The Instruction of a Christian Woman was intended by Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) as a complete instruction manual for women, providing moral and practical suggestions for every stage of life:
Book 1 – Unmarried young women
Book 2 – Married women
Book 3 – Widows
The British Library suggests that some elements of the book were surprisingly progressive for the Tudor period. Vives advocated, for example, that women, regardless of social class and ability, should receive an education. Nonetheless, the focus is to ensure that women were kept in their place. Vives talked lengthily about chastity and obedience to parents and husbands, and argued that widows should either dedicate their lives to Christ and mourning their husbands passing or, if young, find a second husband for the sake of any children from the previous marriage:
‘for we see it chances often times that they [the children] be brought up with a widow by the means of her over much sufferance and cherishing be stubborn and disobedient to them’.
Vives wrote the Instruction of a Christian Woman in Latin in 1523 for the education of the future Mary I of England. Richard Hyrde (d. 1528) then translated the work, around 1529.
The book was hugely popular, receiving praise from well-known figures such as Erasmus and Thomas More. Vives himself, in his preface, noted how writers such as Xenophon and Aristotle had given rules for housekeeping, Plato on the duty of women, and Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine on the condition of maids and widows, but no one had attempted before a complete guidebook for women. Hyde, in his preface, added that men often complained about the ‘condition’ of women, but neglected their education, which might, he believed, calm some of their impulses (‘to wax better by themselves’).
There is just one reference to bees, another on honey, and another on wax. The reference to bees can be found in the third book, offering advice to widows to mourn for their departed husband. Vives began by arguing that:
A Good Woman when her husband is dead ought to know that she has the greatest loss and damage that can be chance her in the world and that there is taken from her the heart of mutual and tender love toward her, and that she has lost not only the one half of her own life […] but herself also to be taken from herself altogether and perished.
Vives goes on to complain that some women wrongly feel rejoice, feeling that they have recovered their liberty and broken free of their husbands ‘dominion and bond’. Vives calls this foolish. Relief that the husband is dead because the widow is now free from dealing with his illness is also wrong, Vives states:
‘unto a good woman no husband can be so ill that she would not prefer his life than his death’.
As an example, Vives reminds his readers that bees ‘by their craft’ disprove of laziness, whilst dogs ‘damn the untrusting of false people’ and sheep ‘condemn frauds’. Similarly, in Vives’ argument, widows are only worthy of being ‘good women’ if they genuinely mourn their husbands passing, giving themselves to Christ (and not seeking another man, unless children are involved), and do not feel relief or freedom in their new circumstances.
The singular reference to wax can be found in a subsequent chapter on the ‘burying of the husband’. Vives refers to wax alongside sepulchres (graves/tombs) as an example of the expenditure that is often made for funerals. Vives argues that it is better to give to alms and ‘cloth poor strangers’ than it is to spend heavily on wax candles and expensive graves. The money is better spent on supporting ‘poor widows and fatherless children’. The reference to honey is found earlier in the book, in a chapter on ‘the ordering of the body in a virgin’. This forms part of Vives guidance for young, unmarried women but is little more than a description of the well-known biblical story of John the Baptist, who was ‘fed in desert with grasshoppers and wild honey’. The story is mentioned alongside other examples of holy men ‘sent by the grace of god’ who were strong enough to reject the pleasures of life in favour of nourishing themselves on God’s love instead. Vives mentions this to warn young women to abstain from meats and wines as they encourage ‘lust’:
‘for neither the burning Etna nor the country of Vulcan nor Vesevius nor yet Olympus boils with such heat as the bodies of young folks enflamed with wine and delicate meats’.
Young women are therefore best advised to avoid situations that encourage the lust of their young bodies, which will ultimately cause harm and sin.
Fantazzi, Charles, ‘Vives, Juan Luis (1492/3-1540), ODNB (Oxford, 4 October 2008). DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/28337.
Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540):
Juan Luis Vives: Born in Valencia, Spain, to a family of converso Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity after the uprisings in the city in 1391. Whilst outwardly Christian it is likely that his family still conducted observation of Judaism in secret. His ODNB biographer, Charles Fantazzi, argues that the young Vives ‘could not have been unaware’ of this and that ‘the persecution and execution of many members of his family and his converso origins remained a determining psychological factor throughout his life’. Whilst studying in Paris, Vives was introduced to classical texts by Quintilian, Juvenal, Suetonius, and Aristotle.
From there, Vives made a career for himself as a scholar, rising up the ranks of the court of Charles I, making an acquaintance with Erasmus, and gaining a Ward, Guillaume de Croy. In 1523, Vives came to England and won favour with Cardinal Wolsey, who appointed him as reader in humanity at Oxford. He became close to Queen Katherine of Aragon, and it was on her behest that he wrote A Education of a Christian Woman. He wrote the book in Bruges and had it published in April 1523. The 1529 translation into English by Richard Hyrde, a tutor in Thomas More’s household, enjoyed enormous popularity in England. Indeed, Fantazzi argues that it became the prototype for various conduct books for women that were published during the Tudor period.