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.
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.
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.
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).
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’.
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’.