By Danièle Cybulskie
For as long as there have been children, there has been parental advice. Let’s take five minutes to look at two Middle English texts that deal with advice: How the Goode Wife Taught Hyr Doughter and How the Goode Man Taught Hys Sone.
Both of these texts, which can be found in Eve Salisbury’s excellent compilation The Trials and Joys of Marriage, were copied multiple times over more than a hundred years, which means that people thought they were worth the long labour of copying. So, what kind of advice would parents give to their children in the 14th and 15th centuries?
For both the daughter and the son, there is (first and last) an emphasis on observing religious duties, meant to help the children find both protection and comfort in faith. The children are encouraged to go to church and to pay their tithes, so that they may be blessed. Bringing up faith both first and last is pretty common in many Western medieval texts, from stories to poems, and it sets the stage here for the type of behaviour expected.
In terms of good behaviour, the daughter and son are encouraged to be moderate, not hasty, and definitely not to laugh too loudly. The “Goode Man” says, “Lagh not to moche, for that ys waste” (“Laugh not too much, for that is waste”, line 67), and the “Goode Wife” mentions laughing too loudly in the same breath as looking ugly, and behaving like a “gyglot” (l. 49), which Salisbury translates here as “loose woman” (looking at the word, you can see its resemblance to our modern “gigolo”). The daughter is told to avoid gossip, and the son to be careful with his words.
Both are also warned against the dangers of gambling and the tavern, and against wily members of the opposite sex: the daughter must not take “giftys” (“gifts”, l. 91) from men who may be trying to seduce her, and the son must steer clear of “comyn women” (“common women”, l. 62) because they will bring him nothing but trouble. This is pretty standard traditional advice, so is there anything moderns might find surprising in here? Maybe there is.
If you read the advice from the mother to the daughter, you come across many familiar themes, such as being a good housewife, keeping control of the servants, and not dressing too elaborately. Nearing the end of the text, however, comes a startlingly honest scenario:
And if it thus thee betyde,
That frendes falle thee fro on every syde,
And God fro thee thi child take,
They wreke one God do thou not take,
For thyselve it wyll undo. (ll.171-175)
In other words, if you lose your friends and one of your children dies, blaming God will not help you cope. This stands out from the usual wise-but-distant advice, as it suggests that the death of a child would be such a blow to a woman that she might question her faith. I point this out because I think moderns cling to a couple of ideas about medieval people that are put to the test here: first, that they were somehow less attached to children (because they died so often), and second, that medieval people had an unshakable, unquestioned faith.
That the mother in this text mentions this scenario as a possibility at all speaks to its likelihood, although this passage does not appear in all existing copies of the text (see Salisbury’s notes). I’m guessing not all copyists wanted to contemplate (or perhaps think they were encouraging) the idea that faith could be shaken by the death of a child, but clearly the author, and some of the other copyists, thought this was as important to address as the other bits of advice.
What may be surprising in the father’s advice to the son is that marrying a good woman who is poor is better than marrying a rich woman; that her possessions are not her true value as a wife. While the nobility had many arranged marriages in order to distribute or amass wealth, this advice suggests that money can’t buy you love, and love is important to a good marriage.
It would be going too far to say that this is a modern take on the spousal relationship, since the father admits that the wife is part “sirvunt” (“servant”, l.131) and part “fellowe” (“fellow” or peer, l.132). Still, the father says explicitly “bete not thy wyfe” (“don’t beat your wife”, l.137) because it will only make her hate you. Likewise, the son should not put her down, but treat her fairly. This is not the same as the “rule of thumb” type relationship we often hear moderns assume that medieval people had.
While much of this advice is frozen in a cultural moment, there are bits of advice that will be completely familiar to us: go to bed early and get up early, be kind and generous, and remember that “many handes make lyght werke” (Goode Wife, l. 154). Like us, I’m sure that our ancestors took some of that advice and ignored other parts of it as they made their way through their lives. As readers, we can look at texts like these and find both good advice to live by, and an interesting portrait of the hopes of parents past.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.
Top Image: A medieval family. British Library Royal 17 F IV fol. 232r