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Item 4, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter: Introduction


1 Mustanoja, Good Wife, p. 126.

2 Bornstein, Lady in the Tower, p. 64.

3 Riddy, “Mother Knows Best,” p. 86.
Origin, Genre, and Themes

Written in the early or middle years of the fourteenth century, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter is one of the few conduct poems written in Middle English to be directed specifically at women, and one of the earliest in Europe to be directed at women below the highest ranks of the aristocracy and outside the nunneries. It shares its genre with the preceding text, How the Wise Man Taught His Son, mixing proverbial advice, moral guidance, and lessons in courteous behavior. Other, very similar, conduct literature written for women includes The Good Wife Wold a Pilgrimage, and the Scots poem The Thewis of Gud Women (The Customs of Good Women), both included in the critical edition by Mustanoja listed below. Once again the fictional device of a parent speaking to a child frames the poem, though it cannot be called a dialogue in any meaningful sense.

In comparison to How the Wise Man Taught His Son, the advice here is more specific, revealing more details about the intended audience and the daily life of a late medieval wife. While the Good Wife’s instructions about managing the household meneyé (servants and staff) would pertain to both aristocratic and bourgeois women, who often supervised household affairs in the absence of their husbands, the instructions about attending mar­kets, avoiding taverns and lower-class sporting events, and baking bread in times of shortage suggest that the Good Wife is addressing the concerns of bourgeois women of mod­est means. In this mercantile context, the meneyé may include apprentices, who often lived with their masters in chambers immediately above or behind the workplace.

The Good Wife’s advice largely revolves around the two ideals of thrift and honor. The latter, of course, was long central to aristocratic ideology, which imagined women’s honor primarily in sexual terms. Chastity, either virginal or wedded, trumps all other concerns. But women’s honor also involves obedience, restrained speech, and humility. These virtues are the subject of one of the more popular treatises directed at aristocratic women, the French nobleman Geoffroy de la Tour Landry’s Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry, known in England as the Book of the Knight of the Tower and printed by William Caxton. That text, which consists of exemplary narratives (often involving women who receive terrible punish­ments for violations of their honor), can be seen as a more elaborate counterpart to the Good Wife’s instructions on the subjects of gentle speech, envy, subservience, and conduct with men.

Thrift, however, was not typically a concern of aristocratic ideology, and the Good Wife’s instructions here are derived from proverbial wisdom and pragmatic bourgeois experience. The urban bourgeoisie of later medieval England drew close connections between honor and thrift (and thrift’s presumed benefit, prosperity). Status within the guild and the city often depended on a reputation for fiscal prudence. At several points the Good Wife’s advice describes courtship and relations as a form of dangerous commerce; just as a woman must beware of borrowing money or losing the profit of her goods at a market, she must not ac­cept gifts from men or be seen with too many of them. Thus sexual honor becomes a kind of closely guarded commodity, to be governed by the same vigilance and thrift as the house­hold’s grain in a time of need.

On account of its valuable insights into the ethos of late medieval bourgeois women, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter has attracted much scholarly attention, including various assertions about audience and authorship. Mustanoja suggested that the author was likely a male cleric on account of the text’s insistence on female subordination.1 Diane Bornstein has argued that the author may well have been a woman, or a man who “effectively assumed the persona of a woman.”2 In an ex­tended analysis of this text, Felicity Riddy has suggested that the text is intended not for the daughters of merchants but for young women working in bourgeois households, and that it may even reveal a “youth subculture,” com­pos­ed of young men and women who sought work in towns and who shared a rowdy, adventurous life in the taverns, street, and market.3 Widespread anxieties about ungoverned young people (discussed in the introduction to How the Wise Man Taught His Son) may indeed be behind the compo­sition of this text, which would complicate the apparent banality of some of the advice in How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter. If so, these timeworn proverbs were recorded here not because they were widely recognized, but because the author feared that a young audience might not encounter this instruction elsewhere.

Manuscript Context

The most obvious connections are to the preceding text, How the Wise Man Taught His Son, and to the other conduct literature of the first three quires. This includes The Ten Command­ments (item 6), and perhaps even the late addition of The Rules for Purchasing Land (item 10), a simi­larly pragmatic set of instructions. More broadly, the behavior prescribed here might usefully be compared to that of the wives and daughters of the exemplary narratives The Jealous Wife and The Incestuous Daughter (items 22 and 23). The faithful wife in Sir Cleges (item 24), the endangered heroine Beulybone of The Erle of Tolous (item 19), and even the long-suffering wife of the drunken carpenter in The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools (item 16) can be measured against the values of the Good Wife. The Good Wife’s advice on the subjects of chastity, sobriety, humility, and devotion to the family’s prosperity (both worldly and spiritual) finds echoes throughout Rate’s selections.


Though the text survives in four other manuscripts (and in one early print of 1597 as The Northern Mother’s Blessing: The Way of Thrift), Rate’s copy differs significantly from all of these. Since Ashmole 61’s text departs so widely from all other surviving copies, it seems likely that Rate himself was responsible for the differences. His version uses an entirely different meter of four feet (as opposed to the septenary lines of the others), and where the other versions include an extrametrical, unrhymed proverb at the end of each stanza (usually concluded with an address to “My leve child”), Rate has omitted the proverbs com­pletely, perhaps in one of his characteristic attempts at compression. But Rate’s alterations do not significantly affect the substance of the poem, and he has not omitted more than four stanzas of the original (which may have already been missing from his copy-text). And as Mustanoja notes, Rate’s version presents the material in much the same order as the other versions (Good Wife, p. 118, n. 1). I have not rendered the poem in stanzas, since Rate seems to have viewed the couplets as continuous.

Printed Editions

Coulton, G. G. Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918. Rpt. 1919, 1938, 1968. Pp. 446–51. [Based on London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 853, with readings from Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19.]

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Queene Elizabethes Achademy. Pp. 44–51. [Prints Ashmole 61’s text.]

Furnivall, F. J., ed. The Babees Book. Pp. 36–47. [Prints the text of Lambeth Palace Library MS 853.]

Mustanoja, T. F., ed. The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, The Good Wife Wold a Pylgrymage, The Thewis of Gud Women. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1948. [Collates all the MSS.]

Salisbury, Eve, ed. The Trials and Joys of Marriage. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002. Pp. 219–31. [Uses Ashmole 61 as base text.]

Adaptations and Modernizations

Rickert, Edith, ed. The Babees Book: Medieval Manners for the Young Now First Done into Modern English from the Texts of Dr. F. J. Furnivall. London: Ballantyne Press, 1908. Rpt. London: Chatto and Windus, 1923. Pp. 31–42.

Reference Works

NIMEV 1882. See also 671
MWME, 3354–55

See also Ashley, Bornstein, Caxton, Goldberg, Hanawalt (1995), Hanawalt and Dronzek, Jewell, McRee and Dent, Phillips, Power, Riddy (1996), Sponsler (1997), and Stiller in the bibliography.

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