A Sixteenth Century Devotional Manual For Catholic Laywomen

Translated by Thomas Head

Claremont College Claremont CA



Among the multitude of manuals of devotion produced in French by Catholic printers during the sixteenth century, there survives one particularly interesting text explicitly intended for an audience of laywomen.1 This work provides valuable insights into the religious culture of Catholic women in the early Reformation period. It was composed anonymously by a member of a religious order, most probably one of the various Franciscan orders as the author mentions Francis as “our blessed father.” There is, however, no absolute evidence to support Hentsch’s contention that the author, as well as the intended reader, was female, although the author
does regularly address the reader as “sister.”2 For the sake of convenience, I have entitled this anonymous work, of which sections are translated here, A Little Manual for the Instruction of Laywomen. Curiously, the work’s actual “title,” printed in the middle of a design on the book’s title page in most editions, is an incipit, repeated on the first page of the text: “Here begins a little instructional manual and way of life for a laywoman: how she ought to conduct herself in thought, in word, and in deed the length of the day, and for all the days of her life, in order to please Our Lord Jesus Christ and to amass celestial riches for the profit and salvation of her soul.”

The longer incipit shows that the Manual was intended as a guidebook to daily pietistic practice, effectively synopsizing the contemplative life of religious orders for practice by the laity. It thus stands in the important late mediaeval tradition of such works as The Imitation of Christ. The work has five sections: (1) an introduction; (2) the story of a young laywoman who discusses her spiritual practices with a professor of theology; (3) a discussion of salvation; (4) a plan for daily spiritual practice, including instruction on the proper attendance of Mass and reception of the Eucharist; (5) a set of prayers chiefly concerning the “suffering [of] small tribulations and adversities.”3 The work is thus essentially a compendium of several genres. The story of the young woman and the professor is called an exemplum, or moral tale, of the sort which were commonly collected for use by preachers in their sermons. The discussion of salvation takes the form of a sermon. The daily plan of spiritual practices, which is by far the longest section of the work, is an adaptation of monastic practice. The prayers form a small breviary.

I have discovered editions of this work produced by six printers or booksellers in Paris, Rouen, and Troyes. The earliest of these figures was Guillaume Merlin, active in Paris from 1538 to 1574, while the latest was Henri le Marescal, active in Rouen from 1578 to 1605. The pattern suggests a relatively wide distribution in northern France during the second half of the sixteenth century.4 The work was frequently bound with other pietistic tracts, sometimes paginated separately and sometimes in sequence with them. La Noue, for instance, made a miscellany designed for Eucharistic devotion by binding this work with two collections on that sacrament (one of extracts from various theologians and the other “devout prayers and meditations”), as well as including a long prayer entitled The Fifteen Effusions of Blood of Our Saviour and Redeemer, designed for meditation before receiving the Eucharist. In Troyes, Du Ruau included our text in an appendix to a Book of Hours along with a meditation on Christ’s Passion, a meditation to be performed during a Low Mass, a pilgrimage guide to Mont Calvaire de Romans in the Dauphine, and the collection of theological extracts used by La Noue.5 None of these other works was explicitly intended for an audience of laywomen, although all seem to be generally directed at the laity. As Bell has suggested, Books of Hours were regularly given as betrothal gifts and seem as a genre to have been particularly aimed at a female audience, but the problem of women’s ownership of books needs further study.6

The Manual is an excellent example of the sort of practical piety which was inculcated among Catholic laywomen during this period of religious change.7 That piety was closely tied to the traditional spirituality of the late Middle Ages, and books such as this were at least in part intended as a defence against the inroads of the reformers who made very effective use of the new medium of print. This work is particularly important for what it tells about the culture of reading among Catholic laywomen. The author assumes that the women in the audience own books, in particular a Book of Hours and a copy of the Golden Legend or other collections of exempla. The author suggests that a woman write down some of the useful hints contained in the Manual – such as the instruction on how to attend Mass properly – on a piece of paper which she would then insert into her Book of Hours and bring it to church.8 The author also instructed the audience on the correct method of reading: “When you read, think fully about what you say while savouring it in your heart and understanding, for many read at a running pace and do not think, and so it profits them scarcely at all.” The inclusion of prayers and phrases in Latin assumes that the audience had a rudimentary understanding of Latin which went beyond the simple ability to recite prayers in that language of ritual. The attendance at Mass and the reception of the Eucharist was changing, at least among the women able to afford and use books such as this, from an essentially oral experience to a more fully textual one in which books and written notes played an important role.

The Manual places a strong stress on Eucharistic piety particularly in the section not included here. Bynum has shown how, in the late Middle Ages, certain well-known holy women adapted the female control over the preparation of food, one of the few spheres of life controlled by women, into a distinctively feminine piety of eating the Body of Jesus.9 The Manual would have found in one of its companion pieces the stark comment that “a person in the active life in unable to have as much peace and tranquility of conscience as a person in the contemplative life, either a solitary or a religious.” The Manual is a guidebook written by a person in the contemplative life to offer practical advice to women in the active life on how to incorporate contemplation and prayer into their lives. We must not forget that it thus illuminates the religious practice of the members of a subordinate class as envisioned by a member of the dominant class.


Here begins a brief instructional manual and way of life for a laywoman: how she ought to conduct herself in thought, in word, and in deed the length of the day, and for all the days of her life, in order to please Our Lord Jesus Christ and to amass celestial riches for the profit and salvation of her soul.

May the peace of the King of Kings, Jesus our Saviour, who announced the word to all of good will, be in your soul. My dear sister, you have asked me to write you a brief devotional manual for the salvation of your soul but, considering my ignorance and simplicity, I had some difficulty in consenting, knowing that you have many good books and teachings sufficient enough for that purpose. Yet I nevertheless have compassion for you, considering that you stand among the dangers to salvation which exist in the world and considering that many people are not well advised how to act for their own spiritual profit and that they also lack any teachings which are profitable for the salvation of their soul, and thus could lose great merits and great praise. It would be better to lose all the goods of the world in order to reserve the least which is in the Kingdom of Paradise. But, in praying now to our blessed Saviour and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, that He might be pleased to inspire me as to what serves for His honour and your salvation, I feel myself urged by the Spirit and virtually compelled to agree to write something for you, hoping that it might profit many people, as much men as women.

Realize that in order to make such gain it is not sufficient to write and read something which is not then fully put into practice. If you follow this instruction in the least insufficient way possible for you, then you may be sure that you will gain more spiritually in one day than you otherwise would in ten years of not acting so. If Our Lord Jesus Christ were to give you great joys and spiritual consolations, then you would be vexed and tired with all vanities and would principally desire to be pleasing to Our Lord and to act for the salvation of your soul. For it is certain that Our Lord said that the rational creature does not live by material bread alone, but by the word of God, and that just as the body which does not nourish itself with meat becomes blemished and dies, so too, the same thing will happen to the soul, if she is not nourished by spiritual meat. There are many manners of spiritual bread by which the soul is given substance; one is the bread of holy doctrine, of which I have received some crumbs administered by virtuous and holy persons of religion, of whom some are great and devout doctors.

[Outline of What Follows]

Of these crumbs which I have received I put here one small enough that it might be understood by you; I do not put it very subtly, but simply, in the manner of a cordial admonition. Since many times examples urge one on better than do words, I will put before you the examples of a young woman who is thought by a great doctor to be virtuous and perfected. Afterwards I will place before you a brief admonition which urges you to attend to the salvation of your soul and to acquire eternal riches, and other means of knowing the inestimable love which Our Saviour Jesus Christ has for us.

I will also place before you the good and the profit which accrues for acting each day according to the plan which follows. I place before you first of all in the day the preparation which you ought to do in the morning, both in order to please God and to have merit in all your thoughts, words, and deeds; secondly, how you ought to attend Mass; thirdly, how you ought to practise all the remainder of the day; and, finally, after that, there follows how you ought to prepare to receive Our Lord Jesus Christ in the blessed and holy Sacrament of the altar and that which you ought to think, say, and pray both in order to receive it and after you have received it.

There is also a brief admonition on suffering small tribulations and adversities, and many great benefits which come from thinking of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and many other admonitions which are intended for yet other benefits. You ought to read all of these in order, for they depend one on the other. It ought to be very profitable for you to read them often, in order to incite you to devotion and to put them into practice. It also would be good for you to extract from them those things which are to be said every day such as the preparations which you make in the morning and the manner of attending Mass, and the preparations for receiving Our Lord Jesus Christ. Write these onto a small piece of paper and put this piece of paper within the Book of Hours which you bring to church.

My sister, if it seems difficult and laborious to put into practice that which is in this little book, consider and be certain that we will have nothing of Paradise without the pain which comes from doing violence to ourselves in order to vanquish our evil condition. For Our Lord said that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force and, since you do not require ease of your wicked body, you put before your eyes the example of the blessed saints who have reached heaven and who have acted for the love of Our Lord, the example of how they, by Christ’s grace, have conquered nature. Read their stories and consider the constancy of the male and female martyrs and of other male and female saints. Their natural love for parents and for children and even for their spouses in no way hindered their love of God, as we read of St. Elizabeth, daughter of the King of Hungary who, out of love for Our Lord, urged her husband to go to die in the Holy Land. She was a member of the Third Order of our blessed father Francis. Read also what St. Cecilia did, as well as St. Natalie, wife of St. Adrian. As much as we love our good and true God, so much did those poor blind pagans who, for love of their idols, put to death their wives and children, as was done to glorious St. Barbara and others. If we consider these things well, we would see clearly that what we do is very small in comparison with what the blessed saints have done and we would see that we do not love God above all, and even more than all, as we are required to do.

Afterwards, my sister, consider how much you are hindered by devotion for your small child. I would change your mind so that you would be well able to turn this concern to devotion and make spiritual profit out of it. Remember and ponder how the Mother of God held the small child Jesus in her arms. She was so delighted when she thought of who it was that she held that she bathed His whole body with her tears. Consider, therefore, my sister how the high God became a small child and was so humble out of love of us.

[The example of a woman who goes to a Master of Theology]

A Master of Theology who was a member of a religious order was in a city and a young woman of twenty-two years or thereabouts approached him, wishing to speak with him. When the Master saw this woman, he regarded her contemptuously for wishing to speak with him because he was more accustomed to having many great clerics request his counsel than such little women [femmelettes].

Therefore he asked her with scorn, “What do you want?”

This young woman responded to him, “Master I ask what I must do and to what I am bound to apply myself in order that a woman might succeed in having the possibility of perfect and true knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of the perfection of His very pure love?”

The Master responded to these words by asking her, “Woman, what is your estate? Are you bound to a man by marriage? Do you possess worldly goods and honours?”

She responded, “Yes sir, I am bound in marriage but, if I were freed from this bond, I would not allow myself to be bound to this world again. Now that I am bound there, I firmly believe that God has called me there and ordained me to that estate for my salvation. I would well like to introduce my husband and my small infant children to everything which is good to do and to teach them virtue in so far as I have knowledge and ability.”

After this, the Master asked her, “What things are you accustomed to doing?”

She humbly responded, “Sir, I am accustomed to practising three exterior works and three interior ones. The first exterior exercise which I perform is to consider and look at myself in the mirror of the life of Jesus Christ. I look at His humility, His sweetness, and all His virtues as deeply as I am able. Afterwards I look at myself and find how greatly I am at fault and differ from Him. Following that, I go to the second exterior exercise, to consider how the celestial Father desired that His Son should take a human body in a virgin womb. It is certain that if He had not done so by the good offices of His Father, then the salvation of men would have been hindered or slowed. He would have lived voluntarily in that body and in its pain a thousand years. The third exercise is to bathe myself every day in the ruby-coloured wounds of Our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ, having full confidence that He purified all my faults by His blessed Passion.”

Then the Master said, “Ah, good woman, if these three works are your daily exterior exercises, tell me, you who years for the love of Our Saviour, what are your three interior exercises?”

She responded, “My first interior work is every day to remove and place my understanding away from that of all creatures, so that in my consideration I am no longer occupied with any created thing for as long as the office and service of God the Creator remains to be completed. The second is that I rid and empty my heart of the thoughts of all useless things and all distractions and I rouse it through simple consideration of God, so that there is no longer any obstacle nor any means of distraction between God and my heart, things which would not be wished by Him. The third is that every time I enter within a church and am able to have a space of two feet, I transport and raise myself so that my heart is in God and there no longer seems that there is anything other than he and I.”

Then the above-mentioned Master said to her, “O good woman, you are on the right path. Know that I have held this cap for fifty years and am called a Master of Sacred Theology. All that while I have never found such perfection.” And he said again, “Praise be to Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has given His grace so generously to whomever He wishes.”

Here follows a brief guide to how a secular woman is able to conduct herself devoutly and virtuously for the profit and salvation of her soul.

My very dear sister and friend, I beg you to mark well this example which I have just given you, which is about a woman in your state. If you are unable to follow it perfectly, at least follow it as closely as possible. When you read, think fully about what you say while savouring it in your heart and understanding, for many read at a running pace and do not think, and so it profits them scarcely at all.

Consider that you are in this world only for saving your soul. Hoard up and assemble your treasure in heaven in order to live there without ceasing. For this end, you ought to search and be attentive for all the means by which you would be able to achieve it. For I believe that, if someone taught you how to get possession and enjoyment of a great treasure of gold or silver, then you would be most grateful and you would love her for your whole life. This [celestial treasure] is not some vain and transitory thing, passing like the wind, which gives nothing but sadness and pricks of conscience, and you do not have to do anything to gain it except to give yourself over to the love of God. What must you do for these riches, goods, and great honours of celestial eternity which are without end? My dear sister, put yourself at pains to hoard up and assemble as much of those things in your celestial treasury as Our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ gives you space, for you do not know how much he holds out to you. Now is the time of mercy, later it will be the time of justice. Now is the time to sow, later it will be the time to reap, either for good or ill. Do not be like those who pass their time uselessly in worldly pleasures, for those who would be in paradise do not arrive by such a path. If we do not suffer martyrdom like the blessed martyrs did, let us at least be pleasing to God and achieve our salvation by some other simpler and easier manner, that is by occupying ourselves with good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Something of this manner which I would teach you follows here. If you would be at pains to act in the least evil manner of which you are capable, you will then acquire uncountable treasures.

Alas my friend, what would it profit you to possess all the goods of the world if, at the end, we should lose our souls forever without end? Do you now think that it would be desirable to be in sorrow and in torment without end? Rather you should know for certain that they are truly happy to whom God has given the grace to forsake the world and to employ their lives in the service of purity of soul and of body. At all time you must make profit of the estate to which Our Lord Jesus Christ has called you. You should take pains to save your soul and to remove your heart, in as much as you are able, from the vanities of the world, or otherwise [those vanities] will spiritually blind you without any failure if you do not have fear and love of Our Lord before your eyes and in the depths of your heart. But if you should taste one bite of the perfect love and divine sweetness, then you would hold in abomination the whole world and the pleasures therein and [treat them] as great anxieties and burdens. You ought only to wish to be pleasing to this high Lord, Our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ and to act according to His most holy will in keeping His holy commandments and in consideration of the great and most undue love which He has shown you in all which He has done out of love for your. My dear sister, I counsel you that, for your salvation and for the kindling of your heart in this divine love, you ought to think often of that piteous heart and inestimably devout love which Our most sweet Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ has shown you.

If some great king or prince had done for a poor malefactor what our blessed Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ has done for us and our love, one would deem it a very great benefice that the king had descended from his royal throne on an obscure mission for a poor criminal, giving himself over to a most shameful death in order to deliver that criminal and make him an heir and prince to the kingdom. More incomparable is what our God has done for us, in comparison to Whom all kings and princes are but beggars on the earth. He has descended from heaven on this mission into this valley of misery and has humbled His most high majesty by clothing Himself in the sackcloth of our poor humanity. In likeness to a poor criminal, He has voluntarily given Himself over to a most sorrowful and shameful death in order to deliver us from eternal death and from the horrible pains and torments of hell and in order to give us sure possession of His eternal kingdom. Give consideration to this gentle knight and to what he has said: “Just for love of you did I go most willingly into battle against the prince Dorgueil [Pride], that is the damned enemy who has despoiled you and deprived you of all goods and robbed you of your inheritance. In order to return those things to you, I conducted a war with him, even though I was certain that I would lose my life. I sent you my weapons all bloodied and you put them into a closed room. Now when he send you some temptation to evil and sin, then enter into your room, that is into your heart, and gave on my weapons all bloodied, that is the Cross, the nails, the lance, the sponge, and the crown of thorns which sat on top of my soft human body all covered with great sores. Hence remember the undue love with which I have loved you.”

Now my dear sister, I beg you to put yourself at pains to love ardently this faithful friend and to watch yourself so that your heart does not incline too much either to worldly goods or to your children or to you other carnal friends, for all these are not able to help you in your greatest need, which is the death for which we must prepare and about which we must often think. We must love Him alone with all our heart Who is able to help us and defend us from our enemies. If you do not leave any room for blame in your life, then you may be certain that He will not hand you over to death. You must always search for the means by which you might be pleasing and acceptable to Him and not be ungrateful for all the benefits and undue love which He has shown and given us. For if a king or a prince had done the same as I have just described, then anyone who did not render his due reckoning to the king but gave him injury and dishonour, that person would be thought guilty of a great crime and great ingratitude and would be deemed worthy of punishment. Remember, my sister, that what Our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us is beyond compare and that, when we sin, we show Him ingratitude and injury. Because of this, we must keep ourselves acting as we ought and seek the means by which we might continually be able to give Him thanks and to say with the prophet David “What shall I render to my Lord for all the good that he has rendered to me?” (Ps. 115:12) He responds that he would “take the chalice of salvation and invoke the name of God” (Ps. 115:13). One of the acceptable means of reckoning which you are able to remember Him is to remember to give Him thanks for His gifts and particularly for that great gift of our redemption – that is, for His grievous death and Passion – and for this He will give you great merit, riches, and spiritual honours. This is what we ought to desire and to seek with all our heart, just as St. Gregory admonishes us in his Homilies: “You who love riches and honours, love the true riches, which are graces, merits and virtues, by which one acquires those things which are reserved to that celestial peace which never will have an end.”10

Since many people are not well advised or tutored as to how to address their intentions and their thoughts, words and works, they therefore lose much of their graces, merits and praise before God, for we will be paid according to the intention which we have in our works. Now the manner in which you ought to do this follows hereafter and one part of this is how you ought to augment and adjust your devotions. I do not put forward for you the manner in which people of religion [i.e. members of religious orders] ought to do this, for they are held to greater things. I put forward to you only that which you are able to do easily and which is compatible with your estate and, if you are at pains to act in this manner, you will gain more merit spiritually in one day than you would in ten years of not acting so. If you find yourself too lazy to take care for your salvation, then think of those things which I have already put forward for you, so that you may fortify your courage and devotion. If you do act in this manner, then Our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ will give you the tears of contrition for your sins, and those of pity and compassion for His blessed Passion, and those tears of sadness and of devotion and of desire for the Kingdom of Heaven. Know also that it will profit at the hour of death to affirm every day that you wish to live and die in the holy faith and belief of our mother Holy Church, and to affirm as well that one would love more to die than to offend mortally Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is necessary to say this truthfully and with your heart, for it actually would be much better to die a bodily death in the grace of God than to die spiritually and eternally. For when one has good intention, then it is very difficult for that person to commit a mortal sin. It is also necessary to do everything in good intention which is pleasing to Our Lord and He will grant us the grace of recovering all the goods which we have lost in times past. When, in the morning, one has correctly addressed her intention, her thoughts, her words, and her works, then in all that there is great merit and eternal praise.