What the Menagier de Paris Told his Wife

In a completely random note, and because I don’t know where else to write about this, I must share a little story I just read in a book.

I’ve had my head in medieval cookbooks and home management books lately, I opened one to a random page and found a rather interesting story.  The book is a modern printing of a 1393 manuscript called, in English, The Goodman of Paris: A Treatise on Moral and Domestic Economy by a Citizen of Paris.  It’s most commonly known as Le Menagier de Paris and, as you can guess, it was written by man for the instruction of his new, young wife, which makes the story all the more amusing and typically male.  In this particular section, titled “To restrain your husband gently from his errors,” the man is explaining to his wife, in not so many words, that a woman must be obedient and subservient to her husband and that she must never irritate him or correct him “for the heart of a man findeth it hard to be corrected by the domination and lordship of a woman.” He then goes on to tell a story, which he claims he heard from his father. The idea, of course, is that the young wife do as the wife in the story did, if it ever came to that; but also to explain how it’s best to “reclaim a husband” by kindness and not by making a scene.

The story is about a wife who figures out her husband is having an affair, and with a peasant no less.  She bears and grins it for a long time but she’s finally had enough and confronts the other woman.  My modern mind immediately thought the wife was going to make trouble, but I was proven wrong.  After the wife sees the condition in which the mistress lives, her lack of anything but the bare minimum, a bed and a spinning wheel, she addresses the mistress as follows:

   “I am bound to keep my husband from blame, and because I know that he takes pleasure in you and loves you and that he comes here [I totally giggled here like a teenager], I pray you that you speak of him as little as you can in company, to spare him from blame and likewise me and our children, and that for your part you hide it; and I swear to you that you and he shall be well hidden for my part, for since it haps that he loves you, it is my intent to love you and help you and aid you in all that you have to do, and you shall perceive it well; but I pray you with all my heart that his sin be not revealed nor spread abroad.”

The wife then goes on to say that because the man is of high birth and is used to good things, the wife will provide wood, a bed, linens, and other commodities to the mistress so that the husband may be comfortable, and that while the both of them can take care of him in health, only the wife will do so in sickness.  She also asks the mistress to keep all this a secret from the husband, lest he be shamed.

It is difficult to tell whether a story like this is descriptive or prescriptive but it nevertheless reflects the status of women, and especially of elite women.  The wife was completely dependent on husband but did she have to seek out the mistress and make this arrangement?  Adultery has always been a sin in Christendom, and the wife knows it, yet she goes out of her way to ensure that her husband not be shamed about the sin he’s committing.

The reason I found the story funny is because it is such a clear example about how some things change and some things stay the same.  A 21st century woman would probably seek out the mistress, but she would probably make a scene and demand the affair stops.  What stays the same is the deference some cultures still give to men, honestly believing that a woman should never speak up to her husband, and that men are much more likely than woman to have affairs….and some might even tell their wives a similar story.  But I came to this conclusion too soon.

That’s not the end of the story!  The man goes on to figure out something is up when he comes to the mistress’ house and finds all these luxurious things when he knew he left her poor. He accuses her of “evil” and she finally gave in and told him the truth, rather than lie to him.  The man was so ashamed that he went back home and to church the next day, where he confessed his sin and promised not to be unfaithful ever again.  Was the wife really excusing her husband and making this arrangement with the mistress in earnest, or was it all a cunning plan to bring the affair to an end without having to confront the husband herself?  She was either really naive or really sly.  According the Menagier, the moral of the story it that it is with humility, not pride, that a good lady holds on to her husband; pride and domineering only make matters of worse.  If this is a prescriptive story then some wife, somewhere, must have made a scene, thus creating the need to tell stories like this one, which sets guidelines for female behavior.  The theme of female subservience, inferiority and deference owed to men still carries on and most 21st century women would still say “screw that!”

Naturally, the Menagier then assures his young wife she has nothing to worry about.

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