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Michigan State University

For Better for Worse, Advice about Marriage from Early Modern English Conduct Books Exhibit Bibliography: Exhibit Introduction

Exhibit Introduction

MSU Libraries’ Special Collections contains any number of small niche collections developed over the years.  One of these, mostly books with BJ 1545-1691 call numbers, is early modern books on conduct of life (Library catalog subject heading=conduct of life—early works to 1800).  Their purpose is to provide helpful advice on conduct, behavior, morals, values, spirituality, education, letter writing, relationships with others, and a myriad of miscellaneous practical or odd topics.  Miscellaneous practical matters may encompass a wide range of topics such as recipes, household management hints, medical care, supervision of servants, dance directions, love songs, or marriage arrangements. Topics that seem odd inclusions to us in books on behavior are how to interpret dreams or the meaning of the locations of moles on the body.  Conduct literature is a non-fiction genre.  In addition, some such works in the early modern period are in the form of letters, dialogues, or can even be novels. Their precursor is medieval works on chivalry, advising knights on how to relate to women.  Their successors, in our day, would be such works as Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility…, or Fine and Schneider’s The Rules, Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. A display of what a selection of these works, some recently acquired and some we have had for a long time, have to say about marriage is interesting, especially given the perennial popularity of dramatization of the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontes.  Read from the values and standards of behavior today, early modern conduct books seem elitist, sexist, overly spiritualized; at the same time, some of their advice is quite common sensical.  Our physical exhibit is/was on display during fall semester, 2017 in the cases just inside the Beaumont entrance of the Main Library.  We arranged both the physical display and this online version roughly in chronological order. 

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