Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages

Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages

Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages

Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages


Conduct Becoming examines a new genre of late medieval writing that focuses on a wife's virtuous conduct and ability of such conduct to alter marital and social relations in the world. Considering a range of texts written for women--the journees chretiennes or daily guides for Christian living, secular counsel from husbands and fathers such as Le Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry and Le Menagier de Paris, and literary narratives such as the Griselda story--Glenn D. Burger argues that, over the course of the long fourteenth century, the "invention" of the good wife in discourses of sacramental marriage, private devotion, and personal conduct reconfigured how female embodiment was understood.

While the period inherits a strongly antifeminist tradition that views the female body as naturally wayward and sensual, late medieval conduct texts for women outline models of feminine virtue that show the good wife as an identity with positive influence in the world. Because these manuals imagine how to be a good wife as necessarily entangled with how to be a good husband, they also move their readers to consider such gendered and sexed identities in relational terms and to embrace a model of self-restraint significantly different from that of clerical celibacy. Conduct literature addressed to the good wife thus reshapes how late medieval audiences thought about the process of becoming a good person more generally. Burger contends that these texts develop and promulgate a view of sex and gender radically different from previous clerical or aristocratic models--one capable of providing the foundations for the modern forms of heterosexuality that begin to emerge more clearly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Systematizing Conduct for Women in the World

Caesarius of Heisterbach recounts the following in The Dialogue of Miracles, his early thirteenth-century collection of exemplary stories. a certain moneylender in Liège dies and his local bishop denies him burial in consecrated ground because of his sinful practice of usury. the man’s wife appeals the decision directly to the pope; for she has heard that man and wife are one, and the apostle Paul said that a believing wife can save an unbeliever. Therefore she happily promises to make up for whatever shortcomings there may have been in her husband and give satisfaction herself to God for his sins. the pope grants her request and the wife shuts herself up in a dwelling she has built beside her husband’s grave. There she devotes herself to alms, prayers, and fasting on her husband’s behalf. Finally, after fourteen years of diligent activity, the wife has a vision of her husband dressed in white. With a joyful face he tells her: “Thanks to God and thee that to-day I am delivered.” Caesarius includes the story in a section devoted to the punishment and glory of the dead, and it is clear that he intends it to teach the value of intercessory prayer in the theology of purgatory emerging in the period. His universalizing moral thus asks an inscribed clerical audience to recognize just how much this good wife stands out as a miraculous exception to “normal” female inconstancy and sensuality and at the same time to move past the accident of gender in order to focus on her exemplary status as a Christian subject.

In the century and a half after Caesarius’s Dialogue of Miracles, however, a series of texts emerge that encourage a radically different model for interpreting what the good wife represents. These works make their primary focus a “miracle” left unacknowledged by Caesarius, that is, the exemplary nature of . . .

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