Conduct Books

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Conduct Books

As didactic literature, conduct books did not adhere to a particular form or subject matter. They were written for a specific but usually anonymous audience, which could be male or female, aristocratic or, especially in the late Middle Ages, bourgeois. Determining the actual audience for the books is complicated since the texts were appropriated by readers of status other than those intended. People of lower social status read conduct books of the upper class precisely with the aim of learning aristocratic behavior and, ultimately, attaining elite status. Subtypes of conduct literature include the Mirrors for Princes, the estates poem, and the courtesy book. Historians also consider many other texts that do not conform to any of these subtypes to be conduct literature.


The Mirrors for Princes were written for an aristocratic, male audience. While they are hardly representative of conduct literature generally, since in some cases either the author or the patron could be identified, these texts were among the first conduct books to be edited and studied. The Policraticus (early 1160s) by English ecclesiastic John of Salisbury (1115–1120), dedicated to Thomas Becket but written with Henry II in mind, is fairly typical of the genre, with its blending of moral, political, and legal concerns. The author shows little interest in sexual matters, but the Prince is enjoined to exercise moderation in all areas of his public and personal life and to shun bodily pleasure so as not to become, like Julius Caesar, "ensnared in the bonds of Venus by a shameless woman" (John of Salisbury 1990, p. 35).

An Enseignement des Princes (Instruction of Princes) figures among the didactic works of the thirteenth-centurycourtly poet Robert de Blois, as does a companion text, the Chastoiement des dames (Correction of Ladies). Contrastive reading of these texts provides insight on how courtly society in northern France constructed the masculine and feminine spheres. While the Enseignement focuses on the Prince's social interactions in the public arena of the court, the Chastoiement emphasizes feminine honor and mesure in an exposition in which the fetishized female body becomes the locus of male anxiety (Krueger 1990). In a somewhat similar way, the Miroir des bonnes femmes (Mirror of Good Women, c. 1300) describes, for the urban elite of Burgundy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, female honor as the "ideological locus of social prestige upon which the whole family builds its new status" (Ashley 2001, p. 102).


Usually written by clerics and advocating respect of the Church's prerogatives and teachings, estates poems either idealize or satirize the various estates of Christian society. The earliest example in the vernacular is the Livres des manières by Etienne de Fougères, chaplain to Henry II, in which the author seeks to define the proper relationship among the estates after the murder in 1170 of his colleague, Thomas Becket. Etienne is preoccupied with female sexuality, making women one of his six estates of society. He expresses no interest in peasant women but lambastes the bourgeoises (females of the class) who think themselves "courtly" (courtoises) if they take a lover or who may seek to settle a debt by having sex with their creditors. He is most ferocious in dealing with the ladies of the court, whom he accuses of adultery, homicide, infanticide, and, in a lengthy tirade, lesbianism. The satirical tone of this passage and others in the poem belies a deep-seated anxiety over female sexuality, particularly the thought that women might escape the control of men.


Late-medieval courtesy books were written either for noble or bourgeois readers and circulated widely in urban communities, especially after the appearance of printed versions, such as Caxton's Book of Curtesye (c. 1477). Typically focusing on behavior in the household and at table and more generally on issues of economy and consumption, courtesy books tend to be highly attentive also to issues of social standing and gender. For instance, What the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter, which circulated in the mid-fourteenth to the late-fifteenth centuries, focuses specifically on female behavior in and outside the household. Although ostensibly a book of advice for bourgeois daughters, medievalist Felicity Riddy argues that it more likely served as a guide for women managing bourgeois households and female servants from either lower social backgrounds or the countryside. In this text unregulated female sexuality is presented as potentially disruptive to relations within the household and damaging to its good standing in the social fabric of the broader community.

One of the most striking features of conduct books, especially more developed ones like the Mesnagier de Paris (written in 1394 by a Parisian householder for his young wife) or the Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l'enseignement de ses filles (written in 1371–1372 by a provincial nobleman for his daughters), but also shorter texts like Jean Gerson's Sur l'excellence de la virginité (1395–1398), is the way in which their patriarchal discourse seeks to harmonize conflicting concerns (social, familial, sexual, spiritual) and construct a script for living for a subject. As such, they are more prescriptive than descriptive, but they offer many insights into social and sexual dynamics in the medieval and early modern periods.


Amer, Sahar. 2001. "Lesbian Sex and the Military: From the Medieval Arabic Tradition to French Literature." In Same Sex Love and Desire among Women in the Middle Ages, eds. Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn. New York: Palgrave.

Ashley, Kathleen. 2001. "The Miroir des bonnes femmes: Not for Women Only?" In Medieval Conduct, ed. Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ashley, Kathleen, and Robert L. A. Clark, eds. 2001. Medieval Conduct. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bornstein, Diane. 1983. The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

Clark, Robert L. A. 2001. "Jousting without a Lance: The Condemnation of Female Homoeroticism in the Livre des manières." In Same Sex Love and Desire among Women in the Middle Ages, ed. Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn. New York: Palgrave.

John of Salisbury. 1990. Policraticus, trans. Cary J. Nederman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Krueger, Roberta L. 1990. "Constructing Sexual Identities in the High Middle Ages: The Didactic Poetry of Robert de Blois." Paragraph 13(2): 105-131.

Nicholls, Jonathan. 1985. The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer.

Riddy, Felicity. 1996. "Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text." Speculum 71(1): 66-86.

                                        Robert L. A. Clark

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Conduct Books

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