Today, a remarkable woman opens a window on another
age. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Dhuoda was the wife of
Bernhard, a military and political figure in the
early medieval French court. In 843, she finished
writing a manual for her 16-year-old son, William.
Bernhard had put Dhuoda away in a castle and handed
their son over to Charles the Bald as a hostage.
Dhuoda, confined like Rapunzel, reached out to her
exiled firstborn by writing an instruction manual
Meanwhile, Bernhard was vying for favor among
Charlemagne's squabbling grandsons, of whom Charles
was one. He was also evolving into a monster as he
gained power. Cruel, lecherous, and political, he
tortured and maimed his enemies. He seduced the
previous king's wife. He also removed a second son
from Dhuoda even before the baby was baptized.
Bernhard's enemies were no better. One by one, they
had the rest of his family blinded or murdered.
And, hostage or no, Charles the Bald finally
beheaded Bernhard, only a year after Dhuoda wrote
This was an age when few men, and almost no women,
could write. Yet the manual shows a fine grasp of
theology, philology, philosophy, and mathematics.
Translator James Marchand judges that it's written
in fairly good, but certainly not fluent, Latin.
Dhuoda speaks in a unique voice, slipping from
poetry to prose and back again so deftly it's hard
to find the seams. She has a first-class knowledge
of the classics. She loves words, word games,
arithmetic, and the mystic power of numbers. Her
religious conviction is absolute, and she's
fervently committed to William as his loving
She begins with a poem praising God and asking for
William's well-being. She also spells her name out
in an acrostic. Later, she calls up numbers to
direct her meditations. In her thinking, four has a
special perfection. Four is the number of letters
in the Latin word Deus, for God. And
the first letter of Deus, D, is the
fourth letter of the alphabet. All that is typical
medieval thinking rendered with a fluency that
suggests a mind chafing for somewhere to go. But
her playfulness is gone by the time she finishes
the book with her own epitaph,
Dhuoda's body, formed of earth,
Lies Buried in this tomb. ...
O King, forgive her sins ...
Great Hagios, unlock her chains ...
Almus, give her rest ...
When he was 23, young William had proven to be, in
the words of one old chronicle, "too much the son
of [his father] in flesh and in habits." So Charles
the Bald had him beheaded as well.
Dhuoda's manual on how to grow up in the Grace of
God had done scant good without her presence behind
it. What she did accomplish was to leave us a
glimpse into the heart and mind of a woman living
in the worst of times -- one rare woman who escaped
the veil of anonymity shrouding all women -- twelve
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds