literary post of the week, medieval, research

Christine de Pizan’s Letter of Othéa

As most of you probably know, I have a background in medieval studies, and more particularly, Western European medieval literature. This past week, I found myself wondering why so much medieval literature is unknown, or worse, denigrated. I wrote a post a few weeks ago on Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431), who was a prolific writer of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, histories, and .biographies. Perhaps due to the diversity and volume of her work, she has been described as a scribbler with nothing better to do, in Gustave Lanson’s view, than to portray her “universal mediocrity,” (Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française, 1896, p. 163; my translation). I am finishing a dissertation on one of Christine de Pizan’s works, which was described by Rose Rigaud as an “allegorical poem of the worst fifteenth century, in which the author makes herself known through her most unbearable defects” (Rigaud, Les idées féministes de Christine de Pisan, p. 21; my translation).

This particular work is The Letter of Othéa, Goddess of Prudence, to Hector of Troy at the Age of Fifteen Years. Never let it be said that Christine didn’t make sure her audience knew what her books were about. The Othéa, as I will call it henceforth, is a collection of 100 stories drawn from Greek or Roman mythology, mostly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Each story begins with four lines of verse summarizing the classical story. Next is the gloss, which gives the lesson to be drawn from the story for the good knight. The gloss ends with a quotation from a Greek philosopher. Finally, Christine delineates the allegory, which teaches the good soul the lesson from the story, ending with a quotation from the church fathers and another from Scripture.

The Othéa was Christine’s most popular work, surviving in more than forty manuscripts from the fifteenth century. Philippe Pigouchet first printed the Othéa around 1499, under the title Les Cent Histoires de Troye. It was reprinted three times in the next thirty-five years. The Othéa also fascinated audiences in England, where it was translated three times within one hundred years: first in 1440; again in the late fifteenth century; and last, in the 1530’s. After a while, medieval texts dropped from favor, and Christine’s work disappeared for several centuries. When it was discovered again, critics were not kind, as shown above.

Why the vehement dislike of this work and others like it? They do not appeal to our tastes. The critics who acknowledge Othéa‘s popularity often admit the unattractiveness of the work to our eyes. One problem with the Othéa is its blatant didacticism. Twenty-first century readers willingly read openly didactic works; witness the interest in self-improvement texts. However, fiction and non-fiction are kept pristinely separate in bookstores and on bestseller lists. While imaginative works often have a strong didactic element, the reader is left to cull that lesson for himself. In the self-help books, case studies of real people are acceptable; parables about fictional people are often seen as juvenile or demeaning. Twenty-first century plays seldom have a human Epilogue to give us the moral at the end, as did those of Shakespeare’s time. The Othéa, with its allegorical meanings, is seen not as a literary work, but a quaint reference work for classical mythology and the Christian interpretations attached to these myths in the Middle Ages. The popular distaste for allegory and didacticism combine to make the Othéa unknown to the twenty-first century general reading public.

Finally, the Othéa suffers from the longstanding critical stance that originality is good, and derivation is bad. At base is an eighteenth-century concept of originality, one that would be completely foreign to Christine de Pizan. The Oxford English Dictionary enumerates many denotations of the word “original.” The one perhaps closest to the common use today is: “Having the quality of that which proceeds from oneself, or from the direct exercise of one’s own faculties, without imitation of or dependence on others; such as has not been done or produced before; novel or fresh in character or style.” The earliest use in this sense given by the OED is from 1756-82 in Warton’s Essays on Pope. Ironically, the quotation from Warton is: “Dante wrote his sublime and original poem, which is a kind of satirical Epic.” It would be interesting to know whether Dante thought he was doing something “without imitation of or dependence on others” in writing the Commedia. Contemporaneous use of the word “original” is shown by Chaucer’s use of the term exclusively in the sense of “origin” or “author.” While Christine may well have felt that she was indeed “exercising her own faculties,” it is unlikely she would see the merit in departing from common expectations of character or style. In contrast, medieval authors saw their way of narrating as a major part of their contribution to the text. Christine also saw the choice and organization of her texts as part of her contribution. She had many choices to make as she began to write the Othéa: which stories from Greek and Roman mythology to include; which quotations from the Greek philosophers, the Vulgate, and her other sources would best fit her theme in each story. In her arrangement of the stories, Christine counted on the generic expectations of her audience to identify her work; through the glosses, the expectations common with other manuals of instruction; and through the allegories, with those of other moral treatises.

So, my question: Have I convinced myself that these didactic works aren’t all bad, just to justify the years I have spent on medieval studies? No, don’t answer that one!

How do you react to a mixture of moralizing or teaching in a story? Does it only fit in children’s literature, to your mind? What do you see as the originality in a story, even one that is “retold’?


goals, life, Writing

Life goals

Several months ago, when I stumbled across the Life List Club, I started thinking about how I have been driving on ice through life. For the Southerners among you, I will explain that driving on ice is simply impossible, unlike driving on snow, which is a pain, but usually manageable. Driving on ice means that turning the wheel often has no effect on the inertia of this 1-2,000 pound car, which merrily continues  in the same direction, whether that be into a guardrail, a parked vehicle, or a pond. In fact, when driving on ice, not turning the wheel is not the safe option it seems, because the tires may hit a little ruffle in the ice, or a ridge left by a snowplow, or any slight inconsistency, and also take off like a dog after a squirrel: perhaps a very old, very slow, dog, but just as intent and purposeful. I very much dislike ice. I have fallen on ice many, many times; in three cases, I broke bones; in a fourth, I dislocated my shoulder.

I went to graduate school to become a professor, but it became clear as I was planning my dissertation there were no positions in medieval studies.  I went to library school, and then proceeded to join the working world. The problem? I have missed teaching and research and writing. Also, part of why I wanted to teach included (perhaps incorrectly, since I hear complaints from my friends who are professors) having the time to write creative fiction and non-fiction that didn’t require twenty footnotes a page.

But I stuck my head in the sand, barely touching the wheel of the car, praying that it wouldn’t careen into the guardrail or a parked car. Last year, my first wake-up call came when my brother had a serious illness. I began thinking about my life, and why I was hiding from what I wanted to do. The second wake-up call came this summer when a woman I knew only online was killed in an auto accident. I had never met her, but in a way some of you will understand, felt I knew her rather well, She was young, had married the year before, and was a doctor who went to Pakistan to help out following the floods, had gone to Haiti to help after the earthquakes, a person whom I admired greatly. Suddenly, I realized that I was pinning all my writing time on retirement, and that life had given me no guarantees that I would survive to reach retirement.

Many participants in the Round of Words have been talking about life goals, beyond the writing goals. I signed up for a webinar on finding time to write; the presenter talked about having five areas that were of paramount importance and one would answer yes to any request from these areas. Other areas had to fit in where they could, or more often, get told “No.” My first four were easy: health, family, friends, and writing. Not to say that I haven’t neglected these areas recently, especially friends, but they were easily in the top five. The fifth one is much harder to add to the list, because it is the day job. I am often expected to be on call in the evenings and on days off or vacations any time my superiors want me. No, I’m not a neurologist, I’m a librarian. Yes, it is ridiculous, so please go ahead and laugh. As a first step, I would love to have a job that I could leave at the workplace; one where I am not made to feel guilty for each and every day that I take off (yes, I earn vacation, but the corporate culture is to retire with months of it saved up). However,  the best I can do right now is say no as much as I can without jeopardizing my job.

So, I haven’t yet made SMART goals (for the definition of those, see Kait Nolan’s post here), but I do have some idea of where I am headed.

My first area is health. I feel slightly guilty about putting this first, as it is all about me, but I also realize that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. I gained weight when I shattered both my tibia and fibula fourteen years ago and was confined to a wheelchair for several months; given the amount of time I’ve been heavy, it will take some time to come off. I have about fifty pounds to lose; I am hoping to lose between a half-pound and a pound per week through exercising at least forty-five minutes a day and careful meal planning. I tend to eat when I’m stressed, so I hope to transfer my stress relief from food to exercise.

My second area is family. I realized during this last trip that I like my kids (what a concept!) and that I need to have more contact with them.  I tend to withdraw from people, even family, when I am stressed or depressed. I had a strange and unhappy childhood, so I grew up as this strange, withdrawn child. I forget sometimes that I worked very hard not to pass that on to my children. I plan to be in contact with each of the four kids at least once a week, even if only a short text conversation. I am also going to devote one weekend evening to a date night with my husband.  We started out as great friends, and while we still are very close, we are so used to looking at one another over a row of kids, we need to get re-acquainted.

The third area is friends. I am a terrible friend, more so as I come under stress or during bad times. As I was a strange, withdrawn child, I had a lot of trouble making friends, and found rejection hard to bear. In the strange logic of the preemptive strike, I hide from my friends at the times I need them the most, so as not to be rejected. This leads to my not knowing what may be going on with them, not offering any help or support, purely out of ignorance. I plan to get in touch with one friend each week until I’ve re-established contact, and can maintain more contact. Depending on the closeness of the friend and our respective circumstances, I will keep in touch anywhere from once a week to once a month.

The fourth area is writing. Ah, this is the tricky one. I have sacrificed my creative writing, whether non-fiction or fiction, ripping out its heart to put on the altar of keeping the day job. However, I am not going to spend as many hours on the day job as I have in the past, so that I have more time for my writing. I will spend one and one-half hours on the articles I have to write, and one half-hour a day on my writing. It will be painfully slow, but it will be more progress than I have managed in the past several months. I mentioned in an earlier check-in that I had fallen in love with the dissertation topic again; it is bittersweet that I have done so, because it has to take a back seat to the articles; however, I am going to work on the dissertation one half-hour a day.

My fifth area is the day job. I cannot change it, but I can change my attitude. Thank you, Marcia Richards for a great guest post on  Lyn Midnight’s blog for that. My goal is to be as available as I have to be, and as unavailable as I can manage. I removed my work email from my phone; I will no longer answer the phone at home on the weekends if it is a call about work. Like all of my colleagues, I do the majority of my service and research requirements on my own time, and that is more than enough to ask. I do a very good job, but what I do is neither brain surgery nor rocket science, and I will not work 50 to 60 hours a week in addition to service and research.

So, here are my goals. I’m hoping to fold several of these into the Round of Words challenge, so that I will hold myself accountable for them.