Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 800:
TRAINING A YOUNG WIFE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 800.

Today, you and I, and a teen-age bride, learn about medieval life. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1393 a wealthy old Paris burgher married a girl of 15. We don't know his name or exact age. But when he married, he wrote a book that opens a fine window on late medieval life.

The title was The Householder of Paris. This older man had to see to his bride's upbringing as well as her well-being. So he wrote this handbook on housewifing for her.

While he clearly wrote in great joy and love, much of it reads like a 20th-century feminist's worst nightmare. He says a lot about a wife's duty to her husband. Still, there's no question that he means to place her at the center of his own life.

He leaves out nothing. He explains how to manage servants, buy a horse, cook, garden, and select the best eels at market.

He says much about medieval diet. Sugar didn't find its way from the Caribbean to Europe for another two centuries. They use a little honey, but the greater interest is in seasonings -- salt, horseradish, saffron, cinnamon, and mustard. They eat duck, chicken, pig, and lots of vegetables. He tells how to make barley water for the sick.

The Plague had recently killed half the people in Europe. Now it came back every few years to kill off more. No one yet understood that fleas carried plague germs. Part of the book is nevertheless devoted to keeping fleas out of the marriage bed.

Hourglasses were a fairly new technology. He explains how to prepare hourglass sand by cleaning the stony dust from sawed marble. So we cross the transom and enter a 600-year-old household. We catch the smells and tastes of a different way of life.

And what about the question of feminism in all this? In that arena, things aren't quite what they first might seem:

The very last item is a recipe for making three pints of ink. This book is for a girl who could read and who'd mastered the complex art of writing. His household was a large enterprise. He was training a 15-year-old to become its business manager.

Modern readers will trip as he harps on words like piety and duty. Perhaps women did have far to go. Yet medieval women had made huge strides toward personal liberty and empowerment. Hold this passage to the light and see how it refracts:

... women, to whom God has given natural wisdom ... ought to have perfect and solemn love for their husbands. And so I beg you to be very loving and intimate ...
Is this the voice of a Neanderthal, or a gentle man looking for natural human harmony? It is after all a plea, not a command. In the end it says far more about change in a distant age than it does about an old man trying to cement an asymmetrical marriage.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century. (trans. and ed. by Tania Bayard). New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Included in this girl's instruction is advice on remarrying when the author dies and leaves her, still young, as a widow.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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