Vives’ Instruction of a christen woman was a hugely popular conduct book for Tudor women. Written from a male perspective, it gives moral and practical guidance on all aspects of a woman’s life from infancy to puberty and from marriage to widowhood.
In some ways, the book seems progressive: for example, it recommends education for women. But it still foregrounds the virtues of chastity and obedience to one’s parents and husband. This provides an interesting context for strong Shakespearean women like Juliet, Beatrice and Katherina, who seem caught between passion and patriarchal control, and between silence and elegant self-expression.
Who wrote and translated the manual?
The book was first written in 1523 by the Spanish humanist scholar, Juan Luis Vives (1492/3–1540), for his young pupil Princess Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. This copy is a later edition from 1557, translated from Latin into English by Richard Hyrde, a tutor in Thomas More’s household.
Breastfeeding and nurses (sig. B1r–B2v)
At this time it was common for noblewomen to use wet-nurses to feed their babies (as Lady Capulet does with Juliet). But Vives advises women to breastfeed their own daughters explaining that this will give their children nourishment and love, as well as moral ‘disposicions’. If parents have to rely on a nurse, they should select the ‘wysest and best’, avoiding those who are ‘foule and rude’, drunk or ‘full of … chattyng’. We might think of Shakespeare’s talkative Nurse with her bawdy innuendoes.
‘Of the learnyng of maydes’ (sig. C1v–C2r; C4v–D1v)
Vives knows that ‘learned women’ are often ‘suspected’ of ‘maliciousnes’, but says he could provide 100 examples of ‘good’ educated women (sig. C2r). A girl should ‘study … wisedom’ (sig. C4v), but ‘hold hir tonge demurely’ in public, and steer clear of teaching (sig. D1r–v).
Love (sig. N4r–v)
Vives has a bleak view of love – the dangerous ‘kingdome of Venus’. The ‘miserable yonge woman’ who is entangled by love would be better ‘to have broken a legge of [her] bodie’. Love causes global devastation: ‘murther’, ‘slaughter’, ‘distruction of cities, of countreys, and nacions’.
Choosing a husband (sig. P2r–P3r)
When it comes to choosing a husband, maidens should keep quiet, and leave these decisions to their parents: ‘it becometh not a maide to talke, where hir father and mother be in communicacion about hir mariage’. But parents should take their duties seriously, preferring ‘Good and wise’ husbands over the ‘Faire’, ‘riche’ or ‘noble’.
- Full title:
- A very fruteful and pleasant boke called the Instruction of a christen woman ... tourned out of latyne into Englishe by Rychard Hyrde
- 1557, London
- Book / Quarto
- Juan Luis Vives, Richard Hyrde [translator]
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Penny Gay
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Language, word play and text, Comedies
Penny Gay sees Benedick and Beatrice as the witty stars of a Shakespearean rom-com. She explores both their modernity and their conformity to traditional gender roles and marriage.
- Article by:
- Kim Ballard
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies
A number of Shakespeare's plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare's most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.
- Article by:
- Sean McEvoy
- Renaissance writers
Sean McEvoy explores Ben Jonson's Volpone, looking at Jonson's daring, unique brand of comedy and the play's treatment of money, greed and morality.
Related collection items
Romeo and Juliet begins with a Chorus setting the scene in the Italian city of Verona, where the Capulets and the ...
The Taming of the Shrew is thought to have been written between 1590 and 1592. It is a popular comedy, though its ...