmorum usu liber (available in Patrologia Latina, v. 101, cols. 465-68). Dhuoda punctuated Alcuin’s points with eiusdem (“another thing”) and item (“furthermore”). That verbal punctuation of Alcuin’s teaching emphasizes Dhuoda’s concern to give William as much as she can.

[10] Liber Manualis, 9.5, p. 215.

[11] Id. 1.7, pp. 69-71.

[12] Id 10.1, p. 219. The previous quote describes daily offering God Psalms, id. 11.1, p. 235.

[image] Tomonori Toyofuku, Caelum II, detail. 1963, wood. Work 66,4999, Hirshhorn Museum.


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

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son: Liber manualis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


Hildegard of Bingen’s holy vision of men’s sexuality

Hildegard of Bingen's vision of sexuality
In our benighted age, masculinity is described as toxic, men are labeled as rapists for receiving true love, and doctors of public health discuss masculinity as a pathology to be cured to raise men’s average lifespan to equality with women’s. Hildegard of Bingen, a learned, visionary woman leader in twelfth-century Europe, had a much more enlightened understanding of men’s sexuality. In Causae et curae, Hildegard depicted men’s sexuality as awesome and holy in its proper, loving context.[1]

Hildegard was a Christian woman religious with mystical vision and wide learning. She entered a community of nuns as a young girl. She lived in that community for her whole life. The modern stereotype of the nun narrowly enclosed in space and mind describes in reverse Hildegard’s life. She wrote liturgical songs and poems along with theological, botanical, and medicinal texts. She counseled bishops, kings, and emperors. She was famous for her visionary understanding. Within her unfathomable wisdom, she profoundly appreciated men’s sexuality.

Hildegard described men’s genitals as tabernacles, a strong structure, and a blossoming flower. With her visionary intuition, she moved from a general description of virile men to a kaleidoscopic description of men’s genital structure and function:

the wind that is in their loins is more fiery than windy. It has two tabernacles under its command into which it blows as a pair of bellows. These tabernacles surround the stem of all of the man’s powers, like small buildings put up next to a tower for its defense. For that reason there are two, so that they may more strongly surround the stem, make it firm and hold it and, further, so that they may capture more strongly and aptly the aforementioned wind and attract and emit it in an even manner, like two pairs of bellows blowing jointly into a fire. Thus when they erect the stem in its power, they hold it strongly. In this way the stem blossoms through its offspring.[2]

Wind in medieval thought is connected to the Holy Spirit. A tabernacle is a place of divine presence. Hildegard’s beautiful and poetic description of men’s genitals is grounded in biological reality, but not limited to that reality. Demeaning, repulsive descriptions of men’s genitals occur in medieval literature. Violence against men’s genitals — men’s “junk” — is a staple of modern popular jokes. Hildegard had humane appreciation for masculine biology.[3]

Hildegard appreciated the urgency of men’s sexual passion. She described men’s sexual passion as “like the fire of blazing mountains ” Shifting images, men can be like a ship in a great storm:

As a ship is endangered by great waves, surging in rivers from strong winds and storms, so that at times it can barely make headway and survive, so too in the storm of pleasure man’s nature can only with difficulty be held in check and restrained.

Fire and water are abstractly contrasting elements. But they are closely connected in Hildegard’s appreciation for men’s sexuality:

When the storm of lust surges in a male, it turns around in him like a mill. For his loins are like a forge which the marrow provides with fire. This forge then pours the fire into the male’s genital area and makes it burn strongly.[4]

Heat and fluid have natural correspondents in men’s sexual biology. Hildegard’s figures of men’s sexuality are both realistic and imaginative.

Hildegard did not romanticize masculine biology. In Hildegard’s Christian understanding, Adam’s transgression against God’s command introduced evil into human being. Hildegard declared:

With the taste for evil the blood of Adam’s children was changed into the poison of semen from which humans’ offspring are propagated.[5]

She described bitter, black bile as originating from Adam’s semen and generating evil. She also described semen as a poisonous foam within men’s bodies.[6] Her description of melancholic men is horrifying:

they do not experience proper love for anyone but are bitter, greedy, foolish, and overflowing with lust. With women they are without restraint like asses. … the embrace of women that they should have in a thoughtful manner is tortuous, hateful and deadly, like that of ravaging wolves. … The wind of sexual pleasure … arrives with a strong, sudden motion, like a wind that suddenly and strongly shakes the entire house. It erects the stem with such tyranny that the stem, which should blossom with blooms, twists vehemently like a viper, with the malice a deadly and murderous viper feels toward its offspring, because the Devil’s suggestion is so strongly at play in the lust of these men, that they would kill a woman in intercourse if they could since there is no love or tenderness in them.[7]

In Hildegard’s thinking, ejaculation is necessary for men to purify their bodies from the accumulating poison of semen. Yet some men excessively seek sexual intercourse with women and engage in such intercourse abusively.

In loving sexual intercourse, poisonous semen becomes life-giving. Hildegard understood conception as the woman’s body warming the man’s poisonous semen and transforming it into the blood of new life. Hildegard declared that conception will occur only if the sexual act is consensual.[8] In reality in the U.S. today, women rape men about as often as men rape women, and some rapes do result in pregnancies. Separating rape from conception seems to have been for Hildegard poetic rhetoric to deny evil acts the power of giving the blessing of new life. Hildegard gave biological significance not just to consent but also to mutual love in sexual intercourse. One-sided love in consensual sexual intercourse produces children who are bitter and lacking in virtue. Mutual love in sexual intercourse produces virtuous children.[9]

In contrast to her figure of poisonous semen, Hildegard also figured semen as a natural blessing. She declared that a man with reproductive strength “produces semen as the sun brings forth light.” Semen in that figure is not poisonous, but life-giving. Another cosmic figure of semen is more elaborate:

In the summertime, as a result of the heat, when fire and air complete their mutual duties in an appropriate mixing behavior, if there is not stormy weather, they sweat the dew out into the mild and clear air. The dew pours out fertility and productivity like semen full of blessings for the fruitful use of the earth.[10]

Just as effects of sexual intercourse are qualified with mutuality and appropriateness, so too is the mixing of fire and air to produce dew. In her Scivias, Hildegard used dew in a simile for the vivification of the infant in the womb:

at the divinely appointed time the infant in the maternal womb receives a spirit, and shows by the movements of its body that it lives, just as the earth opens and brings forth the flowers of its use when the dew falls on it.[11]

Dew in that figure could be understood as moisture rather than seed. Similarly, the Virgin Mary’s flesh rejoiced at the incarnation “just as a blade of grass on which the dew has fall’n / viridity within it to infuse.”[12] Refiguring dew from moisture to seed, Hildegard indicated the natural, universal blessing of men’s sexuality for the world.

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[1] Causae et curae has survived in not much more than one manuscript, the Royal Library of Copenhagen’s Ny Kgl. Saml. 90b, probably dating to the mid-13th century. The manuscript contains an explicit attribution to Hildegard of Bingen. She died in 1179. The manuscript includes some material that Hildegard didn’t author. The extent that it includes material that she did author is a matter of scholarly debate. Moulinier & Berndt (2003), a critical edition of the work, argues that Hildegard wrote little of Causae et curae. That’s currently the predominate scholarly opinion. Sweet (2006), Ch. 2, argues that Hildegard wrote most of it. I believe that the material I’m discussing was either written by Hildegard, or by women students of hers. My references to Hildegard can be interpreted more precisely in that sense.

[2] Causae et curae, 52a, Kaiser (1903) p. 70, ll 23-34, from Latin trans. Berger (1999) p. 58. For tabernacula, id. translates “tents”. I’ve used “tabernacles”. Hildegard elsewhere remarks:

If a man no longer has these two powers {testicules}, either because he has lost them by chance in a natural way or through castration, he has no more manhood and no more masculine storm of passion that erects the member to its full strength. Hence his member cannot be raised to plow the woman like the earth because he is cut free from the storm of his power which should strengthen his member as a means to beget offspring. In the same way, a plow cannot root up the earth when it has no ploughshare.

Causae et curae, from Latin trans. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) p. 89. The Romance of the Rose later took up the importance of plowing.

[3] Hildegard recognized the possibility of men ejaculating in their sleep. She understood that men suffer from sexual excitement that doesn’t result in ejaculation. Id. 105b, pp. 54-5. She offered medicine “for the harmful holding back of a semen emission,” “for a swelling in the testicles,” and for sterility. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) pp. 171, 160-1.

[4] Causae et curae, 56b, trans. Berger (1999) p. 62. The previous two quotes in the above paragraph are from id. 104b, p. 53; 51a, p. 57. All subsequent quotes are cited by manuscript folio and page in Berger’s translation, unless otherwise noted.

[5] Id. 26a, p. 39.

[6] Id. 27b, p. 39 (black bile); 43b, p. 44 (semen as poisonous foam). According to Hildegard, men’s semen is like foam on boiling water:

Boiling with the ardor and heat of lust, human blood emits foam which we call semen. This is like a pot that, placed over a fire, emits foam from the water because of the fire’s fervor.

Id. 23b-24a, p. 51.

[7] Id. 54a-55a, p. 60.

[8] Id. 43-44a-, p. 44; 78b, p. 81 (warming semen); 43b, p. 43 (consent necessary).

[9] Id. 25b-26a, pp. 51-2.

[10] Causae et curae, Latin in Kaiser (1903) p. 40, ll. 27-32, trans. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) p. 36, adapted slightly. Newman (1987), pp. 134-8, doesn’t recognize this blessing of semen.

[11] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, I.4.16, from Latin trans. Hart & Bishop (1990) p. 119.

[12] Hildegard of Bingen, Ave generosa, 6.2 (Hymn to the Virgin).

[image] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Vision I.3, illumination from Meister des Hildegardis-Codex, c. 1165. Thanks to BorgQueen and Wikicommons.


Berger, Margret. 1999. Hildegard of Bingen: on natural philosophy and medicine: selections from Cause et cure. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Hart, Columba and Jane Bishop. 1990. Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. New York: Paulist Press.

Kaiser, Paul, ed. 1903. Hildegard of Bingen. Hildergardis Causae et curae. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Moulinier, Laurence and Rainer Berndt. 2003. Hildegard of Bingen. Beate Hildegardis Cause et cure. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Newman, Barbara. 1987. Sister of wisdom: St. Hildegard’s theology of the feminine. Aldershot: Scolar.

Palmquist, Mary, John S. Kulas, and Patrick Madigan, trans. 1994. Hildegard of Bingen. Holistic Healing. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.{English translation from German translation of Latin}

Sweet, Victoria. 2006. Rooted in the earth, rooted in the sky: Hildegard of Bingen and premodern medicine. New York: Routledge.

medieval women’s love poetry for men’s learning

While women enjoy reading fiction much more than men do, men could make their tools more useful with study of medieval women’s love poetry. Men struggling to find love commonly look to women for guidance. But understanding what women say and write about love requires literary sophistication that many men lack. Studying medieval women’s love poetry can help men to gain needed literary sophistication.

Medieval women’s love poetry tells men what women want, but only if men are discerning readers. Consider a poem that a medieval woman in a convent wrote:

We love only those men whom prudent Excellence has moulded,
whom Measure has advised to look on her with deference …
Ovid, that knight of the unchaste Amours, has tricked you,
persuading you to love that poem
by which unhappy men are seduced, and not made finer …
A lady’s grace will grant whatever is honourable —
this she will give to one who always asks fittingly.[1]

That’s poetic fiction. Ovid tells the truth. Men must show that they cannot easily be tricked. Women will accept resources from beta-men providers, but they love alphas. The most numerous alphas, and the types most accessible to ordinary men, are jerks, badboys, and rogues. Some men complain bitterly about women, just as some women complain bitterly about men. Learning to appreciate fiction is a better way. Pretend to be a jerk, badboy, or rogue to stir a woman’s desire.

Testing is different in medieval women’s words than in modern science. Consider another medieval poem that another nun wrote:

Let men whom lewdness delights depart from our company —
if you should be of that sort, stay away!
Even men tested in a thousand ways are only just admitted …
As for those to whom Excellence wants us to give our pledge …
let them be duly refined, with manners of distinction. …
For him who has acquired a name for courtesy like our own,
our maidenly company desires the grace of joy.[2]

The modern empirical science of seduction recognizes the central concern of this poem as “shit-testing.” That involves a woman hurling shit (unwelcoming, challenging, dismissive words) at a man to see how he responds. Learned authorities in seduction recommend responding to shit tests illogically, laconically, and lewdly:

Question: “You are not like other men of refinement, courtesy, and chivalry. Why didn’t you remove your hat when your entered our convent?”
Answer: “i don’t wanna get you pregnant

Question: “What is your parentage?”
Answer: 8=====D~~ {only possible with modern texting technology}

Statement: “You’re not in the Duke’s favor.”
Response: “gay”

If this knowledge had been more widely available to medieval men, convents would have become nurseries, the Archpriest of Hita would have never written Libro de buen amor, and the population explosion associated with the rise of mixed-sex factory work would have occurred centuries earlier. It’s a matter of literary sophistication. Men pass women’s thousands of tests with strong verbal subterfuge.

Medieval women’s love poetry depreciates the value of child-bearing to men. In a medieval poem, the two sisters Alais and Yselda address the more knowing Lady Corenza. Alais says:

Lady Carenza, you whose body is so lovely,
give some advice to my sister and me,
and, since you know how to discern what’s better,
advise me as your experience suggests:
Shall I, in your opinion, take a husband,
or shall I stay unmarried? — that would please me,
for I think to breed has little to commend it —
yet it’s too troubling to be husbandless.[3]

Notice that Alais first appeals to Lady Carenza as a woman of bodily beauty and then as a woman of knowledge and experience. In love from men’s immediate perspective, bodily beauty is paramount. Being husbandless is troubling to Alais because she has no one to assign to household chores. She also has to teach again and again new men how to please her in bed. Yet why would she think that “to breed has little to commend it”? Her sister Yselda elaborates:

Lady Carenza, I’d enjoy taking a husband,
and yet I think having children is a penance —
for after that the breasts will hang right down,
and the belly be wrinkled and wearisome.[4]

In despising the bodily effects of pregnancy, this poem is similar to Aelred of Rievaulx’s medieval account of the nun of Watton’s miraculously removed pregnancy. When women age, their breasts tend to hang down and their bellies wrinkle. Men experience similar effects of aging. Beauty fades. Children are forever. If a woman doesn’t understand those realities, a man should move on to another.

Medieval love poetry teaches men that a loyal woman always remembers her man’s high value. Making clear one’s high value to a woman doesn’t come easily to Christian men, who strive to be humble and compliant (“like a lamb led to the slaughter…”). Good men know that pride is a great sin. They must develop an evil spite for the sake of love. The medieval woman poet Comtessa de Dia provided an instructive lament. She sang:

I have to sing of what I would not wish,
so bitter do I feel about him whose love I am,
as I love him more than anything there is;
with him, grace and courtesy are no avail to me,
nor my beauty, merit or understanding,
for I am deceived and am betrayed as much
as I would rightly be had I been unwelcoming.[5]

Praising a woman’s grace, courtesy, beauty, merit, or understanding doesn’t earn her ardent love. Women who claim otherwise are deceiving and betraying themselves. A high-value man isn’t welcoming to the woman he wants to love. He welcomes others. He doesn’t want to be her friend. He makes her strive to be a friend to him:

Friend, comfort me in this — that I never failed you
through any behavior of mine;
rather, I love you more than Seguis loved Valensa,
and it delights me that I vanquish you in loving,
my friend, for you are the most excellent.
To me you show arrogance in words and presence,
and are well-disposed towards everybody else.

It amazes me that your being turns to proudness
with me, friend — and for this I am right to grieve:
it is not fair that another love takes you from me,
however she may address or welcome you; —
and remember how it was at the beginning
of our love … God forbid
that the separation should be fault of mine!

The great merit that shelters in your person,
and the rich worth you have, disquiet me —
since there’s no woman, far or near,
who, if she would love, does not submit to you;

The reward for your maintaining your high value to her is her loyalty to you:

yet you, my friend, have enough discernment
to know who is the loyalest.
And remember our understanding.

My worth and my nobility must speak for me,
and my beauty, and still more my loyal heart [6]

You must stay the course and pass the test:

and so I send you, where you are staying,
this song, which shall be my messenger;
and I want to know, my fair gentle friend,
why you are so hard and strange with me —
I don’t know if it is pride or evil spite.

But I also want you to tell him, messenger,
that many suffer great loss through too great pride.

She will continue to love you loyally if you respond rightly:

be here late tomorrow evening bring wine [7]

Such literary sophistication is difficult for most men to understand and learn. The difficulty must be overcome.

Medieval women’s love poetry tends to be regarded as an arcane study. It shouldn’t be. Understanding medieval women’s love poetry teaches men how to secure enduring pleasure in a woman’s love.

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[1] …cum matre Cupido, ll. 8-9, 18-19, 24-25, from Latin trans. Dronke (1984) p. 92. This poem is among love-verses probably from Regensburg (in present-day Bavaria, Germany). It is in the single, chaotic manuscript, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 17142. For full Latin text and English translation, Dronke (1968) vol. II, XXXI, pp. 433-4. The Regensburg love verses were probably written late in the eleventh century. They are from young women in a convent to their cleric-teacher from Liège. He apparently was pursuing amorous affairs with his students. For additional discussion, Dronke (1968) vol. I, pp. 221-9.

[2] Hunc mihi Mercurius florem dedit ingeniosus, ll 5-7, 9, 12, 16-17, from Latin trans. Dronke (1984) p. 92; full Latin text and English translation, Dronke (1968) vol. II, XVII, p. 426. This is another love-verse from Regensburg,

[3] Na Carenza al bel cors avinen, excerpt, from Occitan trans. Dronke (1984) p. 101. Rialto provides the Occitan text and Linda Paterson’s prose translaton of the whole poem. Paterson’s translation is similar to Dronke’s. The poem survives in only garbled form in only one manuscript. Other editors assign lines to voices differently. See, e.g. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 151. The poem probably dates to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Comtessa de Dia (probably twelfth century), A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria, from Old Provençal trans. Dronke (1984) p. 103. Subsequent quotes above from this poem are from id. The Provençal text and alternate English translations are available here and here. A musical score for the poem has survived. YouTube has some wonderful  performances of the song, including the one above. The liner notes for Robin Snyder’s album La Domna Ditz provides background on Comtessa de Dia:

The powerful Comtessa de Dia states plainly her desire to sleep with someone other than her husband (“Estat ai en greu cossirier”) and advises women not to worry about court gossips (“Ab ioi et ab ioven m’apais”).

The text of A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria in those liner notes is missing two stanzas.

[6] Dronke described the Countess as “trying to rationalize irrational emotions.” He perceptively observed:

the rhetoric mirrors the obsessive quality of the lady’s questioning and rebuking: she turns the same thoughts over and over, reverting to them each time with a new attack. Each time we are brought to share her own wonderment more keenly: the injustice of it all — how was it possible?

Dronke (1984) pp. 10-5.

[7] Just to avoid any misunderstanding, this line is not from the medieval poem. I made it up based on my brief study of leading modern seduction authorities.


Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden. 2007. Troubadour poems from the South of France. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Wednesday’s flowers


play of contrasts in Dhuoda’s learned work

Amerika by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival

Near the beginning of Liber Manualis, the learned Duchess Dhuoda wrote to her fifteen-year-old son, “You and I must quest for God, my son.” To him she declared her unworthiness and feebleness. She then offered a metaphor:

Now it sometimes happens that a troublesome little female puppy among the other whelps under the master’s table can seize and devour the crumbs that fall. He who made the mouth of a dumb animal speak has the power, according to his mercy from of old, to open my senses and give me understanding. … At least I may gaze from under his table, that is to say, within the Holy Church, at the little male whelps in the distance, those who are ministers to the sacred altars. From among the crumbs, I shall be able to gather — by spiritual wisdom — for myself and you, William, my beautiful son, words that are beautiful and luminous and worthy.[1]

William probably wouldn’t have understand well his mother as a “troublesome little female puppy.” A sense of Dhuoda’s inadequacy is only the beginning of her meaning. Her metaphor grows into much different understanding.

Dhuoda’s metaphor discards worldly distinctions in the quest for God. Dhuoda’s metaphor doesn’t hierarchically distinguish priests, herself, and her son. Dhuoda, not “ministers to the sacred altars,” acts to serve William. Dhuoda’s reference to making a dumb animal speak comes from a similar self-reference by the eminent bishop Gregory of Tours.[2] In Dhuoda’s metaphor, the male priests are, like her, whelps within the mother Holy Church. Dhuoda’s metaphor is based on the biblical pericope of the Canaanite woman and Jesus. That pericope is plausibly interpreted as showing Jesus mocking his disciples’ arrogance. The Canaanite woman, tried in ways that didn’t demean pagan heroes, emerged as a Christian hero in service to her daughter. Dhuoda wanted to be such a woman for her son William.

With considerable literary skill, Dhuoda mocked a writer’s figure of  professional self-importance. A classical Sanskrit text from roughly 2000 years ago declares:

if the whole sea were filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only employed in writing, that would not suffice to give an exact account of all the miracles Krishha has performed [3]

One of the earliest and most secure jobs for persons with literary learning has been and remains to recognize, support, and praise the important and great acts of a patron. Implicit in the “sea of ink” figure is the importance of the writer’s job. Dhuoda ridiculously expanded the writer’s figure of professional self-importance and balanced it with an expansive description of God’s greatness:

if heaven and earth were extended through the sky like a charter on a spread-out sheet of parchment, and if all the gulfs of the sea were transformed, tinged like inks of many colors, and if all the earth’s inhabitants born in the world from the beginning until now were — through some increase of human wisdom, an impossibility contrary to nature — writers, they would not be able to capture the grandeur, the breadth, the loftiness, and be able to tell of the depth, of the sublimity and divinity, and wisdom, and goodness, and mercy of him who is called God.[4]

Dhuoda’s literary reconstruction of the “sea of ink” figure preceded by more than a millennium a related deconstruction of it by the celebrated U.S. public figure Oliver Wendall Holmes. In 1890, he wrote:

If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all the earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.[5]

Dhuoda was more subtle than Holmes, and less cynical. She also seems to have truly believed that God is great and uncircumscribable.[6]

Dhuoda’s discussion of fornication includes a subtle, playful contrast. The headline contrast seems to be a highly formulaic contrast between fornication and chastity. Dhuoda gave her son relevant biblical wisdom:

Avoid fornication, my son, and drive your thoughts away from any harlot woman.[7]

She also implicitly acknowledged the difficulty of following that wisdom. Since eyes may stray, she counseled William to have inner strength. She also warned of the sexual “shamelessness of women,” implicitly meaning some women in particular circumstances. When women illicitly approach lustfully, she urged him, “Fend them off!” Sexuality in marriage is a sharply contrasting affair. Dhuoda enumerated holy biblical men who married and had children. She joyfully envisioned William having children. Dhuoda commended as husbands:

{men} who soldiered within the marriage-bed and applied themselves to keeping a heart pure in Christ.[8]

The late-eighth-century Arabic text Bilauhar and Budasaf described a knight who recognized his foremost martial-marital responsibility: to be always ready to satisfy his wife’s sexual desire, lest she stray from the marriage bed. Whether Dhuoda knew that story or a similar story is lost in history. But even without that context, her marital advice to her young, unmarried son has personal sparkle.

Dhuoda’s love for her son is at the core of her writing for him. Her writing conveys the immediacy of a specific relation of love. Yet Dhuoda is also a subtle, complex writer. She offers a sophisticated, Trinitarian understanding of love and much joy in play of contrasts.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, 1.2, from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) p. 61. I’ve changed “its master’s table” to “the master’s table” to indicate that the master is the master of all the whelps. Similarly, I’ve changed “their crumbs” to “the crumbs”: the crumbs are from the master for everyone. The word for whelps is catulos. That can mean either whelps in general or male whelps specifically. The second instance of that word refers to “ministers of the sacred altars.” For that instance only, I’ve replaced “whelps” with “male whelps.” Subsequent text from Liber manualis is from id., with some minor changes I’ve made.

[2] Dronke (1984) pp. 49-50, with additional explanation printed in Thiébaux (1998) p. 242, n. 7. Dronke notes “certain fundamental tensions in what Dhuoda says.”

[3] For source notes, see my post, “sea of ink: writing across Eurasia,” note [3].

[4] Liber manualis, 1.6, pp. 67-8. The translation above incorporates the adaptation of Nelson (2007) p. 117, inc. n. 48.

[5] Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr. “Cacoethes Scribendi.

[6] That the fullness of God is all encompassing and beyond human understanding is a theme in Dhuoda’s work. Liber manualis, Bk 1-2.

[7] Liber manualis, 4.6, p. 143.

[8] Id. 4.6, pp. 143, 145. I’ve adapted Nelson’s correction of Thiébaux’s minor translation error. Nelson (2007) p. 115, n. 42. Dhuoda referred to the “shameless of women” in the context of Potiphar’s wife accosting Joseph and then falsely accusing him of rape. Liber manualis, 3.3, p. 91. “Fend them off” is from id. 4.6, p. 143.

[image] Amerika — A Refuge, detail. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), Acrylic paint on printed paper on canvas, 1990-91, 91.34, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University 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.


Perpetua resolutely rejected her father’s pleas & got killed

wisdom of an ass

The formal Roman law of pater familias, like the social construction of patriarchal understanding, suppressed and silenced the lived experience of almost all fathers. The public record has largely worked to support the dominant public ideology.  Yet occasionally a transgressive challenge has appeared at the margins of public discourse. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity was such a challenge. In it, Perpetua described the socially marginalized reality of a daughter’s relationship with her father.

When she was arrested on suspicion of being a Christian, Perpetua was about twenty-two years old. She was “well-born, liberally educated, and honorably married.” Although breast-feeding a child, she made time to write. She left a precious, first-person diary of her experiences in prison and on trial. She understood the public importance of what she was doing. Unable to write about her own execution, she wrote “let whoever wishes to write about it, do so.” Her writing should be taken seriously.[1]

The first words of Perpetua’s prison diary describe her father’s love for her. Her father knew that she was planning to declare herself a Christian and be killed. Perpetua wrote, “my father, because of his love for me, wanted to change my mind and shake my resolve.” He tried to argue with her. That of course was futile. He got angry, got in her face, and glared at her furiously.[2] Then he left, having failed to dissuade his daughter from getting herself killed. He stopped coming to her in prison for the next few days. She seemed to have been pleased with her success in turning away her father’s love. She wrote that she was “refreshed by my father’s absence.” In reality, daughters often don’t appreciate their father’s love.

Perpetua’s father tried again to save her. He was “worn with worry” for her. Rather than attempting arguing, he sought her pity:

My daughter, have pity on my gray hair, have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you, if with these hands I have raised you to this flower of youth, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not shame me among men.

He also reminded her of her importance to other members of their family:

Think about your brothers, think about your mother and your mother’s sister, think about your son who will not be able to live without you. Give up your pride; do not destroy us all. For, if you are punished, none of us will be able to speak freely again.

Perpetua noted that her father acted as a suppliant to her:

My father said these things to me, as a father would, out of his love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself at my feet. Weeping, he no longer called me daughter, but lady.[3]

These weren’t one father’s extraordinary actions. Perpetua recognized that her father acted “as a father would, out of his love” for his daughter. Perpetua understood that the formal Roman law of pater familias and pater potestas was nonsense.

Fully engaged in care for children from the cradle to adulthood, Perpetua’s father took custody of his baby grandson and cared for him. Biologically he was incapable of breast-feeding the child. However, in the Roman Empire, upper-class families commonly hired wet-nurses for their children.[4] At the same time, oppressive gender norms imposed on men nearly all the responsibility for earning money to support the household. That included providing money for purchasing the services of a wet-nurse. Perpetua’s words implicitly indicated the double-burden of child-care and money-earning that fathers carried. Perpetua’s father desperately reminded Perpetua that he and his grandson — her baby son — would be crushed under the double burden of fathers’ work.

Perpetua’s father desperately intervened in her trial. He grabbed hold of Perpetua and attempted to pull her to safety. Disregarding his own life, he pleaded to Perpetua for the life of her child:

Offer the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby.

The presiding Roman official took up her father’s plea and rightfully incorporated her father in it. The Roman official declared to Perpetua:

Spare the gray hair of your father, spare your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the health of the emperors.[5]

In words that fathers in real life have often heard, Perpetua resolutely responded, “I will not.” Under official questioning, she then affirmed that she was a Christian. That meant death for her. Perpetua choosing death also meant that her infant son would most likely die and that her father would suffer terrible pain, if not death from sorrow and grief. In contrast to the Roman official inserting respect for Perpetua’s father in his plea to Perpetua, the father, out of love and grief for his daughter, in turn disrespected the Roman official. He defied the official proceeding and insistently and continually pleaded with his daughter. The Roman official ordered Perpetua’s father to be “thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod.” That’s extraordinarily harsh and demeaning treatment of a elite Roman citizen.[6] Fathers’ love for children is less strongly supported publicly than is mothers’ love for children. That gender inequality reflects the underlying gynocentrism of human society.

Perpetua’s father was acutely concerned for his grandson’s welfare. After the trial, he retained custody of the baby. That’s extraordinary under formal Roman family law.[7] Perpetua seemed relatively unconcerned about the child’s welfare. Her account is unclear about whether or not the child was with her at particular points in her prison stay.[7] Roman prisons were harsh, disease-ridden places. Perpetua’s father apparently was determined to do the very best he could for his baby grandson.

Perpetua’s father grieved inconsolably about his daughter’s rejection of his pleas and her impending death. Perpetua wrote that after she was sentenced to death:

my father, devastated with worry, came to visit me, and he began to tear out his beard and to throw it on the ground. He then threw himself on his face and, cursing his years, spoke such words to me as might move creation itself [8]

Her father’s grief took Jewish or Jewish-Christian forms. Sacrificing to Roman gods may well have been abhorrent to him.[9] But Perpetua’s father valued his daughter’s life and his grandson’s life far above formal religious ritual. Perpetua grieved for her father’s “unhappy old age.” She didn’t change her life course. She included in her diary two visions that she had about herself. She didn’t have any visions about her father and her young son.

Just as for fathers and daughters throughout history, ancient Roman fathers could tell their daughters what to do. And daughters could do what that they wanted to do, even onto death. That’s the reality underneath the ideology of pater familias and the social construction of patriarchal understanding. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity has generated an enormous volume of scholarship.[10] That scholarship largely celebrates Perpetua’s actions and ignores her father. One scholar reflected:

This is one of the very rare pieces written by a female hand that is known from antiquity. It was, even in its own day, a small and fragile thing. Yet even this exiguous voice could not be left alone. From the very start it was buried under an avalanche of male interpretations, rereadings, and distortions. What chance, one must wonder, was there for Perpetua to tell her story? Despite all this, there is that other demon – hope. Perpetua’s words are still with us. Her experiences, her thoughts and her visions have, after all, survived.[11]

This “poor dear” understanding of Perpetua (creating a “small and fragile thing”; “buried under an avalanche”; those other men are treating her badly!) is a common pattern of men’s thinking from present-day academic officials, to twelfth-century monks meditating on Mary Magdalene at Jesus tomb, probably back to the first man who had a daughter. Such understanding has perpetuated falsehoods and injustices right up to the present.

Perpetua wrote inspired, revelatory words about her relationship to her father. Those words deserve to be heard throughout the world and taken seriously.[12] Perpetua’s publicly written words are important even if most persons, in their own personal life, already know them.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (Passio Sanctarum Pertetuae et Felicitatis), from Latin trans. Heffernan (2012): “well-born, liberally educated, and honorably married,” II, p. 126; “let whoever wishes to write about it, do so,” X, p. 130. All subsequent quotes from the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (Passion) are in translation from id., by text section and page number. A translation by R.E. Wallis (1925) is freely available online, as is the translation of Musurillo (1972). Here’s an online review of a few manuscripts. Id. Appendix 1 provides a thorough review of the manuscripts, with some photos of them. The Latin original for the first quote is prefaced by fuller name for Perpetua, “Vibia Perpetua, honeste nata, liberaliter instituta, matronaliter nupta.” Vibia appears to be her nomen, and Perpetua her cognomen. “The Vibbi, attested both in North Africa and in Italy, were a large family of some distinction.” Id. p. 105 (Latin text), 150 (Commentary).

[2] Passion, III, p. 126. A sentence in this section is translated literally: “Then my father, angered by this name {Christian}, threw himself at me, in order to gouge out my eyes.” Some have interpreted this sentence to imply that Perpetua’s father actually assaulted her physically. That’s as ridiculous as believing that her father could literally throw himself. Heffernan (2012) Commentary, p. 157, states:

Her father’s behavior frightened her. She was uncertain, if only for an instant, if he would attack her.

That highly conjectural and highly implausible given the figurative language that Perpetua uses and the sophisticated literary context.

[3] Id. V, pp. 127-8. The word “lady” translates dominam, a term of respect for a woman.

[4] Cooper (2011) p. 688.

[5] Passion, VI, p. 128. Dronke (1985), p. 5, declares that Perpetua’s father “is claiming her with possessive love.” That’s an uncharitable, other-worldly interpretation.

[6] In the redactor’s introduction (II), Perpetua is described as honeste nata (well-born). That indicates that Perpetua was of the upper honestiores class. Heffernan (2012), Commentary, p. 150. Persons of that class weren’t subject to corporal punishment under Roman law. Cooper (2011) p. 694.

[7] Cooper (2011) pp. 688-9.

[7] In Passion, III, Perpetua initially had her baby in prison. There she worried about the conditions for him and nursed him. Then she entrusted her baby to her mother and brother. Then she arranged to have the baby stay with her again in prison. She expressed delight to have her baby with her. Then, with no further remarks on the matter from Perpetua, her father showed up with the baby in a visit to her (Passion, V).

[8] Id, IX, p. 129.

[9] Heffernam (2012), p. 28, observed, “his behavior reminds one more of an ancient Jew than a Roman male.” If Perpetua’s father was Jewish or Jewish-Christian, sacrificing to Roman gods would have been abhorrent to him.

[10] Bremmer & Formisano (2012) presents recent work. It’s a collection of papers resulting from a 2007 scholarly conference on the Passion. While offering scant consideration of Perpetua’s father, it features on its front cover Gustav Klimt’s Danaë. The Danaë erotically aroused by Zeus’ golden shower here seems meant to suggest Perpetua’s passion for God.  Caroline Walker Bynum noted that she and colleagues taught the Passion “as part of the required syllabus in Columbia University’s western civilization course in the mid-1990s.” She also described the cover of Bremmer & Formisano (2012) as an “egregious misjudgment.” Bynum (2013) p. 135. Friesen (2014) documents pernicious effects of narrow-minded scholarship and teaching about the Passion.

[11] Shaw (1993) p. 45.

[12] Heffernan’s magisterial critical edition of the Passion states:

This Roman father, however, does not behave like an elite Roman male. He overturns all our stereotypical understanding of the paterfamilias. … They {Perpetua’s descriptions of her interactions with her father} are the only records which depict such interactions, and should be read with some skepticism.

Heffernan (2012) p. 26. There are no other such ancient Roman records of a daughter documenting in detail tense, momentous interactions with her father. Perpetua’s words should be evaluated with respect to common life experiences of fathers and daughters. Skepticism should be directed at stereotypical understandings of gender relations. One might also be skeptical of the claim in id., p. 38, that Perpetua read and alluded to Plato’s Cratylus. In Roman competition for honor, members of the domus were interested in shielding the pater familias from shame. However, “Perpetua’s self-understanding as a Christian visionary allowed her to expose what the better-socialized members of her family preferred to hide.” Cooper (2007), p. 8.

[image] Balaam, the Angel and the Ass. Woodcut, 1493. Nuremberg Chronicle, f. 30r. Thanks to Wikicommons. For the underlying biblical narrative, Numbers 22-24.


Bremmer, Jan N., and Marco Formisano, eds. 2012. Perpetua’s passions: multidisciplinary approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 2013. “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity / Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the “Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis.” Common Knowledge. 20 (1): 134-135.

Cooper, Kate. 2007. “Closely Watched Households: Visibility, Exposure and Private Power in the Roman Domus.” Past and Present. 197 (1): 3-33.

Cooper, Kate. 2011. “A Father, a Daughter and a Procurator: Authority and Resistance in the Prison Memoir of Perpetua of Carthage.” Gender & History. 23 (3): 685–702.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friesen, Gabrielle. 2014. “Perpetua Before the Crowd: Martyrdom and Memory in Roman North Africa.” University of Colorado, Boulder. Undergraduate Honors Theses.

Heffernan, Thomas J. 2012. The passion of Perpetua and Felicity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shaw, Brent D. 1993. “The Passion of Perpetua.” Past & Present. 139 (1): 3-45.

from Dhuoda to her son William: loving touch in text

handcraft from Dhuoda to William

Incipit textus. The text begins. So begins the one surviving text that Dhuoda wrote for her fifteen-year-old son William. Dhuoda had decades of experience in the high politics of ninth-century Carolingian royal courts. In tense political circumstances, Dhuoda’s husband had placed William in sworn military service to the new Carolingian king. William needed skills that 800 years later would be called statecraft. Rather than merely tutoring him in statecraft, Dhuoda gave to her son William a way of being: a text for success in this world and the world to come.

Naming Dhuoda’s text in English provides an insightful exercise in understanding Dhuoda. For Dhuoda, names weren’t merely conventional, but carried essential significance. Dhuoda’s third word following “Incipit textus” described her text as libellus (little book). She described her little book as revealing a threefold design: Norma, Forma et Manualis. Further indicating her deeply Trinitarian orientation, Dhuoda also used the word Manualis to refer to her whole text. Even before ending her text’s prefatory text, she additionally referred to it as liber (book), opus (work), and codex (a book of bound pages), as well as various combinations and diminutives of these words. Her prefatory text includes an elaborated naming:

Incipit liber Dhuodane Manualis quem ad filium suum transmisit Wilhelmum.
{Here begins the book Dhuoda’s Handcraft which she has sent to her son William.}[1]

The text concludes with a reference to libellus (little book) and then an elaborated naming in a haunting chiasmus:

Finit hic, Deo gratias, liber Manualis Wilhelmi, in eo quod ait Evangelium: Consumatum est.
{Here ends, thanks be to God, the book of Handcraft for William, in the words the Gospel speaks: “It is finished.”[2]

The diverse forms that begin and end Dhuoda’s text tend to be interpreted as indicating her shyness, reticence, or uncertainty, or as a gesture of maternal swaddling.[3] Those diverse forms are better understood as indicating her literary sophistication in representing the all-encompassing personal breadth of her relation to her son William.

Dhuoda expected persons other than William to encounter her text. The intimacy of the text’s personal address to William doesn’t limit it to his solitary reading. Another might have another read aloud to William and his fellow soldiers, who would then together discuss and re-read the relevant passage. William might read a section to his younger brother. The text might be passed down in William’s family, with his children reading it to their children.[4] In addressing William, Dhuoda mentions “those to whom you show this little book for the purpose of study.” She instructs William that when his younger brother reaches the age of “speaking and reading,” to urge him to read the text. Just before writing the epitaph that she fervently asks William to have inscribed for her, she writes:

As for those who will some day read this Handcraft which you are reading, let them also meditate on what follows [5]

Her epitaph calls upon persons of any age and sex to pray for her. That plea is within the universal Christian understanding of personal sinfulness and of personal hope for redemption. Everyone is invited to travel the Christian way, yet that way is deeply personal. Dhuoda’s text similarly allows everyone to enter into her deeply personal love for her son William.

Scholarly objectification and analysis of Dhuoda’s work has given it names. The leading Latin-English edition of her text has on its title page Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son / Liber manualis.[6] But Dhuoda wasn’t writing foremost about Dhuoda. The term “handbook” is objective and commodified in a way that Dhuoda’s handcraft isn’t. Dhuoda wrote to her son William. That William was in active military service had little specific significance to her. Dhuoda referred to her text as Liber manualis. She also referred to it as libellum moralis and many other varying terms.[7]

Dhuoda’s play with her own references to her text direct attention to her and to her insistently addressing the text to her son William. Dhuoda’s handcraft of writing made her text available to others, including us in our far distant world. Having received it and read it, we should realize its meaning is inextricably related to being from Dhuoda to her son William.[8]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, second prefatory section, headed “In the name of the Holy Trinity,” Thiébaux (1998) pp. 42-3, Latin and English translation. I have modified the translation slightly based on my sense of a better translation. All quotations from Liber manualis are by book.section and page in id.

[2] Id. 11.2, pp. 238-9, with English translation modified slightly.

[3] Dronke stated:

It is as though a series of barriers had to be surmounted before Dhuoda felt the confidence to set out a discussion freely and directly. The prolegomena are, as it were, so many hesitations about embarking upon the rôle of instructress; at the same time they constitute the writer’s way of gaining assurance towards that rôle, of getting her bearings in it.

Dronke (1984) p. 39. “Dhuoda begins her work again and again, as if shyly.” Neel (1991) p. 114, n 18. “The mother’s gift to her son must be wrapped, enfolded, swaddled in protective layers of greetings, and leavetakings.” Thiébaux (1998) intro., p. 34.

[4] Nelson (2011), p. 44, insightfully suggests that Dhuoda and William read the psalter together. I’m grateful to Jonathan Jarrett for pointing me to this reference.

[5] Liber manualis, 10.6, p. 229. Previous quotes: “those to whom you show this little book”, 1.1, p. 59; urge little brother to read it, 1.7, p. 71. In a shift toward introspective address, Dhuoda wrote at the end of her prefatory verses:

With Christ’s help I shall embark on the work I have begun for my children.

Id. p. 47. Yet the verses themselves are explicitly addressed to one particular child, William. The later reference “for my children” (ad prolem) is probably best understood in the dynastic sense of offspring.

[6] Thiébaux (1998). Libraries, e.g. the Library of Congress, cataloged it with the title Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son.

[7] For “libellum moralis,” 1.7, p. 68.

[8] Asking “was Dhuoda also an intellectual in Raymond Williams’ sense, in Bourdieu’s sense, in our sense?” {emphasis in original}, Nelson answered:

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 to other women’s sons.

Nelson (2007), pp. 117, 121-2. That answer obscures the possibility of second-personal address having broad, communal significance.

[image] Hand of the Lord above the Chariot of Abinabad, f. 39r, Morgan Picture Bible, 1240s, France. MS M. 638, Morgan Library, New York.


Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University 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.

Nelson, Janet L. 2011. “Dhuoda on Dreams.” Pp. 41-54 in Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith. Motherhood, religion, and society in medieval Europe, 400-1400: essays presented to Henrietta Leyser. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son: Liber manualis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


Wednesday’s flowers

red flower petals

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:

hoc est sermo ex me, opus in te
{this is a speech from me, giving work to you}[8]

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

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.


how Thecla was saved from her evil mother and terrifying death

Although Thecla was engaged to Thamyris, she fell in love with Paul. Just hearing Paul speak captivated Thecla. It wasn’t her fault. It was just the way she felt.

Thecla’s mother was furious at her for being in love with Paul. Her mother called Thamyris to their house. That really wasn’t necessary. Everyone was weeping bitterly, pleading with Thecla, and berating her. So cruel. That’s not the way a mother should treat her daughter just because she doesn’t want to go through with a wedding because she loves someone else.

The situation got worse. Her mother accused Paul of upsetting the whole city of Iconium. Two of Thamyris’ friends, who also knew Paul, blatantly lied and said that Paul said that women and men shouldn’t sleep together. That’s crazy. Paul didn’t say that. Even the tyrants running our schools haven’t tried to totally end sex. Or gender. Whatever.

So, get this, Thecla’s mother got her in trouble with the Governor. The Governor called Thecla up and said:

Why dost thou not marry Thamyris, in accordance with the law of the Iconians?

Thecla said nothing and just stared at Paul. She is so in love with him! Then her evil mother, that witch, cried out:

Burn the wicked one; burn her who will not marry in the midst of the theatre, that all the women who have been taught by this man (she meant Paul) may be afraid!

While the Governor seemed to like Paul and listened to him gladly, he knew he couldn’t rule against a mother. So he condemned Thecla to be burned. A rainstorm put out the fire, thank God. Otherwise, she would have burned.

Thecla left home and went to be with Paul. After the way her mother treated her, how could she stay at home? Thecla had been everywhere in Iconium. I hate that place, too. She and Paul went to Antioch, which is a big city with great night life. Before they went to a restaurant or club, a creepy guy named Alexander hit on her. Right out in the open street, with Paul next to her! Thecla tore Alexander’s fancy clothes, knocked him in the head, and made him the laughing-stock of Antioch.

Thecla got in trouble with the authorities for that. Alexander had friends in high places and pulled strings to get back at her. So Thecla rejected that beast Alexander, and she got condemned to the beasts! A lot of women in Antioch stood up for Thecla. They cried out: “Evil judgement! Impious judgement!” And Queen Tryphaena, who was a close friend of the Emperor, befriended Thecla. Queen Tryphaena’s daughter had died. But her daughter spoke to her in a dream:

Mother, receive this stranger, the forsaken Thecla, in my place, that she may pray for me and I may come to the place of the just.

I always pray for all the souls of the faithful departed, and a queen hasn’t adopted me. Well, I haven’t been thrown to beasts, either. When they threw Thecla to the beasts, all the women sat together to watch. Some yelled: “Away with the sacrilegious person!” But other women yelled: “O that the city would be destroyed on account of this iniquity! Kill us all, proconsul; miserable spectacle, evil judgement!” Divided, the women couldn’t rule.

A lioness and God saved Thecla. Thecla was put in the arena, and beasts were sent at her. But the lioness lay down lovingly at her feet. When a bear tried to attack her, a man bear I’m sure, the lioness defended Thecla and tore the bear apart. Then Alexander sent his lion to attack Thecla, but the lioness defended her. Both the lion and the lioness died fighting. They fought a spectacularly bloody fight over Thecla. More beasts were sent at Thecla, but she jumped into a pit of water and was what the Christians call baptized. There was a lightening flash, and then all the seals that were going to eat her died. Thecla emerged in a cloud of fire. More beasts were sent at her. A lot of women were yelling and throwing fragrant plants at her so that the whole arena smelled like perfume. All the beasts were calm as if they were asleep. It was exciting and dreamy.

Then Alexander did something really awful. You know how guys seem to be driven by their balls? Well, Alexander tied Thecla to two bulls, then poked the bulls’ balls with a red-hot iron. They went wild.  But Thecla in her robe of flames burned through the ropes tying her to the bulls. She got away unharmed from the bulls.  Then Queen Tryphaena fainted. I thought I was going to faint, too. All the Queen’s maids yelled, “The Queen Tryphaena is dead!” Alexander became very afraid. He fell at the Governor’s feet and pleaded:

Have mercy upon me and upon the city and set the woman prisoner free, lest the city also be destroyed. For if Caesar should hear of these things, he may destroy the city along with us because his kinswoman, Queen Tryphaena, has died at the theatre gate.

Alexander couldn’t even stand up to Thecla. I knew the Queen’s maids could fool him.

The Governor decided to release Thecla to the maids. They all cried out in praise to God: “One is God, who has delivered Thecla.” The whole city was shaken by the maids’ cries. Thecla was saved from death. Queen Tryphaena returned to life. She said to Thecla:

Now I believe that the dead are raised up! Now I believe that my child lives! Come inside, and I will assign to you all that is mine.

Queen Tryphaena took Thecla into her big house and gave her jewels and luxurious robes. Now all us girls want to become Christians like Thecla.

*  *  *

Thecla, Paul, and Theocleia in fresco in Cave of St. Paul, near Ephesus

In the sixth century, in a cave reputed to be the place where the Apostle John had taken Mary, the mother of Jesus, a fresco was made of Thecla, Paul, and Thecla’s mother Theocleia. Theocleia stands to the viewer’s right of Paul. Theocleia’s hand has two fingers raised in a gesture signaling that she, like Paul, is seeking to teach Thecla. Some time later, someone scratched out Theocleia’s eyes and blacked out her two-fingers teaching gesture. That person passionately identified with Thecla’s love of Paul and despised Thecla’s evil mother Theocleia.

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Read more:


The text above is adapted from the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in Greek in the second century. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition. The quotes above are from the translation of Elliott (1993), with minor modifications. A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library. A scholarly consensus now exists that a woman or a community of women wrote or created orally the Acts of Paul and Thecla prior to Tertullian’s apparent reference to a presbyter producing the Acts of Paul. Barrier (2009) p. 22.

The fresco shown above is in a cave, called the Cave of St. Paul, in Bülbüg Dag near Ephesus in present-day Turkey. The image of the fresco is fairly used from the Ephesus Foundation website. Crossan & Reed (2004), for its book cover, featured that fresco, tendentiously cropped and highlighted. That book’s preface declared:

An earlier image in which Thecla and Paul were equally authoritative apostolic figures has been replaced by one in which the male is apostolic and authoritative and the female is blinded and silenced. … here are our questions. Is Thecla still departing or now returning? Does a search for Paul push female leadership, authority, and apostolicity off to the side and finally off that cover, or does a search for Paul bring Thecla, women, and equality back steadily and inevitably into the light until female and male stand together side by side in the full life of the center?

Id. pp. xii-xiv. That’s only rhetorical posing. The figure on the viewer’s left is clearly Thecla at her window. The figure in the center is explicitly labeled in Greek as Paul, and the figure on the right, as ΘΕΟΚΛΙ (THEOCLI).  Hence the figure on the viewer’s right (on Paul’s left, with the left side having disparaging biblical significance) surely is Thecla’s mother Theocleia, not Thecla herself. The absurd analysis in Crossan & Reed (2004) is disseminated worldwide about a decade latter in a Wikicommons page featuring the fresco, tendentiously cropped. Humane imagination provides better understanding.


Barrier, Jeremy W., ed. and trans. 2009. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: a critical introduction and commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Based on dissertation, freely available online.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. 2004. In search of Paul: how Jesus’s Apostle opposed Rome’s empire with God’s kingdom. New York, N.Y.: HarperSanFrancisco.

Elliott, J. K., trans. 1993. The Apocryphal New Testament: a collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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