18.09.13, Burger, Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages

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George Shuffelton

The Medieval Review 18.09.13

Burger, Glenn D. Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 262. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4960-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
George Shuffelton
Carleton College

After seven seasons, the Emmy-winning television series "The Good Wife" has given way to a spin-off, but the ideal of the good wife presumably will be with us for quite a bit longer. Glenn Burger's Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages provides a partial genealogy for the good wife and the transformation of this ideal in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The book treats the increased interest in lay female conduct as a "Pan-European phenomenon"; in practice this primarily involves attention to French texts, though English and Italian texts and Northern European visual art receive attention as well (2). The good wife has a more distant past than Burger discusses--for example, the eleventh-century Bishop Marbode of Reims wrote a paean to the mulier bona--and although his book occasionally looks ahead to the Reformation's further development of late medieval conceptions of marriage, it primarily focuses on narrow range of texts from the "long fourteenth century" (6). The result may frustrate some readers seeking a more rigorously historical account, as well as those seeking broader kinds of evidence or careful comparison to other late medieval modes of female virtue. What Conduct Becoming offers readers instead is an interweaving of current discussions of gender, affective reading, and lay devotion.

The introduction emphasizes the development of marriage as a sacrament, and the way this "turned marriage from an inferior debased state far below an idealized celibacy into a calling that could put husbands on par with or even above celibate clerics and give sexually active wives the opportunity for chaste status previously available only to virgin nuns" (21). Such a claim might come as a surprise to the twelfth-century canonists who established the idea of sacramental marriage, but Burger's subsequent argument successfully demonstrates the way this idea came to validate the married state and the capacity of wives for devotional rigor.

Chapter 1 is largely concerned with the French journées, texts that describe the spiritual obligations of laypeople according to daily schedules of prayers and meditations. The chapter considers the relationship of the journées to Books of Hours (using Anne de Rohan's Book of Hours as its primary example), and how such texts encourage laity to adopt a quasi-monastic organization of time and space. Here the argument could profitably engage some older scholarship regarding the way monastic houses served as models of management and discipline for lay households. This desire to overlay monastic devotional practice on top of the routines of the lay household results in some peculiar moments, as when the Tres devot tratie encourages wives to pray at midnight as if her husband isn't there at all. "The journées thus posit a fundamental symmetry between lay household domesticity (both as material and ideological phenomenon) and the monastery that is impossible to maintain" (66).

Chapter 2 examines the Livre du chevalier de la Tour Landry, as well as its primary source, the anonymous Miroir des bonnes femmes, and other precursors such as the Speculum dominarum by the Franciscan Durand de Champagne. These texts are less focused on devotional practice than the journées, mixing moral precepts, exempla, and advice on conduct. The strongest argument of the chapter involves the dialogue between the knight and his wife about the value of fin amor near the conclusion of the Livre du chevalier de la Tour Landry. As Burger demonstrates, the dialogue neatly embodies the way marriage is supposed to work, creating a "self-restrained, mutually regulating affectively joined couple" where each partner is capable of improving the other (102). Burger also argues that the book demonstrates the turn from the oral fin amor culture, where courtliness is passed along by performed examples, to a text-based, clerically-inflected conduct literature. This last claim deserves more development, and its deployment of de Certeau's distinction between "place" and "space" may not help it much, but it is nonetheless a valuable suggestion.

Chapter 3 takes up Le Menagier de Paris, the lengthy compilation made by a Parisian merchant for his young wife. The text's miscellaneity remains one of its most noteworthy features; it includes numerous exempla, confessional treatises, recipes, and Jacques Bruyant's poem Le Chemin de povreté et de richesse. Burger suggests that in comparison to more traditional (and less heterogenous) conduct texts for women, "the Menagier's narrative experimentation works to make visible the range of subject positions capable of being articulated by such a newly gendered and sexualized way of being in the world" (107). In contrast to the journées imposition of monastic regimes on top of bourgeouis households, the Menagier imagines devotion and practical duties as a both/and (or in Burger's words, "an economy of the beside") that allows the bedroom and other household spaces to serve multiple purposes. The translators of an excellent recent edition of the Menagier argue that the compilation "infantilizes the woman and reifies her as a sort of domestic animal in need of obedience and surveillance," a feminist perspective acknowledged but not adopted in Conduct Becoming. [1] Instead, Burger suggests that the husband's authority "is in certain crucial ways constituted by the femininity of the good wife manifested in partnership with the good husband" (135). This reading is indicative of Burger's approach throughout the book. Rather than emphasize patriarchal subjection or the traditional hostility to female sexuality, he argues that these texts show married men and women "interacting in ways that are fully active in the world but that are not dominated by wayward sexual activity and an abjecting bodliness," thus offering both husbands and wives "empowering subject positions" (194).

The final chapter considers the most famous example of the medieval "good wife" tradition, the story of Griselda as told by Boccaccio, Petrarch, Phillippe de Mézières, Chaucer, and the anonymous author of the French Livre Griseldis. In carefully-made comparisons between these texts, Burger traces the affective responses imagined by each telling. Petrarch, Burger argues, presents Griseldis as an "exercise in how to feel precisely in order also to show how one can properly exercise the thoughtful management of such feeling" (158). Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, retains this interest in "affect management," but also allows for dangerous overflows of emotion that destabilize this ideal. While this ground has been amply covered in other ways before (by David Wallace, Warren Ginsberg, etc.), the chapter nonetheless manages to make an original argument, in part because Chaucer's work is not the primary object of attention, and in part because of Burger's interest in affect.

Conduct Becoming joins a crowded field of studies attending to lay female devotion, conduct literature, and the late-medieval household, and helpfully situates its argument at the crossroads of these interests. Though it does not truly deliver on its ambitious suggestion that "literature addressed to the good wife provides the ground on which to develop a new model of heterosexuality in this period," it does make a coherent case for the revaluation of wifehood and the ethical possibilities of marriage (24). The arguments made here could profitably be applied elsewhere; while reading this I often thought of the Middle English comic tale "The Wright's Chaste Wife," with its depiction of a virtuous wife performing heroic service for her bourgeois household. The argument also invites a dialectical engagement with the vitriolic tradition of antimatrimonial satire--the wicked wives who are the inverse of the good wives considered here. Burger does not take up this possibility, but anyone who did would be well-served by Conduct Becoming.



1. The Good Wife’s Guide, trans. Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009), 11.

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