Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan was a prolific medieval French author of dozens of manuscripts and poems, most notable are the ones where she championed women – The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies.
She is considered the first professional women author in Europe. De Pizan also wrote a biography of Charles V of France, books on military law, politics, poems and ballads as well as books of advice to princesses, princes, knights and kings that were translated into several languages and extremely popular throughout the Western World and remained in print until the 16th century.
De Pizan was born in 1364 in Venice. Her father was Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, also known as Thomas de Pizan, an educated man – physician and court astrologer and councilor of the Republic of Venice who accepted the appointment of the king’s astrologer at the court of Charles V of France.
Despite being a daughter of an educated man, Christine de Pizan received very little formal education. She was, however, taught to read and write. Christine showed a fascination for books from an early age and the king allowed her to use his royal library, which was one of the largest in the world.
There, when she was 15, Christine de Pizan married royal secretary Etienne du Castel. The marriage was a happy one. Christine said her husband was a man full of “kindness, peacefulness, loyalty and true love” and the couple had three children together.
Ten years later, her life changed completely. Both her father and husband died within a short period of time, leaving her to support both her mother, cousins and her children. Neither of the men had sorted out the financial affairs and the next 13 years, Christine spent fighting in the courts for her inheritance.
In order to support her family, Christine turned to writing. She applied to a course in history, science and poetry. Her first poems were love poems, songs and ballads. Those ballads caught the attention of wealthy patrons in the court which encouraged her to continue earning her living as a writer becoming the only known professional female author in medieval Europe, as noted by Kristin Olsen.
Although Italian by birth, Christine was attached to France and the royal family. She dedicated and gifted her early ballads to members of the royal family and its different fractions.
De Pizan believed that France was founded by the descendants of Trojans and that its governance was in line with the Aristotelian ideal. In 1400 she published the book Letter of Othea to Hector which was dedicated to Charles VI brother, Louis of Orleans who was seen as potential regent after a series of king’s mental breakdowns. In the book, Hector of Troy is tutored in state affairs and the political virtues by the goddess of wisdom Othea.
The book was richly illustrated, most probably by a woman as De Pizan specifically sought out other women for collaboration. She especially mentioned a manuscript illustrator Anastasia whom she described as the most talented of her time.
“Anastasia who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris… who can surpass her… People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me which stand out among the paintings of the great masters,” she wrote in the City of Ladies.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons
In 1402 Christine became involved in a controversy, questioning the literary merits of Jean de Meun’s popular Romance of the Rose that satirizes the courtly love and depicts women as the seductress.
De Pizan argued that Meun’s views were misogynistic, vulgar and slanderous. The two authors sent each other their treatises defending their respective views.
“One day I was surrounded by books of all kinds… my mind dwelt at length on the opinions of various authors whom I had studied… it made me wonder how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express… so many wicked insults about women and their behavior… it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth,” she later recalled in her book The City of Ladies.
She came to a conclusion that one of the reasons women were considered inferior to men was the way they were portrayed in literature and that if women rather than men had written the books, the situation would have been very different.
“Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had told me of their most private and intimate thoughts… No matter how long I studied the problem, I could not see or realize how their (male writers) claims could be true when compared to the natural behavior and character of women,” Christine wrote.
She then published a dream allegory Le Chemin de long estude where she and Cumaean Sybil witnessed a debate on the state of the world between the four allegories – Wealth, Nobility, Chivalry and Wisdom. In the midst of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, De Pizan believed that that justice could be brought to earth by a single monarch with the necessary qualities.
Christine de Pizan then wrote a biography of Charles V portraying him as the ideal king and political leader.
In 1405 she published her best-known work The Book of the City of Ladies (The City of Ladies) and its “sequel”, The Treasure of the City of Ladies or The Book of Three Virtues.
The City of Ladies was the first history book written about women from a woman’s point of view. In it, she tried to bring back the balance and provide a positive view of women’s achievements through stories about heroines, intellectuals and royal female leaders of the past.
In The City of Ladies, she created a symbolic city where women are appreciated. She also enters into a dialogue with three allegorical figures – Reason, Justice and Rectitude which form a completely female perspective and with them discussed the issues concerning all women.
In the book, she also advocated the education of girls: “I am amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters or wives to be educated because they would be ruined as a result… Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it upset them that women knew more than they did.”
Believing that the male-dominated society in which she lived made it difficult for women to reach their full potential, she attempted in her book Three Virtues to give advice to women how to improve their situation. The book was a kind of a manual of instruction for women, mostly rich ones, on how to run their estates while their men were away and how to be virtuous and happy.
In it, she also took the position that all women were capable of humility, diligence and moral and urged women to discover meaning and achieve worthy acts in their lives.
Following the Battle of Othee, Christine de Pizan wrote a manual on military warfare and chivalry The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry where she discussed war theory, sieges, castle defense, capital punishment, payment of troops, treatment of prisoners of war but everything was wrapped in the medieval belief that God is the governor of battle and that wars are execution of justice despite many great wrongs.
After the civil war in France broke out, De Pizan wrote The Book of Peace, her last major work where she advised the prince on good governance, on living by worthy example, administering justice and called for the peace in France. “Every kingdom divided in itself will be made desolate, and every city and house divided against itself will not stand,” she wrote.
She also advised the young prince and others who followed to avoid anger and cruelty and to be truthful and give clemency.
After the Battle of Agincourt Christine wrote Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life, a consolation for women who lost family members in the battle. Devastated by the battle, in this work, she abandons all hope of peace on earth and instead, she writes how the soul was trapped in the body and imprisoned in hell.
For the last ten years of her life, she retired to live in a convent where she wrote her final work, a poem celebrating the achievements of Joan of Arc.
In The Tale of Joan of Arc, she expresses renewed optimism and writes that it was a woman who had saved the kingdom of France, “something that 5,000 men could not have done.” The book, inspired by early victories of Joan of Arc (Christine de Pizan died before Joan of Arc lost in battle and was burned at the stake) is the only French-language work written during Joan’s lifetime.
Christine de Pizan published 41 know pieces of poetry and prose. After her death in 1430 her influence, especially The Book of the City of Ladies remained throughout the 15th century and well into 16th. Her political writings also received attention.
It is said that Elizabeth I had in her library copies of The Book of the City of Ladies, Letter of Othea to Hector) and The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry as well as tapestries with scenes from the City of Ladies. However, in 19th century De Pizan’s political writings descended into obscurity. Her “feminist” works were again discovered by the 20th-century authors and scholars and modern feminists.
In her most celebrated works, De Pizan celebrated women’s accomplishments and pointed to their equal abilities to men’s. She challenged popular misogynist texts such as Ovid’s Art of Love, Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose or Matheolus’s Lamentations.
She thus revised history by giving women a place in it and showed the elite women of her time how they could successfully navigate their way in a man’s world, said Dr Catherine Lee.
Her activism fascinated modern feminists and certain scholars view her as an early feminist who use language to point out that women could play an important role in society. Simone de Beauvoir said it best when she wrote that it was “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.”