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.