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The Medieval Family - Documents

1. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine: An Attempt to Chastise Her, Peter of Blois: Letter 154 to Queen Eleanor, 1173

This letter was composed by Peter of Blois in 1173 at the request of his patron, Rotrou the Archbishop of Rouen (and no doubt at the request of the archbishop's patron, King Henry II). Eleanor was succeeding in her revolt against her king and husband. Eleanor's sons had also joined in the revolt against Henry. This letter was an attempt to stop her.

To Eleanor, Queen of England. From [Rotrou] the Archbishop of Rouen & his Suffragens:

Greetings in the search for peace --

Marriage is a firm and indissoluble union. This is public knowledge and no Christian can take the liberty to ignore it. From the beginning biblical truth has verified that marriage once entered into cannot be separated. Truth cannot deceive: it says, "What God has joined let us not put asunder [Matt 19]." Truly, whoever separates a married couple becomes a transgressor of the divine commandment.

So the woman is at fault who leaves her husband and fails to keep the trust of this social bond. When a married couple becomes one flesh, it is necessary that the union of bodies be accompanied by a unity and equality of spirit through mutual consent. A woman who is not under the headship of the husband violates the condition of nature, the mandate of the Apostle, and the law of Scripture: "The head of the woman is the man [Ephes 5]." She is created from him, she is united to him, and she is subject to his power.

We deplore publicly and regretfully that, while you are a most prudent woman, you have left your husband. The body tears at itself. The body did not sever itself from the head, but what is worse, you have opened the way for the lord king's, and your own, children to rise up against the father. Deservedly the prophet says, "The sons I have nurtured and raised, they now have spurned me [Isaiah 1]." As another prophet calls to mind, "If only the final hour of our life would come and the earth's surface crack open so that we might not see this evil"!

We know that unless you return to your husband, you will be the cause of widespread disaster. While you alone are now the delinquent one, your actions will result in ruin for everyone in the kingdom. Therefore, illustrious queen, return to your husband and our king. In your reconciliation, peace will be restored from distress, and in your return, joy may return to all. If our pleadings do not move you to this, at least let the affliction of the people, the imminent pressure of the church and the desolation of the kingdom stir you. For either truth deceives, or "every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed [Luke 11]." Truly, this desolation cannot be stopped by the lord king but by his sons and their allies.

Against all women and out of childish counsel, you provoke disaster for the lord king, to whom powerful kings bow the neck. And so, before this matter reaches a bad end, you should return with your sons to your husband, whom you have promised to obey and live with. Turn back so that neither you nor your sons become suspect. We are certain that he will show you every possible kindness and the surest guarantee of safety.

I beg you, advise your sons to be obedient and respectful to their father. He has suffered many anxieties, offenses and grievances. Yet, so that imprudence might not demolish and scatter good will (which is acquired at such toil!), we say these things to you, most pious queen, in the zeal of God and the disposition of sincere love.

Truly, you are our parishioner as much as your husband. We cannot fall short in justice: Either you will return to your husband, or we must call upon canon law and use ecclesiastical censures against you. We say this reluctantly, but unless you come back to your senses, with sorrow and tears, we will do so.

Source: Translation by M. Markowski [] of Peter of Blois' Letter 154 from the Latin text in Chartres Ms #208; Cf. Migne, P.L. 207:448-9.

2. St. Bernardino of Siena: Excerpts from a Sermon on Wives and Widows

We have to speak this morning of the love and affection that the man should bear to his wife, and she to her husband…She who is wise has brought her daughter to this morning's sermon: she who is but so-so, has left her in bed. O! how much better had you done to bring her to hear this true doctrine! But to the point…

… Moreover, each should seek above all for goodness [in his spouse], and then for other advantages; but goodness first, goodness first of all. Consider now and think of such as choose their wives for other reasons; for example, of such as take a wife for her good dowry's sake; if then they be affianced, and the dowry come not, what (do you think) shall be the love betwixt them both? A love stuck together with spittle! Nay, even though the dowry come in due time, yet is this an inordinate love, for you have not looked to the true aim; many a time has money driven men to do many things whereof they have afterwards bitterly repented. Wherefore I say to you, lady, take not for your husband the man who would fain take your money and not your self; take rather him who would take you first and afterwards your money with you; for if he love your money more than you, you are in evil case... Behold! I am neither Pope nor Emperor; would that I were! This I say, for that I would proclaim a custom, if I could, that all women should go dressed in one fashion, even as the Roman women who all go dressed in linen, for their magnificence they all wear white linen, on back and head, the wives of princes no less than other women. And when they go mourning, they go all dad in somber colors; there, truly, is a fashion that pleases me well. When they go to pardons, they go in light attire: no labor of drawn thread in their garments, no spoiling of the stuff with snippings and slashings, no such spoiling of good cloth to make their bravery! Wherefore I say to you, lady, take no husband who loves your stuff more than your body…

… Wherefore, you ladies who have daughters to marry, see to it that they have the dowry of virtue to boot, if you would have them beloved of their husbands.. . . Are the occasions of love but slender? then shall the love itself be slendor. Do you know their nature? For example, do you know the nature of mine host's love for the wayfarer? The traveler comes, and says: God save you, Host! Welcome, sir - Have you anything to eat?-Yes indeed -Then cook me a cabbage-soup and two eggs - The meal is eaten and paid, the traveler goes on his way, and no sooner is his back turned than that friendship is forgotten: while the eggs are yet in his bellly, that friendship is already past. For it was riveted at no corner; such friendships are as frail as a pear-stalk: shake the tree and the pears will straightway fall; there is no strong bond of love to hold them. If the friendship be frail, small is the love; if the pleasure be small, small again the love; if there be little virtue, slight love again! …

Wherefore I bid you all, men and women, follow virtue, that your love may be founded on these three things, Profit, Pleasure, and Honesty; then shall true friendship reign among you. And when you have these three things, hear what David says of you; "Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine, on the sides of your house." Lo! all these three things are here. First, Honesty: your wife - your own wedded wife. Secondly, Pleasure: as a vine --how delightful a thing is a vine at the door of a house! Thirdly, Profit, a fruitful vine --rich in grapes and profitable; from which three things grow and enddures true love between man and woman. Enjoined by the sacrament of Holy Matrimony

...Wherefore, in the teeth of all filthy revilers, I hold with the women, and say that woman is cleaner and more precious in her flesh than man; and if a man hold the contrary, I say that he lies in his throat, and will prove it against him. Will you see? Why, tell me, did not God create man out of clay? -Yes - then, O ladies, the reason is as clear as day! For woman was made of [Adam's] flesh and bone, so that she was made of more precious things than you. Lo! you may see a daily proof how the woman is cleaner and daintier than you. Let a man and a woman wash as well as they can or may; and, when they are thus washed, let each take dean water an wash again, and then note which of the two waters is the dirtier, and you shalt see that the man's is far fouler than the woman's. Why is this? Why, wash a lump of clay and see the water that comes therefrom, and see how foul it is. Again, wash a rib with the flesh belonging to it, and the water will indeed be somewhat foul, yet not so foul as that wherein you have washed the day. Or, to put it better, wash an unbaked brick and you shall make nothing but broth: wash a bone, and you shalt make none such. So say I of man and woman in their nature and origin: man is of clay, but woman is of flesh and bone. And in proof of the truth; of this, man, who is of clay, is more tranquil than woman, who is of bone; for bones are always rattling. …

… Wherefore, as you see that your wife endures travail on every side, therefore you, O husband, if she fall into any need, be sure you help her to bear her pain. If she be with child or in childbirth, aid her so far as it lies in you, for it is your child also. Let all help her in any way they may. Mark her well, how she travails in childbirth, travails to suckle the child, travails to rear it, travails in washing and cleaning by day and by night. All this travail, see you, is of the woman only, and the man goes singing on his way. … Wherefore, I say, it is better to a wife. . . and when you have taken her, take heed to live as every good Christian should live. Do you know who knows this? That man know it who has her, the good housewife, who rules the whole household well. She sees to the granary, she keeps it clean, that no defilement may enter in. She keeps the jars of oils, and notes them well:-This jar is to use; and that jar is to keep. She guards it, that nothing may fall in it, and that neither dog nor other beast come near it. She sets all her study and all her care that the jars be not spilt. She orders the salt meats, first in the salting and afterward in the keeping, she cleans and them orders them:-This here is to sell, and that there is to keep. She sees to the spinning, and then to the making of linen cloth from the yarn. She sells the bran, and with the money she buys yet more cloth. She gives heed to the wine-casks, lest their hoops should break or the wine leak at any point. She provides the household with all things. She does not as the hired servant, who steals of all that passes through her hands, and who cares not for the things as they go away; for the stuff is not her own, therefore she is slow to pain herself and has no great love for them. If a man have neither wife nor other to rule his household, know you how it is with the house? I know, and I will tell you. If he be rich, and have plenty of grain, the sparrows and the moles eat their fill thereof It is not set in order, but all so scattered abroad that the whole house is the fouler for it. If he have oil, it is all neglected and spilt; when the jars break and the oil is spilled, he casts a little earth on the spot, and all is done! And his wine? When at last he comes to the cask, he draws the wine without further thought; yet perchance the cask shows a crevice behind, and the wine wastes. Or again a hoop or two is started, yet it may go its way for him; or the wine turns to vinegar, or becomes utterly corrupt. In his bed, know you how he sleeps? He sleeps in a pit, even as the sheets chance to have been tumbled upon the bed; for they are never changed until they are torn. Even so in his dining-hall; here on the ground are melon-rinds, bones, peelings of salad, everything left lying on the ground almost without pretense of sweeping. Know you how it is with his table? The cloth is laid with so little care that no man ever removes it till it be covered with filth. The trenchers are but sparingly wiped, the dogs lick and wash them. His pipkins are all foul with grease: go and see how they stand! Know you how such a man lives? even as a brute beast. I say that it cannot be well for a man to live thus alone-Ladies, make your curtsey to me…

Source From C.G. Coulton, ed., Life in the Middle Ages, vol. 1 (New York, c.1910), pp. 216-229 [The translation in Coulton has been considerably modernized here.]

3. The Book of Margery Kempe. [The Birth of Her First Child and Her First Vision]

When this creature was twenty year of age and somedeal more, she was married to a worshipful burgess and was with child within short time, as kind would. And after that she had conceived she was labored with great accesses till the child was born, and then, what for labor she had in childing and for sickness going before, she despaired of her life, weening she might not live. And then she sent for her ghostly father, for she had a thing in conscience which she had never showed before that time in all her life. For she was ever letted by her enemy, the Devil, evermore saying to her while she was in good heal her needed no confession but [to] do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven, for God is merciful enow. And therefore this creature oftentimes did great penance in fasting bread and water and other deeds of alms with devout prayers, save she would not show it in confession. And when she was any time sick or diseased, the Devil said in her mind that she should be damned for she was not shriven of that default. Wherefore after that her child was born she, not trusting her life, sent for her ghostly father, as said before, in full will to be shriven of all her lifetime as near as she could. And, when she came to the point for to say that thing which she had so long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and gan sharply to undernim her ere that she had fully said her intent, and so she would no more say for nought he might do.

And anon for dread she had of damnation on that one side and his sharp reproving on that other side, this creature went out of her mind and was wonderly vexed and labored with spirits half year eight weeks and odd days. And in this time she saw, as her thought, devils open their mouths all inflamed with burning lows of fire as they should 'a swallowed her in, sometime ramping at her, sometime threatening her, sometime pulling her and hauling her both night and day the foresaid time. And also the devils cried upon her with great threatenings and bade her she should forsake her Christendom, her faith, and deny her God, his Mother, and all the saints in Heaven, her good works and all good virtues, her father, her mother, and all her friends. And so she did. She slandered her husband, her friends, her own self; she spoke many a reprevous word and many a shrewd word; she knew no virtue nor goodness; she desired all wickedness; like as the spirits tempted her to say and do so she said and did. She would 'a fordone herself many a time at their steering and 'a been damned with them in Hell, and into witness thereof she bit her own hand so violently that it was seen all her life after. And also she rived her skin on her body again her heart with her nails spiteously, for she had none other instruments, and worse she would 'a done save she was bound and kept with strength both day and night that she might not have her will.

And when she had long been labored in this and many other temptations that men weened she should never 'a scaped or lived, then on a time as she lay alone and her keepers were from her, our merciful Lord Christ Jesu, ever to be trusted (worshiped be his name) never forsaking his servant in time of need, appeared to his creature, which had forsaken him, in likeness of a man, most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable that ever might be seen with man's eye, clad in a mantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bed's side, looking upon her with so blessed a cheer that she was strengthened in all her spirits, said to her these words: "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken me, and I forsook never thee?" And anon as he had said these words she saw verily how the air opened bright as any levin, and he sty up into the air, not right hastily and quickly, but fair and easily that she might well behold him in the air till it was closed again. And anon the creature was stabled in her wits and in her reason as well as ever she was before, and prayed her husband as soon as he came to her that she might have the keys of the buttery to take her meat and drink as she had done before.

Source From The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed, vol. 1 (New York, 1993).