- Household Knowledges in Late-Medieval England and France ed. by Glenn D. Burger and Rory G. Critten
As its title suggests, this essay collection sits at the intersection of several topics of recent interest. Since David Starkey's influential suggestion in 1981 that the later Middle Ages were the "age of the household," historians and literary critics have paid increasing attention to real, fictional, and figurative households of all kinds. More specifically, this volume's focus on the household as a site for "both the consumption and production of knowledge" seems traceable to recent decades' attention to the didactic and practical texts included in various miscellany manuscripts often classified as "household" books (3). Three of the ten essays [End Page 389] focus on particular miscellanies, and four others address practical texts (including conduct literature). But the contributors' interest in manuscript context remains subordinated to the overarching concept of the household as a space for working out social relations, and in that sense the volume has a coherent organizing principle. The contributors' methodologies and predilections vary slightly, but as one might expect, gender and marriage are recurring subjects.
The introduction by Burger and Critten provides a useful overview of recent historical research on medieval households and nods to some of the more daring applications of this work by literary scholars such as D. Vance Smith, in Arts of Possession (2003). The first essay, by Burger, examines the different modes of knowledge in Le menagier de Paris, a text treated more extensively in his 2018 monograph Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages. Burger's essay here emphasizes the diversity of genres in Le menagier and the interplay between textual and experiential authority. Inevitably, the distinction breaks down, as when practical advice on removing stains is presented as experiential wisdom from the household servant "Dame Agnes," when in fact it derives from a text. Burger concludes that Le menagier de Paris "argues that the movement of knowledge within the bourgeois household can never be simply top-down" (36). Textual authority acquired from outside the household must be reinterpreted to conform to local conditions and informed by experiential knowledge from within. Burger suggests an analogy to the relations of husband and wife.
The next essay, by Elliot Kendall, continues the consideration of gender and marriage with a reading of Caxton's Book of the Knight of the Tower. Kendall examines the internal tensions of the text's patriarchal agenda. For example, the text presents domestic violence as both entirely justified and simultaneously displaced, "separated from patriarchal will" (56). The completion of a woman's education is her recognition of her own incompetence, and the essay concludes by considering Margaret Paston's awareness of the "socially construed limits of her competence" (66).
Two essays focus on particular kinds of technical or practical knowledge. The first of these, Nadine Kuipers's study of various Latin, Anglo-French, and Middle English treatises on agriculture, makes the point that texts purporting to be practical may not be practical at all, given the varieties of climate and some of their more fanciful recommendations. Some of The Craft of Graftyng's descriptions should come with the disclaimer "Don't try this at home," such as injecting trees with ferrous [End Page 390] oxide to turn fruit blue, or grafting together multiple species. Instead, such texts likely served other purposes, as entertainment, a source of nostalgia, and (in the case of bourgeois households) a form of social aspiration. Kuipers concludes with the argument that sixteenth-century readers actually did seek practical instruction from agricultural treatises, unlike their medieval predecessors. This claim seems plausible, but needs more evidence and exposition to be fully convincing. Michael Leahy's essay looks at medical texts, including John Arderne's De fistula in ano, John of Bourdeaux's Governayle of Health, and Henry Daniel's Treatise on Rosemary, and the way they "imagine the household as an environment typified by bodily integrity and perfect living" (180). Here...