The Good Wife’s Guide: A Medieval Household Book 
translated by Gina Greco and Christine Rose.
Cornell, 366 pp., £16.95, March 2009, 978 0 8014 7474 3
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My dear, because you were only 15 years old the week we were married, you asked that I be indulgent about your youth and inexperience until you had seen and learned more. You expressly promised to listen carefully and to apply yourself wholeheartedly to preserving my contentment and love for you (as you so prudently said following advice from, I do believe, someone more wise than yourself), beseeching me humbly in our bed, as I recall, that for the love of God I not rebuke you harshly in front of either strangers or our household, but that I admonish you each night, or on a daily basis, in our bedroom, and that I remind you of your errors or foolishness of the day or days past and that I chastise you, if I should want to.

These are the words which open the 14th-century book of household management and comportment in marriage known as Le Ménagier de Paris. Filling almost 300 pages in this new translation, it is as compendious as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and equally ambitious. Yet unlike the energetic Mrs Beeton, the author of Le Ménagier de Paris is unknown and unknowable. He adopts the voice of ‘Husband’, addressing his ‘Young Wife’ and offering moral guidance, advice on hospitality and food and several cautionary tales, told in styles ranging from terse prose to poetry, as well as treatises on animal husbandry and hunting.

Thanks to its diverse contents and lively descriptions of scenes from a marriage, the Ménagier remained popular over the centuries, and when it became fashionable to edit medieval texts for the general public, it was republished, by the Société des bibliophiles françois in 1846, as a ‘treatise on morals and on domestic economy’. British antiquaries soon followed: excerpts were published in 1868 by the Early English Text Society. The editor, F.J. Furnivall – one of the founders of the OED – claimed that the Ménagier was ‘full of interest of all kinds to the Englishman as well as the Frenchman’. English readers were reintroduced to the book in the 20th century by Eileen Power, a future professor of economic history at Cambridge, who studied at the Sorbonne. Her translation was published in 1928 as The Goodman of Paris. Although conscious of the oppressive regime operated by the Husband, Power was enchanted by his observant eye, evoking him in her introduction as an urbane, amusing character. This new translation by Gina Greco and Christine Rose is the first to appear in English of the whole text. The editors have spent years on their translation, tracking down the names of animals, foods, plants, agricultural implements, kitchen gadgets and medicines, and have judged the register wisely, occasionally leaving words or phrases in Latin or French.

It soon becomes clear that this is not an artless book of advice addressed by a concerned husband to his wife, but rather a compendium of medieval lore, which aimed to instruct young wives, and so to overwhelm them with the knowledge of their duties that their efficiency and obedience would be assured. Here, some of the most common fantasies of male domestic control are played out with literary skill, by an author whose name we will never know, and whose own circumstances remain obscure. The Ménagier is above all a conduct book, part of a flourishing late medieval genre. Such books addressed women from well-to-do households, offering guidelines for a successful Christian marriage. The responsibility for this lay on the woman’s shoulders; she was the one who could make or break the marriage.

The book falls into three parts: religion and morality; estate management (gardens, horses, servants, hawking); and food. In the first part – the longest – the Husband mentions famous exempla of wifely conduct, figures used by Boccaccio and Petrarch before him, as well as by Chaucer: the patient Griselda, a complex figure in Chaucer, is here a model of ‘self-control, moral probity, piety, stalwart loyalty to her mate, humility, temperance, chastity and patience’. Another tale familiar from The Canterbury Tales, that of Melibee, sees a vengeful husband threatening his household’s welfare, while his wife, Prudence, tries to divert him. An early 14th-century poem, ‘Le Chemin de povreté et de richesse’, included at the close of the moralising section, describes a young husband’s dream-vision, and ends with a complaint about the difficulties of pleasing a wife.

The Young Wife must be trained in confidence and self-reliance so that she can run a successful household and contribute to a satisfying marriage. She has to become a knowledgable consumer in a city that boasted the greatest variety and highest quality of material goods. A sophisticated guild system – Paris had more than a hundred such groups by 1260 – meant there was great expertise in the making and marketing of goods. Within the guilds, master craftsmen trained apprentices, regulated prices, controlled the number of guild members and promoted their craft’s privileges and standing.

The Young Wife is taught to find the best meat, spices and bread, at the best prices. The section on menus instructs her that she has the power as ‘sovereign mistress of your household’ to ‘order and plan dinners and suppers … and … arrange the sequence of dishes and courses’. It also drowns her in information. The Husband describes the daily traffic of meat into Paris from farms in the Ile-de-France and beyond. It was marketed by members of the butchers’ guild; 3080 sheep, 514 beef cattle, 306 calves and 600 pigs were consumed every week. Planning a festive dinner for 40 involved bargaining with the baker and butcher, the wafer-maker and poulterer, the sauce-maker and spice merchant; it also involved a visit to Les Halles for eggs and fruit, to the dairy market of Pierre-au-Lait for good, rich milk, and to the Place de Grève for firewood and coal. And then there was the management of the servants hired for the day: a cook and assistants, waiters, water servers and bouncers (‘big, strong ushers to guard the door’).

The Husband offers similar guidance for dozens of other occasions, his advice varying according to the status of the guests, the size of the party, the time of year, and whether the meal is on a ‘meat’ or ‘fish’ day. He gives 380 recipes for soups and puddings, roasts, pasties and fish, egg dishes, glazes and sauces. The culinary advice is enlivened by the detail. Peas, for example, can be used in different ways:

On a meat day, after the peas have been drained, enhance the dish with bacon or meat broth, adding it when they are nearly cooked … On a fish day, while the peas are cooking, have a pot of onions cooking for just as long and, as with the bacon stock, add the onion broth to the peas and serve them … If on this fish day or in Lent there is salted whale meat, substitute it for the bacon used on a meat day.

Or by his allusiveness: a cheese should be

Not white like Helen,
Nor weeping, like Magdalen,
Not like Argus, but rather all blind,
And also heavy as an ox.
It stands up to the thumb’s pressure,
And it should have a scaly rind.
Eyeless, and tearless, and not white,
Crusted, firm and heavy.

Throughout the book he gives the Young Wife advice which hints at worlds – both past and present – she could only imagine, and of which she could never become a part. Such parading of male omniscience was particularly common in social milieus where wealth and demography allowed men to marry much younger women. While most medieval people married within their own social group and their own age group, and created families in which women toiled just as hard as men, a rich merchant habitually spent his youth amassing a fortune, and then married a healthy, pretty and well-connected young woman.

Young wives weren’t ignorant, but they were sheltered. They were taught the vernacular language of the region where they were born – Provençal, English, Tuscan – and were well versed in prayers and devotions. The Virgin Mary was thought to offer an excellent example, for in her were joined chastity and motherhood, beauty and virtue. Images of the Virgin often adorned the chests that contained the trousseau, as well as the mirrors and other gifts offered to a young bride. In Tuscany, ceremonies of betrothal reminded those present of the life of Mary and Joseph, another May/December union.

The domain of these Young Wives was entirely domestic: they were certainly never to venture out on their own. A form of purdah prevailed: respectable women stayed indoors, and covered their hair and faces in public. The Young Wife is advised: ‘Before leaving your chamber or home, be mindful that the collar of your shift, of your camisole, or of your robe or surcoat does not slip out one over the other, as happens with drunken, foolish or ignorant women.’ Even an expedition to church was dangerous; this was when Petrarch first saw Laura, and Troilus Criseyde.

Those who were able to maintain households, kitchens and wives in style turned this into a mark of their success in the world. Formal meals celebrated political and family alliances, just as public drinking sealed business deals and allowed men to bond. With the revolution in lifestyles and the development of marketing and larger-scale production in the later Middle Ages, even modest households could aspire to creature comforts, acquiring tiled ovens, decorated earthenware, cloth hangings and children’s toys: contemporary paintings offer glimpses of well-appointed domestic scenes. Pictures of the Annunciation and the Nativity were now set in bustling households.

While the Young Wife ruled at home, the Husband was a man of the world. A whole section is dedicated to ‘The Care of the Husband’s Person’:

Therefore love your husband’s person carefully. I entreat you to see that he has clean linen, for that is your domain, while the concerns and troubles of men are those outside affairs that they must handle, amidst coming and going, running here and there, in rain, wind, snow and hail, sometimes drenched, sometimes dry, now sweating, now shivering, ill fed, ill lodged, ill shod and poorly rested. Yet nothing represents a hardship for him, because the thought of his wife’s good care for him upon his return comforts him immensely. The ease, joys and pleasures he knows she will provide for him herself, or have done for him in his presence, cheer him: removing his shoes in front of a good fire, washing his feet, offering clean shoes and socks, serving plenteous food and drink … she puts him to sleep in white sheets and his nightcap, covered with good furs, and satisfies him with other joys and amusements, intimacies, loves and secrets about which I remain silent.

He is less coy when reminding the Young Wife to rid the conjugal love-nest of fleas: experience teaches that if sheets and furs are shut away in a chest, without light or air, pests will perish. He is equally well informed on ways to rid the house of flies, suggesting honey traps, or the juice of red onions: ‘all that taste it will die.’ The Husband invokes a ‘peasant proverb’: ‘There are three things that drive a good man from home: a roofless house, a smoky chimney and a quarrelsome woman’, a commonplace also expressed in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. The Husband encourages his Young Wife to

bewitch and bewitch again your future husband, and protect him from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant and peaceful with him. Make certain that in winter he has a good fire without smoke, and let him slumber, warmly wrapped, cosy between your breasts, and in this way bewitch him.

The whole book seems to offer kindly advice to the ignorant Young Wife, but as the Husband informs he also mystifies, making it clear he knows things she doesn’t. He plays mind-games, reminding her of her dependence and thus enhancing his own power. Such strategies sought to infantilise bright young women, to instil fear in them, to encourage them to behave like pets. They were still at work in the 19th century: in Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1894), a spirited 17-year-old is married to Geert von Innstetten, a civil servant twice her age. The husband, delighted as well as alarmed by his bride’s youth and innocence, encourages her to believe that their house is haunted by a dead Chinaman. This exotic ghost becomes Effi’s companion during von Innstetten’s long absences, instilling a sense of fear and inadequacy which keeps her docile. Or so her husband hopes. A similar picture of power relations in a bourgeois marriage is on show in A Doll’s House (1879). Nora plays the pet, but like Effi, is more resourceful than she seems and capable of maintaining a critical distance from the older man.

As for medieval women, reared to admire, obey and serve older husbands, we know too little about what they thought. Yet the pleasure of reading Le Ménagier de Paris comes from imagining the confusion that must have prevailed in real households, as young women resisted, pined, or simply failed to manage either their domestic duties, or the task of constantly cherishing their all-knowing husbands.

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