Conduct Becoming

Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages

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Glenn D. Burger
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Conduct Becoming: Good Wives and Husbands in the Later Middle Ages, Glenn Burger examines the influence of late medieval conduct texts, like the various journées chrétiennes or Louis IX’s Les Enseignements de Saint Louis à sa fille Isabelle, which were meant specifically to guide thecultivation of proper and pious behavior in young girls and women, along with popular secular texts like Prudence and Melibee, Chaucer’sClerk’s Tale, and Petrarch’s translation of the Griselda story on the role of lay women both in religious life and in their communities at large. Burger argues that these books crossed class boundaries and allowed for the transformation of male-female relations (4), providing means and agency for women to practice holiness without the burden of religious celibacy or perpetual virginity. According to Burger, conduct texts likewise encouraged the development of reading practices that had significant impact on the “affective contract” (15) of the marital estate leading to the development of new models of heterosexual identity and new power dynamics within traditional marriage, as well as challenging the assumed division not only of religious and secular life, and also the distinction between didactic and literary works (193). 

Burger positions these changes as part of the overall transformation of the idea of marriage that occurred during the 12thto the 16th centuries in European societies (17). He notes that during this time, the Church began to emphasize the sacramental nature of marriage, and he contrasts this strongly with its previous privileging of holy orders, celibacy, and virginity as the highest moral state for both men and women. At the same time, Burger uses marriage and the growing emphasis on shared affection within marriage as a lens through which to explore, tangentially, the growing influence of the middle class and shifting gender dynamics during this time period. 

Chapter 1 discusses the traditional structure of a layperson’s day, and the potential difficulties for lay women in demonstrating piety within the confines of the married household. Noting that by the 14th century, earlier works written specifically for religious women had become available in translation, allowing married women to incorporate devotional activities into the scaffolding of their daily lives, he likewise notes that with the proliferation of these devotional texts came an increasing focus on the Passion of Christ, interiority of practice, and the conscious cultivated performance of emotion and compassion within the devotional sphere (37-38). The ability for the “good wife” to negotiate her spiritual life through these devotional texts, provided an opportunity to improve her power and authority within the domestic sphere through the cultivation of performed devotional labor (39).

Chapter 2 focuses specifically on conduct literature aimed at women, particularly the Livre du chevalier de la Tour Landry.He argues that unlike literature of the fin’amor, these conduct manuals re-positioned marriage as the proper place for the development of moral and noble conduct. He argues that the relationships presented in these texts are “mutually constitutive of a larger set of gendered relations,” one that is stable, “mutually regulating,”(102) and deeply relational, giving greater voice to the feminine and redefining both masculinity and femininity not as exclusive, independent ideals, but by virtue of their relationship to each other within the framework of marriage (102). 

Chapter 3 transplants what has heretofore been a discussion centered on noble men and women to the space of an urban merchant’s household. He examines a 14th century manual, Le Menagier de Paris, composed by a merchant for his young bride, discussing its hybridity and the way in which it and other similar manuals blurred the lines between didactic, devotional, and secular literary texts. More importantly, he looks at these texts as highlighting a new focus on lay sexuality, and on private space -here, the bedchamber- as productive and positive. 

Chapter 4, centering on the Griselda narrative in Boccaccio and Petrarch, and on Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, discusses the ways in which these texts allowed for married couples to negotiate agency and affect within the boundaries of a marriage and the perceived benefit this had on society as a whole. 

Throughout the book, Burger does an admirable job of engaging with current scholarship on medieval marriage, and emotion and affection within medieval marriage, drawing on the work of scholars like Kathleen Ashley, Robert Clark, Geneviève Hasenohr, Rina Lahav, and Sarah Salih, to name but a few. His analysis of the period works in that he chooses to provide a fascinating lens through which to explore marital dynamics and lay piety at a particularly dynamic period within medieval history -- though he does seem more at home with the later texts, Petrarch and Chaucer specifically, and, as a consequence, chapter 4 provides the richest exegesis. 

While overall Conduct Becoming offers a unique glimpse into the development of gender roles, sexual identity, and female agency in later medieval marriage, the project would have been stronger had it taken into account the differing views of marriage and sexuality extant in the early Church. In his introduction, Burger specifically points to early Christian attitudes toward marriage as laying the foundational norm from which later medieval attitudes deviated. He elides what was in reality a strongly nuanced and deeply divisive discourse on the role of both marriage and sexuality in the early Church, presenting it as though there was one monolithic and unified opinion on the matter. As scholars such as David Hunter, Mathew Keufler, and Larissa Tracy have shown, that was never the case. Likewise, while Burger refers repeatedly to fin’amorand courtly literature, he does not consider the impact of the Albigensian crusade, which devastated the Provençal region and had a tremendous impact on French nobility and devotional culture. While his book does a very good job of examining conduct manuals in the 14th century and beyond, it would have been even stronger with the addition of solid historical context that would highlight even further the remarkable shifts in social dynamics that he is exploring.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Galina Krasskova holds an MA in Religious Studies from New York University and in the process of completing a second MA (in Medieval Studies) from Fordham University, where her work focuses on Early Christian Theology and Culture.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Glenn D. Burger is Professor of English and Medieval Studies, Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York.


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