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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 90-102

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Robert de Blois and Geoffroy de la Tour Landry on Feminine Beauty:
Two Late Medieval French Conduct Books for Women

Susan Udry
The University of St. Francis

Recent feminist scholarship has argued that the moral treatises advising women to carefully conceal their bodies and desires played a key role in shaping sexual identities and gender roles in the later Middle Ages. In particular, the work of Felicity Riddy on the manuscript context of didactic works for women, and the work of Roberta Krueger on women readers have been key to understanding the complex relationship between reading, gender, and instruction in the later Middle Ages. 1 In her study of gendered readership in the Middle Ages Roberta Krueger points out that the advice about women's moral and bodily conduct would have been received differently by men and women readers of the Middle Ages. Books such as the Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry, Krueger argues, advocate chastity on the one hand yet construct women as objects of desire (i.e. beauties) for male readers on the other. The display of the female body in conduct literature often had the effect of "putting into discourse the very feminine sensuality that [he] would want to contain." Krueger argues that as gender roles became more rigidly constructed for women in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, stereotyped images of the silent and obedient wife in works of moral conduct might not necessarily have served to confirm traditional gender categories, or have influenced women to follow the advice that they set forth on feminine behavior and appearance. 2

Krueger's model for reading conduct literature as a cross-section of competing discourses about the female body, offers a helpful critical approach to the question of how medieval women negotiated sexual and social identity within the boundaries ostensibly set forth for them in late medieval literature. This paper will be principally concerned with how this model can be applied to statements about feminine beauty that are to be found in treatises specifically concerned with [End Page 90] matters of correct social conduct. Medieval ideas about feminine beauty in conduct literature are often examined in light of the ideology of bodily containment, but far less attention has been devoted to examining the interrelationship between moral statements in these texts and statements of advice to a woman about caring for her appearance. Clearly there was a demand for beauty advice among women in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Manuals on the use of cosmetics that advised women on how to enhance their most beautiful assets, (usually the face) or handle various beauty problems, such as wrinkles or blotches on the skin, were widely available in the Middle Ages, and several examples exist from France of the thirteenth century, most notably the Anglo-Norman L'Ornement des dames. 3 To what extent might conduct books, for all their moral pontificating, have been read by medieval women as also offering them something akin to "beauty tips"? The abundance of statements about how a woman should care for her appearance in late medieval conduct literature for women may tell us something more about how both the authors and the readers of these books negotiated gender identity, and whether or not such negotiations included prescribed gender roles.

Within the genre of the women's conduct book, the statements about feminine beauty differ substantially. Robert de Blois, in a work from around 1250, the Chastoiement des dames (The Ladies' Instruction), advises ladies to pay a great deal of attention to managing their physical appearance. 4 In a work from the area around Tours of one hundred and twenty years later, the Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry pour l'enseignement de ses filles, Geoffroy, the fourth chevalier of La Tour Landry, warns his daughters about the evils of vanity, and advises them to cultivate good manners and "cortoisie" more than their physical beauty (1371-72; The Book of the Knight of the...