Chaste, Obedient, Modest: The Ideal Medieval Woman
Updated: Feb 22
Throughout the Middle Ages, women were instructed through formal books of courtesy to be subservient, humble, virginal, and obedient to their husbands. But to what end?
From the 12th and 15th centuries, ladies enjoyed an array of titillating romances, where the heroine was usually described as coy, even haughty, her role one of inactivity and indolence, her love unattainable. But this was quite different from the popular courtesy literature of the time: books of instructional poems of etiquette and moral advice that encouraged women to be chaste and modest and men to be well-mannered but sexually aggressive.
The 13th-century L'Art d'Amors (The Art of Love) exemplifies the advice for men on love:
Later, if you should be alone with her, request
A kiss—but tactfully—and if she should protest,
Then kiss her all the same, as if in idle jest.
Ladies who answer no wish they had acquiesced.
The more her lips are kissed, the more your arms are twined
About her neck, the more will she yield heart and mind.
For kisses are the means, you will most surely find
That man may best employ to master womankind.
Kiss her and hold her fast. Then, gently taking care
To do no hurt or harm, lay her down then and there;
With one hand lift her gown, then place the other square
Upon her sex, but with a playful, sportive air.
Now when she feels your hand she may, indeed, demur.
She may cry out: Off, off! I do not like you, sir!
But let her shout and shriek her fill: you shall not stir.
Press your bare bodies to close, and do your will with her.
During the Middle Ages, the Church fathers had long exalted virginity as a state superior to widowhood and marriage, emphasizing women's responsibility for the "fall of man." This low conception of women's motives and functions resulted in the ecclesiastical position of virginity as the most important virtue of a young girl while chastity the most important virtue of wives. Wives were to participate in sexual relations only for procreation or to satisfy their husband's needs and, most importantly, they were to remain faithful to their husbands.
This emphasis on female chastity is evident even in the late 14th- and early 15th-century writings of Christine de Pizan (1364-1430). In The City of Ladies, de Pizan suggested that by foregoing the traditional familial role, a woman could achieve success through art or literature. Yet with the indoctrination and lifelong preparation of young girls to prepare for marriage, this idea was considered only an alternative. And while de Pizan disputed women's sexuality as being threatening, her writings nonetheless emphasized the virtues of chastity, humility, obedience, modesty, and piety.
The Game of Courtly Flirtation
The underlying themes of morality and chastity was in direct contrast to the lyrics of the troubadours. These court entertainers praised passionate, romantic love and celebrated beauty. Worse, they romanticized extramarital sexuality. Yet in their widely circulated courtesy books, the troubadours largely offered advice for flirtation, justifying the fantasy of extramarital liaisons by providing a framework for the new art of courtly love.
Ladies and gentlemen read poems or romances and delved into practiced mannerisms and flirtations. The knight addressed the lady as midons (derived from mi dominus, or "my lord"). But there were guidelines for the dialogs. For instance, suitable conversation topics for young, unmarried ladies consisted of music, love, birds, pets, and some literature. If a gentleman's conversation became too familiar, to protect her honor and her reputation, the lady was to end the conversation.
Whether married or not, the lady was never to respond with indignity or anger to a gentleman's advances. Even the friar Matfre Ermengaud (d. 1322) reminded his readers in Breviari d'amour that if a man spoke of love, the woman should not become angry or complain to her husband. Instead, she should merely play along, for anger would ruin the game.
The game of love at a court held center stage in popular literature. The Art of Courtly Love, written in 1185 by Andreas Capellanus, was translated and adapted to numerous subsequent works, such as Drouart la Vache's 13th-century Des Ruiles d'Amours (The Rules of Love):
I come now to the rules of love
Eager, at last, to speak thereof.
The first declares that wedlock laws
never give a woman a proper cause
For saying no, and coldly thwarting
The gallant suitor who comes a-courting.
The second rule, in turn, makes plain
That love must always wax or wane:
One or the other, so it goes.
As for the third, it clearly shows
That no lad truly loves unless
He fears his lady’s faithfulness.
Besides offering suggestions in achieving finesse in the game of flirtation, Blois offered suggestions concerning table manners, reminding women not to take large bites or to laugh while chewing food. Rather, he advised that a lady should be discreet. Before sipping her wine, he said, she should wipe her lips so as not to leave grease marks on the glass. She should also leave the best pieces of meat for her guests and above all, she should abstain from eating or drinking anything that might give her bad breath.
In the same vein, Garin lo Brun (d. 1156) wrote that a young lady should always wash her face upon rising in the morning and don a fresh white undergarment. According to Brun, she should wear clothes that flatter her figure and shoes that make her feet look small and dainty. And her dainty feet should take dainty steps, walking slowly and gracefully.
While courtesy books gave countless other points of advice, they also admonished vanity and indulgence in cosmetics, and warned that the more attractive a woman was, the more she had to guard her reputation. In Advice to Ladies, for example, de Blois suggested that since males are sexual predators, a lady must be careful to regulate eye contact with men and not to talk too much. But if she was too reserved, she would be labeled snobbish.
Besides instruction in behavior toward the opposite sex, courtesy literature also addressed the important topic of how to entertain one's guests. Brun's advice included the suggestion that a successful hostess should memorize poems to recite to her guests. She should employ troubadours and minstrels for her guest's enjoyment and should be able to sing well. Only by honoring her guests, he explained, would she be praised as a fine hostess.
Instruction for the Obedient Wife
A young lady of nobility was generally educated in household management and literature, including the legends and stories of the saints. Like young boys of the upper classes, manners and courtesy were important elements of a young lady's and education. Not surprisingly, numerous courtesy books instructed children in table manners, obedience, and good grooming. Older children read more elaborate courtesy poems, usually in Latin.
After the second half of the 13th century, poems designed for education were more frequently used. But while many girls learned to read, only some were taught to write. In fact, some men considered reading and writing dangerous for women, fearing that these skills might tempt a woman to correspond with a lover.
More important than learning to read or write was learning social skills. For instance, it was imperative that a young lady learn to play at least one musical instrument, and her singing voice was to be practiced and refined so she might secure a husband.
As a wife, a woman's task included overseeing all aspects of the household. She worked on tapestries and needlework, but her main function lay in anticipating the needs of her husband.
The 1393 Menagier de Paris (The Parisian Household Book) was written for a new bride by her wealthy husband who was old enough to be her grandfather. Within the lengthy treatise, the author presented instructions on almost every aspect of their new lives together. He asked that she see to his comforts upon his return home instead of leaving it to the servants. He presented numerous examples illustrating the virtues of obedience and wrote that a woman should obey her husband in all things and always do what she knows will please him.
Similarly, de Pizan presented seven rules of living honorably. The first rule was that a lady must learn to live with her husband in peace. According to Pizan, the honorable woman was humble toward him in deed, word, and attitude. She would obey him without complaint and would keep her peace.
De Pizan further advised ladies to be supportive of their husbands even if he was rude, immoral, cruel, or was involved with another woman! Instead, Pisan advised that she should use her charm and gentleness to attract her husband's affection, as confronting him might lead to being mistreated, perhaps even being cast aside. Then people would mock her all the more, thus adding shame and disrepute to the whole despicable affair.
In the 1483 Book of the Knight of the Tower, Geoffrey de la Tour-Landry stressed morality, frugality, obedience, and humility as necessary to maintaining a household. According to Tour-Landry, a lady should never contradict her husband or show him any anger. Like de Pizan, Tour-Landry advised women to compensate for their husband's faults. In fact, the more evil and cruel the husband, the more he suggested that a wife ought to make greater abstinence by fasting or denying herself items or practices she enjoyed. Indeed, wives were to be sure to perform extra good deeds in compensation for the evils of their husbands so that they might not condemn their entire family to the eternal miseries of hell.
Just as passionately, the knight warned of the fate of women at tournaments and banquets. Ladies were to be especially wary of exhibiting unseemly behavior at tournaments. And at a banquet, they were to always be accompanied by a relative and adhere to the general rules of courtesy, which include keeping her eyes on her plate as a gesture of humility.
Female subjugation and obedience were expected during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was so deeply ingrained as to, at times, appear in literature subconsciously. For instance, De Blois reminded ladies that their breasts should not be touched, felt, or fondled by anyone except a husband. Then in parentheses, he added:
For husbands’ hands may touch what they choose,
Since, for their pleasure, they may use
Their ladies as they wish, and wives
Must lead submissive, duteous lives,
Obedient as the monk or friar,
Who bends the knee before his prior.
This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine, issue #14.