Ethics in the Family: A Ninth Century Mother Trains Her Sons
***** JAFFE ***** EJC\REC, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1997 ************
ETHICS IN THE FAMILY:
A NINTH CENTURY MOTHER TRAINS HER SONS
Clella I. Jaffe
George Fox College
Abstract: Traditionally, the job of educating
children to be moral citizens fell largely on
mothers. Most training was done informally in the
home, but exigencies such as separation often
prompted literate women to condense their parental
guidelines into letters or manuals, some of which
survive. This is a study of the manual written by
a ninth-century noblewoman Dhuoda who was
separated from her sons. It summarizes typical
characteristics of mothers' manuals; then, it
describes the circumstances that compelled Dhuoda
to write. Finally, it examines her ideas of what
it means to be a good person, skilled in
communicating in transpersonal, family,
interpersonal, and public contexts. This
examination helps us better understand principles
of parental advice giving.
Recent newsmagazines described the results of a report,
Great Transitions, issued by a 27-member panel of experts
whose work was sponsored by the Carnegie Council on
Adolescent Development (Shapiro, 1995; Wulf, 1995). The
panel concluded that the years from 10-14 are "tricky"
(Shapiro, 1995, p. 84), that teens are searching for
lifelong roles and values, and that this may be the best --
and the last -- chance to reach them. It further concluded
that adolescents "covet adult guidance" (Shapiro, 1995, p.
85) just at the time that adult influence is decreasing in
their lives. One teen, Reagan DeFlorio is quoted as saying,
"Kids need their parents. That's where they get morals and
values" (Shapiro, 1995, p. 85).
Historically, mothers have been expected to guide their
children to value the "good" and to cope successfully in a
world that is often precarious. Even if there were servants
and governesses, mothers themselves were responsible for
supervising their offspring's education and moral
instruction. For instance, in _The Good Wife Taught Her
Daughter_ (oldest mss. about 1350), a lower middle class
mother advises her newly married daughter to teach her own
children to be obedient and humble, not coddling them but
using the rod when they misbehave. Similarly, Christine de
Pisan, in _Livre des Trois Vertus_ (c1405), advises young
mothers to be involved personally in their children's
instruction. In the treatise _Enseignements a sa Fille_
Suzanne de Bourbon, Anne of France (c. 1505) advises her
soon-to-be-married daughter Suzanne to instruct her children
personally in religious and moral matters (Bornstein, 1983).
All of these medieval books identify the importance of
mothers in communicating ethical principles, family values,
religious beliefs, and social competence.
Originally, mothers spoke informally in the private
spheres of daily life; however, as women became increasingly
literate, many penned the principles they had instilled
throughout the child's growing years, creating letters or
manuals for their children's edification. Their advice was
practical -- they desired that their progeny know how to
live in this world and to prepare for the next. They were,
quite literally, hoping to raise "good children, skilled in
Although mothers gave advice throughout their
childrearing years, impending separation within a family --
a daughter getting married, a son leaving for battle, the
mother herself dying -- created an exigence that often
resulted in formalized maternal advice-giving. The ritual
of offering advice functioned in two major ways: it
summarized family values and ethical principles for the
child; and perhaps more importantly, it assuaged the
mother's anxiety over the uncertainties facing her child
Parental advice-giving is not limited to medieval
times, and contemporary parents of both genders continue to
advise their children. Because the phenomenon is widespread
across centuries and cultures, it is important to
investigate parental advice giving by closely examining a
prototypical manual that one ninth-century mother wrote to
summarize her notions about moral communication for her sons
who were sent to live in precarious social situations. It
first discusses mothers' manuals in general, then it looks
at the life and circumstances of the first mother whose
manual survived, the Carolignian noblewoman, Dhnoda (Bowers,
1977; Cabaniss, 1974; Dronke, 1984; Duckett, 1972; Marchand,
1984; Mayeski, 1988; Neel, 1991; Riche, 1975). It seeks to
know this mother's answers to the following questions:
1. What does it mean to be a good person?
2. What does it mean to communicate well?
The contents of Dhouda's manual and her persuasive
strategies give us insight into the ways mothers give
advice, the kinds of subjects they feel are important enough
to discuss, and the reasons they give for passing on this
information. In this, it helps us understand the way that
women have typically been tied to rhetoric that is private,
relational, and moral or ethical.
Within the broad category of courtesy literature,
mothers carved out a new genre distinguished in the main by
the relationship between author and audience. Mother's
manuals are distinctive due to the biological and socially
sanctioned relationship between the mother-rhetor and the
child-audience, a relationship that results in a means of
persuasion that is unique to this genre (Jaffe, 1995).
For example, Dhuoda alone can use appeals from pathos
such as, "clearly see your duty to me. . . your mother,
whose heart burns on your behalf'' (I.6) . Additional
pathetic appeals come from reminders of family ideals.
William should be loyal, resisting the "madness of
treachery" (III.4), in order to uphold his family's history of
faithful service to the king. This mother also uses fear of
"the ancient serpent" (IV.5) to warn her son to resist
vices. In contrast, she more commonly appeals to positive
motivators such as hope, success, and peace.
Ethos also becomes a powerful means of argument, for
children whose mothers care enough to write manuals know
that love motivates their parents to give helpful, rather
than harmful, advice. For instance, Dhuoda's heart "burns"
on behalf of her sons (I.7). And the "sweetness of her
great love" for them (X.4) combined with her "watchful
heart" (prol.) guarantees only the best of intentions on her
Dhuoda's manual is only one of several that mothers
wrote across both geographical and temporal boundaries
(King, 1991; Bornstein, 1983). In addition to Anne of
France and the "good wife" who taught her daughter --
mentioned in the introduction -- Christine de Pizan penned
two books for her son at the beginning of the fourteenth
century: _Les Enseignemens Moraux_ (Moral Teachings) and
_Les Proverbes Moraux_ (Moral Proverbs). Additional writers
included the sixteenth century German ruler and Lutheran
reformer, Elisabeth of Braunschweig, who advised her
daughter on marriage and her son on government. A century
later, Englishwomen contributed to the growing genre of
mother's manuals. Elizabeth Grymeston's son, Bernye,
received his mother's treatise on education, marriage,
devotions, and death. Elizabeth Joceline's (1625, 1852,
1975) work _Legacie to My Unborne Childe_, was addressed to
her unborn daughter, whose birth would result in Joceline's
death. In addition, Lady Sarah Pennington (1857) wrote _A
Golden Legacy to Daughters_ or _Advice to Young Ladies_ when
her girls were taken from her care.
Scholars are certain about the authorship of these
texts; however, a number of additional texts survive -- also
supposedly written or dictated to scribes by mothers. A
Middle High German dialogue between a Bavarian lady and her
daughter can be traced to the thirteenth century. Advice on
marriage, _Dodici Avvertimente Che Deve Dare la Madre alla
Figinola Quandro la Manda a Marito_, comes from a fourteenth
century Italian mother for her betrothed daughter
All of these women dispense practical advice in the
"mother tongue" which Le Guin (1989) contrasts with the
father tongue -- the language of public discourse. The
language of mothers is "common ... ordinary ... [it]
expects an answer.... The mother tongue is language not as
mere communication but as relation, relationship. It goes
two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is .
. . in binding. . . in uniting" (p. 149).
In addition to the relationship of rhetor to audience
and the argumentative strategies of pathos and ethos, these
manuals can be distinguished by the topics with which they
deal, the everyday skills the children need for fulfilling
the Biblical injunction to increase in wisdom and stature --
in favor with God and other humans.  After a discussion
of the first manual author, Dhuoda, we will look at the
specific advice she gave as a representative example this
The Ninth Century World of Dhuoda
We know about Dhuoda what she reveals in her manual and
what we conjecture about her from other ninth century
records. That she was a member of the landed nobility is
indisputable. In a palace wedding she married Bernard of
Septimania who was godson of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's
heir. Bernard's father, William of Gellone, Charlemagne's
cousin, was later designated the patron saint of knights.
Her wealth and station is demonstrated in the fact that she
could produce a book, for books could cost a middle level
official a half year's salary (McKitterick, 1989).
Dhuoda bore William two-and-one-half years after her
marriage, then fourteen years later -- after Bernard
returned home upon the death of the king -- another son came
along. In the interim, she probably lived separated from
Bernard in a castle in Uzes, in the southern part of the
kingdom. There, she managed her own interests and her
The manual reveals a characteristically loyal, humble
woman who respects her husband but doubts his fidelity --
and for good reason. While all we know about Dhuoda comes
from her self-revelation, there are many sources of
information about Bernard. Historians of the period -- some
of whom were his avowed enemies -- paint him as a villain,
involved in a conspiracy against the king and a tryst with
the queen (Radbertus, 836?). In fact, some gossip of the
day suggests that he, not Louis the Pious, was father of
Charles (later designated "the Bald") (Duckett, 1972).
Perhaps there were political motivations behind the
diatribes against Bernard. The marriage of Louis and the
young and beautiful Judith occurred after the death of
Louis's first wife -- after Louis had divided the kingdom
among his three sons by his first marriage. When Judith
bore the king a fourth son -- whom she determined would
receive his share of the inheritance -- the succession was
disturbed, and there ensued several decades of jockeying for
power in the realm. Caught in the midst of this turbulence
were once-proud families such as Bernard's, struggling for a
place in the post-Charlemagne society.
Bernard, unfortunately, aligned himself with the wrong
heir -- Charles's elder half-brother -- after the death of
Louis, and as a result, William went to the court of the
young King Charles. There are a number of plausible reasons
for this: 1) William might act as his father's spy; 2) the
young man would receive knightly training; or, most
probably, 3) Bernard had no choice, for Charles wanted
Bernard's eldest son and heir at court as a virtual hostage
for his father's loyalty (Labarge, 1986). The other
disastrous event, from Dhuoda's standpoint, occurred when
Bernard whisked away her unchristened newborn and took him
into hiding. In his thoughtlessness, Bernard never told the
grieving mother her baby's name. (We know he was named
The exigences of separation and danger prompt Dhuoda to
take up her pen and dispense motherly advice. And there are
three people who need her words. First, William, leaving
forever the relatively sheltered world of Uzes, must
navigate in the turbulent world of the court. In his
worried mother's mind, he needs to know how to live
effectively among people who have life and death power over
him. Then, there is baby Bernard who will never know his
mother's teaching, for fragile Dhuoda believes correctly
that she will die before she sees him again. Thus, it is up
to William to communicate her teachings to his little
brother. Finally, Dhuoda herself, bereft of her children,
is "anxious and filled with longing to do something" (prol.)
for them. This mother needs comforting at the loss of her
sons, and her manual allows her to continue her relationship
with William and to create one with the infant.
As we might expect, Dhuoda's motherly advice is
grounded in the values she embraces, and she emphasizes a
number of worthy traits throughout her text. Beginning in
the prologue, she urges her son to pursue "the fourfold
virtues." That she does not explicitly name them in this
first reference indicates that she had inculcated into young
William the importance of justice, strength, wisdom, and
Although she calls charity the highest of the virtues
(II.2) the trait she extols most frequently is humility
(I.3, 5, and 7; IV.3, 4, and 5; X.2; m. 1 and 3), which will
counter the "disease, the plague of pride" (IV.3) that is
splitting the kingdom. Elsewhere, she encourages William to
arm himself with the sevenfold gifts of God's spirit:
wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge,
godliness, and fear of the Lord (IV.4). Throughout the text
she weaves references to other honorable virtues such as
patience (III.6; IV.8; V.4), obedience (III.1 and 3), mercy
(IV.8,9) self-control (IV.6), and generosity (IV.8; X.2).
In the middle of her book Dhuoda summarizes the
characteristics of the "perfect man" as one who embodies the
following characteristics: he walks without blemish --
choosing not to sin when it would be easy to do so. He
works justice and speaks truthfully, without deceit. In
addition, he treats his neighbors with integrity. In
financial matters, he is aloof from bribes and usury. In
his personal life, he is innocent, chaste, and purehearted.
Finally, he is generous to the poor (VI.3).
With these ideals as her underlying rationale, Dhuoda
then explains her notions of effective communication with
God and other humans. Since her medieval world view is
pervasively Christian, she sees God as a person who enters
into relationships with people -- relationships maintained
through prayer, which she calls oratorio (from oris + ratio,
the "reason of the mouth") (II.3). Thus, the first section
of her books deals with advice on what might be called
transpersonal communication -- communication with the
Almighty. Through prayer, which involves deep heartfelt
emotion as well as clear reasoning and righteous actions,
she urges William to seek God's favor:
Not in a loud voice nor in a lengthy speech but in
deep and spontaneous feelings, in silence, we must
seek of him that he give to us, endow us, enrich
us, and deign to grant what we ask (II.3).
This, she argues, is a model for the way we persuade
men of great earthly power in interpersonal situations in
the world of here and now. We ask in humility -- without
arrogance, loud protest, or complaint. And on the basis of
these interpersonal skills, our wishes are granted.
She further counsels William to pray in "short, pure,
direct speech" (II.3) in church, in every endeavor, at
bedtime, upon arising, and at the canonical hours. In order
to guide his thoughts, she refers him to memorized prayers,
such as the Lord's Prayer, and she provides him with several
model prayers of her own.
And what should be the content of his continuous
prayers? In addition to petitions for the necessities of
life and for protection from his enemies, Dhuoda instructs
William to "pray without ceasing"  for the past, present,
and future (VIII.2), the ranks of the clergy (VIII.3, 4), the
king and those of high rank (VIII.5, 6), for his father
(VIII.7), for enemies, travelers, the sick and afflicted and
so on (VIII.8), for holy people of God (VIII.9), and the
faithful dead -- both the worthy and unworthy (VIII.10-17;
X.5). This last group is very important to Dhuoda, for she
fears she will soon join the ranks of the dead, and she
desires that William -- and anyone else who reads her book
-- pray for her soul (X.4, XI.2)
Although Dhuoda begins and ends with instructions to
guide her son in relating with God, the middle section of
her book instructs him in effective relationships with
others in his world. In this, she is instructing him in
family, in interpersonal, and briefly in public
First, she guides him in effective family relationships
(III. 1-3). To his father, he must be reverent, respectful,
and obedient -- both in his presence and in his more
frequent absences. One of her major argumentative
strategies is narrative reasoning, and she uses Biblical
stories, contrasting Eli's sons and Absalom who did not
respect their fathers and were brought to ruin with the
righteous sons of Abraham and Noah, who honored their
fathers and received blessings. Similarly, if William
honors his father first, he will receive God's blessing and
his own offspring will obey him. Rather than respecting the
king above all -- as was the custom -- Dhuoda urges William
"to render first to him whose son you are special, faithful,
steadfast loyalty as long as you shall live" (III.2), for he
owes his rank and property to his father. (Unfortunately,
six years later William followed his mother's advice, and
attempted to avenge his father's execution. Charles
subsequently had the young man beheaded. Young Bernard,
similarly, attempted to avenge his father's and brother's
deaths, but he was pardoned and eventually founded Aquitaine
and Auvergne) (Bouchard, 1986).
Dhuoda also places on sixteen-year-old William the
responsibility for training his baby brother. After the
infant is baptized, William must do the following:
. . . do not hesitate to teach him, to educate
him, to love him, and to call him to progress from
good to better. When the time has come that he
has learned to speak and to read, show him this
little volume . . . Urge him to read it, for he is
your flesh and your brother. I, your mother
Dhuoda, urge you, as if I even now spoke to both
of you . . . (I.7).
Regarding herself, Dhuoda pleads that her son read her
volume and continue to obey her teachings and thus fulfill
his duty to her. In addition, she begs him "on account of
your special feeling for me . . . to struggle on my behalf"
(X.4) in prayer for her soul as she approaches death.
Furthermore, she asks him to take care of her estate,
repaying any creditors that may remain after her death.
Next, she turns to interpersonal relationships with
those outside the family. Young William is to honor Charles
whom God and Bernard have chosen as his lord at the
beginning of his career (III.4). In the lord-liege
relationship, she warns him against disloyalty and
treachery, traits she swears have never been seen in his
family. In his conversations he is to be truthful, a man of
good judgment who gains wisdom from the works of holy
authors. Additionally, he must exhibit loyalty to Charles's
family -- both male and female -- patiently taking the
servant's role (III.8).
Perhaps because her marriage was less than perfect,
Dhuoda writes an entire section advising her son about his
relationships with women. She is greatly concerned that her
"handsome and beloved" (I.1) William exercise self-control
and chastity, fleeing fornication and refusing to lust after
prostitutes (IV.6). Although an angel of Satan may tempt
him, self-control must begin in his thought life, for "it is
in the head that the eyes of the flesh are turned to desire"
(IV.6). Virginity is a "resplendent gift" (IV.6) but a
chaste marriage -- free of "libidinous and wrongful
fornication" (VI.6) -- is also honorable and leads to a
In a society based largely on rank, Dhuoda turns to
those beneath William in station. In interpersonal
encounters with these people, he must be mindful that God
does not respect persons,  and all humans have worth.
With all men (sic) he is to offer words plus deeds -- gentle
speech as well as action -- for ". . . it is said about
words that a good speech is better than the best gift"
She continues by admonishing him to revere priests and
bishops as God's servants -- modeling after the better ones
who are clearheaded in action and speech. And those priests
who do not live up to their calling? Even these, he is not
to revile but to revere as bearers of God's word. Finally,
Dhuoda advises her son regarding the unique form of
interpersonal communication known as the confession. This
interaction between a person and a priest is to be done
privately, accompanied by sighing and tears. The result
will be liberation of the soul and avoidance of hell
Modern interpersonal texts emphasize the importance of
listening, and Dhuoda does not neglect this subject. She
urges her son to listen carefully to counselors, to priests
in order to see those who are especially close to God
(III.11). He is even to listen untroubled to the poor as
they present petitions to him (IV.8), for his compassion
will enable him to be a good listener who shares with poor
petitioners (IV.8). And of course, he is to "listen" to her
words as they leap from the page.
Throughout her text, Dhuoda continuously weaves
together thinking, speaking, and acting, for she considers
"pure thoughts, holy speech, and perfect action" to be gifts
from God (I.1). For instance, during prayer William should
seek by thinking, ask by speaking, and beseech God by
actions (I.1). Then he should go into the world and
encourage the poor in words as well as deeds (IV.8). As a
consequence, his actions -- the good he does -- become a
kind of constant prayer (VIII. 1). In contrast, while good
words are linked to good thoughts and actions, "hidden evil
is decorated with sweet words" (IV. 1).  In this case
also, words result from what is in the heart. In linking
words and actions in this manner, Dhnoda reinforces the
value of a good reputation. Words alone are insufficient;
character and ethical actions must accompany them.
Dhuoda is most explicit in her instructions about
effective, ethical public communication when she discusses
the council of the magnates. She advises William on what,
when, to whom, and how to comment. In this context, he is
to think before he offers "worthy and appropriate comment"
(III.5). In fact, his own speech should be preceded by wise
counsel from men who are well-reasoned, and such speech will
have positive effects on the listeners, as this excerpt
For the speech of one who has good understanding
is whiter than snow, sweeter than honey, purer
than gold or silver. Why? Because as Scripture
says, from the mouth of a wise man comes honey 
because his lips draw from the honeycomb  and
his words are pure words . . . tried by the fire,
purged.  There are no riches where stupidity
reigns, and nothing is wanting, nothing an
obstacle, in matters where gentle speech prevails
In summary, ethical speech is useful to God, to other
humans, and to the ethical speaker, and the good this speech
accomplishes is enduring in effect. Thus, William will be
more successful if he is slow to speak and slow to anger,
patient, a man who restrains his thoughts and tongue (IV.8).
If he can learn when to speak, if he can speak well, keeping
his mouth from evil and his "lips from speaking guile;" [10
%%HC:10:] then the Holy Spirit will not forsake him and his
mind will be at peace.
William can look to a number of sources to guide him in
communicating wisely. In her manual he will find all he
"may wish to know in compact form" in order to be "effective
in this world and pleasing to God in every way" (prol.).
Moreover, the Creator Himself will assist those who seek His
guidance, and Dhuoda prays that God, who made infants speak
His praise, will cause William to be "filled with the
eloquence of worthy, noble men who fear the Lord" (III.9).
Also, older counselors as well as youth who seek God are
important for his moral development. Finally, he can learn
from examples such as Joseph, Daniel, and Jethro who sought
counsel for their decisions. As a good man who speaks well,
William can hope to live at peace.
This study of the specific advice given in one mother's
manual, which is representative of the genre (Jaffe, 1995),
helps us understand some of the principles of parental
advice-giving. Dhuoda's book and others like it shows us
that parents, faced with the exigency of separation from
their children, typically summarize their views of what it
means to be a good person who speaks well. In these more
formalized presentations, they condense the teachings they
have been giving daily -- mostly on an informal basis --
regarding moral living.
Good persons embody important family values such as
charity, generosity, humility, loyalty, and self-control.
These values emerge out of the families' deeply held moral
principles which are often religious in origin.
Not only do parents identify what it means to be a good
person, they also detail principles for communicating
ethically on a number of levels. First, a religious mother
may begin with advice for communicating with God -- the
child's most important relationship in her view. A secular
family might emphasize personal integrity and peace with
oneself. For example, in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act I, Scene
iii, 78-80) Laertes is leaving for France. Polonius, his
father, blesses him with advice that includes this
This above all: to thine own self be true, And it
must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not
then be false to any man. Farewell.
Additionally, parent-advisors may discuss family
relationships. How should the separated children continue
to relate to their parents and siblings? Dhuoda urges
filial respect, continued contact and brotherly
responsibility between the brothers, and obedience to the
principles and values inculcated in the home. And more --
the son should remember his family in his prayers.
Other areas of advice include interpersonal
communication. Parents might touch on dealing with those in
power over them and with those beneath them in rank -- the
modern equivalent would be advice for dealing with the boss
or for succeeding in the workplace. Dhuoda emphasizes
respect and loyalty directed towards William's lord. And
the characteristic of respect, combined with self-control,
should also govern relationships with the opposite sex.
Good listening skills may be described in this context.
Finally, Dhuoda gives advice relating to public
communication. She summarizes the importance of thinking,
speaking, and acting well that will result in benefits to
the public as well as to the child.
This paper is part of ongoing research about parental
advice-giving. More exploration is needed into other
historical documents that reveal parents giving advice.
Examples might include Shakespeare's plays or other
literature. Additional queries into post-modern, secular
parental advice-giving warrants examination and comparison
or contrast with the historical mothers' manuals.
We might expect that the exigencies that elicit
formalized counsel lead parents to condense the most salient
principles for ethical living that they have been
communicating within their families. Understanding these
principles will enable us to understand one aspect of ethics
in family communication.
. Dhuoda divided her manual into thirty-three
"books." Pierre Riche, who translated her work into French,
reconfigured her work into different books and chapters.
This paper follows his classificatory scheme. We have three
sources for complete modern translations which have been
made by Pierre Riche (into French, 1975), Carole Neel
(1991), and Myra Ellen Bowers (1977). There are nine
fragments of a late tenth or early eleventh century copy, a
complete fourteenth century copy from Barcelona, and an
error filled Parisian copy from the seventeenth century. In
addition, Marchand (1984) and Mayeski (1988) provide
translations of excerpts from the text. Unless noted
otherwise, all quotations come from the Neel translation.
. Luke 2:52.
. 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
. Acts 4:34.
. Synonyms by Isidore.
. Psalm 119:103.
. Song of Solomon 4:11.
. Psalm 11:7.
. Ecclesiastes 6:5.
. Psalm 34:14.
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Author: Clella I. Jaffe
Department of Communication
George Fox College
Newberg, OR 97132
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