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’?


Campaign Challenge

Second Campaign Challenge entry

Imago feminae

“Christine, please pay attention to your spinning. It is a disaster, yet you refuse to learn. You must use both your hands in rhythm.” Christine thought, Synchronicity, like Papa explained about the celestial spheres.

Her mother continued her rant, “Your father thinks because I did not bear him a boy, he can make you into one, stuffing your head full of Latin and science. How we will ever find a husband for you, I do not know!”

Stifling a yawn at the perennial subject, Christine searched through her Latin. Oscitate, yes, that’s yawning, she smiled to herself. And that hole in my spun fiber, that’s lacuna. Out loud, she said dutifully, “Yes, maman, I will try harder.” She picked up more roving to bear out her promise.

She loved her maman, but she wanted to be a scientist like her father. She wanted to discover whether the pestilence that had ravaged the world was due to the conjunction of three planets, as some thought, or from a miasma, a mala aria in her native Italian. She would be as famous as her father, some day, and not for her spinning. She would be a new sort of woman.

198 words and my very first piece of flash fiction (Yay!) Go read all the entries and vote on the ones you like at

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.