Persuading The Polity: Authority, Marriage, and Politics in Late-Medieval France

Open Access
Kinne, Elizabeth Lee
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 17, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Norris Joiner Lacy, Dissertation Advisor
  • Benedicte Marie Christine Monicat, Committee Chair
  • Christine Clark Evans, Committee Member
  • Jean Claude Vuillemin, Committee Member
  • Robert R Edwards, Special Member
  • conduct literature
  • French medieval literature
  • politics
  • mirrors for princes
  • marriage
  • authority
In the later Middle Ages, texts on marriage proliferated, either works of conduct meant to make women good wives or more general reflections addressed to a wide spectrum of medieval society. These multiple and contradictory discourses regarding matrimony performed a variety of functions beyond attempting to regulate a household or persuade the audience of the worthiness, or lack thereof, of the institution. They are displays of power that seek to impose an idealized vision of society and one’s authority over others. An exploration of this subtext brings to light the difficulties of exerting individual agency in the face of myriad constraints, whether social, economic, or political. The authorial postures assumed, the identities created, the sources adapted, and the knowledge exposed created a late medieval form of self-fashioning. Another didactic genre, mirrors for princes or Furstenspiegel, fulfilled a manifest political role in providing counsel to male rulers; texts regarding marriage, addressed ostensibly to women but containing many messages intended for men, complement this agenda of influence. Marriage texts express the fears, ambitions, and negotiations that result from governing the polity in their representation of the difficulties of holding sway over a representative microcosm, the household. This study examines the authorial anxieties and authoritative posturing of three texts representative of late medieval discourses about marriage, Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l’enseignement ses filles, Le Ménagier de Paris, and Eustache Deschamps’s Le Miroir de mariage. Chapter One “The Courtly Conundrum: Marriage and Legitimacy in Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l’enseignement de ses filles ” discusses the late medieval shift toward a regulatory discourse of institutionalized marriage and away from the perilous courtly love trope. Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l’enseignement de ses filles, a French conduct book written by the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, a member of the provincial petite noblesse, in 1371. His work displays a patriarchal, authorial desire to participate in the conversation regarding matrimony. The narrator, known as “the Chevalier” in this study, betrays a paternalist angst brought about by the threat of disobedience should he fail to impose his vision. The narrator’s adaptation of his source text, Le Miroir des Bonnes Femmes, espouses the idea of a lineage founded in virtue and reveals the threat of illegitimacy that could arise if his fatherly advice is not heeded. Chapter Two, “Playing the Game in Le Ménagier de Paris,” examines the importance of gaming and social exchange in the 1394 Parisian bourgeois conduct book of an anonymous author. Through its anecdotes, exempla, religious instruction, and preoccupation with the daily affairs of the household, this polyvalent work celebrates a set of class values particular to the late medieval bourgeoisie. As the narrator encourages his wife to uphold their collective estate, he negotiates a place for himself and his household through the practices of leisure and labor. Depicting men who participate in games where a wife’s obedience is at stake demonstrates how the discursive formation of a woman’s virtue circulated as a form of symbolic currency in late medieval society. His unacknowledged adaptation of Le Jeu des echecs moralisé, a mirror for princes composed in Latin by Jacobus de Cessolis and translated into French by Jean Ferron in 1347, reveals the political aspirations and personal investment in self-improvement behind his allusions to gaming. Chapter Three, “Franc Vouloir and the ties that bind in Eustache Deschamps’s Miroir de mariage,” reflects upon the masculine solidarity established between Franc Vouloir [Free Will], model ruler, and his counselor, Repertoire de Science [Repository of Knowledge], in the allegorical mirror intended to dissuade men from wedding. Neither of the protagonists lives up to his name; Free Will strains to exert his agency in decision-making and Repository’s counsel remains ineffective. This lengthy, unfinished treatise and its illustrations of faulty medieval institutions reflect Deschamps’s own frustrations and motivations as a politically engaged poet, a member of the noblesse de robe, and administrator in the royal court during the reign of Charles VI. The text showcases Aristotelian notions about politics, adapting ideas from the Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics that had been translated for Charles V, at the same time as it features their problematic application. It is above all an illustration of the difficulties of imposing and maintaining an ideal in an imperfect, material world, a self-reflexive act regarding the problematic confrontation of the wills that results from the production and reception of any mirroring or conduct text. Chapter Four complements and completes the study of Deschamps’s Miroir de mariage. “Eustache Deschamps’s Miroir de mariage: The Wife and the Will” posits that the illustration of the problematic application of counsel is in fact a parody of the mirroring tradition. The sober tones of Franc Vouloir and Repertoire de Science’s exchange are counterbalanced by the fabliaux-like yet still misogynistic comedy of the descriptions of the imaginary household. The proliferation of voices and the multiple audiences established in the work complicate the questions of authorial voice and purported certainties about what society should be. In this dispute over sovereignty and mastery, there can be no true winner and the loser is the French nation as a whole. This last chapter demonstrates how the surprising transition from the discussion of an unruly wife to a poorly ruled nation lends political significance to the exchange of tales about women between men in the later Middle Ages.