Tuesday, August 3, 2010

She's no Rosie the Riveter

In my attempt to understand the role of mothers during the Middle Ages, I frequently encountered a poem entitled "How the Good Wiif Taugte Hir Dougtir" (How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter).  Written by an unknown author, it is believed to have first been published in Codex Ashmole 61:  A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse in 1430.  (Its authorship is dated nearer the beginning of the 14th Century.)  Touted as a piece of instructional literature or advice text for the Medieval mom, I narrowed my investigation to this piece of poetry in hopes of more clearly defining motherhood.

Seeing as how the poem is over 200 lines long, I've included a few of my favorite stanzas:
(Good luck with the Middle English!)

Be fayre of semblant, my der doughter;
Change not thi countenans with grete laughter,
And wyse of maneres loke thou be gode.
Ne for no tayle change thi mode,
Ne fare not as thou a gyglot were,
Ne laughe thou not lowd, be thou therof sore.
Luke thou also gape not to wyde,
For anything that may betyde.
Suete of speche loke that thow be,
Trow in worde and dede — lerne this of me.
Loke thou fle synne, vilony, and blame,
And se ther be no man that seys thee any schame.

Now I have taught thee, my dere doughter,
The same techynge I hade of my modour.
Thinke theron both nyght and dey,
Forgette them not if that thou may.
For a chyld unborne were better
Than be untaught — thus seys the letter.
Therfor, Allmyghty God inne trone
Spede us all bothe even and morn,
And bryng us to thy hyghe blysse,
That never more fro us schall mysse.

(Or read it in a Modern translation found in The Babees' Book:  Medieval Manners for the Young.)

Be of seemly semblance, wise, and other good cheer;
Change not thy countenance for aught that thou may hear.
Fare not as a gig, for nought that may betide.
Laugh thou not too loud nor yawn thou not too wide.
But laugh thou soft and mild.
And be not of cheer too wild,
My lief child.

Now have I taught thee, daughter, as my mother did me;
Think thereon night and day, that forgotten it not be.
Have measure and lowness, as I have thee taught,
Then whatever man shall wed thee will regret it naught.
Better you were a child unbore
Than untaught in this wise lore,
My lief child.
The blessing of God may'st thou have, and of His mother bright,
Of all angels and archangels and every holy wight!
And may'st thou have grace to wend thy way full right,
To the bliss of Heaven, where God sits in His might!

One of the major arguments against the poem regards its tone.  The mother's role in the poem is to prepare her daughter for wifehood (oh yeah, I totally made that up) and eventually motherhood.  This is really no different than the role of a mom today.  (My mom always said she was trying to mold us into respectful, self-sufficient adults.  This is a very reasonable parenting goal; I hope I can do that well with my son.)  In my experience and philosophy, mothers are teachers and nurturers and the "Good Wiif" does not diverge from this ideal.  However, when read with modern, feminist eyes, the poem is a little off-putting.  Given that it was not written for bra-burning, liberal activists, I think it provides the glimpse of Medieval motherhood I set out to find from the beginning.

The mother begins by advising her daughter to be attentive to God and church (including specific execution of tithing and direction in prayer) as would be expected of all Christians, not just the females.  She then moves to suggestions about finding a husband, encouraging the daughter to receive any man humbly, without overt behaviors that could lead to sins of the flesh.  The daughter's countenance--fairness, honesty, composure--are the mother's next topics of heed, followed by several stanzas regarding tavern behaviors.  (This passage of the poem sounds as if the Pardoner wrote it.)  According to the good wiif, the  "tavern bring[s] thy credit low" and the daughter should avoid them for fear of "fall[ing] into shame."  The tavern behaviors are followed by admonishment of sports and hunting and any other such pleasurable things and an intense recommendation for the daughter to just stay at home and "love thy work much."  (These four stanzas most incite my feminist wiles.  I know they speak to female roles in Medieval culture, but if one can assert that these hobbies are bad for women, they must be equally bad for men.  Women are not more easily imbibed than men merely because they are women.  And men have spent decades sitting on couches, wearing a butt imprint into the cushions, in worship of the "big game," yet we have cautioned women against sports since before poets thought to sign their names to their work.  Annoying!) (However, if you regard the passage from the position of traditional gender roles, it makes a lot of sense.  As addressed before, women worked within the home, men without.  Women weren't forbidden from sports initially out of some masochistic control, but out of balance of domestic roles.  Maybe many of society's issues with marriage come from the blurring of those lines.  But I digress...)   After encouraging the daughter to love being at home, the good wife devotes the rest of the poem to maintaining the home, including specifics about raising children with a firm hand.

This organization, from start to finish, clearly identifies the role of the mother within Medieval culture.  By focusing her attention first on God, she establishes a Christian foundation for her children that would have been customary at this time.  The importance of family is further enhanced by her encouragement to find a good mate and make a good home.  Despite the hope that her daughter entirely avoid drinking and sports, the mother establishes simple rules, presented as proverbs, by which the daughter can live.  Although the proverbs themselves over-killed the message a bit, the poem provides me with the image of motherhood I have found lacking in Chaucer's tales.  (Sorry Chaucer.  This doesn't mean I love you any less.)

This good wiif (and mother) may not embody the female persona with the same visionary power as Rosie the Riveter, but she embraces her responsibility with parallel zeal.

Chaucer's mothers could learn something from her.

Sources:  Biggs, Michalove, and Reeves.  Reputation and Representation in Fifteenth-Century Europe.  Koninklijke Brill.  The Netherlands.  2004.

Bardsley, Sandy.  Women's Roles in the Middle Ages.  Greenwood Press.  Westport, CT.  2007.

Codex Ashmole 61.  http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/sgas4frm.htm

The Babees' Book.   www.yorku.ca/inpar/babees_rickert.pdf

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