09.09.20, Greco and Rose, trans., Good Wife's Guide

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Kate Staples

The Medieval Review 09.09.20

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, trans.. The Good Wife's Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. ISBN: 978-0-8014-7474-3.

Reviewed by:
Kate Staples
West Virginia University
Kate.Staples@mail.wvu.edu

According to the fourteenth-century Le Ménagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be obedient...to your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Ménagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Ménagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povreté et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le Chemin poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5).

Paired with their translation is an excellent introduction that will help the reader grapple with the complexities of a seemingly straight-forward text. For example, the translators problematize the link between the author and the narrator, encouraging the reader to go beyond understanding the text, as it has been in the past, as a didactic treatise literally written by an older, doting Parisian bourgeois husband for his very young wife. Convincingly, they suggest that instead Le Ménagier de Paris is a carefully constructed literary text replete with a rhetorical strategy, a deliberate organizational scheme, and deftly crafted images and themes. To this point, the translators suggest a variety of themes of which the reader should be cognizant including metaphors of obedience and the language of economics. They argue that this is a manual that could have found a home in any number of bourgeois households rather than only at the hand of one young wife (8-9). In her 1994 edition, Ueltschi also suggests the possibility of the design of the text as a literary device, but Greco and Rose argue this point with great emphasis in their introduction.

In addition to their careful attention to both the composition of the book and the potential readership and authorship of the text, Greco and Rose discuss at length the primary goal of the text. In their view, the author is concerned to convince his audience of the necessity of a submissive wife. They argue that everything about the text points up this ideal. Although there were three intended parts to this work--a moral treatise, a guide to household management, and a handbook for hostessing--Greco and Rose argue that throughout the entire text the reader keeps bumping into the same central idea: a wife who obeys her husband mirrors the subservient relationship with God striven for by all Christians and, in turn, helps to create a smooth-operating society (30-1). That is, to attain political stability at a macro level, the conjugal household, correctly ordered, is central. Even the training of the animals discussed in the latter part of the text can be seen as reflecting the ideal training of a young wife suggested in the exempla in the earlier part of the text (11-12). To help illustrate their point, they discuss at length the inclusion of the Griselda tale which they see as a central lynchpin to the book, contextualizing the inclusion here with other contemporary reproductions of the tale. As they explain, while Chaucer complicates the tale in his gloss of Griselda in the Clerk's Tale, the author of Le Ménagier de Paris offers a very straight-forward, un-nuanced reading of the tale to help support his main goal (31-3).

Yet, Greco and Rose do not leave it there. Through a careful reading they suggest that the central theme of the text has more depth to it, as the author struggles to combine this message of strict, unquestioning obedience with the nature of medieval marriage. They recommend the reader to notice the "competing discourses" of "the companion/equal partner marriage versus the husband-dominated marriage" (34). Because of the consensual nature of medieval marriage, the author needs to communicate to his audience that "Griselda's value lies in her consent to be dominated" (42). This example of deeper reading and contextualization is characteristic of the quality of the analysis that both scholars bring to translating the text.

In their introduction and beyond, in their copious notes which address the most recent scholarship, and in their prefaces to individual sections, Greco and Rose provide further reading aids. For example, they helpfully compare Le Ménagier de Paris to other late medieval conduct manuals and household books, such as How the Good Wijf Tauȝt Hi Douȝtir (21). They also explain the number of manuscript versions of the Tale of Melibee (147-8) and Le Chemin (177-80) that appear elsewhere, the popularity of these tales, and they suggest possible readings of various inclusions within the text. They append their translation with a glossary to help navigate the culinary details included in the last section on menus and recipes.

The final valuable feature of this edition is Greco and Rose's feminist reading of the text, reflected in their title. It is far more arresting to contemplate the wife-as-reader in the text rather than accepting the benign and munificent narrator at face value (7). Given the amount of food-for-thought Greco and Rose have provided in their analysis as well as the clear prose they have presented in their translation, this text will find its way into a variety of Medieval Studies courses. This reviewer very much looks forward to the rich discussion which will be prompted by this text in the classroom.

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Kate Staples

West Virginia University