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Item 3, How the Wise Man Taught His Son: Introduction


1 Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers, p. 87.

2 Dronzek, “Gendered Theories,” p. 137.

3 For the various Middle English texts framed as advice from a father to a son, see MWME 9.22.15–30.2966–72; most of these texts resemble How a Wise Man Taught His Son in being brief col­lections of moral maxims and proverbial wisdom. Furnivall prints many of these in Queene Elizabethes Achademy and The Babees Book.

4 See Pantin, “Instructions for a Devout and Literate Layman.”

5 Hanawalt, “Childe of Bristowe,” pp. 190–92.

6 For an attempt to reconstruct the source of Ashmole 61 and London, British Library MS Harley 2399, see Fischer’s edition, pp. 42–49.
Origin, Genre, and Themes

Ashmole 61’s collection of didactic pieces directed at children begins with this short piece, a series of loosely connected rules and proverbs for good conduct. The poem likely dates from the fifteenth century, when similar Middle English texts were composed and copied frequently. Five other surviving manuscripts preserve copies of this text, and it might have been even more popular had there not been so many similar texts available. Indeed, as Seth Lerer has shown, fifteenth-century compilers even recast as children’s literature works that had never been intended for a young audience, and “much earlier poetry was reread and at times rewritten with practical didacticism in mind.”1

In both subject and form, the poem resembles works in two closely related genres, proverb texts and courtesy manuals. Anne Dronzek has recently suggested that How the Wise Man Taught His Son should be considered part of a broadly defined genre of “conduct literature,” a category that would include other texts that discuss “secular daily life.”2 Whereas some texts treat more specific aspects of manners and good be­havior (such as items 7 and 8 below), and others discuss social and religious ethics, How the Wise Man Taught His Son touches on both courtesy and ethics as it concen­trates on the middle ground of general conduct in daily life: how to organize one’s day, how to speak, how to treat one’s wife, and how to order the priorities of earthly life. All of these topics are informed by proverbial wisdom of the kind that circulated widely in Middle Eng­lish literature. Proverbs were thought to be particularly useful as texts for younger audi­ences; schoolmasters used the Latin proverb collection known as the Distichs of Cato to teach their pupils both grammar and morals. The fictional structure provided by the father passing along advice to a son was also a common device, most prominently in the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alphonsus, a collection of stories told by a father instructing his son.3

Both the subject matter and the advice offered by How the Wise Man Taught His Son would make this text useful for a wide class of medieval readers. The warning about exces­sive accumulation and the emphasis on treating a wife with trust and respect may hint at a bourgeois audience, but such values could certainly hold appeal for gentry readers as well, and the differences between these audiences were rapidly diminishing in any case. The doctrine of How the Wise Man Taught His Son resembles the “Instructions for a Devout and Literate Layman” that also insist on the virtues of attending Mass every morning and meditating on man’s death.4 The “Instructions” were likely written for a member of the gentry living in London who was capable of reading Latin; How the Wise Man Taught His Son retails a less demanding version of the same themes for an audience accustomed to folksy Middle English verse. Formally, the ababbcbc stanzas resemble those of the previous item by Lydgate, as well as item 7, Stans Puer ad Mensam, also attributed to Lydgate. But stylistically the poem is a more humble production, with simpler diction.

However anodyne some of its advice may seem, How the Wise Man Taught His Son touches on subjects that prompted considerable anxiety. Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale is only the best-known account of how young men might fall into depravity, and similar tales circulated widely in the fifteenth century. Fears of dissolute, ungovernable youth, par­ticularly appren­tices, grew out of broader concerns about the dangers of urbanization. Riots were not uncommon, and legal records confirm the cautionary tales of fortunes lost by young men’s gambling and drinking. Guild regulations and the system of trade masters were mobilized to combat the perceived dangers, and How the Wise Man Taught His Son may have been part of this broader effort. Barbara Hanawalt has argued that the moral training of adolescents may have been given such emphasis partly because the demo­graphics of the period made young people a scarce resource; both the urban and rural economies depended on well-governed youth.5

Manuscript Context

This text may be seen to follow on naturally after Right as a Ram’s Horn’s satiric com­plaint about the failures of human conduct. It certainly shares close associations with the text that follows, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, as well as the other items in the first three quires that concern proper manners (items 7 and 8) and fundamental Christian ethics (item 6). More broadly, the stanzas on marital relations can be connected to Ashmole 61’s consistent interest in marriage, and the reminders on the world’s mutability might be usefully juxtaposed with Vanity (item 40).


Rate seems to have engaged in some of his characteristic abridging in copying this text. Five other manuscripts preserve varying versions of this text, including the London miscellany of Richard Hill (Oxford, Balliol College MS 354) and Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.2.38, the Leicestershire miscellany that shares several other items with Ashmole 61. Rate’s version has thirteen and a half stanzas, while some manuscripts contain versions with as many as twenty-four stanzas. Rate’s exemplar was in all likelihood missing at least four of these stanzas (which warn against displeasing neighbors by pursuing newfangled fashions, laughing too much, and making harsh demands of a good wife).6 Rate omits stanzas on staying away from taverns and dice, warnings about diet and staying up too late, further advice on behavior towards a wife, and a caution about acting immediately upon accusations made by a wife (since women’s wrath is hasty). The stanzas about diet, drinking, and sleep may have been omitted because Rate planned to include texts that treat the same subjects (particularly The Dietary, item 31). Others may have been omitted to make the text more applicable to younger children not yet at marrying age, though obviously several stanzas discussing wives and marriage remain.

Rate shows his usual indifference to meter and follows his habit of omitting letters from the ends of words, but in other respects the text is not particularly defective.

Printed Editions

Fischer, Rudolf, ed. How the Wyse Man Taught Hys Sone. Erlanger Beiträge zur Eng­lischen Philologie 2. Erlangen: A. Deichert’sche Verlag, 1889. [Collates all six manuscripts.]

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Queene Elizabethes Achademy. Pp. 52–55. [Prints Ashmole 61’s text.]

Furnivall, F. J., ed. The Babees Book. Pp. 48–52. [Prints the text of London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 853.]

Salisbury, Eve, ed. The Trials and Joys of Marriage. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002. Pp. 233–45. [Based on C and not, as stated on p. 239 of Salisbury’s edition, on Ashmole 61.]

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. 43–46.

Reference Works

NIMEV 1985; see also numbers 1877 and 1891.
MWME, 3355.

See also Dronzek, Elias, Hanawalt (1993 and 1996), Idley, Lerer (1993), and Orme (1984) in the bibliography.

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