Saturday, March 25, 2006

some thoughts on medieval women...and waiters.

I know this is a complicated topic (and not in any way a new one), but I just finished reading a nice comprehensive analysis of medieval courtesy books that my students and I are going to discuss this week (I had them read "How The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter") and a thought just occurred to me. There are some creepy parallels between the ideal of the perfectly behaved woman and the perfect waiter.

This goes beyond the whole, "well, they both had/have the status of servants, so what do you expect?" I started off this semester's class (which is about texts by and for medieval women) with a nice little excerpt of anti-feminist writings from Blamires's Women Defamed and Women Defended (stuff from the Bible, the Church Papas, etc.) - one of the things my students noticed immediately (bright little bulbs that they are) was the constant concentration on circumventing women's movement and speech.

I started to think - this isn't just about limiting speech or movement (b/c if she's walking around, dammit, she might accept another man's seed!) - it's about trying to make sure that a woman never becomes any kind of a "presence" at all. How to blend in, become a wallflower, and sublimate your existence. And this isn't even at a party or ball or something - it's about not becoming a presence in her own mind. (Now, I'm definitely talking here about the unrealistic ideal of female behavior set forth in these texts, not in, say, medieval courtly love texts where a woman is a highly "seen" and beautiful source of inspiration).

So, let's think about the stereotypical "great" waiter: 1) they're virtually invisible, 2) they anticipate almost all of your needs (more bread, water, wine, A-1 sauce...), 3) they ask only the most important questions and they do it fairly discreetly (the chicken or the veggie pasta?), and 4) they don't impede your social interaction.

Now, I'm no snot, but I don't really dig loquacious waitstaff (unless I find them funny, but it's a crapshoot). Almost every time we go to Outback Steakhouse (oh yeah, a lot...), some kid named Joel or Cindie is a little too chatty-Kathy for my taste - and why do they ALWAYS ask if we've ever been to Outback before? Don't we look like the most egregious mid-30s suburbanites ever? Their remoulade sauce, though, keeps me going back like a deranged homing pidgeon...

But I digress. Anyway, there's this one courtesy book (which I haven't read myself) called the Menagier de Paris and it's written by a 60-year-old dude for his new 15-year-old bride about how to be a good wife (apparently she asked him to give her advice because she's so young - skeevy). Among other things it talks about how she should make him a happy homecoming after he's been conducting business on the hard, toilsome road. She should have clean linens for him (i.e., new undies?), she should, you know, make him a nice dinner, make sure that he's "unshod in front of a warm fire" and do all of those nice "privities" that he doesn't want to mention.

But the most of them are about denying that the woman has any of the same discomforts that a man does - if he gets sick, nurse him and pamper him and wipe his nose. If you get sick, suffer, suffer, suffer and never let him know. If he gets angry, allow him to enact it however he sees fit on you, but swallow your own annoyance. Express/repress, express/repress....

My conclusion after reading around in all these courtesy books? The best women (and waiters and, actually, secret agents) are unmemorable! They don't annoy or entice - they just hover in the corner and "poof!" you have a new scotch and soda!

BTW, a word on the picture above - do you notice how the midwife in the picture looks sad and miserable (see the big frown?) but the half-naked lady who apparently has a child emerging from her womb (or the covers near her feet) looks relatively happy? Maybe a little surprised...

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3 Comments:

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

Ooh, what was the analysis you just finished reading? (I'm quite interested in conduct literature!)

 
At 8:34 PM, Blogger medieval woman said...

Hi NK,

Unfortunately it wasn't an "analysis" per se, but it was a pretty comprehensive overview of a lot of medieval courtesy literature. It's by Diane Bornstein and it's actually fairly old (1983) titled "The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women."

I've assigned sections of the book to my students b/c it's really accessible and it's a nice historical/literary overview of all the various social, economic, cultural "spaces" for women in the Middle Ages (virgin, mother & wife, worker, etc.) - I'm not very familiar with courtesy literature myself and this is a nice appetizer - I might start digging into it now! And looking for some more recent critical material...

 
At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha. This is interesting to compare to, say, Chaucher's 'Tale of Lucretia' in the _Legend of Good Women_, in which Lucretia is preeminently SEEN -- by her husband, by her rapist, by her family, and by her nation.

 

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