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No. 1195:

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 for him.

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 her book.

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 mother.

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 centuries ago.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Marchand, J., The Frankish Mother. Medieval Women Writers (Katharina M. Wilson, ed.). Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984, Chapter 99, pp. 1-29.