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Medieval Conduct Manuals

March 9, 2013

In our modern age, we can head over to any bookshop, or even sit at home and order a book online, it’s easy. The advantage of this is that we have the widest range of books, fiction, and non-fiction. This range includes self-help books, guides and manuals, for almost everything you can think of. You can get help with reading, writing, quitting smoking, cooking, cleaning, walking, running, exercise, dogs, cats, wildlife and that is only the beginning. Then of course, us bloggers know, that there is a whole wealth of information online that is not in print. By using chat forums, answer websites and informational web pages, it is easy to find answers to any questions from the life threatening medical advice to the mundane. Unfortunately, the medieval person did not have any of these tools to help them through their day-to-day life. They had to rely on the advice of those around them, their families, friends, superiors and neighbours. But, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, some help arrived, and it came in the form of conduct manuals.

These were mostly aimed at women, are we surprised, not really, in general, we often think of women as oppressed, and conduct manuals for women almost confirms this. There are some aimed at wives. One in particular, called Le Ménagier de Paris, was written, in French, in the late fourteenth century, by an elderly husband for his young wife. The husband seems to have genuine care and love for his wife, but he also explains that this is partly due to her obedience; she has been brought up well. This manual has some fantastic information about how a medieval house was run, and it even includes some recipes at the end. But, it also tells us how a bourgeois wife in medieval France was expected to behave. The wife was to conduct herself well, she was to not behave or dress above her rank, and she was to maintain the household by instructing servants.

Another French medieval conduct manual by the Geoffroy De La Tour Landry, also known as the Knight of La Tour Landry. This man wrote a conduct manual for his daughters around the same time as Le Ménagier de Paris, but it is also known that he had previously written a manual for his sons, so he might be able to be deemed less sexist. He states that he has written his book because his wife had died while his children were young and he was concerned that no one would teach him. The contents are on how the girls should behave, again, according to their rank and regarding religious matters, but they are not taught to run a medieval household, as Le Ménagier de Paris does. But, these girls are of a higher rank than that young wife, and so would not be expected to do as much around the house.

There are two ways to look at these conduct manuals for women, the first is that they were sexist and controlling, and the second is that they were loving and caring. The first view, the sexist and controlling one, is definitely valid. The conduct manuals certainly do seem controlling, they are showing that rules are in place for these women, and they must be obeyed. The manuals were also very popular, they were shared around and printed and so there must have been a want for women to read them. There is also the issue of punishment of women if they disobey their guides; this of course makes us see these manuals as a way of controlling and curbing women’s behaviours.

The second view that they were written out of love and care is an equally valid point. Both manuals I have discussed have claimed at the start to be in the best interests of their subjects. The Knight wants his daughters to do well in life and worries for them with the death of their mother. Le Ménagier also worries for his young wife, that she is so young, and therefore she needs guidance.

I think these manuals have a mix of love and controlling sexism in them. They are written with the care of women in mind, but this care involves controlling them because that is the only way the medieval men knew how. (Well, definitely the authors of these conduct manuals.) So, when we look at these conduct manuals, it is easy to judge them as controlling, but when looking further at the context and the people involved, it is obvious that other factors need to be taken into account when looking at these conduct manuals. I will leave you some manuals to read and then you can come to your own opinion.


The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book, trans. by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose (London: Cornell University Press, 2009).


Geoffroy de la Tour Landry, The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry (London: Elbrion Classics, 2005).


From → Medieval History

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