One of the most eminent conduct books is Le Menagier de Paris. The Householder or Goodman of Paris wrote his young wife this book to instruct her in her many new duties. She was much younger than her new husband, only a child of fifteen and he was well into his sixties. She was an orphan but of higher social standing than he was. He speaks frequently of her “very great youth” and even keeps a housekeeper with her while she settles into her new role. However, in keeping with the current regard for women in their capacity as wives he is very understanding of her needs. This is a tremendous change from the cruelty if the earlier Middle Ages.
The Menagier understands that he will die before his wife and believes that it is her duty to make his latter years comfortable, however he also states that he believes that it is his obligation to make this task as easy as he can. His tone is understanding and paternal rather than that of a husband, although this would have been reassuring for the young woman. He states that he does not wish ‘a service too humble or too hard’. He wishes only for the same treatment as his contemporaries receive from their wives. In return she asks him not to correct her mistakes in front of other but to be sensitive to her youth and inexperience and to amended her errors in private.
That is precisely why this book of guidance and direction was conceived. The first part of his book is centered on Biblical stories, called exempla in the Middle Ages. Some of which centre on the Menagiers own experiences. The second part is a guide to domesticity. Including gardening tips and advice on how to handle the hired service. There is also a cookbook included of his favorite recipes. The third section is centered around entertainment, both of guests to their home and for the young lady herself. Unfortunately this section doesn’t seem to be concluded.
It would seem that the Menagier has rather contemporary opinions of marriage, in his view that he understands the hardship involved in wifely duties, however this positive scene is still quite far from what we would now deem as acceptable opinion. He compares the loyalty he expects from his wife to be like that of a dog. Never straying from the hand that feeds it. He also believes that patience is an extremely important virtue in a wife and that she should never tire of pleasing her husband. In fact he dedicates a section on the ways in which a woman can win back the affections of her husband after he has been unfaithful. This section of the book does remind us that we are dealing with a man from the Middle Ages rather than that of a modern household. As some of the book is so alarmingly like that of a recent large home. However on the whole his guidance book is concerned chiefly with his instructions on how to make him contented and untroubled the winter of his life.
Women were seen as a valuable piece of property, a commodity rather than an equal. However it is worth remembering that during this period everyone, man, woman or child had their price. King Ethelberht of Kent first passed such legislature. Written in English in the early seventh century. Many of the codes seem alien to us now such as laws seventy-seven and eighty – two: If a man buys a maiden, the bargain shall stand, if there is no dishonesty. If however there is dishonesty, she shall be taken back to her home, and the money shall be returned to him.
If a man forcibly carries off a maiden, (he shall pay) 50 shillings to her owner, and afterwards buy from the owner his consent. However the law was changing all the time, marriage became a contract of mutual consent. King Alfred, around 250 years later stated that women should be paid ‘the worth of their maidhood’ this was extremely liberal as this would provide for the woman in the event of her husbands death. The rise of the actual wedding ceremony started around this time also. It was a sober event, which began with the giving and receiving of such objects as a piece of straw and later arrows and cloth. In the later Middle Ages a vow or oath replaced this solemn act, reminding us greatly of our wedding services today.
However the woman’s true feelings were never of any consequence. There was a Biblical precedence to this way of marrying off your daughters. Ambrose recalled the story of Rebecca who was consulted only to the day of her marriage, not to the choice of husband. St Jerome also believed that women had no business in choosing a partner. I care nothing for what you say about the violence an abductor, the offering of a mother, the authority of a father, the whole troop of relatives, the tricks of slaves, the parents’ loss of property. As long as the husband lives, even if he is an adulterer, even if he is a homosexual, even if he has been an accomplice in every crime and has been abandoned by his wife for these crimes he is accounted her husband and it is not lawful for her to take another husband.
So we can see that every time the laws seem to help the plight of women, the church steps in and reverts any good. Jerome even believes that a marriage of force stands in law. However, things were to change. Gratian, who can be acknowledge for giving substance to canon law, asked the question of whether women should be able to have any choice in the matter of their partner. After consulting fathers of the church, the answer came that women should indeed enter marriage only be her own free will. Women had never had never had such freedom before. These differences of opinion between the fanatical believers in the Christian church, who agreed in the complete domination of men in the marriage and also in the choosing of a partner. Then the much more liberal Germanic culture who believed in the freedom of women to select her own partner.
However, the state of women in marriage did progress throughout the Middle Ages. After the invasion of the Norman’s came the feudal system, where everyone belonged to someone else and all to the King. Along with this period there was a great resurgence of child marriages. Famously there was a child married off when she was only four. She had out lived three husbands by the age of eleven. There was also the problem of incest among very rich and noble families who wished for ‘pure blooded children’.
The actual union between two people changed throughout the Middle Ages, as it was possible to be married without an actual ceremony. This could lead to a great deal of confusion. Through the physical union of a man and a woman and the intent to be married two people were thus. Pope Alexander III decided that it was the spoken word of agreement of marriage that would validate a wedding. Other changes were in the form of declaring that a wedding should be a public affair. Both Archbishop Richard of Canterbury and Archbishop Walter made progress in this area. It was already against the law to marry in secret.
In conclusion we can note that there were many changes in the Middle Ages concerning women and marriage. However society did progress through the extreme misogynist early Middle Age men of Christianity such as St Augustine who is to blame for many anti – feminist opinions. To the slightly more liberal views of the later leaders such as Juan de Torquemada (1388 – 1468) who believed that man should love his wife like Christ loves the Church. Although women were always to be seem as second class, up until the mid Twentieth century, positive changes were made. A woman like Chauser’s hero Alysoun could never have been conceived in earlier days.
She encapsulated everything that the Church hated in women; she was loud, she drew attention to herself and she had re-married no less than five times. However women like this did exist and instead of caring about what the Church thought, she would have reveled in their distaste. This would have never been possible earlier. So matters changed throughout the Middle Ages and after that and are still changing today. Opinions towards marriage today are very different to only a couple of decades ago, as are views on women. Things will always continue to change and evolve, nothing ever stands still.