Once upon a time, runs a medieval tale, a jealous wife quarrelled with another woman for flirting with her husband. As the women fought, the alleged flirt broke the wife’s nose and ruined her looks for ever, provoking her husband to have affairs in earnest. The moral of the story? ‘This is a good example for all good ladies and gentlewomen about how they ought to bear things graciously.’ No blame attaches to the faithless husband.
The tale comes from the French Book of the Knight of the Tower (1371-72), one of medieval Europe’s most popular conduct books. In 1483 Caxton translated the text, which circulated in German as well. Written to instruct his three daughters, the Knight’s book belongs to a flourishing late medieval genre that also includes Le Ménagier de Paris, or The Parisian Household Book, composed by an ageing burgher for his orphaned 15-year-old wife, as he states, to benefit the second husband she would take after his death.Other specimens include Christine de Pizan’s Treasure of the City of Ladies, Philippe de Mézières’s On the Virtue of the Sacrament of Marriage, a Middle English work called How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, and many more. The wife with the broken nose is typical of the exempla such texts supply to frighten young brides into virtue. Reasonably enough, feminist scholars have long used conduct books to illustrate the brutally patriarchal nature of medieval marriage.
Glenn Burger’s Conduct Becoming strikes a new, counterintuitive note. In his telling, the Knight of the Tower and others like him were actually raising the moral profile of marriage. Until the 14th century wedlock had no ideological prestige, even though the great majority of Europeans married. The privileged models of sexuality were clerical celibacy or virginity on the one hand, and, on the other, the stylised erotic game-playing known as courtly love. The latter, more properly called fin’amor, was firmly extramarital. A knight or cleric professed to adore an unavailable lady, offering her the ‘service’ of songs sung in her honour, tournaments fought under her colours and obedience to her every whim. In return she might deign to reward him with a tender glance, a smile, a kiss, or even – provided that secrecy could be assured – the full ‘solaces of love’. It did not matter if either or both had a spouse on the side. Dante’s Beatrice was a Florentine banker’s daughter married to another banker, Simone dei Bardi, while Dante had several children by his wife, Gemma Donati. His earthly relationship with Beatrice never passed beyond the smiling stage.
Unlike fin’amor, marriage inspired not immortal lyrics, but satires and fabliaux – raunchy comic tales about cuckolds, faithless wives and predatory priests. From the mid-12th century on, the Church had been fighting an uphill battle to redefine marriage as a sacrament based on the free consent of both parties, rather than the traditional arrangement by relatives, consummation, and exchange of dowry and morning gift. The higher the social rank of a bride and groom, the more likely their families were to hold that marriage was too important to be left to the caprices of youth. Being dragooned into wedlock to assure the blessed union of two fiefs was no mere fictional motif, but the common experience of aristocratic couples. Such unions weighed far more heavily on the brides, who were bound to absolute fidelity and obedience. Even though theologians and canon lawyers did their best to resist the double standard, in practice it held firm: an unwilling husband might use his wife solely to beget legitimate heirs, otherwise ignoring or abusing her while he took mistresses at will. The struggle for free marital choice, exempt from parental meddling, still furnished Restoration dramatists and 19th-century novelists with plots.
Within this harsh picture, Burger maintains, conduct books brightened the moral prospects of married women simply by asserting that the ‘good wife’ was a role within reach, honourable in the eyes of God and men. If that idea hardly seems radical, consider this bit of normative exegesis. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus describes a man who sowed his seed indiscriminately. Though much of it fell among rocks or thorns, some ‘fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty’ (Matthew 13:8). Jesus applied the miraculous harvest to those who hear the word of God and keep it, bearing fruit for the Kingdom. But St Jerome, in his antimatrimonial tract Against Jovinian, referred the hundredfold yield to virgins, the sixtyfold to chaste widows, and the thirtyfold to married Christians, assessing their spiritual worth at less than a third that of virgins. The ‘heretic’ Jovinian had dared to propose that in the sight of God, virgins are no better than wives, but for Jerome it was axiomatic that God loves virgins more than others. His opinion was scarcely challenged again before the Reformation. Yet conduct books in their own way reinstitute the moral potential of wives.
One condition for the emergence of what Burger calls ‘a new model of heterosexuality’ was the rise of lay female literacy. Trickling down gradually from the nobility to the gentry and the prosperous merchant class, literacy enabled a new kind of interiority, a spiritual ambition that allowed wives to attempt the advanced programmes of prayer and contemplation hitherto reserved for nuns and recluses. Books of Hours became important, widely available status symbols as well as devotional aids. Not all were as richly illuminated as those on display in museums, but even cruder illustrations could help women glean some sense from the Latin they mouthed in the Hours of the Virgin, the penitential psalms, and prayers to their favourite saints. Vernacular treatises could be even more useful, providing instruction on the ten commandments, the anatomy of vices, the seven works of corporeal and spiritual mercy and the sufferings of Christ in his Passion. Once laywomen had grown accustomed to this type of reading, their advisers could expand the fare from purely devotional topics to cover the virtuous performance of their duties as wives and mothers.
An almost comically ambitious example is the Venetian monk John the Carthusian’s Decor puellarum (‘Ornament of Girls’). Writing in the late 15th century, John belonged to the most austere of religious orders, which nevertheless specialised in spiritual direction of the laity. The monk, who evidently had little experience of aristocratic households, imagined the young mother as at once an omnicompetent housewife and a proficient contemplative. ‘Rise early,’ he tells her, ‘and, upon waking, bless God and meditate on the mystery of the Trinity.’ After dressing herself ‘coarsely but decently’, she is to wash and comb her hair while remaining in prayer,
meditating on the creation of the angels, the fall of the bad and the confirmation of the good angels. Immediately thereafter, turn your attention to the housework: wake up the servants, light the fire, sweep, start breakfast, dress the children, make the beds, do the laundry, take care of the chickens, etc, while meditating on the celestial hierarchies [and] the reasons for the damnation of Lucifer.
Over dinner she is to continue these meditations, mentally proceeding from Christ’s Nativity through the Flight into Egypt. One might ask why this lady had servants at all if she still had to sweep the floors and feed the chickens, but it’s amusing to imagine how mornings might have gone in that household: ‘Antonio, pull up your stockings! Francesca, have you no clean tunic to wear? Now the third reason for the damnation of Lucifer was vainglory. Hurry, Antonio, your tutor is waiting!’ Unrealistic though they were, manuals like John’s set a lofty goal before the matron.
Aside from the problem of sexuality, late medieval women might have felt little tension between the roles of virtuous wife and saintly Christian, for the piety of this era privileged the patient suffering of affliction as the heart of a holy life. In the earlier Middle Ages, consecrated virgins could marry Jesus in the confident hope that, unlike earthly husbands, he would offer them intimate love with no taint of violence. By the time of the conduct books, however, that had changed. ‘If I didn’t abuse you and oppress you, how would you know that I was your bridegroom?’ Christ asks Dorothea von Montau, a Prussian holy woman, in her alarming account of divine revelation.
This took place in 1393, the same year that the author of Le Ménagier recorded the story of Griselda for the instruction of his young bride. Readers of the Canterbury Tales know the Griselda story as the ‘Clerk’s Tale’, and it provokes howls of outrage in every classroom. When Walter, the carefree Marquis of Saluzzo, is pressured by his barons into taking a wife, he shocks them by choosing Griselda, a poor but virtuous peasant. At first this unexpected union seems to confirm his wisdom. Walter has selected a bride who proves to be not only beautiful and humble, but outstanding in prudence and politically skilled. But there is a catch. Before tying the knot, he asks Griselda to swear perfect obedience: never will she contest his will in word or deed – or even thought. Not long afterwards she gives birth to a daughter, then to a son. Twice Walter pretends that his people will not tolerate a peasant’s child as his heir and sends a servant to snatch the infants from their mother’s arms, apparently to kill them. Though heartsick, Griselda utters no peep of protest, nor does her cheerful demeanour change. Years later, Walter again tests his patient but lowborn bride. Feigning a papal bull of divorce, he sends her back to her aged father barefoot and naked except for a smock to cover ‘the womb where [his] children lay’. As the coup de grâce, he summons Griselda to his palace once more to oversee the arrangements for his second marriage, without giving her even a servant’s livery to cover her rags. All this she handles with grace and aplomb. In the tale’s putative happy ending, Walter’s supposed new bride turns out to be Griselda’s daughter, escorted by her son. Satisfied with her virtue at last, Walter reclothes her as a marquise and celebrates a public renewal of vows with his incomparably obedient wife.
I dwell on this tale because the author of Le Ménagier and Philippe de Mézières both give it pride of place in their books on wifely obedience, while Christine de Pizan admits Griselda to her City of Ladies as a sterling example of constancy. There are further literary versions by Boccaccio and Petrarch, and even a French play. Burger devotes his last chapter to comparative readings, showing how different contexts could foreground different dimensions of the tale. For Petrarch it is an allegory, a universal exemplar of Christian patience, but for Chaucer it is more problematic. His narrator concludes with a bland moral about constancy, insisting that ‘this story is not told so that wives should follow Griselda in humility, for it would be unbearable if they did.’ Instead, he jests, they should stand up in self-defence like the Wife of Bath, ‘fierce as a tiger in India’. But Chaucer was not writing a conduct book, any more than the author of Le Ménagier de Paris aimed to provoke a sophisticated courtly debate. Rather, Le Ménagier interprets Griselda’s tale quite literally, instructing the wife to ‘be obedient … to your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest, or require you to do something strange, or whether they concern trivial or important matters … because his happiness must come before yours.’ Though the author apologises for the tale’s cruelty, it is just one of many in which husbands test their wives’ obedience ‘in jest’, as a popular marital sport. The very notion of a husband giving his wife ‘commandments’ shows how far his authority was modelled on God’s.
Despite its underpinning of religious ideology, conduct literature as a lay genre played fast and loose with the Bible. Drawing on sermons and glosses, Le Ménagier presents as scriptural many texts that are far from being so, such as the maxims that ‘the intention counts as a completed act, whether good or bad’ and ‘eating once a day is angelic, twice a day human, and three, four or more times is bestial.’ The Franciscan author of the Mirror of Good Women wrings some peculiar morals from his biblical tales. For instance, he celebrates Ruth for her wifely loyalty in choosing to live among her husband’s people, although she had already been widowed when she accompanied her mother-in-law, Naomi, on the return to Judah. Judith, famous for beheading Holofernes, is honoured instead for her chaste widowhood. The Knight of the Tower moralises the tragic tale of Dinah. In Genesis, the girl’s rapist offers to marry her, even submitting his people to circumcision to that end, only to be deceived by her vengeful brothers, who massacre all the men of his town while they are still weak from the surgery. But according to the Knight, the whole disaster was Dinah’s fault because, out of ‘frivolity and lightness of heart’, she had gone out to ‘see the headdresses and fine clothing’ of the local women – and was thereupon raped. Whether all these authors misread the Bible in good faith or bad, their readings help to explain why some churchmen fiercely resisted the prospect of vernacular Bibles. Scripture was too powerful a weapon to allow its raw text into the hands of women.
Fashion is a tense topic throughout conduct books. On the one hand, wives who become too fond of their finery are roundly chastised. In one of the Knight’s stories, a bishop tells some ladies wearing the newly fashionable horned headdresses that the devil sits between their horns. In another, a woman is sentenced to a thousand years in Purgatory for using cosmetics – and if that wasn’t bad enough, an angel reveals that her corpse is horribly disfigured. On the other hand, too plain an appearance could render a wife – and therefore her husband – déclassé. The Knight of the Tower tells his daughters they should dress ‘moderately’ like other women of their class, but ‘not be the first to try new fashions’. The Ménagier author wants his wife to be ‘an example of good order, simplicity, and respectability to all’, dressing ‘without too much or too little ostentation’. Judging from the numerous sermons and satires on women’s fashion, ‘too little’ was rarely a problem. But even humility could be ostentatious. Margery Kempe, who ‘had full great envy of her neighbours’ if any were dressed as well as she, gave up her fancy gowns after her conversion in favour of plain white clothing, at the express command of Christ. Yet that colour was so unusual that, wherever she travelled, Kempe’s clothes marked her as either a laughing stock or a suspected heretic.
Conduct books also addressed men, but with a difference. Boys destined for knighthood had to learn the art of chivalry, along with elegant table manners and court etiquette. Mirrors for princes offer counsel on virtue and self-control, on the principle that a man must know how to govern himself before he can govern a kingdom. But no conduct book expressly instructs men on their duties as husbands. Perhaps the closest instance is Jacques Bruyant’s allegorical poem ‘The Way and Direction of Poverty and Riches’ (1342), which Le Ménagier incorporates in full. In this vision a newlywed husband lies in bed with his wife, unable to sleep because Want, Worry, Despair and others of their ilk have come to torment him, asking how he can possibly pay his debts. Lady Reason comes to his rescue, advising him to follow the path of Diligence to the Castle of Riches, all the while spurning the well-spoken Fraud and avoiding the way of Covetousness. So the husband journeys on, guided by a kindly married couple called Good-Heart and Good-Desire, until they reach a castle. This is not the Castle of Riches, however, but that of Labour – a huge factory where ‘more than a hundred thousand workers toiled throughout the city,’ pounding and hammering from dawn until curfew. Two more couples direct the new husband at his tasks: the porter Attention-to-Duty with his wife Mindfulness, supervised by the châtelaine Pain and her husband Toil. Though unaccustomed to labour, the man works zealously and even learns to savour the artisans’ daily meal of dry bread with salt, garlic and water.
The Everyman of this vision clearly belongs to a social stratum below the prosperous householder and his aristocratic wife. Interestingly, Lady Reason’s advice to the working-class husband echoes the upper-class husband’s advice to his own wife. If the man should ever find work as a servant, Reason says, ‘I forbid you to be insolent, proud, disloyal or unreasonable toward your master. Always be obedient and submit to his pleasure in all situations.’ A servant must revere his master, never argue when he is angry and gratefully accept whatever he is given. Like the young wife, the servant is compared to domestic animals: he should develop the back of an ass (for toil) and the wide ears of a cow (for patient listening). Service is construed as an analogue of wifehood – or rather, wifehood is a form of service. Unlike the more affluent couples of the conduct books, the married pairs in ‘The Way and Direction of Poverty and Riches’ work side by side.
Unfortunately, this new husband’s discovery of the value of hard work ends badly. As night falls, Toil allows him to visit the house of Repose, but warns him never to trust that figure because ‘Repose has led many people to the hideous road of Sloth.’ The husband finds Repose waiting at his own home in the person of his wife, who cheerfully prepares their evening meal. But when he tells her about his vision, she ridicules it: ‘What are you talking about? Are you out of your mind?’ The narrator concludes with a misogynist rant, remembering how a ‘wise man’ recently taught him never to value anything a woman says. The next morning, he will seek the Castle of Labour all the more eagerly to escape from the taunts of his bride. It is small wonder that, like him, medieval readers who wanted to imagine a deep and noble love fled from their everyday marriages into the fantasies of fin’amor.