Top 10 Tips for Medieval Princesses

Queen Phillipa of Hainault 1314-1369

Let’s face it: most of us girls wanted to be a princess at some point in our lives, and had the plastic tiara and tinsel-covered dress to prove it. We may never grow up to marry a real prince, like Kate Middleton, or take princess lessons, like Australia’s Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, but help is here! In 1405 the medieval poet and authoress Christine de Pisan wrote a book, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, containing hot tips for women from all walks of life, but especially princesses and noblewomen. Whether you want to make anonymous donations to a worthy cause, or convince your enemies that you love and trust them, Christine de Pisan has answers to all your princessing questions. Here are ten of my favourite lessons from her helpful little book, ten things every good princess should do:

 1. Love God and keep His commandments.

First of all above all else you must love and fear Our Lord. Why love Him? For His infinite goodness and for the very great blessings that you receive from Him. Fear Him for His divine and holy justice, which leaves nothing unpunished. If you have this love and fear constantly in view, you will infallibly be on the way to the goal where our instruction will lead you, that is, to the virtues. […] This is the way that the princess who loves Him shows it, for whatever duties or occupations she has due to the magnificence of her position, she will always keep before her eyes the light of the straight and narrow path.

 2. Lobby the prince on behalf of his people.

And so this lady will be, by pure, mild and holy charity, an advocate and mediator between the prince her husband (or her child if she is a widow) and her people […]. Sometimes it may happen that the prince, by bad counsel or from some other cause, will try to oppress his people with some expense. The subjects will realize that their lady is full of pity, goodness and charity, and will come to her and very humbly beseech her to represent them to the prince […]. Receiving them very kindly, she will listen patiently and be attentive to everything they have to say. She will be accompanied by wise and upright gentlemen who will counsel her. She will reply wisely and suitably with the help of the good advice of those men; she will excuse her husband and speak well of him. […] The good lady will not make them waste their time in vain hope, but without long delay she will scrupulously keep her word about what she has promised them; she will speak to her husband well and wisely, calling in other wise persons if necessary, and will very humbly petition him on behalf of the people.

 3. Use diplomacy to avoid war.

If any neighbouring or foreign prince wishes for any reason to make war against her husband, or if her husband wishes to make war on someone else, the good lady will consider this thing carefully, bearing in mind the great evils and infinite cruelties, destruction, massacres and detriment to the country that result from war: the outcome is often terrible. She will ponder long and hard whether she can do something (always preserving the honour of her husband) to prevent this war. […] This lady will not hesitate for a moment, but will speak or have someone else speak (preserving her honour and that of her husband) to the one or ones who have committed the misdeed. She will reproach them for it sharply, saying that the misdeed was very serious and that the prince is quite justifiably offended by it and that he has decided to avenge himself for it, as is only right, but nevertheless she, who would always wish the blessing of peace, in the event that they would wish to atone for it or to make suitable amends, would gladly go to some trouble to try if she could by some means to make peace between them and her husband.

 4. Give generously to those who are in need.

Her charity will make her not only feel sorrow when she sees people in affliction, but oblige her to roll up her sleeves and help them as much as she can. […] She will command [her servants] to make inquiries in the town and everywhere near by and find out where the houses of the poor are: poor gentlemen or poor gentlewomen sick or fallen on hard times, poor widows, needy householders, poor maidens waiting to marry, women in childbed, students, and poverty-stricken priests or members of religious orders. By the example of my lord St Nicholas she will secretly send gifts to these good people by her almoner, without even the poor themselves knowing who is sending them the alms.

 5. Attend conscientiously to public affairs.

[I]f she has responsibility of government, she will go to the council on days when it is held. […W]hen someone comes to her to speak on a subject or to reply, according to the circumstances, so wisely will she consider the matter that she cannot be thought simple or ignorant. […] Furthermore, this lady will establish a certain number of wise gentlemen who will sit on her council, who she will deem good, loyal, virtuous and not too covetous. […] She will be counselled every day by these gentlemen at a certain hour about the necessary matters that she has to deal with.

 6. Love her husband.

The noble princess who would like to follow the rule of honour in all circumstances will behave towards her lord, be he old or young, in all the ways that good faith and true love command. That is, she will humble herself towards him in deed and word and by curtsying: she will obey without complaint: and she will hold her peace to the best of her ability in the way that the good and wise Queen Esther did, as it is written in the Bible in the first chapter of the Book of Esther. She was for this reason so loved and honoured by her lord that he denied her nothing that she desired. In addition the princess will demonstrate love by being careful and fastidious in all the things that might pertain to the well-being of her husband, both of his soul and his body.

[…] And if it happens that her husband should go on any distant or perilous voyage, or to some war. the good lady will pray devoutly to God and scrupulously have people pray for him in processions and oblations.

[…I]f she knows that her husband tends to believe her, and if she is certain that his friends are vicious and bad and that her husband may become wicked in deed or in habit through associating with them, she will speak to him about it discreetly and gently when they are alone together, or she will have someone else tell him.

 7. See to the education of her children

The wise princess will take care how they are disciplined, and she will be very interested in those who have charge of them, and how they carry out their duties. She will not wait for a report from someone else, but she herself will often visit her children in their rooms. […] It is no dishonour for a princess to do such things, for children are the greatest haven, security and ornament that she can have. […] Therefore, the wise lady who loves her children dearly will be diligent about their education. She will ensure that they will learn first of all to serve God, and to read and write, and that the teacher will be careful to make them learn their prayers well. The wise lady will try to get the children’s father to agree that they be introduced to Latin and that they understand something of the sciences.

 8. Win the hearts of her enemies.

If […] she finds out that some powerful person or persons do not wish her well, dislike her, and would harm her if they could […] she will not make any sign that she notices it nor that she considers them her enemies. Rather, by being friendly to them she will make them think that she regards them highly as her friends and would never believe that they might be otherwise. […] She will pretend that she wishes to defer to them and their advice, and she will summon them to confidential meetings (as she will pretend them to be), where she will tell them ordinary things with a great show of secrecy and confidence and keep her real thoughts to herself. It is best to do this with the appearance of sincerity so that it does not put them on their guard.

 9. Be financially prudent.

[S]he will carefully look after her revenue and her expenditure, which not only princes and princesses ought to consider, but likewise all people who wish their lives to be regulated by wisdom. She herself will feel no shame in wishing to know the sum of her revenues or payments; on certain days she will have her collectors and the administrators of her finances do their accounts in her presence. […] She will want to know that all her officers, whether great or little, are prudent, lead a good life and are the true gentlemen that she takes them for. If she finds out the contrary, she will immediately dismiss them.

 10. Have self-defence training. And by that we mean siege warfare.

It is also fitting for her to have the spirit of a man. This means that she ought not to be educated entirely indoors, nor in only the great feminine virtues. […]Her men should be able to rely on her for all kinds of protection in the absence of their lord, in a situation where anyone would offer to do them any harm. […S]he ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack or to defend against one, if the situation calls for it. She should take care that her fortresses are well garrisoned.

As you can see, the ideal medieval princess didn’t just sit around all day at the top of a tower, waiting for her prince to come! She was a diplomat, a prayer warrior, an actual warrior, a philanthropist, and a competent helpmeet. When it comes to these ten things, maybe the women of the world could do with being dragged back into the “Dark Ages”…

(Quotes from the translation copyright Sarah Lawson, 1985.)

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