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Books of Women's Conduct from France during the High and Late Middle Ages, 1200-1400

by Susan Udry

Throughout their lives, men and women in the Middle Ages were expected to conform to strict standards for moral and social behavior. Along with informal advice, numerous medieval writings in verse and prose communicated precepts for social behavior.   Sometimes styled as dialogues, or as advice from a parent to a child, “rules for the conduct of life” fostered successful social interactions at every stage of life--from the young apprentice learning her trade in the house of a master craftsman, to the pious widow living a life of religious seclusion.  In addition to establishing rules for appropriate conduct in youth, adulthood, and old age, conduct books set standards of behavior for people in each of the three medieval estates: those who prayed, (cloistered monks and nuns, clerics) those who worked, (peasants and craftspeople) and those who fought (knights and kings).  Often these books address a specific audience within one of these estates, but speak to a wider one.  A book such as the Ancrene Wisse, (Guide for Anchoresses) for example, was in all likelihood written for a group of three sisters who became religious recluses, but the writer anticipates that his advice will be applicable to a much wider audience (Millett, Intro., xii).  

Although there were conduct books written for men, the greater number of surviving manuscripts from southern Europe is directed toward the supervision and control of women’s activity in domestic settings. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries women's conduct literature emerged in France as a genre largely written by men, which focused on training secular women in their domestic roles and religious duties.  Most of these books exhort women to become more compliant wives, more virtuous daughters, and more efficient household managers.  This article will provide the reader with an introduction to the topic of domestic instruction in five representative French works for women and their authors.

The well-instructed lady:  Robert de Blois and the Chastoiement des dames.

Thirteenth-century conduct literature included instruction in morality and courtesy for the upper classes.  Often these works combine the satire of human, or class failings with moral advice.  Dating from approximately 1260, the Chastoiement des dames  (The Ladies’ Instruction) consists of over seven hundred lines of rhymed text divided into subsections, or chapters, on various points of social conduct and courtesy for women of high rank. The work was read aloud, or declaimed to a mixed audience of upper class ladies and gentlemen.  Robert de Blois was a poet from the northeastern region of France, who possessed some clerical education.  The tone of Robert's advice to women seems frivolous at times, and often borders on the satirical.  Points one through ten teach the lady to discipline her speech and gaze, and establish the perimeters of sexual intimacy.  The lady should allow no man to touch her breast except "he who has the right to it."  To her husband, however, a lady should be obedient in all things, and submit to his desires  “as the monk is obedient to his abbot” (Fox 108-9).  Points eleven through sixteen offer advice about courteous conduct at church, at devotions, and at table.  Ladies are often blamed for speaking too freely, says the narrator, therefore she should exercise judgment in speaking.  Ladies are especially warned against quarreling and drunkenness.  She who quarrels is no lady at all, but a "ribald."  Anger deprives her of valor and leaves only villainy.  Similarly, drunkenness takes away all the good that is in a lady (316), just as it does in men of virtue.

Robert de Blois borrows the idea of courtesy from the older Ovidian "Art of Love" tradition that advised ladies that manners and a clean appearance were necessary in order to attract lovers.  He revises this ideal to place courtesy squarely in the context of the lady's role as wife and social role model.  Where practical advice on manners is offered, its goal is to prevent social offense rather than to attract romantic attention.  For example, in the section entitled, Ensoignement de covrir sa paule color et sa maule odor, "Instructions on how to conceal her pale color and her bad odor," he advises that the lady who has bad breath should stand a little apart from her interlocutor when conversing "so that her breath does not reach him."  When at church, she should hold her breath while taking the Peace (Fox  380-387). Similarly, when greeting others, if a lady has an offensive laugh, or bad teeth, she should cover her mouth (370-372).

Robert also preaches that instead of cultivating her outward beauty, a lady should cultivate inner virtues, and guard her honor.  In this respect, Robert’s portrayal of what is proper for a lady resembles ideas of courtliness and chivalry in the twelfth-century romances of Chrétien de Troyes.  These narratives set high standards of moral behavior for both ladies and knights, and reflect themes similar to those found in the Chastoiement des dames.  In the romance, Erec et Enide, for example, Chrétien explores the social complexity of the injunction against feminine speech by showing how the wife of a young knight helps her husband avoid a dangerous situation when she violates this social norm. Chivalric ideals receive yet a different treatment in the work of a fourteenth-century knight, Geoffroy de La Tour Landry.


To teach my daughters to read: Geoffroy de La Tour Landry and the survival of a  fourteenth-century noble family.

During the early Middle Ages, only women in convents gained the skill of reading, and these were usually under the close supervision of male clerics. Works of instruction written in the vernacular for female audiences in the fourteenth century indicate a rise in literacy among the general populace, and among women in particular.  The Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry (later translated into English by William Caxton as The Book of the Knight of the Tower) composed by Geoffroy de La Tour Landry for his three daughters in 1371 and 1372, also indicates changing male attitudes toward women's literacy and education.  The work combines instruction in reading with moral exempla so that young women might learn to behave honorably in their roles as daughters and wives by reading from the lives of their ancestors, and from the lives of the saints.  He writes in the voice of a father speaking to his daughters, but with the anticipation of reaching a wider audience of women outside his own family.  Geoffroy de la Tour Landry was a chevalier-banneret, (a knight whose rank entitled him to ride into battle with his own banner and retinue) who had fought in the battles in and around Tours during the Hundred Years' War.  Men of Geoffroy's rank were in the service of the king, but retained a degree of economic and social independence from the court.  Geoffroy mentions some of the great noble houses of France in his book, (Craon and Chatillon) but makes a distinction between himself and the "great men of the world."  Geoffroy was in all likelihood the fourth knight of La Tour Landry, whose military exploits are recorded at the siege of Aiguillon in 1346.  As a military man, his views on morality are informed by the chivalric culture that emphasized loyal service to superiors and the conformity of deed to word, and the preservation of noble lineage (Ho 102).

At the time of writing, (1371-2) Geoffroy had lost his first wife, the mother of his three daughters and sons.  He tells us that he has also written a book for his sons, but this work has not been preserved.  The prologue describes him seated in his garden as he watches his three young daughters walk toward him and describes his plan to protect their interests in the future by teaching them to read, (apprendre à roumancier) so that they can study the good and bad deeds of their ancestors.  In addition to teaching his daughters to read, Geoffroy establishes rules that severely restrict a woman's freedom of speech and movement.  The tales in his collection deal for the lesser part with courtesy (e.g., how to conduct one's self graciously in order to obtain a profitable marriage offer ) and for the greater part with articulating a moral code he credits with protecting a woman's social reputation within marriage. In the book, women’s activities can be grouped into four categories; travel and movement (e.g., pilgrimage or elopement), sex (adultery, pre-marital romance), inappropriate eating (breaking fasts, or thieving food) and speech (gossip, counsel).  The female characters who violate moral and social prohibitions by behavior such as talking in church, wearing make-up or leaving their husbands for however short a time, are punished, usually in a violent manner graphically described in the text.  The description of punishments for wayward women often includes humiliating the woman publicly by exposing her fault to the view of family and community.  In the tale of adultery recounted in chapter xxxiiii, a young worldly lady pretends to go on pilgrimage in order to meet her lover.  While she is chatting with her lover one day during mass, the lady is mysteriously stricken by paralysis, so that no one knows whether she is alive or dead.  She is carried home by her husband, and subsequently is visited by a vision of her mother, father, and the Virgin Mary, who all impress on her the importance of remaining loyal to her husband.  Through the vision that reminds the lady of her role as daughter and wife, she is restored to her senses, and re-integrated into the community.  Other punishments described in the book are more physically violent in nature and contain strong elements of poetic justice (the woman who has overindulged in make-up has her face eternally disfigured by devils), or deliberate retaliation (the adulterous woman has her nose cut off by her husband), or involve other acts of physical disfigurement that reduces the woman's chance for an advantageous marriage.  

The pattern of moral failing and punishment reflects Geoffroy's sources in collections of sermon illustrations known as exempla.  Medieval clerics used vivid stories to illustrate the lessons contained in a particular passage of scripture.  Beginning in the thirteenth century, the Franciscans, with their mission to preach to large numbers of people, collected exempla into books to be used by traveling friars.  One exemplum collection designed for female audiences, the Miroir des bonnes femmes, "The Mirror of Good Women," served as an important source for the stories contained in the Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry (Grigsby 194).  The Miroir is divided into two sections: examples of the "good" women of the Old Testament, and counter-examples of the "bad" women.  Geoffroy reproduces many of the exempla from the Miroir, holding up the Virgin Mary as ideal, and using Eve as anti-model.  The first exemplum in the Miroir des bonnes femmes comments on the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the third chapter of Genesis by enumerating the nine follies of Eve.  Geoffroy expands the list of Eve's follies into nine different exempla in his book.  The influence of the Miroir can also be seen in Geoffroy's treatment of biblical women as social models. He holds up the Virgin Mary to women as a model for feminine virtue--the opposite of Eve. Geoffroy's version of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (1 Luke 39-56 RSV) includes the admonition that ladies should strive to outdo each other in humility, as did the Virgin when she went to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth (La Tour Landry  215).  Interpretations of biblical episodes as lessons in proper virtues for ladies may have influenced medieval cycle drama as well (Ashley 30-31).

Probably the most popular of all French conduct books, the Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry pour l'enseignement de ses filles was quickly translated into English and German, and exists in twenty-one different manuscripts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and in several different early printed books. By stressing the subjection of wives and daughters to male authority in the home, La Tour Landry attempts to insure his secure lineage and social rank by making his household, and the male-managed household generally, reflect the values of the feudal system that had long been the foundation for the La Tour Landry family and for the chivalric class as a whole.


Religious Mirrors for Ladies and Gentlemen: Philippe de Mézières's  Livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage et du réconfort des dames mariées.

Philippe de Mézières was an important figure in the French monarchy of Charles V and Charles VI.  He served Charles V in a diplomatic capacity as chancellor of Cyprus until 1373 when he returned to Paris to serve as royal councilor.  Before his death in 1380, Charles selected Philippe to tutor the young Charles VI, a role which afforded him considerable influence over the formation of future government policy even after his retirement to the convent of the Celestines, (a branch of the Franciscan order) in 1385.  Philippe’s politically active life as a crusader and a diplomat may have provided Chaucer with the model for the Knight’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales.

Written between 1385 and 1389, Philippe de Mézières’s Livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage et du réconfort des dames mariées et de tout bon Crestien par un devot example de la passion de Jesu Crist et du miroir des dames mariées, la noble Marquise de Saluce ("The Book of the Virtue of the Sacrament of Marriage and the Comfort of Married Ladies and of all Good Christians by a Devout Example of the Passion of Jesus Christ and the Mirror of Married Ladies, the Noble Marquise de Saluce"), addresses ladies and gentlemen jointly in their roles as husbands and wives in the Christian sacrament of marriage.  The author uses the meditation of Christ's passion on the cross as a base on which to construct an elaborate allegory of Christ's marriage to the soul, and a guide to spiritual comfort for married persons.

Books of instruction were often referred to as “mirrors” in the Middle Ages, a  designation which underscores the importance of visual metaphors in medieval didactic theory.  Often the life of a holy, or exemplary, person formed the mirror, as in the Miroir des bonnes femmes; or a doctrinal point, as in the Mirouer de la redemption.  Readers of the Livre de la vertu are encouraged to see themselves in the mirror of Christ’s suffering during the Passion, and so to understand that Christ’s divine love is reflected in human relationships, especially in the married relationship. Philippe remarks in his prologue that the knowledge of Christ’s love is the reason that prompts us to love one another, and he is prepared to explain to his readers how this love works: Mais comment Jesu Crist nous a amé et jusques a la mort en cestui livre il est assés declairié, “But how Jesus Christ loved us unto death is explained quite clearly in this book” (Mézières f. 1, translation mine).  He imagines the Livre de la vertu itself as a four-sided mirror, each side of which corresponds to one of four different books.  Book One describes the hours of the Passion as a royal wedding between Christ the King and Holy Church. Book Two narrates the life and sufferings of the Virgin Mary, and lists other women of virtue or vice.  Book Three describes the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman as the reflection of the spiritual marriage between Christ and the Church. Book Four narrates the life of Griselda, the Marquise of Saluce as a model for all married ladies to imitate.   

Marriage, explains Philippe, is a good institution, but it is less worthy of praise than virginity and continence, and thus the married are most in need of spiritual comfort.  In Book Three Philippe describes several maladies afflicting those men and women who “break the covenant of their marriage.” Chief among the illnesses that afflict married persons, particularly wives, is the disease of discontent, or jealousy, which can lead to seven different forms of suffering, corresponding to the seven sufferings of Christ during the Passion.  Posing as the physician who assists the Great Physician, who is Christ, Philippe describes the symptoms in wives of Hydropsy (caused by the sin of pride) Paralysis (caused by envy or jealousy), Apoplexy (caused by anger), Colic (from avarice), The Cough, or la touse (a symptom of laziness) and most severe of all, Frenesy, or Madness, which heralds the presence of Luxuria, (lust).  With the exception of the last, all of the maladies that Philippe describes in the Livre are attested in late-medieval medical practice.  It is likely that Philippe consulted either the Chirurgia of Henry of Mondeville, or the Grande chirurgie of Guy de Chauliac (Picherit, 60-70).  Against these afflictions Philippe prescribes a number of different elixirs and purgatives designed to restore the balance of the humors in the body through the powers of the Fine Ruby (Christ) and the Fine Diamond (the Virgin Mary). Philippe offers the Passion as the ultimate mirror of health to suffering wives and husbands: wives should imagine the scene of the Passion as if they were seeing it in a mirror, and take from it remedies for their bodies as well as their souls:

If the married lady who is discontented and sick will only look carefully into this precious example, into this mirror full of tears for the precious health of her Immortal Spouse, certainly she will be completely purged of her sickness and will love her [earthly] husband as perfectly, sweetly, and devoutly as she loves Christ. (Mézières f. 119)

In the Bible, the image of Christ as Bridegroom is found in the Revelation of John.  Medieval mystics, such as Julian of Norwich, used the image to describe the soul's experience of God.  Philippe uses the image in his book to identify husbands with Christ, and so to instruct secular women that it is their Christian duty to love their husbands.


<>A guide to household management for women of the bourgeois class: the Mesnagier de Paris

Echoing Philippe’s assertion of the parallel between a Christian woman's obedience to Christ’s authority and the obedience she owes to her husband, is the anonymous treatise on household management from the fourteenth century, the Mesnagier de Paris, or “The Householder of Paris,” (known to English readers as “The Goodman of Paris”) from 1395.  Although the writer is anonymous, we can infer from the prologue and from various other statements he makes in his work that the author was an older man, with wide experience in the life of civil administration and public affairs in Paris. He expects his wife to be prepared to entertain kings and dukes in his house, and considers discretion, the ability to keep secrets, an essential virtue.  The prologue explains that he is writing to his wife, a girl whom he expects to outlive him by a number of years.  The author is careful to state from the outset that he expects his wife to grow into her position as manager of a large urban household, and not to learn everything at once.  To this end he generally exhorts her to obey her husband in every matter, and to trust his judgment.

Georgine Brereton, who worked for over twenty years editing the manuscripts of the Mesnagier, considered that it was the author’s unfinished project (Intro. xix).  There are significant discrepancies between the plan of the work included by the author in his prologue, and the actual content of the work.  The prologue calls for three distinctions, or topics, containing nine, six, and three articles respectively. Barely half of the planned number of articles actually appears in the actual text.  From the third distinction, only the second article, a treatise on hawking, is included.  The first distinction discusses the moral and devout responsibilities of wives, namely, to earn the love of God and the love of their husbands.  This section contains nine articles, five of which are devoted to caring for one's husband.  The plan of the second distinction calls for five articles about household management, including sections on hiring and training servants, and detailed information in menu planning.  The third distinction is reduced from the author's original plan to include instructions for parlor games such as cards and dice, as well as the treatise on hawking.  In his work, the author also includes several morally edifying tales; section two contains the tale of Griselda and the tale of Melibee and Prudence, (both tales of wives who exhibit patience with violent and unpredictable husbands) and section three was to close with a narrative poem by Jean Bruyant entitled, Le chemin de povreté et de richesse, or "The Way of Poverty and Riches."

The picture of married life in the Mesnagier has been described as conveying the tender side of medieval husbands, as the narrator extols the sweetness of married companionship, and the delights of a well-managed, and comfortable, middle-class home. The narrator frequently evokes intimacy by addressing his wife as “chere suer” (dear sister).  Yet, in his view, the intimate bond between husbands and wives requires the complete obedience and submission of the wife to her husband’s command.  At the beginning of the first topic in the Mesnagier, the narrator invokes Christian textual authority to make the argument for women’s necessary obedience to their husbands.  He paraphrases Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, 5: 22, in which Paul says that man is to be considered the head of the woman, just as Christ is considered head of the church:

That is to say that the commandment of God is that wives should be subjected to their husbands as to lords, and that the husband is therefore the head of the woman as Our Lord Jesus Christ is head of the Church. (Mesnagier I.vi.6; 188) 

The author also refers to similar passages justifying the subordination of slaves to masters in Hebrews and of woman to man in Genesis.  Since God created Eve as a helpmeet to Adam, it is right and just that husbands should treat their wives as subjects.  The injunction that wives should obey their husbands is balanced, however, by the author's insisting that, after him, his wife will have authority over his household and servants.  To the female servants in particular she ought to be "mistress of the household, commander, inspector, and sovereign administrator; and it is your responsibility to hold them in your subjection and obedience, to teach, corrrect, and instruct them" (Mesnagier II iii 6; 128).  That the wife should work primarily in the household and gardens, and should supervise female servants conforms generally to the medieval idea of the division of labor.  The depth of authority over the household that the author grants to his wife, however, must be evaluated in view of the many anecdotes and feminine models he includes that stress the necessity of conjugal obedience.

Perhaps the most well known story from the Middle Ages of an obedient wife is the story of patient Griselda, created by Boccaccio and subsequently re-worked by Petrarch and Chaucer.  The tale of Griselda is the first anecdote in the first distinction of the Mesnagier de Paris, article six, in which the author advises his wife to be humble and obedient toward her husband.  He recommends Griselda as a laudable model for wives in general, while at the same time he tries to reassure his wife that the tale does not directly address the situation of their own marriage.  He attaches an epilogue to the tale that attempts to provide a Christian justification for the cruel actions of Walter toward Griselda.  He explains that the author, Petrarch, does not expect women to have patience with their husbands purely out of love for them, but because women love God, and God, the Church, and Reason have all ordained that ladies be obedient to their husbands (I vi; 72).  In the same section the author follows the tale of Griselda with the anecdote of the bourgeois wife who sacrifices herself to save her husband from execution during a Paris uprising, and several examples of disobedient wives and their fates, such as the wife who refused to rescue her husband from drowning because no such duty was described in her contract.  The wife was seized by local authorities and burned at the stake.  In a particularly graphic tale, The Lady Who Killed her Husband’s Greyhound, a young wife who tests the patience of her older husband on several occasions, is “cured” of her disobedience by her husband who subjects her to repeated bleeding treatments until she is nearly dead.

The tale of Griselda should be counted among the key works of women’s instruction by French authors who named her "the mirror of married ladies."  Translated into French sometime between 1384 and 1389, it frequently was circulated with  manuscripts containing works for women’s moral instruction.  Philippe de Mézières is the likely author of the first French prose translation of the tale, which he incorporates into Book Four of the Livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage.  A second French translation from a few years later is anonymous, and probably served as the French source for Chaucer’s “The Clerke’s Tale” (Severs 22).  Based on textual and thematic evidence, Elie Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff has proposed that the same translation of Griselda circulated in manuscripts of the Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry and in the Mesnagier de Paris (87).  That the Griselda tale remained popular throughout the early modern period is attested by many early printed editions in French, German, and English.

Philippe’s French translation cleared the way for the tale of Griselda to be circulated along with many different vernacular texts in fourteenth-century France, where the character of Griselda emerged as an exemplar of the moral virtues desirable in a young wife.  Apart from the patience for which she is famous, Griselda epitomized the domestic ideals promulgated in conduct books by combining the roles of daughter, mother, and wife into one.  Her actions in the tale demonstrate her skill in domestic tasks such as carrying water, and preparing meals for her caring for her poor and weak father, bearing children, and even preparing the household of her former husband to celebrate the arrival of his new bride.


Women's domestic roles and economic production:

It is important to remember that the images of women projected by male authors through conduct books from the Middle Ages tell us of men's ideals for women, and do not tell us what medieval women thought about their roles as daughters, mothers, or wives.  We should not suppose that medieval women passively received advice from men about marriage, or that they accepted the male-authored visions of their limited roles in the home. Except for the nobility, most women worked in some form of trade, or craft, even if it was only assisting her husband or father in his trade.  The household-workshop was the center of production for medieval artisans and agricultural labor, and the work women did there processing materials, preparing food, and ensuring the continuation of the workforce was necessary to the economy.  As crafts organized for a mercantile economy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, women's roles in the new economy largely remained tied to their roles as members of household-workshops (Bennett  479). Books for female audiences from this period increasingly emphasize the necessary link between wife and household, or what has been described as "the family production unit."  The images of women as selfless wives and mothers, in the Griselda tales, or as adulterers and deceivers, such as we find in the Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry reinforced the connection between women and the conjugal household, and stressed the need for male supervision of women's activities that limited women's access to power within political, or  economic organizations such as guilds (Howell  45). 



Ashley, Kathleen. 1987. Medieval Courtesy Literature and Dramatic Mirrors of Female Conduct.  In The Ideology of Conduct, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, 25-38.  New York: Methuen.

Bornstein, Diane. The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women. Hamden: Archon Books, 1983.

Chrétien de Troyes. Erec et Enide. Ed. Mario Roques. Paris: Champion, 1976.

Fox, John Howard, ed. Robert de Blois, son oeuvre didactique et narrative. Paris: Nizet, 1950.

Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, Elie.  L'histoire  de Griseldis en France au quatorzième siècle.  Paris: Librairie Droz, 1933.

Grigsby, John L. "Miroir des bonnes femmes—a new fragment of the Somme le roi and a Miroir des bonnes femmes, a hitherto unnoticed text."  Romania 82 (1961): 458-489.

Ho, Cynthia. 1994. As Good As Her Word: Women's Language in The Knight of the Tour d'Landry. In The Rusted Hauberk: Feudal Ideas of Order and Their Decline, ed. Liam O. Purdon and Cindy Vitto, 99-120. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Howell, Martha. Women, Work, and Patriarchy in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Kowaleski, Maryanne and Judith M. Bennett. "Crafts, Guilds, and Women in the Middle Ages: fifty years after Marian K. Dale." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14, no. 21 (1989): 474-488.

La Tour Landry, Geoffroy.  Le livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry pour l'enseignement de ses filles. Ed. Anatole de Montaiglon, 1870. New York: Kraus, 1977.

Le mesnagier de Paris.1981.  Ed. by Georgine Brereton and Janet M. Ferrier.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mézières, Philippe de. Le livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage. Ed. Joan Williamson. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1993.

Millett, Bella and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. Medieval English Prose for Women.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Offord, M.Y.,ed.  The Book of the Knight of the Tower Translated by William Caxton. EETS  Supplementary Series 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Picherit, Jean-Louis. “La métaphore pathologique et thérapeutique à la fin du Moyen Age” Behefte zur Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 260 (1994): 60-70.

Severs, J. Burke. The Literary Relationships  of Chaucer's Clerke's Tale. Yale Studies in  English 96. New York:  Yale University Press, 1942.

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