Scrolling facebook idly, I just came across a meme. The page sharing it is one of those pages designed to share memes and profit from the clicks; none of the images are attributed. “Gone are the days when girls cooked like their others. Now they drink like their fathers” the grainy image proclaims, its lack of profundity matched by its clip art illustrations. Yet this picture has been circulated 44,420 times.
In the fourteenth-century English poem, How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter, the eponymous narrator advises her daughter how to “mend hyr lyfe and make her better” with several stanzas of homespun wisdom. Give charitably; pay attention in church; don’t laugh or talk too loudly; and –
Go not as it were a gase [goose; gad-about]
Fro house to house to seke the mase. [diversion]
Ne go thou not to no merket
To sell thi thryft; bewer of itte.
Ne go thou nought to the taverne,
Thy godnes for to selle therinne.
Forsake thou hym that taverne hanteth,
And all the vices that therinne bethe.
Wherever thou come at ale or wyne,
Take not to myche, and leve be tyme,
For mesure therinne, it is no herme,
And drounke to be, it is thi schame.
Although the narrator is supposedly a housewife, the poem was almost certainly written by a man, and quite possibly a cleric. The poem is primarily concerned with female subordination at home and modest conduct abroad. With its repeated injunctions of what young women should not do, we are of course left to wonder if perhaps they were drinking too much ale, going to cockfights, talking loudly with their friends in the street. Such insistence on good conduct is hardly necessary when the intended audience is compliant, after all. Felicity Riddy has argued that the poem may well have been composed in order to communicate good conduct to young women in service who were living away from their own mothers; the poem thus potentially filled an educational and familial gap.
I think that the mother-narrator also serves another purpose. The Housewife is a representation of the ideal bourgeois wife and mother, who is not only an obedient spouse but also a thrifty housekeeper, a pious Christian and a concerned parent. If we accept Riddy’s argument – and I have always found it compelling – the Housewife is a conservative weapon in a fight against change. Several historians of this period have described late medieval England as a “golden age” for women; while this has been subject to much criticism, women of the lower and middling ranks of society certainly had more economic opportunities – and more freedom of movement. Service was a key part of medieval adolescence, for girls as well as boys, and many young women would have moved away from the watchful gaze of their parents to work in other households. Moralists were constantly concerned about what young men might get up to if left to their own devices, and there are hundreds of didactic poems aimed at them to prove it. But poems like How the Wiseman Taught His Son reflect different sorts of anxieties. Those poems want to produce young men who are good citizens and householders, who will govern their homes and workshops fairly, act as good neighbours, and be rewarded as devout Christians. How the Goodwife is instead afraid of how easily a good woman can be shamed, and startlingly concludes that “chyld unborne were better/Than be untaught”. It would be better to be unborn than to grow up ignorant of female good conduct.
Returning to that facebook meme: I was reminded of How the Goodwife because of its poisonous sort of comfortable nostalgia. Young women aren’t like their mothers; they drink (and presumably go out “like a gase” and socialise) like men. They have left the domestic sphere their mothers supposedly occupy, and in doing so have given up their opportunity to be women. They are still girls, and they are unlearned in the way of being good women. This does a disservice to young women – and it also does a disservice to their mothers, who are also no longer women with agency, but simply stock figures in a long history of misogyny. They are Goodwives, all, and no more.
I don’t think it necessarily does mean that girls were going to cock fights and talking too loudly. Even in societies where women are compliant they’re constantly lectured about how they aren’t really, and need to do the things they’re already doing because they aren’t doing them well enough. Its part of ensuring that they continue to obey, the same way that the beauty industry perpetuates body insecurity, its all about telling women they’ll never be good enough and stepping in to direct them before they even think of rebelling.
That said, I’m pretty sure they were.
I don’t see how you could possibly twist this poem any more than you have, in the way of your own argument to prove. As I read I thought, is she serious? Is she really making this poem into a feminist issue?
Perhaps you have missed how the family has been torn apart, leaving generation of children to raise themselves. The family structure is there for a reason. A conscious decision is made to be a family. There are defined roles in a family. There are acceptable behaviors for those roles which change with time and culture. Having many labels, having expectations for each role is not demeaning.
You seem to be looking for ways that you can point to and say, we were held back and ignored. We all know women have a history that has mostly gone untold. We know the way they were handled, for lack of a better word. However, this poem is just a poem about social etiquette. Does it even tell us what social class she was in, she who is a good Christian and doesn’t drink too much?
Perhaps it is rules that you object to. Maybe you don’t like the idea that you would be expected to behave certain ways because you are a woman. Not all these expectations rob you of identity.
How dare they want to protect their daughters from rebelling. They should allow experimentation with drugs and alcohol. They should have sex and be like many wayward youth today who are mothers and fathers at 16. Children on heroine at 14. Why can’t the poem be seen as a protection instead of an insult to women?
This blog does give texts a feminist reading, so that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise! It’s true that there are defined roles within a family – but as you yourself acknowledge, those roles are culturally contingent and change over time. I am interested in the ways in which familial roles have been constructed in the late middle ages. Poems are rarely “just” about one thing or another. I believe that we can tell what social class the subject of the poem is likely to have come from by the contextual clues within the text and then its manuscript context. Unfortunately Felicity Riddy’s article (linked above) is behind a paywall, but if you’re able to access it via a university computer then you might find it illuminating.
years back when I read this meme, I realized some kind of irritation that I failed to put back then. Feminism was an emerging notion that time. I am so glad I got this piece in the internet. It was like self talking. Thanks and love..