Carolingian Aristocratic Women and the Transmission of Culture

Garver, Valerie Louise, University of Virginia
Schutte, Anne, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how aristocratic women living in areas of Carolingian rule during the eighth and ninth centuries transmitted and maintained cultural behaviors, beliefs, knowledge, and practices essential to the self-understanding of aristocrats and the recognition by others that they were members of the Carolingian elite. In their households, while acting as moral exemplars to their servants and retainers, they taught their young children to read and provided them with basic moral and religious instruction before their sons went to court or monastery and their daughters to convents for further education. Queens helped guide young men at court in proper behavior, while abbesses furnished young women in convents with an education both religious and practical. In order to guarantee the material and spiritual health of their kin, both religious and lay women preserved family bonds and memory, maintained portions of family patrimony, and arranged for and participated in memorial commemoration of their spiritual and natural kin. Furthermore, women taught each other to embroider, manage households, provide hospitality, and promote their families’ stability and power. Female transmission of culture took place mainly in the background of a relentlessly male world, but contemporaries recognized the social, political, religious, and economic repercussions of these actions.

The representations of Carolingian women in contemporary sources took these female activities into account. Clerics recognized that conventional female roles would allow women to help spread the more uniform Christian practice and belief that Carolingian reforms promoted, especially as they had frequent contact with other women, children, and inferiors, those with whom clerics may have had little contact. Prescriptive sources can therefore reveal the responsibilities and actions of women as well as the ideals which others urged upon them. Archaeological finds, inventories, charters, textiles, and a handbook of advice written by a woman, Dhuoda, for her son contextualize the evidence of prescriptive and instructive texts. Examination of literature, memorial books, exegesis, and liturgical texts also contribute to this decidedly interdisciplinary approach. Finally, consideration of the possible lifecycle of Carolingian aristocratic women reveals their relatively wide scope to act in their society despite their legal and social constrictions.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Aristocratic women, Carolingian, culture
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