literary post of the week, medieval, research, Writing

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431) was a peripheral member of the French king Charles VI’s court who wrote prolifically, producing 39 works from 1390 to 1431. Not confining herself to the traditionally feminine topics of health remedies, midwifery, and home management, Christine wrote about whatever piqued her wide-ranging interests:  the art of warfare, the evils of civil war, and a biography of Charles V, commissioned by his brother, Jean, Duke of Burgundy. Several of her works found favor with many of the royal house and were dedicated to Louis d’Orleans, Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy and Isabeau de Baviere, among others. Nobles and merchants alike read Christine’s works avidly until the early seventeenth century.

After a period of obscurity, which lasted until the mid-eighteenth century, scholars rediscovered Christine for her part in the “Querelle de la rose,” a debate in which she criticized Jean de Meun’s continuation of Le Roman de la Rose for the character Genius’ use of “coillions,” a vulgarism for male genitalia as well as de Meun’s graphic depiction of the hero’s sexual attainment and impregnation of the heroine in the closing lines of the Roman. Jean de Montreuil, with Gontier and Pierre Col, prominent French scholars and defenders of Jean de Meun, harshly criticized Christine for her effrontery in maligning the masterpiece. Joined by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, Christine renewed the debate in another series of letters, to which the defenders responded. They attacked Christine saying that she could not possibly understand the depth of the work with her small female mind, that she should remain quiet, and leave interpreting literature to the men.

Who was this woman who dared to argue with some of most influential intellectuals of her time? Christine was born in Venice to Tomasso de Pizzano, a graduate of the university in Bologna. Charles V of France hired Tomasso as his astrologer; in 1369, Tomasso brought his wife and young daughter, Christine to Paris. Although Tomasso taught Christine much about science, philosophy, and Latin, which is more than most women of her time learned, she laments that she did not learn more from her father, such as Greek, and that custom decreed that she learn more about spinning than about science (L’avision 161-162;  Cité II:36:4; Mutacion 1:413-419).

In 1379, at age fifteen, Christine married Estienne du Castel, a court secretary. Their marriage seems to have been unusual, not only because they had a real affection for one another, but because Christine shared Estienne’s work, also working as a copyist at the court. However, Christine’s happy married life was short-lived. Her father died about 1387, shifting the support of her mother and two younger brothers to Christine. In the fall of 1390, Estienne died of a fever while traveling with the court. At age twenty-five, Christine became the sole support for her three young children, as well as her mother; some accounts include a niece as well. Both Tomasso’s and Estienne’s legacies were in dispute; Christine spent fourteen years fighting in the law courts over their debts and past wages. During this period, Christine began to study, while writing love poems and confessional poetry, for which she received patronage from various members of the royal family.  After several years of study, Christine began to write her longer prose works of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, and histories.

Drawing on her background as a copyist, Christine started a publishing house or copyist shop, employing several copyists and illuminators. Two of her illuminators became known by the titles of her works they embellished: one is the Othéa Master; the other is the Cité des dames Master (Meiss 9, 12)  As Christine weathered the lawsuits and became more proficient at running her shop, she came to feel that in some ways she was becoming a man. She describes this transformation in Mutacion de Fortune in an autobiographical digression. Lines 1332-1397. Proud of her Italian heritage, Christine often describes herself as “une Italienne,” footnote?  She maintained her fluency and interest in Italian language and literature, and was instrumental in bringing knowledge of Dante’s works to France[1].

[1] “Di santo sdegno similmente accendevasi quella valentissima donna a cui appartiene il vanto d’aver rivelato Dante alla Francia, Christine de Pisan.”Farinelli, Arturo. Dante e la Francia: dall’età media al secolo di Voltaire.” Genève : Slatkine, 1971, reimpression de l’edition de Milan, 1908., v. 1, pp.150-151.

8 thoughts on “Christine de Pizan”

  1. I love to read about women from the medieval era, and to hear about the life that Christine led beyond writing. I’ve always imagined that she was an amazingly forceful woman, and this biographical sketch definitely lends credence to that.

    I read The City of Ladies in a modern philosophy class in college and I was blown away (I even wrote a paper using it, talking about the art of dissimulation, and connecting it with the Enlightenment era gentleman-scientist). It’s a book that has stuck with me, particularly as I work through this project on etiquette. As de Pizan is one of the few women who wrote courtesy books (and the only one, to my knowledge, who wrote a courtesy book directed at women), she provides an interesting parallel with the women who would come to dominate etiquette books in the 19th and 20th centuries. She’s a footnote in my thesis at the moment, but there may be seeds for a more expanded article or something germinating in my head.

    1. It’s cool that you read the City of Ladies; your paper sounds very interesting. Actually, her Treasury of the City of Ladies is even more of a courtesy book, in that she addresses all the estates–the noblewoman, the middle class, and the servant class–with how to act. It sounds like it would be very fruitful to look at that in contrast/comparison with the etiquette texts of the 1920’s.. The Sieur de Tournai wrote a “how to run a household book” for his daughters, but that is the only other one on women that I know.

      Thank you for stopping by, and commenting. It sounds like we could have a hours-long conversation on all this!

  2. So many medieval texts have been lost in time that the fact that The City of Women has survived it´s a blessing and a miracle. I hate when they say Christine de Pizan wrote like a modern woman. On the contrary, she provides us with one of the few glimpses of how educated medieval women (and there were many more than history would like to admit) thought and what their concerns were.

    1. I hate the whole “proto-feminist” thing too. The twentieth- and twenty-first centuries do not have the only educated women in history, as you well know. I bristle too at all those who find some of her writings “too medieval.” –only because they don’t understand any of her writings.

      Thank you for coming by and commenting. I’m looking forward to being on the campaign with you, Violante.

  3. Thanks for your biographical elements about Christine de Pisan.
    There is a historical fiction about her so-called niece.

    In “Le livre de la Cité des Dames”, she mentions Anastaise praising her skills as an “enlumineresse”. I advise you the reading of the e-book “Anastaise, the Sharpened medieval Quill” by Alice Warwick.

    The historical fiction deals with the “querelle du roman de la rose” and the ideas of Christine de Pisan and her role in the Court of King Charles VI.

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