Christine de Pizan: Introduction
CHRISTINE DE PIZAN: INTRODUCTION
Christine wrote poetry, military and political treatises, history, biography, and allegory first as a widow supporting her family, then, as her reputation as a gifted writer and thinker was established, as a strong political voice. Christine wrote with boldness and originality and, as her country sank deeper into turmoil and internal conflict, she was a consistent voice for peace. Her masterwork, Le livre de la cité des dames (1404-05; The Book of the City of Ladies), is among the first defenses of women written by a woman; it was translated into multiple European languages within years of her death and was widely read through the next several centuries as Christine's once-radical ideas about women gradually gained acceptance.
Christine was born in Venice, where her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, was a salaried counselor. When she was four she moved with her family to Paris, where her father served as an astrologer to Charles V. Pizzano was connected to the intellectuals of northern Italy, especially at the University of Bologna, and he shared his interest in education and knowledge with his daughter despite the contemporary belief that learning was dangerous for women. Christine moved in courtly intellectual circles and enjoyed access to the royal library. Her father's connections, position, and encouragement placed Christine in the midst of a growing intellectual movement that would later be known as classical humanism, characterized by a revived interest in Latin and Greek authors and the writings of Christian authors including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and by a new concern for the relationship between the individual and the society or state. Her own education was abbreviated by her marriage at age fifteen to a court notary, Etienne de Castel, who was appointed a secretary in the Royal Chancellery. The marriage was a happy one, resulting in three children (a daughter and two sons), but it lasted only ten years, ending with Etienne's unexpected death in 1390, possibly from a plague epidemic. The death of her husband left Christine and her children in difficult circumstances. Upon the death of Charles V in 1380, Pizzano lost his position at court, and died sometime after 1385. Responsible for supporting both her children and her mother, Christine attempted to secure her inheritance but was obstructed by lawyers who forced her to pay taxes on her father's land without giving her the titles to the property. She fought them for nearly fifteen years before prevailing, and her struggles influenced her later thoughts on women's household roles. She also attempted to support her family by writing, beginning with ballades inspired by her experiences, which she began circulating around 1395. Her first poetry collection appeared around 1399; it includes Les cent balades, a collection of ballads presenting a series of love affairs, first from a woman's, then from a man's perspective. Her courtly connections, particularly in the court of the king's brother, Louis of Orleans, assured an audience for her lyric poetry, but her fame increased considerably due to her L'epistre au dieu d'amours (1399; The Letter of Cupid), in which she attacked negative literary portrayals of women. In particular, she denounced the misogyny of Jean de Meun and his Le roman de la rose (c. 1269-78; The Romance of the Rose), launching a major cultural battle in which Christine's enemies contended that a woman could not understand the writings of an educated man. The Querelle de la Rose lasted three years and pushed Christine into the center of the French literary world. She then undertook extensive study of classical literature, culminating in L'epistre d'Othéa (c. 1400; The Epistle of Othea to Hector), a poem of moral instruction most likely written for her surviving son, Jean du Castel. As a result of Christine's growing literary reputation, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, commissioned her in 1404 to write a history of his brother, Charles V. Christine had by this point transferred her allegiance from Orleans to Burgundy when the latter helped find a place for her son Jean in his household. Drawing on her personal memories of life at court, she produced Le livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V (1404; The Book of the Wise Deeds and Good Conduct of the Wise King Charles V). Philip's unusual choice of a female writer gave further endorsement to Christine's unique status as a major female literary figure in late medieval France. Christine then began to address contemporary moral, political, and educational issues in her writings. Among the most significant of these is The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she exposes and condemns the misogynistic society in which women suffered, defends the merits of women, and calls for their greater autonomy and freedom. She next wrote a practical companion to The City of Ladies, with advice for achieving true virtue and nobility: Le livre des trois vertus (1405; The Book of the Three Virtues), uniquely addressed to middle class women, became a successful conduct book as well as a defense of women. Also in 1405, Christine published the allegorical L'avision-Christine (Christine's Vision), a dream vision in which Christine talks of her life with figures including "Libera" (meaning "free woman"), "Opinion," and "Philosophie." Much of her work after 1405 is more explicitly political than her previous writings. In that year, she had also written an open letter to Queen Isabelle of France to reconcile a feud between the houses of Burgundy and Orléans, and in 1406 and 1407 she published Le livre du corps de policie (The Body of Policye), calling for universal justice and attention to the needs of common people. As a companion to The Body of Policye, Christine wrote Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (1410; The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye), a history of the art of war. She wrote her last in this series of political texts for the Dauphin, Louis de Guyenne, France's teenage prince who would soon be struggling to achieve peace and order: Le livre de la paix (1413; The Book of Peace) aimed at educating and guiding Louis through the threat of civil war and foreign invasion. The situation in France worsened, however, beginning with the French loss to the English at Agincourt in 1415, an event which inspired Christine's Epistre de la prison de vie humaine (c. 1413-18; Letter on the Prison of Human Life), a poem of consolation to the widows of Agincourt. The increasing violence in Paris finally drove her from the city, and she relocated to Poissy Abbey, where her daughter was a nun, in 1418. While there she wrote little, except a poem likely in response to her son's death, entitled Les heures de contemplation sur la passion de nostre Seigneur (1425; The Hours of Contemplation on the Passion of Our Lord). Her last known work is a celebration of Joan of Arc's victories over the English, in La ditié de Jeanne d'Arc (1429; The Tale of Joan of Arc). Christine died at Poissy Abbey sometime between July 1429 and 1434, when court writings mention her in the past tense.
Christine's writings fall roughly into three thematic and stylistic groupings. Her early works are primarily poetry, especially love poetry; those from mid-career are mainly allegories in which Christine addresses broader social and philosophical concerns; and her later works could be generally characterized as political. Christine's writings reflect her concern with the reputation and status of women, and her vision for a more peaceful society for both women and men. Her early poetry followed the mode of the court of Orleans, where chivalry and romance were favored themes. Christine distinguished herself from earlier and contemporary models by writing about married love and loss in addition to the typical courtly amours. She presented a woman's perspective on chivalric conventions, as in the feminine half of Les cent balades, as well as the Letter to Cupid, the pastoral poem Dit de la pastoure (1403; Tale of the Shepherdess), and Le débat de deux amans (1400; The Debate of Two Lovers), in which an independent young woman rejects the chivalric notions of love presented by a knight and a squire. In Christine's allegorical works, Le livre du chemin de long estude (1400-3; The Book of the Long Road of Learning) and Le livre de la mutacion de fortune (1402-3; The Book of the Mutation of Fortune) she examines the ideals of world governance and the history of human affairs. The City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues depict a city of noble women who claim their nobility not by birth but by virtue. These two allegories mark the apex of Christine's career as a defender of women, as she worked to dispel the myth that women were either inherently evil or divinely good. Christine's political prose works, written as the Burgundy-Orleans battles increased in severity and the English advanced their position within France, do not explicitly address women's issues, but are remarkable for their subject matter as well as the fact that they were highly-regarded among men despite their female authorship. Two of her last works, The Epistle of the Prison of Human Life and The Hours of Contemplation of the Passion, offer a unique perspective on war and politics, focusing on the consequences of war for the women left behind, both widows and mothers.
Christine wrote with the imprimatur of the French royalty, an indication of the favorable reception her works received during her lifetime. She was, nevertheless, also negatively criticized; as her part in the Quarrel of the Rose suggests, several intellectuals of her day scorned her writing. Others, during her life and in subsequent centuries, argued that the quality of her work was beyond the capabilities of a woman and maintained that the texts signed by Christine de Pizan were actually written by a man. Her works enjoyed continued printings throughout the sixteenth century, and though interest in medieval authors waned during the seventeenth century, eighteenth-century scholars again included her among the major writers of medieval France. Commentary on her works increased, and as interest in women's rights became a part of the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Christine became known as an early feminist. French nationalism in the nineteenth century also stirred interest in her political writings, and by the end of that century a well-edited version of her collected works appeared. In addition to analyzing her political and social thought, modern scholars have studied her literary achievements, particularly as a poet. The accessibility of English versions of her works in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as increased emphasis on women's studies renewed and expanded interest in Christine's life and works. Christine's defense of women and her unique status as the first major woman author in France have compelled modern scholars to examine her linguistic and stylistic strategies, her connections to political figures of her era, and her influence on later writers, both male and female.