14th Century

International Women’s Day — How far have we come?

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In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m posting a primary source analysis I wrote in 2007. The source is The Goodman of Paris, written between 1392 – 1394. This analysis illustrates how women were treated in this era and gives evidence how far we have come from this age of lord and master over women. But have we really come as far as we think? We certainly didn’t get here quickly. In my opinion, women have come far in society, but there are still women out there who are lorded over and treated as second class citizens. I only hope that some day we will look back and see that women have progressed beyond our wildest imaginings.

Medieval Sourcebook:  The Goodman of Paris, 1392/94, translated by Eileen Power in The Goodman of Paris, London:  Routledge, 1928, reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehns, eds., Western Societies:  Primary Sources in Social History, Vol I, New York:  St. Martins, 1993, 5 pages.

1.  At the time this source was written, “many prosperous merchants attempted to imitate noble lifestyles” and “emulated the social pretensions of the nobility” (Zophy 23).  Their wives led family-oriented lives.  They were expected to prepare, or supervise the preparation, of meals.  They managed the household and servants and completed quantities of needlework.  Women were taught from birth that they possessed an inferior status to men.  There were not many options for women.  It was important to make a good marriage.  Those who did not marry were often expected to join a convent.  (Zophy 23-24)  The author’s views on the place of women were common thoughts of the time period.  In this respect, it is not surprising that this author would outline expectations for his young wife.

2.  The source was written by an elderly Parisian merchant between 1392 and 1394.  It is a letter written to his new, and much younger, wife.  It is meant to be instructional to the young wife as it does contain a cookbook, of sorts.  Mainly, it is a statement of the writer’s ideals of marriage (1).  The husband provides her with “a general instruction that I will write for you and preto you, in three sections containing nineteen principal articles….” (1).  The author has much personal stake in the events because the behavior and performance of his wife reflects directly upon him.  “For the more you know…the greater praise will therefore be unto… me, …by whom you have been nurtured” (1).

3.  Throughout the instructions put down by the author of this source, the general attitudes of men toward women, and their duties, of the medieval and Renaissance time periods are largely evident.  As he presented this instructional in articles and sections, the fifth article of the first section outlines that the wife shall be “loving and privy towards your husband above all other living creatures” and only moderate toward kinsfolk and “very distant with all other men…” (2).  The author compares the loyalty of the wife as to that of a man’s pet dog.  That the dog stays close to the person that feeds him and is indifferent to others who are not his master.  Even if the dog is whipped, he is still loyal to his master.  (2)

The sixth article of the first section stresses the importance of obedience.  The wife should follow her husband’s “commandments”, whether they be “in earnest” or “orders to do strange things”, whether of small or great importance (2).  Basically, if the husband tells the wife to do something, she does it without question.  The author makes it perfectly clear that “his pleasure should come before yours”, that if he forbids his wife from doing anything, she is not to do it and that she shall not talk back to him or contradict anything he says (3).

The wife was subservient to the husband, as the author outlines in the seventh article.  His every comfort is her responsibility.  When he returns home, she is to take his shoes off before a good fire, wash his feet and have him fresh shoes and hose, supply him with food and drink, serve him and look after him, bed him in clean sheets and nightcaps, and cover him with fresh furs.  The next morning, he is to have clean shirts and garments. (3)  This writer is very clear that these are the things that will make a husband want to return home and not stray to another woman’s bed.

The author is straight forward in his instruction against being “a scolding woman” (3).  He warns not to be obedient and amiable in the beginning of the marriage, only to slack off later by becoming disobedient and scolding.  (4)

The detailed instructions that this writer provides are largely indicative of the societal attitudes of the time, as outlined in my introduction.  Though the wife ran the household, she did so at the bidding of her husband.  The author’s guidelines for his young wife, right down to the four recipes he includes in the text, display that the medieval household was organized and ran solely for the comfort and pleasure of the husband.

4.  This is an excellent source for the research of women’s or family issues during the medieval and Renaissance time period.  The strong point of this source is its portrayal of male attitudes toward women of the time.  The letter written by this merchant husband, although cleverly masked in a loving tone, clearly indicates the author’s belief that women are of lower status than men.  One weak point of this source might be the fact that it does not represent the woman’s point of view.  However, this source transports the reader to the time.  One can almost visualize the humble wife washing and dressing her husband’s feet before a roaring fire.  For a woman of the twenty-first century, it is quite an image, indeed.

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Categories: 14th Century, history, women in history | 1 Comment

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