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The imagined worlds of medieval literature, laws and exempla; Wales, France and England

Written by Paula Hage, 2022

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, three independent authors used the story of Griselda in their works. The story bears very interesting similarities to that of a Welsh Arthurian prose tale, recorded in two manuscripts in the fourteenth century. In this same era, the Old English poem How The Goodwijf Taught Hir Daughter was recorded in manuscripts. In this paper, I will explore some of this literature in the context of obedience and gossip, through the characters of Enyt and Griselda.

Griselda and Enyt are remarkable women, even by our modern standards. Griselda obeys not only the commands of her husband but also the rules given by the Good Wijf. Her husband, marquess Walter, on the contrary, goes against the teachings of both the Wise Man and Le Ménagier and is disavowed by the men who tell his story. Gereint on the other hand is not a moralising tale. The tale is told through the lens of a omniscient third-person narrator without an authorial voice, and thus offers the reader no insight into what character is morally justified in their behaviour and which one should be pitied. It assumes the reader can piece together based on the narrative events who is right and who is wrong. If one applies the rules set out by the Wise man, Gereint would be renounced, just as Walter is. If we examine Enyt by the rules set out in the Good Wijf, she is a virtuous woman, just like Griselda.

The Good Wijf, the Wise Man and Le Ménagier

The earliest of the conduct-literature I will discuss in this paper is a poem called: How The Good Wijf Taughte Hir Daughtir. The poem can be found in several manuscripts ranging from the 14th to the 15th century. It is sometimes placed together with the later poem, How the Wise Man Taught His Sonne, for example in Lambeth Place Library MS 853 (ca. 1430). In this poem, a mother teaches her daughter how to be a virtuous woman: she is to pray every morning, to behave in church, to shy away from taverns and to listen to her husband. The poem first addresses behavioural aspects of an unmarried woman, then that of a wife and finally a mother, and ends with a memento mori, thus following the curriculum vitae of a medieval bourgeoise woman from cradle to grave. She gives advice on managing a household, raising children and even provides a handful of financial advice. On marriage she writes this:

If ony man biddith the worschip, and wolde wedde thee, Loke that thou scorne him not, whatsoevere he be, But schewe it to thi freendis, and forhile thou it nought; Sitte not bi him, neither stoonde, there synne myghte be wrought, For a sclaundre reisid ille Is yvel for to stille, Mi leve child.

That man that schal the wedde bifor god with a ryng, Love thou him and honoure mooste of ertheli thing; Meekely thou him answere, and not as an attirling, And so maist thou slake his mood, and ben his dere derlynge; A fair worde and a meeke Dooth wraththe slake, Mi leve child. If any man pays you attention and wishes to marry you, Do not scorn him, no matter who he is, But tell your friends and do not keep it secret; Do not sit or stand beside him, where temptation might arise, For suspicion once maliciously raised Is hard to lay to rest, My dear child.

The man who marries you before God with a ring, Love and honour him most of all earthly things; Answer him meekly, and not as a shrew, And so may you keep him in a good mood and be his darling; Pleasing and meek words Can slake anger, My dear child.[1]

The second tract on conduct is the French household book, Le Ménagier de Paris. This book was possibly compiled in around 1392-4[2] and contains domestic instructions from a husband to his fifteen-year-old bride[3]. The book contains three sections, the first about spiritual salvation and how to love your husband, the second on how to run a household, and the third on entertainment[4]. The author of Le Ménagier agrees with the Good Wijf on many matters and gives a plethora of biblical, secular and contemporary examples. He writes within the 6th article of the first section[5]:

Similarly, let a woman take care how and to whom she will be married, for however poor or lowly his estate before the marriage, he nevertheless must be and is her sovereign lord for all time to come after the marriage, and he can increase or diminish everything. For this reason you must consider more the character than the wealth of your future husband, because you cannot change him afterward. When you have espoused him, hold him in affection and love and obey him humbly, as did Sarah of whom the preceding article speaks. For, through their obedience many women have gained and have come to great honor, while others by their disobedience have been humbled and have fallen from their rank. [6]

Likewise, you should know that you will be so close to your husband that wherever he goes he will carry the memory, recollection, and reminder of you. You notice it in all married couples, for as soon as we see the husband, we ask him, “How is your wife?” and as soon as we see the wife, we ask her, “How is your husband?” for that’s how closely the wife is connected to the husband.[7]

How the Wise Man Taught His Sonne is the third piece of medieval conduct literature I will examine. This poem, often found together with Good Wijf, gives us information on how a virtuous man should behave. The structure of the Wise Man echoes that of the Good Wijf, with different content. While the Good Wijf covers everything a wife needs to know, the Wise Man does not take the marital status of his son for granted. His son is to pray every morning, to stay away from taverns, and to avoid holding public office, to be careful with his words. The guidance on childrearing and managing servants is all absent in the Wise Man poem, though he does give some marital advice:

And sonne, if thou wolt have a wijf, Take hir not for coveitise, But wijseli enqweere of al hir lijf, And take good hede, bi myn avice, That sche be meeke, curteis, and wijs; Though sche be poore, take thou noon hede, And sche wole do thee more good service Than a richer, whanne thou hast neede.

And if thi wijf be meeke and good, And servith thee weel and plesauntly, Loke that thou be not so woode To charge hir to grevously; But rewle thee faire and eesili, And cherische hir weel for hir good dede, For over-doon thing unskilfully Makith grijf to growe whanne it is no nede.

And son, if you wish to have a wife Do not marry her out of covetousness, But wisely inquire as to all her attributes, And make sure, I advise, That she is meek, courteous, and wise; If she is poor, do not be concerned, Since she will do you more good Than a richer woman, when you have need.

If your wife is meek and good, And serves you well and pleasantly, Look that you not be so foolish As to burden her too grievously But rule pleasantly and gently, And cherish her well for her good deeds, For being heavy-handed Makes grief grow when there is no need.[8]

From these three texts, we can piece together some insights on marriage and the customs surrounding it. For example, ‘women need to discuss the advances of men with their friends’, ‘one should choose a spouse based on character, not wealth’, or ‘within marriage, a wife needs to listen to and obey her husband’, ‘a husband is to respect and cherish his wife, and not push her beyond her boundaries’. Finally, ‘a married couple should be as close to each other as humanly possible, so that he carries her in his heart forever and she loves him “most of all earthly things”’.


Ystorya Gereint uab Erbin (Gereint) is closely related to the French Érec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes (ca. 1160), though the exact relationship is unclear.[9] Three manuscripts contain Gereint. The first one is an incomplete version in NLW Peniarth 6 part iv (1300-1350)[10]. The second is the White book of Rhydderch, NLW Peniarth MS 4 (1325–1375)[11]. The third is the Red Book of Hergest, Oxford Bodleian MS Jesus College 111 (1382–c. 1400)[12].

When Gereint met Enyt, she was impoverished. Her father had sold everything in his pursuit of land and power[13]. Gereint is immediately enamoured with Enyt and her beauty. Enyt does not tell her friends Gereint is courting her, because her father gives her to Gereint if he can win the sparrowhawk. The start of their relationship agrees almost in full with the advice of both the Good Wijf and the Wise Man.

Once married, Gereint loses eye for all other activities, and will not leave her side. He loses sight of his passion for tournaments and displays of valour, which prompts his noblemen to gossip.[14] Erbin hears this and tells Enyt who laments her husband's loss of honour. Gereint misunderstands her words and tears and assumes she found another man. In response, Gereint tells her to put on her worst dress and ride ahead of him. She is not to speak until he speaks to her, and not to turn back no matter what she hears about him[15]. Then three knights make threats against Gereint.

Enid heard their conversation. And she did not know what she should do for fear of Geraint, whether she should mention it or keep quiet.

‘God’s vengeance on me,’ she said, ‘I would prefer to die at Geraint’s hands than anyone else’s, and although he may kill me, I will tell him for fear of seeing him die in a hideous way.’[16]

This behaviour is out of the question according to the Wise Man poem. Gereint rushes into this through his anger, which will not slake until much later in the story after a near-death experience[17]. The Wise Man specifically says:

If thi wijf come with a playnt On man or child at ony tide, Be not to hasti to fighte and chide, And be not a-wreke til thou know the sothe, For in wrappe thou myghte make a braide That aftirwarde schulde rewe thou bothe.

That if your wife comes with a complaint About man or child at any time, Do not be too hasty to fight and chide, And do not be angry until you know the truth, For in haste you might make a rash move, That afterwards you will both rue.[18]

Because Gereint is a Welsh narrative, there may be a regional difference from the English or French view on marriage. To find out if Gereint is justified according to Welsh opinions of conduct, we cannot look to Welsh conduct literature. Wales did not have the same tradition of conduct literature that England or France had. Instead, it has a rich corpus of legal texts, including a tract on the law of women.

Because the 14th century is the era that connects all manuscripts discussed in this paper, we should examine the laws in use during this era in Wales. The laws of Hywel Dda are the most-used source of legal information in Medieval Wales and were still in use despite the Edwardian Conquest in 1284 enacting English Common Law[19]. The English Common Law was used exclusively in cases of felony, and Cyfreith Hywel was allowed to be used in other cases[20]. Because we already have an insight into the English view on virtuous behaviour, we shall only discuss the Welsh legal status and punishment of a woman in Enyt’s position.

Gereint believes that Enyt committed adultery. This is a grave offence, as even the accusation is enough reason to prosecute. As this would be Enyts first adultery, she would need seven women in her direct kin to vouch for her character and prove her innocence, referred to as a rhaith[21]. Gereint does not accuse her publicly but takes the matter into his own hands. He takes her with him on his quest to prove himself and never tells her the reason for his sudden outburst. The extrajudicial character of his deeds makes this a difficult legal case. An insight into this treatment of Enyt by the tale itself is that two separate lords object to her treatment and offer her their hand in marriage. She refuses both.

Griselda in three voices

The first written account of Griselda is the tenth story of the tenth day of the Decamerone by Giovanni Boccaccio. He compiled this book between 1349 and 1353[22]. After this, Petrarch translated Griselda into Latin, under the title De oboedentia ac fide uxoria mythologia (1373)[23]. Philippe Mézière translated this into the French Livre de la vertu du sacrement du mariage (1384-89)[24]. From 1384 to his death in 1400 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, and used Griselda as ‘The Clerks Tale’[25]. Then, around 1392-4 Le Ménagier de Paris was composed and the author included this story in his discussion of obedience, combining the French version of Mézière with his own amendments[26] to make Griselda act more like a mistress of a household when she prepared her husband's second wedding[27]. Then Christine de Pizan included Griselda in her work Livre de la Cité des Dames, completed in 1405[28]. She used both the French version and the Latin version[29].

From Petrarch's version onwards, Griselda is to be read as an allegorical example of constancy in adversity[30].

I used the versions found in The Canterbury Tales, Le Ménagier de Paris, and Le Livre de la Cité des Dames. Because of the little time between the versions and the overlap of sources, the plot and narrative structure of all three is exactly the same. The events happen in the same order with the same character motivations and the same personalities. It is far more interesting to look at how the tale is told in these three works respectively. Each author uses the story for a different purpose, which is reflected in the narrative style.

Le Ménagier is a highly moralising and didactic work and thus clear and precise in what lesson is meant to be learnt. Chaucer’s purpose is to entertain, which is why it invites the audience to feel. It is a story in a book of stories, in-universe told by a learned authorial man[31]. He also includes a song satirising Griselda and calling the women of the audience to stand up for themselves as Griselda did not[32]. Christine de Pizan omits the moral completely, her work is argumentative and non judgmental towards the characters. She makes brief remarks on the pity owed to Griselda, but that is all. Hers, too, is a book full of stories, but her stories form an argument in favour of women. Despite the difference in purpose and genre, these three editions of Griselda go well together.

The shortest account is that of Christine de Pizan. She skips the description of the area and starts the story at the point where the barons beg Walter to marry. She uses the Italian names for marquess Walter (Gualtieri) and Griselda’s father Janicula (Giannicula). This may be attributed to her Italian heritage, as her father came from Pizzano[33]. She also does not pass judgments on the marquess, the same way the two male authors do. Instead, she merely remarks how hard it would have been for Griselda[34]. Christine’s work is matter of fact and to the point, skipping most dialogue. She also neglects to underline the moral of the story, moving on to the next woman she wishes to discuss. The moral of Griselda, to stay constant in times of adversity, goes against the Book, which is written because of the adversity posed by male learned men belittling women in their works.

Chaucer, on the contrary, spends a lot of words on the story, more than Christine and the author of Le Ménagier, and includes a satirising song on the topic at the end of the story. Both he and le Ménagier judge marquess Walter harshly for his actions, going as far to proclaim his a “merciless plot” and a “cruel plan”[35], and:

I have placed the tale here as instruction, not to apply it to you, or because I expect the same obedience from you, since I am not worthy. I am no marquis, nor were you a shepherdess, and I am not so foolish, presumptuous, or immature as to fail to recognize the inappropriateness of my abusing or testing you in such ways. God keep me from trying you in this or any other manner, under any false pretenses! [36]

Both men include and underline the moral of the story. Both note that Griselda’s obedience is hard to find: “It would be pretty hard to find, these days,/In any town three Griseldas, or two;”[37] and that it is irreplicable: “Because, should they be put to such assays,/Their gold’s so poor now, made with such alloys/That, though the coin looks good enough to you,/Instead of bending, it will break in two.”[38] Their opinions of Walter agree with the passage of Wise man: “But rule pleasantly and gently,/And cherish her well for her good deeds,/For being heavy-handed/Makes grief grow when there is no need”[39].

Before I will compare the narrative of Griselda to Gereint, I have to raise a theological issue on the moral of Griselda. If Walter is her sovereign by virtue of their marriage, her allegorical god, he is justified in testing her as God tests his followers. But as a human husband, he is abhorrent according to the men who write of him. If then, a man’s job is to cherish and take care of his wife, is he allowed to test her as if he were a god? This theological question is beyond the scope of this paper and will need further discussion elsewhere.

These two narratives, despite the difference in provenance, are two sides of the same coin. The marriages of Gereint and Walter mirror each other as if they were in conversation. Both women meet their husbands living in impoverished households, Griselda is born to poor Janicula and Enyts father Earl Yniwl lost everything to greed and war. Both women enter the betrothal dressed in rags and enter the marriage in wealthy (class-appropriate) garments given by someone of superior status. Griselda is changed into garments worthy of a marchioness as soon as she accepts the betrothal, Enyt is asked to remain in her rags until queen Gwenhwyfar herself can dress her in whatever her majesty pleases. Both women are praised for their beauty and kindness, and beloved by the court they enter. Griselda is likened to an angel, and Enyt gains a substantial following at Arthur’s Court.

The troubles begin with gossip. Marquess Walter uses gossip about the birth of Griselda and her father to persuade her to give up her child. She would have given the child without this invented gossip. Erbin tells Enyt of the unrest among the noblemen, causing grief in Enyt which is misinterpreted by Gereint. Enyt is asked twice to leave her husband by other noblemen. And twice does she refuse. Griselda is asked to prepare the wedding of her husband's second wife. When prompted, she asks him merely to be kind and gentle to his young bride.

Marquess Walter has no real motivation to test his wife other than curiosity. There is no need for this test of her patience, but he has to push her to her limit regardless. Gereint tests Enyt because of his jealousy and his loss of honour. Griselda obeys her husband out of love and reverence, she explains that both she and her daughter are his possessions to do with as he pleases. This same worshipping love is what causes Enyt to disobey Gereint’s orders, as she would rather be killed by her husband's hand than see him die by another.


Where Walter acts in one instance, Enyt acts in Gereint. Griselda takes place mainly indoors, Gereint takes place mostly out of doors. When Gereint refuses Enyt to dress up, Walter gives Griselda her wealthy clothing immediately. Both women follow the behaviour of a virtuous woman set out in the first part of this essay. Both men are not exemplary husbands, because this is stated in the narrative and because they do not follow the conduct given in Wise Man and Le Ménagier. The stories are complementary in the issues they address, a narrative counterpart. The fourteenth century was apparently ripe for discussions on proper behaviour, considering the popularity of the Griselda story and the composition of the Good Wijf and Le Ménagier texts. Furthermore, each iteration of Griselda has a different narrative style, genre, and purpose to be included in their works.

This paper was but a glimpse into the varied and fascinating world of conduct literature, and but an exercise of applying the apparent rules of the Middle Ages to medieval literature. These stories are more than ripe for further comparison and contrasted. For example, a theme worthy of discussing could be the influence of sumptuary laws on the shared motif of the change in clothes according to class. There is much more to be explorass.


Primary Sources

Chrétien de Troyes, and William Wistar Comfort (transl.) “Erec et Enide” in William Wistar Comfort, Four Arthurian Romances. (The Floating Press, 2009) pp. 25-183

Christine de Pizan, Earl Jeffrey Richards, (transl.) The Book of the City of Ladies. (New York: Persea Books 1982).

Davies, Sioned. “Geraint son of Erbin” in Sioned Davies The Mabinogion. (Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 207-254

Geoffrey Chaucer, and David Wright (transl.). Canterbury Tales, (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Rose, Christine M., and Gina L. Greco, The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier De Paris) : A Medieval Household Book. (Cornell University Press, 2009)

Sponsler, Claire, “The English How The Good Wijf Taughte Hir Doughtir And How The Wise Man Taught His Sonne” in Mark Johnston (ed.) Medieval Conduct Literature : An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths with English Translations, (University of Toronto Press 2009) pp. 320-339

Secondary Sources

“Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, [14 cent., second ??-third ??]” The National Library of Wales

“TEI Header for NLW MS. Peniarth 6 part iv”, Rhyddiaith Gymraeg 1325-1400 (University of Cardiff, 2007-2017),

Davies, R. R. “THE TWILIGHT OF WELSH LAW, 1284–1536.” History, vol. 51, no. 172, (Wiley, 1966) pp. 143–64,

Ferrier, Janet M. “‘SEULEMENT POUR VOUS ENDOCTRINER’: THE AUTHOR’S USE OF ‘EXEMPLA’ IN ‘LE MÉNAGIER DE PARIS.’” Medium Ævum, vol. 48, no. 1, (Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1979) pp. 77–89,

Jenkins, Dafydd, et al. The Welsh Law of Women : Studies Presented to Professor Daniel a. Binchy on His Eightieth Birthday 3 June 1980 (University of Wales Press, 1980)

Lloyd-Morgan, Ceridwen and Erich Poppe (eds), Arthur in the Celtic Languages : The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, (University of Wales Press, 2019)

Oxford, Jesus College MS. 111:

[1] Both text and translation are from Sponsler, “The English How The Good Wijf Taughte Hir Doughtir And How The Wise Man Taught His Sonne”, 289-90 [2] Rose and Greco, The Good Wife’s Guide 2 [3] Ibid, 49 §1 [4] Ibid, 50-52 §5-24 [5] Ibid, 104-19 [6] Rose and Greco, 105 [7] Ibid 121 §16 [8] Sponsler, 301 [9] See for example Lloyd Morgan and Poppe Arthur in the Celtic Languages 112-119 [10] See “TEI Header for NLW MS. Peniarth 6 part iv” on Rhyddiaith Gymraeg 1300-1425 [11] “Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, [14 cent., second ??-third ??]” The National Library of Wales [12] “Oxford, Jesus College MS. 111” Digital Bodleian [13] Davies, Sioned. “Geraint son of Erbin” 144-5 [14] Ibid, 157 [15] Ibid, 159 [16] Ibid, 159 [17] Ibid, 174 [18] Sponsler, 302 [19] For more information regarding this era see Davies, R. R. “THE TWILIGHT OF WELSH LAW, 1284–1536.” [20] Ibid, 147 [21] Jenkins, Dafydd, et al. The Welsh Law of Women 52 [22] Geoffrey Chaucer, Wright (transl.). Canterbury Tales, 494 [23] Christine de Pizan, Richards (transl.), The Book of the City of Ladies. 265, [24] Ibid, 265 [25] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, xxix [26] Ferrier, Janet M. “‘SEULEMENT POUR VOUS ENDOCTRINER’: THE AUTHOR’S USE OF ‘EXEMPLA’ IN ‘LE MÉNAGIER DE PARIS.’” 78 [27] Ibid, 79 [28] De Pizan The Book of the City of Ladies xxv [29] Ibid, 266 [30] Ibid, 266 [31] Chaucer, 485 [32] Chaucer, 243-4 [33] De Pizan, xix [34] De Pizan, 172 [35] Chaucer, 230 [36] Rose and Greco, 118 [37] Chaucer, 242 [38] Ibid. [39] Sponsler, 301

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