By Danièle Cybulskie
When you’re trying to look into lives of the past, it’s very helpful when you find a piece of writing that lays it all out for you in black and white. One of these helpful treatises was written by someone we call “The Goodman of Paris” in the late 1300s. We don’t actually know what his name was for the very simple reason that he was writing for his wife; undoubtedly, she knew his name, so he had no need to write it down. This Goodman of Paris took it upon himself to write some advice to help his new, fifteen-year-old wife be a good one, and inadvertently left a treasure trove for historians.
The Goodman starts off by recapping a conversation he and his wife had (“in our bed, as I remember”) in which she asks him to forgive her for not knowing how to be a wife, and to kindly help her to learn what to do. She asked him “for the love of God not to correct [her] harshly before strangers nor before [their] own folk”, but to speak to her in private, in their “chamber”, if he needed to address her behaviour. This captured conversation gives us the kind of glance into the private lives and worries of a medieval couple that we rarely get to see. It’s easy to read between the lines to see how awkward (and nerve-wracking) it could have been to enter into marriage with someone you may not have known very well.
So, what kind of advice does a Parisian husband give to his wife in the late 14th Century? Much of the main advice The Goodman gives is not too surprising. He advises that his wife should love him most, then her family, and be “very distant with all other men”. What I find fascinating about this is how he shows her examples from nature of female creatures deferring to male creatures, in order to convince her of the naturalness of the situation. This passage, in which a fair amount of effort is put into showing her that this is the natural way of things, makes me wonder if The Goodman’s wife needed a lot of convincing in order to be as deferential as he would like. Examples are given of loyalty like a dog’s (very flattering), and The Goodman’s wife is asked to be obedient, to anticipate his needs, and not to be arrogant. The Goodman’s place above his wife is supported by Christian examples which would have been familiar to both of them: as the Church follows Jesus, so should a woman follow her husband, he says.
Although this kind of advice is very typical, what makes The Goodman’s writing so surprising and interesting is the other things he throws in. For example, in the section in which The Goodman asks his wife to “love [her] husband’s person carefully”, he mentions that this will be useful to her if she has another husband after him. While he is making the argument that he’d like to be kept in “clean linen”, he’s also suggesting that keeping him well dressed will make her more appealing when she’s in the market for a new husband later. There are cynical ways to interpret this, but I think this shows a genuine thoughtfulness, considering he was likely right about the chances of his death preceding hers. Another interesting tidbit is that he not only suggests that she keep her chamber and bed free of fleas and flies, he gives her advice on how to manage it. Many of the remedies he has tried himself, which makes me wonder if he had been a bachelor or widower for some time before marrying his young wife. Remedies include alder leaves, glue on bread, sheepskins, and suffocation (of the fleas, not the wife). Smoke is also suggested to rid her of mosquitoes, if she doesn’t have a mosquito net. Honey (and many other things) will tempt flies into locations in which she can kill them. The Goodman’s thoroughness in this section always makes me smile. Clearly, he had spent a lot of time thinking about ways to get rid of bugs.
Finally, The Goodman gives his wife what he knows every new wife needs in order to please her husband: his favourite recipes. There are recipes for “Cinnamon Brewet”, “Soringue of Eels”, “Stuffed Pigling”, and “Swan”. While these aren’t quite as clear as most modern cookbooks’ recipes are, they are another interesting glance into the past, and well worth a look.
The Goodman of Paris’ writing is a fascinating glimpse of married life in 1392, albeit one that is entirely from one person’s perspective. We will never know if The Goodman and his wife managed to have a happy marriage, but we do know that they both seemed to want to give it their best. To read the entire treatise yourself, or just to look up the recipes, you can click here to visit Fordham University’s translation (all my quotations are from their translation, to make things easier for you to find). Enjoy!
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist