Books of Women’s Conduct from France during the High and Late Middle Ages, 1200-1400
By Susan Udry
Published Online on the ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies
Introduction: 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.
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.