Reviewed by: Ian Mortimer Author: Translated by Gina Greco and Christine Rose Publisher: Cornell University Press Price (RRP): £13.95 (paperback)
In the early 1390s, a 15-year-old Parisian woman was married to a rich but very elderly man. She asked her husband to write a book clarifying her new roles and responsibilities. The result was this fascinating guide to daily life, Le Ménagier de Paris.
In it he told her many things: how to behave, tend their gardens, pray, cook and choose horses. He even wrote about killing wolves, keeping roses fresh for winter, and cooking hedgehogs. He peppered the text with words of affection, even encouraging her to read poetry, make daisy chains, dance and sing. Such a bride was lucky to have such a husband; if he had chosen instead to beat her, he would have been quite within his rights.
It is in failing to acknowledge this discrepancy – between the ‘good’ of the old man and the sexual prejudices of the period – that this new edition disappoints. The problem is not the text itself; it appears here in its complete form for the first time in English. Rather it is that the new editors come with a lot of classroom baggage.
They assume that it is the work of a third party (despite internal evidence to the contrary). They insist that their third-party ‘author’ (whom they automatically assume to be male) deliberately “infantilises” the wife, and is “tyrannical” towards her. Thus they insist that “this manual naturalises the brutality of men while blaming women for it”. They show no real understanding of how such ‘brutalities’ corresponded with the rest of late medieval society, blaming the author most unfairly. Their hostility will mislead many readers and discourage them from enjoying the book for what it is.
Le Ménagier is the most accessible first-hand guide to medieval life we have – even better than the 15th-century English ‘books of nurture’ which it foreshadows. It deserves better than to be disparaged as an instrument of male tyranny.