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Essays in Medieval Studies 22 (2005) 21-39



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Identity Begins at Home:

Female Conduct and the Failure of Counsel in Le Menagier de Paris

Hamilton College

Shaping Conduct in Medieval France

In his classic study of the history of European manners, Norbert Elias represents the Middle Ages as a rather badly behaved society from which a more refined Renaissance emerges. Although he recognizes the role of "courtoisie" in the evolution of European sociability, Elias portrays medieval society as rougher, more prone to extreme displays of emotion, less restrained by a sense of bodily shame, and less interested in controlling behavior.1 Not until the sixteenth century, with the publication of Erasmus's De civilitate morum puerilium does a program of consciously inculcated physical restraint, self-control, and refined expression emerge. Drawing on a limited sample of books of table manners and courtesy, Elias presents medieval manuals as comparatively simple enumerations of stock precepts that remained unchanged for centuries. In contrast, the Renaissance treatises of Erasmus, Castiglione, and della Casa are deemed more sophisticated creations from an era when "people mold themselves and others more deliberately than in the Middle Ages" (79).

A sociologist rather than a medieval historian, Elias conceded that "a closer study" of nuances and differences of medieval behavior was needed (62). The few medieval works Elias surveys are scarcely representative of the variety and complexity of European vernacular didactic works. To support his claim that medieval morality was perceived naïvely in stark oppositions of "good and bad," for example, Elias cites the German translation of the Disticha Catonis (63). Popular as this terse primer may have been throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, medieval literature abounds with more substantial and nuanced treatises. This essay will focus on an intriguing late medieval French work, one among many possible examples from vernacular European literature. [End Page 21]

Happily, medievalists have been attending to the closer scrutiny Elias advocated seventy years ago, editing, translating, and analyzing didactic texts at a steady pace.2 Critical studies are flourishing.3 Were Elias to review the evidence amassed today, he might conclude that medieval moralists were intensely preoccupied with attempting to shape behavior. Nonetheless, as Karin Ueltschi notes for the French tradition, medieval didactic texts continue to be something of a "poor relation" in literary studies (Didactique de la chair, 9). There is no extensive global study of this literature, as there is for genres with greater appeal to modern readers: epic, romance, lyric, fabliaux, or drama. Indeed, there is little consensus about which texts constitute the genre—or genres—of conduct literature. Paradoxically, those works so intent on inculcating order, social rule, and behavioral conformity are, as a group of literary documents, difficult to arrange in neat categories.4

Their problematic classification arises not only from their variety, but also from the often hybrid nature and literary "unruliness" of medieval didactic texts.5 Competing clerical, chivalric, and bourgeois registers may clash in a single work, and strict gender divisions may break down, as I have argued elsewhere.6 Paradoxically, some books attempting to impart social order may themselves inscribe textual disorder, inconsistencies and contradictions. Their "unruliness" at times seems to reflect the thorny nature of the didactic project, the shaping of social identity and ordering of households through written instruction. Some treatises inscribe a persistent tension between the order they seek to impose and the difficulty of controlling the material world and human behavior.

Order and Disorder in Le Menagier de Paris

No medieval conduct book inscribes the moralist's problematic attempt to shape social order more poignantly than the late fourteenth-century northern French text, Le Menagier de Paris (c. 1394).7 Like the 1372 Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l'enseignement de ses filles and Christine de Pizan's 1405 Livre des Trois Vertus, this conduct book for women participates in the proliferation of didactic texts that circulate within noble families and, increasingly, in bourgeois households, in the wake of Charles V's program...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4608
Print ISSN
1043-2213
Pages
pp. 21-39
Launched on MUSE
2006-03-13
Open Access
No
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