Christine de Pisan

views updated Jun 11 2018

Christine de Pisan

Born c. 1364

Died c. 1430

French poet and essayist

C hristine de Pisan was the first known woman in Europe to earn her living by writing. As a poet, she won much acclaim among the nobility of France and neighboring lands. Her extensive essays and works of scholarship, most notably The City of Ladies, provide a valuable contribution to an understanding not only of her own ideas, but also of European society during the Middle Ages.

Christine was a true feminist who used her pen to make the case that women should enjoy the same rights before God as men. She did not undertake her poetic work or other writings out of lofty ideals, or as a hobby; rather, she wrote because she had to support her family.

In the court of Charles V

Christine de Pisan (pee-ZAHN; sometimes rendered as Pizan) was born in the Italian city of Venice in 1364. Her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, was a professor of astrology at the university of Bologna (buh-LOHN-yuh), another Italian city. Astrology is a system that attempts to show that a person's destiny is influenced by the position of the stars and planets at the time of her birth, and though it has long since been discredited as a science, medieval people held it in high regard. Accordingly, Tommaso received two highly attractive invitations soon after Christine's birth: he could serve either in the court of the Hungarian king or that of the French king, Charles V. He opted to go to Paris, the French capital, which was noted for its outstanding university.

After a year in France without his family, Thomas de Pisan, as he was now called in the French style, agreed to stay on as court astrologer, alchemist (practitioner of another medieval non-science based on the belief that plain metals such as iron could be turned into gold), and physician. He therefore sent for his family, and his wife and four-year-old daughter joined him. Christine therefore had an opportunity to grow up amid the lively atmosphere of the court presided over by Charles, who was nicknamed "the Wise." Her father saw to her education, and she learned to read and write, something usually taught only to girls in the highest levels of medieval society.

Marriage, children, and tragedy

When she was fifteen years old, Christine married Étienne (ey-TYAn) du Castel, a scholar nine years her senior. Theirs was a happy marriage that produced three children. The second child, a son, died in infancy; the first child, a daughter, later became a nun. The last child, a son named Jean (ZHAWn), born when Christine was twenty-one, grew up to serve in the court of the duke of Burgundy.

Beginning in 1380, when she was sixteen, a series of tragedies struck Christine's life. First Charles V died, and Christine's father was dismissed from his position at court. A few years later, her father became ill and died in poverty. In 1389 Étienne succumbed to the plague, an epidemic disease that periodically struck Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Christine was left without a father or a husband—and with two children to support.

Queen Margaret of Denmark

It is interesting to note that the birth and death dates of Western Europe's first female professional writer, Christine de Pisan (c. 1364–c. 1430) correspond closely with those of its first ruling woman monarch, Queen Margaret of Denmark (1353–1412). Over the course of her career, Margaret united her homeland with Norway and Sweden, the two other principal nations of Scandinavia, to form the largest single political entity in Europe at the time.

Scandinavia had long before ceased to be the homeland of the much-feared Vikings, and in their place were several kingdoms divided by politics and language. The mid-1300s saw an incredibly complex series of maneuvers to determine which royal house would control the area, and an alliance of German cities known as the Hanseatic League tried to exert its influence. When she was ten, Margaret's father Valdemar IV arranged her marriage to King Haakon (HAH-kohn) VI of Norway.

Valdemar died without a male heir in 1375, and Margaret's only child Olaf became king. Five years later, Haakon died as well, and Margaret arranged for Olaf to succeed to the Norwegian throne. Then in

1387, Olaf died, and after a power struggle with another claimant to the Swedish throne, Margaret became queen of all three lands in 1389. In 1400 she designated an heir, her great-nephew Erik, but she continued to control affairs until her death twelve years later. Though she was often criticized for her harsh policies, Margaret was able to forge an alliance of all three Scandinavian lands. The union with Sweden would last for more than a century, and the one with Norway until 1814.

Forced to write

As with Murasaki Shikibu (see entry), the world's first novelist (and also a woman), Christine was forced into her career through personal tragedy. Unlike Murasaki, however, she did not write simply to console herself in her loss, though that was certainly a factor. Primarily, however, she turned to the vocation of writing, at which she had earlier displayed a talent, in order to feed her family.

Later Christine would recount how, at age twenty-five, she was forced to take on "the role of a man." In medieval Europe, women were not supposed to be breadwinners, but she had little choice: though her husband had left behind a small inheritance, it became tied up in legal battles, and she did not see any money from it for a decade. Yet she was determined to support herself, rather than seek out a marriage to someone she did not love simply as a means of paying the bills: hence a famous line from a poem written after her husband's death: "Seulete suy et seulete vueil estre" (I am alone and I want to be alone).

First mature writings

At that time, the most popular type of literature in Western Europe was courtly love poetry, which dealt with themes of idealized romance. Christine disagreed with many of the principles behind such poetry, as she would later reveal, but she had to write material for a buying audience. In modern times, a writer sells his or her work to a publisher, who distributes it to a wide public; but in the medieval world, there simply was no wide reading public. A writer such as Christine composed her verses for nobility and royalty, who acted as her patrons, financially supporting her work.

Christine soon broadened her output to include short narratives or stories, and didactic works, or writings meant to instruct. The latter was another popular format in medieval times, an era that saw the beginnings of what modern people would call "self-help" literature. One type of didactic writing, for instance, was the courtesy book, a sort of how-to manual for people who wanted to learn how to behave around the higher classes of society. She augmented her writing with an extensive program of study, and by the turn of the fourteenth century, when she was about thirty-five, she began to write the first of her more mature works.

Among these were works such as The Book of Changes in Fortune (1400–3), in which she questioned the power of fate to alter human affairs, as it had her own. Using a practice common to many medieval writers, she represented Fortune as a Roman goddess, and examined Fortune's effect on events throughout history. Another work from this period was The Book of the Road of Long Study (1402–3), which was an allegorical piece along the lines of the Divine Comedy by Dante (see entry)—in other words, it used characters and actions to illustrate ideas. Both books achieved wide acclaim, and therefore King Charles VI commissioned her to write a biography of his predecessor, which became The Book of the Deeds and Virtues of the Wise King Charles V (1404).

Christine's feminism

Another allegorical work of the Middle Ages that attracted widespread attention was the thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose, which portrayed a man's love for a woman as a difficult and almost unrewarding quest. Christine, who took issue with the portrayal of women in the Romance, was moved to write several pieces as a response. Among these was The Epistle to the God of Love (1399), in which Cupid becomes so disgusted with men's mistreatment of women that he forbids all men in his court from saying bad things about them.

For some time, Christine had been feeling the stirrings of what might be called feminism, a desire to stand up for women's rights. Of course "feminism" is a modern idea, and Christine had no concept of issues that concern feminists today—for instance, women receiving less pay for doing the same job as a man. Her appeals regarding treatment of women began with a critique of how they were portrayed in literature. She had stopped writing courtly love poetry, she said, because she came to see it as poetry written to make men feel better about mistreating women. The ideal of courtly love, reduced to its essentials, involved a man and woman who were not married to one another, but who shared a romantic and usually sexual relationship: thus the man got what he wanted without having to make a commitment.

The Book of the City of Ladies

Though Christine also wrote The Tale of the Rose (1401) and Epistles on the Romance of the Rose (1401–2), her most celebrated response to the Romance—and indeed her most well known work—was The Book of the City of Ladies (1404–5). The latter asks why misogyny (mi-SAHJ-uh-nee; hatred of women) has been such a popular theme throughout history. In the narrative, the author suggests that it is because men have controlled the writing of works about women, and in an allegorical tale she describes how she became depressed by this realization.

At that point, she explains, Reason, Justice, and Righteousness appeared to her in the form of three crowned ladies and commissioned her to establish a "city of ladies." The idea of this "city" is a clear reference to Augustine 's (see entry) City of God, indicating that she saw her city within the context of the Christian faith. She pointed to a number of passages in the Bible indicating that God had given men and women the same spiritual abilities and responsibilities.

Christine was also influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio's Concerning Famous Women (see box in Murasaki Shikibu entry), and like Boccaccio, she examined a number of women from history. The extent to which she imitated Boccaccio's approach has been debated by critics since then, but it is clear that Christine's attitude toward her subject was quite different from that of Boccaccio. He left contemporary women out of his narrative, he said, because there were too few remarkable living women to mention.

A model for women

In 1405, Christine followed up City of Ladies with a companion volume entitled The Treasure of the City of Ladies, or The Book of Three Virtues. In it, she offered a model as to how women of different classes should conduct themselves in society. Her purpose was not to put anyone in their place; rather, it was to help women have dignity in a world that often tried to take it from them.

Over the years that followed, as France was embroiled in the catastrophes brought on by the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) and other forms of unrest, Christine continued to write. Her last work, in 1429, celebrated the greatest hero on either side of that war, Joan of Arc (see entry). In the following year, Christine died at the age of sixty-five.

Over the next century, Christine's writing would exert a strong influence on a number of less well known female writers. Then, in the 1700s, memory of her virtually disappeared, only to be resurrected again in the late nineteenth century. Since then, interest in this independent, talented woman has continued to grow.

For More Information


Dahmus, Joseph Henry. Seven Medieval Queens. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

The Grolier Library of Women's Biographies. Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational, 1998.

Web Sites

"Christine de Pisan (ca. 1363–ca. 1431)." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Christine de Pizan." A Celebration of Women Writers. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Christine de Pisan." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

de Pisan, Christine

views updated May 17 2018

Christine de Pisan

French poet, scholar, and essayist Christine de Pisan (1363–1431) remains known more than five centuries after her death for her writings defending women, among which La cité de dames and Le livre du trésor de la cité de dames are most respected.

De Pisan ranks among the most important intellectuals of her day and certainly the most noted woman writer of the medieval period. In her philosophical writings and commentaries she was resolute in her support of a woman's right to pursue education and attain prominence within society in relation to her accomplishments. Her many poems, essays, and books, widely distributed and read during her lifetime, have influenced readers throughout Europe and Britain through the many translated editions that have since been produced. Among her most notable works in defense of women's role in medieval European society, de Pisan's La cité de dames recounts for readers the accomplishes of women from history, providing medieval men and women with a sense of the possibilities that can be attained by women when allowed education and social freedoms.

An Education at Court

Born in Venice in 1363, de Pisan was the daughter of Italian scholar Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, a highly educated man who had been appointed astrologer to the court of Charles V of France. In 1369 the five-year-old de Pisan traveled from Venice to the French court, where she was educated by her father in such academic subjects as literature, Greek, and Latin, as well as becoming schooled in the habits of the French court. Because of her father's many intellectual interests, the young de Pisan had full run of a vast family library that included books on not only literature, history, classics, and astrology, but also scientific advancements, religion, and works engaged in the philosophical arguments underway in France at the time.

In 1380, the same year France's King Charles V died, fifteen-year-old de Pisan married Étienne du Castel, a 24-year-old notary and member of the French court who had been reared in Picardy. The couple, who had three children, enjoyed a relationship in which mutual respect played a large part; Castel encouraged his young wife's intelligence and penchant for poetry and self-expression, while she appreciated his gentle demeanor and loyalty. Tragically, during a wave of bubonic plague that was then ravaging Europe, in 1389 Castel died while on a trip to Beauvais with the king, leaving twenty-five-year-old de Pisan to raise her daughter and two sons on her own. Unfortunately, de Pisan's responsibilities did not end there: she also had to shoulder her husband's financial debts, which were the subject of a prolonged dispute, as well as support her now-widowed and debt-ridden mother and a niece. Because her father's death in 1386 had severed family ties to the new French monarch, King Charles VI, there was little family support to draw on. Although English monarch Henry IV and Milanese ruler Galeazzo Visconti both offered de Pisan a place within their courts, the poetess had no wish to leave her beloved France. Instead, she decided to rely on her wit, her intelligence, and her love of words and write poetry, becoming in the process one of France's first professional writers.


Fortunately for de Pisan, many in positions of power knew of and respected her talents, and she was able to gain the patronage of the French queen, Isabella of Bavaria, and several nobles, among them the earl of Salisbury and Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, which enabled her to support her family. For Philip—who was rearing her eldest son as his own child—she penned the moral guidebook Le livre des faitz et bonnes moeurs du Saige Roy Charles. This work, while appropriate for its time, did not prove as useful to subsequent generations due to its overt moralizing and intricate style. More popular was her Le livre de paix, which discusses the proper manner in which princes should be educated. The medieval view of society was that, rather than upward mobility, people were born into a particular station, and their duty was to fulfill the duties that particular station required. De Pisan believed in an orderly society and, unlike the vision Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli would put forth in The Prince a century later, argued that men of power—particularly princes—have an obligation to lead an honest and moral life, support the Catholic Church, and otherwise maintain the status quo. Other long writings include a biography of Charles V published in Paris in 1404 as Le livre des faicts et bonnes meurs du sage roi Charles V.

During her lifetime, de Pisan gained renown throughout Europe and England for her writings in verse, such as the long poem "Le livre des mutations de Fortune," "Le chemin de longue etude," and "Le livre des cent histoires de Troie." Intricate, heavily stylized, and verbose, these longer works were eclipsed in popularity by the many shorter poems, ballads, and rondeaux she penned during her early career, most between 1393 and 1400. Expressing her emotions—particularly the sadness, uncertainty, and desolation she endured after her beloved husband's death—many of de Pisan's shorter works have been republished for successive generations of new readers in the centuries following her death.

In the longer, more broadly focused verses de Pisan wrote during her writing life, she gained in sophistication where she lost in popular appeal. She experimented with literary themes and style, creating multi-layered poems with meanings often obscure to a reader unschooled in the social milieu and intellectual issues of her day. Pisan's prose is not for the general reader; it is stylistically intricate, intellectually challenging, and reflects her wide-ranging knowledge and interests. In contrast, her prose histories, her biography of Charles V, and her political essays have been praised by generations of critics. Among her contemporaries, de Pisan was often compared to the classical authors Virgil, Cicero, and Cato due to her technical ability and the intelligence that is revealed throughout her body of work.

In the eyes of modern feminist scholars, de Pisan is most remembered for her Trésor de la cité des dames, published in 1405 and translated into English by London publisher Wynkyn de Word as The City of Ladies. La cité des dames has preserved for modern readers and historians the life story of a number of women from both history and mythology; for de Pisan's contemporaries it provided women with inspiration. In this work she also examines the source of women's diminished social status and includes advice for readers regarding how to improve education and social standing. Now considered one of the foundational works of feminist literature, the book has served as a source for all those who would argue that women deserved the same right to educational opportunities as men because they were capable of attaining similar accomplishments. For some, her argument that women were socially and intellectually the equals of men was seen as a threat, and efforts—eventually discredited—were made to show that La cité des dames was a plagiarized rewrite of an earlier work by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio titled De claris mulieribus.

De Pisan's 1405 work, Le livre du trèsor de la citéde dames—translated as The Treasure of the City of Ladies; or, The Book of Three Virtues—continues her arguments on behalf of the gentler sex. In this work she takes her argument to her own age, laying forth what she sees as three basic classes of women: noble and aristocratic women, women of the court and lesser nobility, and women of the growing merchant and artisan classes. Common women were not included because their lack of basic literacy excluded them from the reading public. It is all women's right, she argues, to obtain schooling sufficient to allow them to use their natural talents to benefit themselves and society, and especially to become educated, sophisticated citizens able to recognize corruption among political figures. In the prologue to Le livre du trèsor de la cité de dames she wrote: "If it were customary to send little girls to school and to teach them the same subjects that are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences. Indeed, maybe they would understand them better … for just as women's bodies are softer than men's, so their understanding is sharper."

Other works by de Pisan include Le livre des fais d'armes et de checaleries—translated and printed by William Caxton in London in 1489 as The Book of Fayettes of Armes and of Chivalrye—and 1407's Le livre du duc des vrais amants—translated as The Book of the Duke of True Lovers. Her Lettre à Isabeau de Bavière, a work written in response to a popular satirical parody of the classic Roman de la rose, began her multi-volume attack on the writings of Ovid and Jean de Meun. In her poetic Epistre au dieu d'amour, which she published in 1399, de Pisan expresses her unhappiness over women's lot within Medieval society and argues against the underlying misogynism in popular literary works. She continues such arguments on behalf of women in Epistres du délbat sur le Roman de la rose, which was released to French readers in 1401. In Avision–Christine, which was published in 1405 and later translated as Christine's Vision, she writes that a man once stated to her that educated women were unbecoming because they were so uncommon. Her quick wit is reflected in her response to him: that ignorant men are more offensive; they are even more unbecoming because they are so very common.

Prolific Writer

Because of her need to support herself and her children following her husband's death, de Pisan was a remarkably prolific writer. By the writer's own account, from 1397 to 1403 she competed 15 major works in addition to a number of essays and shorter verses. Her devotion to her craft of writing accounts, perhaps, for the fact that she did not take the path of many women of her era and station and remarry. She arranged for the copying and illuminating of her own texts in copybooks, a project she closely oversaw, and also founded the Order of the Rose.

Throughout much of de Pisan's life her adopted France had drained its economy to pursue an elusive victory against England in a series of battles that became collectively known as the Hundred Years' War. In her prose writings de Pisan often expressed her frustration with politicians and nobles who supported this war, and she grew even more upset after the assassination of Louis of Orleans in 1407, penning Lamentations on the Civil War in response. When, in 1415, English King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt roundly defeated the French army, she took the setback hard. Three years later, in 1418, she retired to Poissy, entering the same convent her daughter had joined. At Poissy she set aside her pen for 11 years in protest. Her last written work, Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc, was a song inspired by the heroism of young Joan of Arc, who de Pisan viewed as embodying the moral and intellectual virtues of all women. This work, which was published in 1429, was the last de Pisan would write; she died at Poissy two years later, in 1431 at the age of ninety-six.


Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.

Kennedy, Angus, Christine de Pizan: A Bibliographical Guide, Grant & Cutler, 1994.

The Reception of Christine de Pisan from the 15th through the 19th Centuries, edited by Glenda K. McLeod, Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan, edited by Earl Jeffrey Richards, University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Willard, Charity Cannon, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works, Persea Press, 1984.


Review of Metaphysics, September 1996.

Shakespeare Studies, January 1, 1997.

Christine de Pisan

views updated Jun 08 2018

Christine de Pisan

The French author Christine de Pisan C. (c. 1364-ca. 1430) wrote lyric poetry and also prose and verse works on a great variety of philosophical, social, and historical subjects.

Thomas de Pisan, father of Christine de Pisan, was an astrologer and medical doctor in the service of the republic of Venice when he accepted a similar appointment at the court of Charles V of France. Born in Venice, Christine was taken to Paris in 1368, where she was brought up in courtly surroundings and enjoyed a comfortable and studious childhood and adolescence. At 15 she married étienne de Castel. In 1380 Charles V died, thereby dissolving the royal appointment of her father, who died 5 years later. Christine's husband, secretary of Charles VI, died in 1390, leaving her a widow at 25, with three children, considerable debts, and impatient creditors. Two years later Charles VI became insane, leaving the nation open prey.

Impoverished by multiple blows of adversity, Christine determined to earn her living by writing, composing her first ballades in 1393. Her works were successful, and richly illuminated copies of some of them were presented to noted patrons of letters. Thirty major titles followed until she retired to the convent at Poissy, where her only daughter had been a religious for 22 years. She wrote no more except one religious work and a eulogy on Joan of Arc after the victory at Orléans.

In verse, Christine's first work appears to be her Hundred Ballades, followed by 26 virelays, 2 lays, 69 rondeaux, 70 framed poems, 66 more ballades, and 2 complaints. In her Epistle to the God of Love (1399) she begins her battle for feminism, reproaching Ovid and Jean de Meun for their misogyny; a second attack appears in her Tale of the Rose (1402). Of her 15 other long poems the best is the Changes of Fortune (1403), in the 23,636 lines of which she traces changing "fortune" from the time of the Jews down to her own time.

In prose, after her allegorical Epistle from Othea (1400), Christine vigorously continues her feminism in the City of Ladies and the Book of the Three Virtues (both 1405). Other works in prose include the Deeds and Good Morals of WiseKing Charles V (1404), a book on arms and knighthood (1410), and the Book of Peace (1414), which holds up Charles V as a model for the Dauphin. Her Hours of Contemplation on the Passion, containing lessons on patience and humility, was written during her last retreat.

Further Reading

There is little material on Christine de Pisan. A study of her is in Alice Kemp Welch, Of Six Medieval Women (1913). See also Lula McDowell Richardson, The Forerunners of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance from Christine of Pisa to Marie de Gournay (1929).

Additional Sources

McLeod, Enid, The Order of the Rose: the life and ideas of Christine de Pizan, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976 and London: Chatto & Windus, 1976.

Pernoud, Regine, Christine de Pisan, Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1982.

Willard, Charity Cannon, Christine de Pizan: her life and works, New York, N.Y.: Persea Books, 1984. □

de Pisan, Christine (1364–1430)

views updated May 29 2018

de Pisan, Christine (13641430)

Writer and social critic, and one of the first women to make a profession from her literary pursuits, Christine de Pisan was born in Venice, the daughter of a physician and Venetian official. She moved to France when her father was appointed physician and astrologer to King Charles V. With her father's encouragement, she made an extensive study of the scientific, philosophical, and literary books available at the French court. She emerged as a writer after the death of her husband Etienne du Castel in 1390, an event that entangled her in a series of lawsuits over her husband's estate and forced her to seek out aristocratic patrons in order to support her family. She began writing lyric poetry on commission for nobles at court. In her work Letters to the God of Love, she objected to the chivalric ideals of knighthood and its attitude toward women and their role in society. This work brought her into a famous public debate over the depiction of women in the Roman de la Rose of Jean de Meun, one of the wellknown chivalric ballads. An intense study of the classical techniques of rhetoric and debate allowed her to give a good account of herself in a male-dominated world of literary debate. She followed her early successes with The Book of the City of Ladies, an allegory that considers the world and social conventions from a woman's perspective. She also wrote Song in Honor of Joan of Arc, The Book of Three Virtues, as well as books of history, biography, religion, and politics.

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