Tag Archives: gender

“of gode tonge” – Female Speech in Medieval Texts

40-2-MS. Ashmole 61, fol.17r.jpg2000x5763

(Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 61, folio 17r)

“She should not laugh loudly in front of all the world and should preserve her decency at all times,” came the formal prescription for women from the deputy prime minister of Turkey, Bulent Arinc, on July 29, 2014, (Agence France-Presse) echoing sentiments in medieval conduct manuals that instructed women to “laughe thou not lowd, be thou therof sore” (item 4, line 50). Though five hundred years elapsed between these quotes, for women, virtue across time came through silence. Within the 208 lines, excluding the brief colophon, of “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” from which the latter quote is extracted in the transcription of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 61, there are 11 mentions of activities concerning the mouth, and all of them are considered unfavorable. While the manuscript as a whole is a late medieval miscellany that unequivocally tries to entertain with the higher purpose to instruct, two adjacent pieces in particular, “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” and “How the Wise Man Taught His Son” emphasize through complementary means the problematic disparities in the treatment of sons and daughters, men and women.

Proper conduct and socially desirable behavior most often result in prescriptions that place restrictions upon a person in an attempt at refinement. In looking at these two specific instances within Ashmole 61, a deeper reflection on word choice intones the philological dissimilarity of these structurally parallel texts. The manuscript begins with Saint Eustace, generally considered a hagiography despite that its popularity has long resided with its narrative prowess and penchant for entertaining, clearing setting the tone as one that will strike a delicate balance between topics of virtue and those of adventure, often combining them within a single work – morals, manners, and virtue were for most purposes indistinguishable to a Middle Ages audience (Wood 23). Withal, the “Good Wife” piece is set squarely within the framework to instruct on manners and its accompanying qualities, as evident from the beginning that asserts the text will help the daughter who reads it to “mend hyr lyfe and make her better” (line 4). The betterment promised comes with the price of restraint, and the female voice is the first casualty.

The same conclusions cannot be drawn from the accompanying “Wise Man” work. Even as it cautions the young male reader that “thi tonge may be thy fo” (line 35), the uses for the male voice vary greatly; when a man’s mouth is not being used to thank God, his voice is used as a means to control, and is therefore not perceived as the female counterpart that is inherently incontrollable, in constant need of a reminder that “drounke to be, it is thi schame” (line 72), or forewarned to “make no jangelyng” (line 22).

One of the most relevant repercussions to women following the Gregorian Reforms of the eleventh century was their removal of magisterium vocis, or public preaching (Kienzle 737). As restrictions further increased, “when a teaching or preaching woman [was] encountered in twelfth and thirteenth century medieval sources her ability to speak about divine matters [was] generally attributed to charism of prophesy rather than to intelligence (Muessig 147). In the few instances when women attempted activities relatively close to preaching and were successful in their endeavors, they were immediately relegated to categories of divinity, as their voices bore supernatural gifts. Of course the implication of “supernatural” is also “unnatural,” since the rational needed for disseminating the meaning of scripture was not reserved for women. Even as education improved, female abilities according to male patrons continued to rely on notions of divine inspiration, and various forms of preaching became understood as prophecy to be written and interpreted by hagiographers (Mooney 132). In other words, as Thomas Chobham stated, women could deliver moral lessons, but not explain their meaning in the traditional sense of preaching. Highly literate women were no more than mouthpieces to read scripture, refraining from any commentary, practicing the silence and obedience that was expected of them. Consequently, as restrictions upon the activities with which the female voice could engage became more stringent, women’s speech became suppressed not just in church, or in regards to scripture, but over time within the larger realm of the public sphere. Even as these prescriptions were occurring two or more hundreds of years before Ashmole 61’s composition, just as the same indictments survived into modern day politics where prime ministers deliver criticisms on conduct to women, so, too, the edicts and ramifications of the Gregorian Reforms were felt centuries later.

Felicity Riddy argues that women were being censored due to what she referred to as the new “bourgeois ethos” (Riddy 67) which carried with it the common attitude that young adults needed to be properly socialized, with the locus of these efforts being produced in the homes where they lived, whether they were parental properties, or ones where the young were sent to work and/or learn. However, this only explains the reasoning for these manuals’ existences, but does not account for their gendered disparities.

The conduct manuals became the result of stifled voices finding means of expression, and progressed through various stages from the Gregorian Reforms to circa 1500 when “The Good Wife” was produced in the version offered by Ashmole 61. Since formal preaching was not allowed over the previous centuries, and women could not overtly expound on scripture, other mediums offered the necessary avenues for alternate mechanisms of preaching. While some women, such as Hildegard von Bingen, embraced their status as prophetesses and used it to articulate their beliefs, Hildegard, too, found different routes of expression (Silvas 45). Entertainment became an increasingly popular method as it allowed moral lessons to be performed trough various means.

However, entertainment served the dual purpose as tools for women to use, but also the very means through which women were also instructed, and controlled. Between 1392 and 1394, over a hundred years prior to Ashmole 61’s existence, appeared Le Menagier de Paris, constructed by a wealthy Parisian husband to serve as an instruction manual for his soon to be young wife. This is one instance among many of such conduct manuals over the centuries leading up to Ashmole 61, however, this particular one takes as its exemplum Petrarch’s translation of Tale 10 in Book X of Boccaccio’s Decameron that coincidently is also the model for the Clerk’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which within its possibly entertaining narrative features the epitome of female silence and consequent submission. In other words, the resounding theme for female obedience and proper upbringing relies upon the woman’s silence and acquiescence to men. As Griseldis is told “never ye to grucche” (line 354) Walter’s commands, so is the wife-to-be in Le Managier instructed to “keep silent” during those times her husband troubles her most (Pichon 125).

In the “Good Wife,” the line directly following the assertion that the piece will enhance the reader’s life, is followed by the further indisputable contention that “Doughter, and thou wylle be a wyfe” (line5). Thus the, albeit brief, instruction manual commences, outlining the trajectory to proffered betterment via the route of censure and restraint. Like Hildegard did at one point as a predecessor to the conduct manual form, and much like two separate cases later in the thirteenth century of Marie d’Oignies (King 17) and Christina of St. Trond (Muessig 150) who used song as their choice channels of communication demonstrate, female instruction survived and each century found a different avenue for its existence, while the very subject matter morphed and reconfigured to reflect contemporarily relevant material and concerns. Nevertheless, historically women’s words based on “experience though noon auctoritee” (WBPro 1) have been anxiety inducing and in need of social intervention. While the scribe of Ashmole 61, who self identified as Rate, was more than likely male, the “Good Wife” piece, according to Tauno F. Mustanoja was also probably written by a man who was more than likely a cleric since the first known appearance of this text was within a friar’s handbook around 1350, now comprised within Cambridge, Emmanuel College MS 106 (Mustanoja 126).

There is in fact nothing to denote that the piece had been written or originally composed by a woman – there is only an implication that the work sets out to outline precisely what the title states, or how the good wife taught her daughter, without any overt indication of factuality. Therefore, it can be argued that the piece, written by a man, was in direct opposition to those facets of covert female preaching and instruction, and in fact subverted the genre which allowed female agency and participation into the male dominated sphere of influence, overtly prescribing how women, according to society, should be instructed and should behave.

Preaching and instruction come in various forms, and chiding is an appendage in the family of education. Yet, while men are told “thi wyfe thou schall not chide” (line 45), they are simultaneously instructed to “late feyre wordys be thi yerd” (line 42), using language, and consequently their voice, to strike fear into the hearts of their wives. Further, chiding only carries a negative definition for the man as it may engender others to follow suit and defame his wife, thus adversely affecting him, with little to no regard towards her. The daughter is cautioned “for and thou any chyder be, / Thy neyghbors wyll speke thee vylony” (lines 105-6) implying her words do not overstep the boundaries of the self and do not carry with them the power to effect others; her words will be her ruin alone. In short, chiding here is gendered, and can result in respectively different consequences.

In the Middle Ages chiding was associated with the Seven Deadly Sins, and was often was cautioned against. Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale warns that “chidynge and reproche, whiche been ful grete woundes in mannes herte, for they unsowen the semes of freendshipe in mannes herte” (line 621), while attributing the act of chiding to the larger sin, Wrath, or Ire, with the understanding that men chide out of spite and anger. William Langland’s Piers Plowman places chiding in the more traditional category of a personified Envy, whose “chief lyflode” was “Of chydynge and of chalengynge” (Passus 5 line 5087) out of jealousy for another’s well being. The concept of chiding as a means of sinning occurs in multiple medieval texts and across genres, and the distinction of which sin it represents is but a nuanced argument in which the essential link between its various placements rely on it’s “corruption of truth through verbal destructiveness,” (Baldwin 256) regardless of the initial motivation.

However, even as the concept of chiding carries a negative connotation for both genders, the perception that a woman will “werke hyr werst, that is here lyste” (“Wise Man” line 60) adds another component, that of inherent malice, to further corrupt the already undesirable trait. In other words, a woman does not chide solely out of anger, or envy, but because that is her nature, which makes her all the more wicked. Thus the female mouth is deceptive, malicious, unruly, and in need of governance, which explains the disparity between the two texts in Ashmole 61. “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” and “How the Wise Man Taught His Son” both function as conduct manuals, but their concerns cater to the perceptions associated with each gender. As men must use their mouths to first worship God, and the neglect to do so is a cause for anxiety, women’s mouths were intrinsically unworthy, and all which went in or out was immoderate as it provided a woman the opportunity to open her mouth. According to Joyce E. Salisbury, “the metaphor of sexual women being ‘open’ was pervasive, and this openness was also extended to include such things as garrulousness – that is, women with open mouths” (Salisbury 87). Withal, the metaphor can extend even further to include all that is associated with the female mouth, including drinking, eating, and not just gossiping, but speaking in general.

The Gregorian Reforms of the eleventh century cautiously allowed women to continue reading sacred scripts while removing all else from them that might condone creating anything with their mouths, or interpreting those things they have read. While women found means of subterfuge over the centuries in order to continue presenting their ideas, the nervousness caused by their supposed propensity for immoderate use of their mouths was too deep seated to dispel, even over time. Therefore, much like women were censured in the high Middle Ages, so were they coaxed and admonished to be “of gode tonge” (“Good Wife” line 24) in the late Middle Ages within the pages of Ashmole 61, a manuscript that clearly held on to traditional values, and as Bulent Arinc previously demonstrated, thusly they continue in the same vein among conservatives around the globe today.

Here is a link for those of you unfamiliar with the manuscript cited above.

Further, in order to save space, here are two fabulous transcriptions of both texts I have been working with- Son and Daughter.


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