History: Get to Know Your Vices

 One of the things I tell people who ask about the glamor of  writing* is that the best part is getting to do research without  anyone else asking you why you want to know about  something.  Poisons?  Writing a murder mystery.  Sanitation?  Researching the lifestyles of the past and  famous.  Bio-ethics?  Dude, I write science fiction.  And since I’ve set my current WIP in the  European middle ages, I’ve been trying to get a handle on  religion as a force seeping into every part of life.  I wasn’t  raised that way (my brother and I were raised, I like to say, with no visible means of religious support) and it requires a good deal of research, not just factual but emotional, to feel like I have a handle on it.

One of the best resources I’ve found lately is The Good Wife’s Guide, a series of instructions written by a middle-aged burgher in Paris for his fifteen year old wife, to help her fulfill her duties to God and himself.  If this sounds sort of insufferably patriarchal–well, consider the time and place.  In fact, the tone of the Guide is rather sweet–he clearly cares for the girl and considers it is his job to steward her from inexperience to competence in all the important ways.  Further, he’s well aware that she is likely to outlive him, and he’s teaching her how to be a good wife to the next guy as well.  So he outlines a program, a XX-step approach to being a good wife, circa 1370.

The first step is faith.  It’s interesting that this man marries a young woman of good family–one I presume would have a fairly close acquaintance with church practice–but feels he has to explain what the canonical hours are, the parts of the Mass, and how to pray.  The prayers, both the standard ones in Latin (which he translates into French for her) and the ones it appears he has composed for her use, are full of things that strike the modern ear as a bit much: constant repetition of the petitioner’s unworthiness and sinfulness, and exaltation of God, the Virgin, and the various saints; they’re long, too.  He also explains the parts of the mass (again, one assumes that she had been regularly attending mass her whole life and should be up to speed, but as the whole service was done in Latin, perhaps she never actually understood what was going on except for the responsions and prayers required of her).

Once the Husband has finished with basic church practice, he starts in on Vice.  I had no idea that the Seven Deadly Sins had so many subdivisions.  What he really needed was hypertext, because some of the subcategories of each sin could be cross indexed to other sins.  You know the basic Deadlies, of course: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth Avarice, Gluttony and Lust.  Their subdivisions are:

Pride: Disobedience, vainglory, hypocrisy, discord, and entitlement.

Envy: Conspiracy, griping, detraction, schadenfreude.**

Wrath: Hatred, contention, presumption, indignation, swearing.

Sloth: Negligence, holding grudges, carnality, vanity of the heart, despair, and presumption.

Avarice: Larceny, plunder, fraud, deception, usury, gambling, simony.

Gluttony: Eating too greedily (which has five sub-parts I will spare you) and speaking intemperately and debauchedly (ditto).

Lust: Enjoying sinful thoughts, committing to a sinful act (even if you don’t get to actually do anything), fornication, adultery, incest (this one is actually a catchall: sex with family members, sex in an unsanctioned manner, sex with nuns whether during Feast days or no, and so on), sins against nature.

Well, they had me at pride; I’m not even sure I’d ever get as far as Gluttony without succumbing to pure exhaustion.  The Husband (lest all these sins–and the useful notice that burning down a Church is sacrilege, and worse than all the Seven Deadly Sins rolled together!–seem too overwhelming) also includes a list of the Seven Holy Virtues: Humility, Friendship, Kindness, Diligence, Generosity, Temperance, and Chastity.  Somehow they sound a little…uncompelling after the Sins. 

Once he has exhausted his discussion of Vice and Virtue (and retold a number of moral tales as illustration, including “Pacient Griselde,” which I remember from Chaucer), the Husband goes on to address manners, and finally, the selection and maintenance of servants, and general housekeeping. There’s a whole wonderful, bloodcurdling section of recipes (who knew that if you take a curled-up hedgehog and drop it in warm water it will uncurl so you can butcher and cook it?).  But really, reading all the material about faith, I’m surprised the Young Wife had the time to cook.  Or eat.

This book is a fascinating look into the mind of another time. You get a powerful sense of social strata, of the relative position of women, and of course, of the fundamental importance of faith in daily life.  I’m glad I don’t live then, but I’m equally glad I can learn about it.

*anyone who thinks writing is glamorous should see me in my flannel nightgown, sucking down coffee from my Big Mug™ and cursing softly at a plot point that won’t unsnarl.

**no, he doesn’t use the word, but that’s what he means.



Madeleine Robins blogs at Book View Cafe on the 7th and 21st of every month, and more frequently at Running Air.  Her story, “Willie” is now available at her bookshelf at BVC.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


History: Get to Know Your Vices — 5 Comments

  1. The nice thing about -writing- about all these sins, is that hopefully the writer got a good chance to think about them and apply them to himself as well. A husband free of all these vices would be a gem.

  2. Anyone who didn’t have at least a bit of vice in him would be perfect and hence expect perfection from others and therefore be completely insufferable, is my belief ^^.

  3. Estara–

    I think I have to disagree with you. If a perfect person expected perfection from others, then that would be a flaw, and that person wouldn’t be perfect. So perfection would include a compassionate understanding of a lack of perfection in others. 🙂