Christine de Pizan

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Christine de Pizan

Medieval Female Writers.

Generally, female children in the Middle Ages were not educated as well as their male brothers were. That is not to say that all women were illiterate, but it was fairly uncommon for women to write literary texts. To be sure, there were prominent exceptions throughout the 600 years of the period, and literary works to which no certain authorship can be ascribed and which seem to voice the female perspective may have been composed by women. In the corpus of Anglo-Saxon lyric poetry is an anonymous first-person narrated poem, "The Wife's Lament," that explores the sadness of a woman who is separated from her husband. It is ultimately impossible to know whether an actual woman wrote it. In twelfth-century France, Marie de France composed her Fables and Breton lais (lays), apparently enjoying some degree of fame in the English court, though little is known of her actual career. In the same century, a woman named Heloise (1098–1164) had a notorious affair, and later a secret marriage, with Peter Abelard (1079–1142), a prominent and brilliant theologian at the University of Paris. After they parted and she became the abbess of a convent of nuns, Heloise wrote a series of illuminating Letters to Abelard, which express her emotional feelings for her former lover as well as detail the running of the convent. But these letters are not what is usually thought of as "literature." The female troubadour poets in the south of France, known as the trobairitz, did create lyric poems, but they were amateurs, not professional writers. Also in that century in Germany, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) wrote prolific letters to various ecclesiasts, as well as treatises on medicine and gemstones, accounts of her visions, the Scivias (Ways of Knowing), and many hymns, though these works were intended for the education of other nuns rather than for a larger public. Female visionaries and mystics in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, such as Dame Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, left records of their visions, respectively in Julian's Showings and Margery's Book of memoirs about her marriage, her travels on many pilgrimages, and her visions of a bleeding Christ while on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. However, both these works were dictated to male scribes and we cannot be sure to what extent the resulting text reflects the sensibility of their female "authors." The only female writer to which none of these qualifications applies is a prolific author of the late Middle Ages, Christine de Pizan.

Europe 's First Professional Female Writer.

Christine de Pizan (1364–c. 1431) was the first "professional" female writer in Europe. As she admits in her allegorical autobiography The Book of Fortune's Mutation (1403), unfortunate circumstances in her life forced her metaphorically to "become a man" in order to achieve such a rare distinction. Christine was widowed young and left with three small children and other family

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members for whom she had to provide. Rather than remarry or enter a convent as most women in her position might do, Christine instead supported herself by writing various popular literary forms such as collections of love lyrics, love debates, devotional texts, female conduct books, and pastourelles for aristocratic patrons. Like another unusual female writer three centuries earlier, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Christine was both prolific and multifaceted, mastering a dazzling variety of genres in both verse and prose, as well as involving herself not only in the composing, but also in the production and illustration of manuscripts of her works. She began her career at the court of Charles V of France, whose biography, The Book of the Deeds and Good Conduct of the Wise King Charles V (1404), she was later commissioned to write. The extraordinary range of her literary output includes examples of genres unexpected from a woman: a military treatise, The Book of the Deeds of Arms and Chivalry (1410); a political treatise, The Book of the Body Politic (1404–1407), a guide for the behavior of princes, knights, and lesser subjects; and a mythographic work in epistolary form, The Letter of Othea (1400), in which the goddess of wisdom in the title teaches moral lessons to the Trojan prince Hector by using stories from mythology. Just as the twelfth-century female writer Marie de France wrote Ovidian-inspired fables and Breton lays, in Othea Christine reveals her knowledge of Ovid's Meta-morphoses, one of medieval Europe's greatest literary authorities.

Christine 's Allegorical Writings.

Although she demonstrated skill at nearly all major medieval literary genres, Christine is best known for her allegorical works, which often incorporate autobiographical and political sentiments into the allegory, such as The Path of Long Study (1402–1403) and The Book of Fortune's Mutation (1403). Of special interest is The Book of the City of Ladies (1404–1405), for which she has become noteworthy as an early champion of women. In this allegory, Christine echoes the sentiments of Chaucer's Wife of Bath that female characters have suffered terrible treatment in the writings of male authors, and women would be depicted more positively if female writers had the opportunity to tell their stories. As in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, or Dante's Divine Comedy, Christine is visited in a vision by three allegorical female personifications—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—who instruct her to create a new literary tradition about women by "constructing" a metaphorical "city" of ladies. In reality, this new tradition is really a story collection in the mode of Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or John Gower's Confessio Amantis—each building block/story of which narrates the achievements of a praiseworthy, virtuous woman. In creating City of Ladies, Christine was responding (as was Chaucer's Wife of Bath) to misogynist collections of tales such as Boccaccio's Concerning Famous Women, whose female exemplars were more infamous than famous and more notorious than virtuous. Christine includes in her literary "City" women who excelled in secular fields (painting, poetry, science, farming, military arts) as well as saints. Christine continued to promote the interests of women until her death. The last poem attributed to her was The Tale of Joan of Arc (1429), one of the only contemporary literary treatments of the purportedly visionary female warrior who led French troops against the English in the Hundred Years' War. If Christine had lived to revise her text, Joan of Arc surely would have earned a place alongside other Amazon warriors such as Penthesileia in the City of Ladies.

Christine and the Romance of the Rose.

Christine also demonstrated her advocacy of the female voice by participating in a heated literary debate that took place in 1401–1402. Both as a writer of visions, such as the autobiographical Vision of Christine (1405), and as a literary critic, Christine figured importantly in the development of real-life female characters (not mere personifications) in the dream vision genre. In the "Quarrel over the Rose," Christine sided with the theologian Jean Gerson against other male intellectuals such as Pierre and Gontier Col and Jean de Montreuil over the value of perhaps the most famous and widely read allegorical poem and dream vision of the medieval period, the Romance of the Rose. Christine strongly criticized Rose, especially the continuation by Jean de Meun, for its antifeminist sentiments. Having collected the letters and arguments of the major antagonists in the quarrel, she presented them to Queen Isabeau, wife of Charles VI. Her very public profile as a professional writer and controversialist prepared the way for literary women who would begin writing in the Renaissance, at the same time that her literary range rivaled that of the great male writers of medieval Europe—Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Dante.


Barbara K. Altmann and Deborah L. McGrady, eds., Christine de Pizan: A Casebook (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Joseph L. Baird and John R. Kane, eds., La Querelle de la Rose: Letters and Documents (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).

Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee, trans., The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan: New Translations, Criticism (New York: Norton, 1997).

Carol Meale, ed., Women and Literature in Britain, 1150–1500 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Charity C. Willard, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea, 1984).

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