Manuscripts and Special Collections

Advice on Behaviour and Dress: View Documents

Click on the links to view images of the original document, alongside transcripts and translations where available.

Transcripts and translations for manuscript items are also available for download:


Document 1

WLC/LM/9, ff. 141r-141v: ‘Speculum Vitae’, lines 9191-9232 (composed mid-14th century, English) 
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This passage comes in a part of the ‘Speculum Vitae’ concerned with the sin of lechery, or lust. We have already read a warning against using prostitutes, from the same volume, which was one of the 14 branches of ‘bodily lechery’. Here, the author expounds on one of the four examples of ‘lechery of the heart’: the burning desire by a man to have sexual relations with a woman.


Document 2

WLC/LM/9, ff. 254r-v: John Gaytridge, ‘The Lay Folks’ Catechism’ (composed mid-14th century, English) 
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The passage from ‘Speculum Vitae’, above, refers to the ‘deadly sins’. These are the seven deadly sins, still widely known today in popular culture as well as in religious teachings, and described in this extract. The church preached that deadly or mortal sins would lead to damnation in Hell unless the sinner repented and confessed to a priest.


Document 3

WLC/LM/6, f. 339v: Gautier le Leu, ‘La Veuve’ (early 13th century, French)   
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As we saw in the extracts relating to women property owners, widows could be financially and socially independent. The widow in le Leu’s fabliau enjoys her independence, but misses having a man. It was acknowledged in medical literature of the period that some women would in fact suffer terrible pain from lack of sexual activity. Widows and young girls were supposed to be particularly prone to this affliction, and there were medicinal recipes which were intended to help the sufferer.

In this passage from the fictional tale, the widow takes out her frustrations on her children, and prays to God that they might die. The burning of candles was a continuous feature in medieval wills, and lighting candles during prayer a normal activity for Catholic worshippers. The word conpere also has the meaning of 'companion', therefore if the children are 'taking the blows' in this story, they are also acting as a substitute for the husband who would have been object of her fury before he died!


Document 4

WLC/LM/4, f. 8v: William of Waddington, ‘Le Manuel des Péchés’ (composed c.1220-1240, Anglo-Norman) 
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These verses continue a section which deals with the sin of Pride. In the earlier section the author has explained to his readers that to feel proud and haughty when addressed as Lord, Master or Lady is wrong and sinful. Nor, indeed, should they take pride in riding expensive horses with golden harnesses: riding and hawking was, of course, a favourite pastime of Norman lords and ladies.

This extract deals with women who are being chastised for wearing their trains too long (which may mean either their cloaks or their dresses), for dying their 'wimples' yellow, and for showing themselves off in public. The wimple, worn by married women, was a veil or piece of cloth which was wrapped around the head, covering the hair and the forehead and then passed under the chin. This was then held in place with a gold or jewelled fillet. Sweet-smelling saffron was imported in significant quantities at this time, so the overall picture given by the author is one of women wearing the latest fashions and merrymaking.


Document 5

Special Collection PR1105.P4/30: Verses 10-13 of Pleasant Quippes for Upstart Newfangled Gentlewomen: A Glasse to Viewe the Pride of Vaineglorious Women by Stephen Gosson (1596, English) (London: Reprinted by T. Richards, for the executors of the late C. Richards, 1841)
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Gosson’s poem denounces ‘foreign’ fashions. He describes various types of clothes, veils, fans, even items which might be thought simply useful or necessary, and shows how each can actually be used as toys for women or as seduction tools to entice men. He criticises men as well as women for being taken in by display and for spending money on fripperies. His comment that the Devil devised these new fashions and is a ‘fowler’, catching youths with the ‘nets’ of attractive women, is very reminiscent of the description of women’s limbs as ‘the Devil’s Snare’ in ‘Speculum Vitae’, written more than 200 years earlier (Document 1, above).

Our copy is printed together with a similar poem, ‘A treatise on the pride and abuse of women’, by Charles Bansley (c.1550). One verse in this poem denounces the farthingale (wide skirt) as being a comfortable seat for the Devil:

Down, for shame, wyth these bottell a___ bummes,
And theyr trappynge trinkets so vayne!
A bounsinge packsadel for the devyll to ryde on,
To spurre theym to sorowe and payne.


Document 6

WLC/LM/6, f. 198v: Heldris de Cornuälle, ‘Le Roman de Silence’, lines 2051-2056 (early 13th century, French) 
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Miniature from WLC/LM/6, f. 203r

Cador and Eufemie plot to raise their daughter Silence as a boy. In this extract they describe how they will clothe her to protect her from the elements, as boys would spend time outside, while girls would be kept inside the house. There was little difference in the everyday fashion worn by men and women in this period, one of the variations being that the 'tunics' for males were split at the sides. This can be seen in the miniature on f. 203r (right). Later in the 14th century men’s costumes became much more tight and revealing, but the skirts and arms of women’s gowns remained long.


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