Christine de Pizan: Title Commentary

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Le livre de la cite des dames

Le livre de la cite des dames


SOURCE: Quilligan, Maureen. "Allegory and the Textual Body: Female Authority in Christine de Pizan's Livre de la Cite des dames." Romanic Review 79, no. 1 (1988): 222-42.

In the following essay, Quilligan examines Christine's process of revising traditional texts as a strategy for creating her own authority.

In their massive study of the woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar not only ask such impish questions as—if a pen is a metaphorical penis, with what metaphorical organ does a woman write?—they also revise Harold Bloom's influential thesis about the profound anxiety there is in all literary tradition and argue that for a woman writer the question is not so much an anxiety of influence as an "anxiety of authorship." For a woman to pick up a pen and write is laden, in the nineteenth century, with fears of madness and impropriety.1

To cite work by twentieth-century literary critics about nineteenth-century literature as a way of introducing the practice of a medieval woman's radical revision of her male precursors, may be allowed its own legitimacy—beyond the hint it provides that the question of authorial gender maintains a certain intractable (if metaphorical) physicality throughout all literary periods. Poststructuralist French feminist theorists, such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who ground their definition of "l'écriture féminine" in the female body—as well as the controversy such an "essentialist" position has caused in Anglo-American feminist theory—may offer some more theoretically coherent terms in which to address the problem of the body in Christine's allegory.2 However, Gilbert and Gubar's arguments about female authority in the nineteenth century, when novels by female authors have always been an accepted part of the popular and therefore "literary" canon, also usefully remind us that the legitimacy of any period in literary history depends upon the formation of a body of works deemed characteristic for that period. To argue for the insertion of a previously marginalized text into the canon necessarily destabilizes that canon and calls into question the means by which it was previously fixed.

If Christine de Pizan is herself a canonical 15th-century French author, because she remains taught in our curricula as a lyric poet, her prose is less well known. Although female, she was not completely marginalized by her society; rather she worked at the center of cultural production in her period, a privileged member of the French court.3 However, as the first pro-woman polemic, the first female-authored history of women, the Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405) is not itself a canonical text, although it has been taken up as a possible starting point for a whole new canon of female writing.4 As a marginal female author Christine takes a master discourse and makes it speak of her own concerns, explicitly commenting on her own process of rewriting her tradition. This is, of course, no more or less than the practice of medieval poetics in general with its assumptions about the necessity for the citation of auctores. Yet we cannot understand what Christine is doing without making some attempt to discover what her culture assumed her auctores were doing. By grounding our reading of Christine's revision of her precursors in the materiality of their manuscript texts—that is, by also looking at some illuminations—we may be in a better position to assess just how idiosyncratic Christine's rewrite of a masculine tradition of textuality may be.5

The text first mentioned in the reading scene generic to medieval allegorical narrative, with which Christine appropriately opens her Cité des Dames, is Mathéolus, a virulently misogynist tract. But Christine's real target, as she makes absolutely explicit, is Jean de Meun's far more authoritative Roman de la Rose.6 In the "Querelle de la Rose," Christine had objected not only to Jean's misogyny, but to his vulgar language; in telling the story of Saturn's castration by Jupiter, Jean had made his Lady Reason use the slang term for testicles, "coilles."7 This moment was a favorite one for illuminations of manuscripts of the Rose,and the illuminations are usually as explicit as Jean's very explicit language.8 Christine's point was that the vulgar term for such a human body part derogated the sacred function of sexuality—and was furthermore most inappropriate to a character such as Lady Reason.

Christine's critique of Jean has drawn much criticism over the centuries, but her objection to the language of the castration story pinpoints her greatest move against Jean in the Cité de Dames —as well as her remarkable swerve away from the authority of her second major auctor in the Cité, Boccaccio's De Mulieribus Claris. Her rewrite of her auctores goes straight to the heart of a castration anxiety which may be said to be the originary moment for the misogyny in the texts of both the Rose and the De Claris.9 Reason's impolite language in Jean's text is the cause for which the lover dismisses Lady Reason as a figure of authority and rejects her kind of love: the lover specifically asks for "quelque cortaise parole," and thus Jean anticipates the kind of response readers like Christine would have and makes it part of his text. The rejection for the word, however, motivates the rest of the plot. In rejecting Reason, the lover turns to all the other dramatis personae of the poem. A number of other attempts are made in the Rose to explicate the story of Saturn's loss of his genitals; one may say, without much exaggeration, that Jean's text is slightly obsessed with getting the story and its implications of idolatry understood aright.10

The dismemberment of the male fathergod, through which erotic love is born, is not, of course, Jean's creation. But the myth and its crucial dismemberment of the male body underwrites the superficially polite but obscene tropes in which Jean describes—at epic length and in great (and hilarious) detail—a single act of sexual intercourse. Christine also appears to have understood the connection between the two, for she objected to the "unnaturalness" of such language with just as much vehemence as she argued against Jean's vulgarity.11 And of course, Jean's images for this final, culminating act of sexual intercourse are all drawn from the euphemisms Lady Reason explains she could have used instead of "coilles" to refer to genitals (especially "reliques"—indicating the primary problem of idolatry).

There is no explicit dismemberment of the male body in the opening of Boccaccio's De Mulieribus Claris. However, the second story he tells (after the story of Eve) is of Semiramis. A glorious and ancient queen of the Assyrians, Semiramis, on the death of her husband Ninus, cross-dressed and masquerading as her young son, took over the rule of the realm and led the army on to great victories. After proving herself, she revealed her true identity, causing great wonder, Boccaccio says, that a mere woman could accomplish so much. In her own person she not only maintained her husband's empire, but added to it Ethiopia and India. She restored the city of Babylon and walled it with ramparts, Boccaccio stresses, of marvelous height. Boccaccio takes care to tell one particular incident when Semiramis, having her hair braided, was interrupted by the news that Babylon had rebelled. Vowing to wear her second braid undone until she had subdued the city, she soon vanquished it and brought it to good order. A bronze statue was erected in Babylon of a woman with her hair braided on one side and loose on another, a reminder of Semiramis' brave deed.12 The usual illumination of the moment in manuscripts of the French translation of Boccaccio's text, however, emphasizes the infamous side of Semiramis' story. Not only was she a great warrior queen and city builder, she also practiced mother-son incest. Boccaccio makes clear the terrifying sexual ambiguity such an action causes.

But with one wicked sin this woman stained all these accomplishments … which are not only praiseworthy for a woman but would be marvelous even for a vigorous man. It is believed that this unhappy woman, constantly burning with carnal desire, gave herself to many men. Among her lovers, and this is something more beastly than human, was her own son Ninus, a very handsome young man. As if he had changed his sex with his mother, Ninus rotted away idly in bed, while she sweated in arms against her enemies.13

A representative illumination of this aspect of Semiramis' story reveals the distinctly uncomfortable position in which his mother's martial power places the young son Ninus. Boccaccio's figurative sense of Ninus' exchange of sex with his mother implies an emasculation the illumination also hints at in Ninus' posture: the truncated hand, stuffed (protectively?) into the young boy's placket in the general area of the genitals all too clearly answers the menace of Semiramis' remarkably large sword. Doubtless the sword is meant to represent Semiramis' great martial courage and achievements; but juxtaposed with the figure of Ninus, it represents the young man's effeminization (his unworn armor hangs on a rack above him). That Semiramis' sword also bisects the head of one of the armed soldiers standing behind her to the left of the miniature may imply that her martial prowess menaces more than Ninus.

"Oh," Boccaccio laments, "what a wicked thing this is! For this pestilence flies about not only when things are quiet, but even among the fatiguing cares of kings and bloody battles, and, most monstrous, while one is in sorrow and exile. Making no distinction of time, it goes about, gradually seizes the minds of the unwary and drags them to the edge of the abyss." In order to cover her crime, Semiramis decreed "that notorious law" (legem … insignem) which allowed her subjects to do what they pleased in sexual matters. According to some, Semiramis invented chastity belts. According to others, her end was not good. "Either because he could not bear seeing his mother with many other lovers, or because he thought her dishonor brought him shame, or perhaps because he feared that children might be born to succeed to the throne, Ninus killed the wicked queen in anger." Ninus' distinctly overdetermined matricide opens up possible questions about the connection between the legend of Semiramis and the first story Boccaccio tells concerning Eve, the mother of us all. More importantly, Boccaccio's humanist uncertainty about Ninus' motives underscores the problematic nature of textual transmission. He offers many endings for Semiramis' story because the authorities conflict.14

Astonishingly, Christine makes Semiramis the first story Lady Reason tells in the building of her city of ladies. "Take the trowel of your pen and ready yourself to lay down bricks and labor diligently, for you can see here a great and large stone which I want to be the first placed as the foundation of your City" (p. 38; revised).15 Christine's Semiramis is more of a city builder than Boccaccio's—the first empire was a dual achievement of the elder Ninus and Semiramis together, who no less than her husband campaigned in arms. Upon the husband's death, Semiramis does not cross-dress, but simply continues in her role of ruler and conqueror, adding Ethiopia, India, and fortifying Babylon. Christine retells the incident of the Babylonian rebellion, the braid left undone, and the statue, this time bronze richly gilt. Where Boccaccio begins his descant on incest, Christine acknowledges: "It is quite true that many people reproach her—and if she had lived under our law, rightfully so—because she took as husband a son she had had with Ninus her lord" (p. 40). Where Boccaccio spends time guessing as to Ninus' possible motives in killing his mother, Christine points out the reasons Semiramis may have had for taking her son as husband. First: she wanted no other crowned lady in the realm, and this would have happened if her son had married; and second, no other man was worthy to have her as a wife except her son. What troubles Christine most is that "de ceste erreur, que trop fu grande, ycelle noble dame fait aucunement a excuser" (II, 680); "But this error, which was very great, this noble lady did nothing at all to excuse" (p. 40). Why? Because "adonc n'estoit encore point de loy escripte"; "there was as yet no written law." Indeed then, Christine reasons, people lived according to the law of Nature, where all people were allowed to do whatever came into their hearts without sinning. Where Boccaccio's Semiramis decrees a law, Christine's lives before any such thing exists. That this law prior to which she lives is a written law, is, I think, significant. It subtly recalls all of the previous conversations between Christine and Reason about the written authorities of the misogynist tradition that Christine finds so daunting in the generic reading scene of this allegory. The only authority Christine has to oppose to the "grant foyson de autteurs," which are like a surging fountain and which have all denigrated women, is "moy meisme et mes meurs come femme naturelle"—my self and my conduct as a natural woman (II, 618).16 That is, until the three crowned ladies appear and give her a lesson in allegorical reading.17 Reason further undermines the authority of such texts when she wittily announces that any argument against women was not authorized by her. Such a tradition grows in part simply because "in order to show they have read many authors, men base their own writings on what they have found in books and repeat what other writers have said and cite different authors." This undermining of textual, written authority, makes Christine sound distinctly modern, much like Francis Bacon inveighing against the mindless quibblings of scholastic philosophy. A miniature from the late fifteenth-century Flemish translation of the Cité illuminates the moment when the detritus of misogynist opinion is cleared from the "field of letters" before the foundations for the city are dug. Christine's removal of such a written tradition is of a piece with her revision of Boccaccio's legal detail: by means of the speaking presence in the text of a visionary female figure of authority, who persistently says she speaks prophetically, and whose textual gender is made more literal by its coherence with the author's own, Christine appears to establish her specific, female authority on oral and prophetic grounds, different from a mere textual tradition. Christine suppresses Boccaccio's worry about textual transmission at the same time she suppresses Semiramis' ignoble end.

We do not need to invoke any anthropological argument (or authority) to see the priority granted oral experience in Christine's story of Semiramis—though it is intriguing that, for instance, Derrida's discussion of the violence of writing focuses on a scene that involves little girls divulging to Levi-Strauss the secret names of the tribe.18 Christine's own authority in the Cité is, however, at the same time markedly scripted: Reason is constantly reminding Christine of what she has written in her own prior texts, so that Christine's own corpus forms part of the authorities to which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice appeal. Yet the ultimate claim of female authority is to a non-scripted, prophetic mode, grounded in a realm of discourse that is made to stand as far outside the textual as anything within a text can get.

In a sense, Christine's emphasis on a prior unscripted freedom which would authorize motherson incest as being acceptable and even honorable is of a piece with her criticism of Jean de Meun's vulgar terms for body parts and also his euphemism in describing the act of sexual intercourse: the relations between language—written and oral—become most crucial in its relation to naming the body. If her two auctores founded their texts in stories that underscore the originary problem of castration anxiety, her objections—overt against Jean and silent against Boccaccio—react not only to their terms but to the fundamental importance of the problem. One does not need to invoke Freud to see the peculiar emotional burdens revealed by the manuscript illuminations of the two moments in Jean's and Boccaccio's texts. Christine's City is built with a foundation stone (the story of Semiramis) and written in the language of an allegory that refuses to recognize this peculiar terror as being first, or finally, very significant. The body upon which Christine focuses—both early and late—is, not surprisingly, the female body. And it is a body which also relentlessly—almost monotonously—refuses to be dismembered.

It is important to notice at the outset that the physical body which first bears mention in the text is Christine's own. The physicality of this body—and its essential femaleness—makes its appearance very subtly in the first paragraph of the text of the Cité. In the midst of the reading scene, just as Christine comes across the volume of Mathéolus while searching through the shelves for a volume of poetry, Christine's mother calls her to supper. (Imagine anyone calling any of the protagonists of allegorical dream visions to supper just after he has picked up the text which will be his authority in the subsequent journey.) That it is Christine's mother who calls her to supper is not only pertinent in terms of the continuum of female authorities Christine is going to supply in her text, it signals the humdrum domesticity of the scene. (Christine's mother did in fact live with her; one of the figures of authority in the Cité talks about this real, down-to-earth mother who had not wanted her daughter to get the education her father had given her.19 Unlike Dante (or Chaucer, or the narrator of the Rose, Christine takes time out to eat and does not have a "dream"—such as most allegorical dream-visions insist. Rather, she has a waking vision, much like Dante's (whose authority in this she does follow—having explicitly preferred him to Jean de Meun in the Querelle de la Rose20). That next morning and most importantly, however, Christine's response to reading Mathéolus is revulsion against her own female body:

Alas God, why did you not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve you better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as man is said to be?…"I spoke these words to God in my lament and a great deal more for a very long time in sad reflection, and in my folly I considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.

(Richards, p. 5)21

The vision begins with the arrival of the three ladies immediately after this lament; but Christine further specifies the exact physical position in which she sits in her chair.

So occupied with these painful thoughts, my head bowed like someone shameful, my eyes filled with tears, holding my hand under my cheek with my elbow on the pommel of my chair, I suddenly saw a ray of light fall on my lap, as though it were the sun.

(Richards, p. 6; revised)22

Given the fact that the description of the position follows directly upon Christine's lament about her "corps feminin," however, the specific mention of body parts is striking. In an earlier text, the Mutacion de Fortune, Christine had said that Fortune changed her into a man so she could take the helm of her foundering ship, but in the Cité, this gender-change is distinctly disallowed.23 The three women arrive to chastise her for being like the fool in the story who was dressed in women's clothes while he slept; "because those who were making fun of him repeatedly told him he was a woman he believed their false testimony more readily than the certainty of his own identity" (Richards, p. 6). The woman who will later be identified as Reason, specifically by the mirror she holds—anyone who looks into it will achieve clear self-knowledge—specifically argues that all the misogynist argument which has so swayed Christine as to feel self-disgust for her femaleness, is like the fire which tries gold:

Fair daughter, have you lost all sense? Have you forgotten that when fine gold is tested in the furnace, it does not change or vary in strength but becomes purer the more it is hammered and handled in different ways. Do you not know that the best things are the most debated and the most discussed?… Come back to yourself, recover your senses, and do not trouble yourself anymore over such absurdities.

(Richards, pp. 7-8)

Such an insistence on the senses may simply be metonymic reference to the alternative authority of "experience" Reason wishes to stress against the scripted authority of misogynist tradition. The problematic relationship between the experience of the physical body and the bookish tradition may be seen in a miniature in the Flemish translation. [The] figure shows a despondent Christine, hand on cheek, elbow on chair, surrounded by books. The small detail of the knife on Christine's desk beneath her left hand, used for correcting scribal errors, itself pointing to the books to Christine's left, may suggest that the illuminator understood Christine's point quite well about the need to correct the written tradition.24 (The same miniaturist painted the scene of digging as a representation of Reason's command to clear away misogynist opinion from the "field of letters"; the two pictures, then, make the same point.) Chaucer's Wife of Bath had announced her preference: "Experience though none auctoritee Were in this world is right enough for me." Chaucer's portrait of the anti-misogynist Wife also underscores a similar conflict. The Wife's deafness is caused when her fifth husband, the clerk Jankyn, hits her on the side of the head after she has ripped out some pages from his misogynist book. Does the deafness, one wonders, speak to the problematic orality of a female tradition that is necessarily opposed to the clerkly scripted tradition?

Of course, most of what gets said by the three figures of authority in the Cité des Dames comes out of books. The very building of the city is the writing of the book of the city of ladies. Christine cannot, nor as an allegorist would, escape textuality. As Jane Gallop has usefully reminded us, no writing can evade textuality, even that which would strain most resolutely to ground the difference between male and female writing in the biological differences between male and female bodies:

At the very moment when she would proclaim the shift from metaphor to fact, the feminist critic cannot help but produce metaphors … this moment recurs in various texts … when, in reaching for some nonrhetorical body, some referential body to ground sexual difference outside of writing, the critic produces a rhetorical use of the body as metaphor for the nonrhetorical.25

It may be easier, however, to specify a distinctly female practice in writing that does not run into the contemporary modern dilemma of "essentialism" by focussing on a medieval female author's practice. Untouched by a biologism constructed by a modern "scientific" discourse, Christine's approach to the historical actuality of female bodies, translated into a transcendent textuality, is empowered by a long-lived ideology of fleshly sacrifice, which paradoxically insists upon the power of the word made flesh.26 The very presence of the third section of the Cité, narrated by Justice, in which Christine provides an abbreviated female martyrology taken from Vincent of Beauvais, insists upon the centrality of the female body to her project. Of course, including a martyrology is also her greatest resistance to her auctor Boccaccio who had insisted that the stories of pagan and Christian women should be told together. Boccaccio rests his claim to humanist originality in the De Claris (and his own difference from Petrarch) on the distinction between the oft-told tales of saints' lives and the fact that the merits of pagan women "have not been published in any special work up to now and have not been set forth by anyone."27 Christine is remarkably attentive to Boccaccio's representation of his own authority, as her inclusion of the martyrology attests. By including it, she aims to revise at the point where he bases his own greatest claim for originality. She further chooses to name him as her auctor for the first time when she retells his story of the Roman woman Proba, notable for having rewritten the stories of Scripture, from Genesis to the Epistles, in the verses of Virgil, "that is,…in one part she would take several entire verses unchanged and in another borrow small snatches of verse, and, through marvelous craftsmanship and conceptual subtlety" she was able to narrate the Bible in Virgil's poetry (p. 66). As David Anderson has very interestingly suggested, Boccaccio's praise of Proba's achievements indicates some of his own practice of imitation in rehearsing Statius' Thebaid in the Teseide, as well as, of course, his own use of sources in the De Claris.28 Proba's practice proleptically stages the very problem the Renaissance would find so tricky to solve. Suffice it to say that at least one fifteenth-century reader noticed the significance of Boccaccio's story, if not for his practice, then for her own; Christine names him as her auctor, and quotes him verbatim with an acknowledgement for the first time. What Proba did to Vergil, so Christine does to Boccaccio.29

Christine's greatest difference from Boccaccio, however, is her three part structure and its allegorical frame, through which she analyzes and thematically organizes the materials she has taken from him. Through the allegorical frame she also stages her own authority, and, in effect, turns herself into her own figure of authority.30 By positing herself ("moi mesme") as a "natural" woman at the center of her text, she literalizes the gender that has been implicit in all female figures of auctoritas, itself a feminine noun that would require a female figure for its personification. The famous illuminations of the Cité instructively indicate the nature of the wordplay on which Christine's allegorical metaphor rests: although the text of the Cité has been very little read, its illuminations are some of the best known in the history of art— having been done by the hand which Millard Meiss has termed the "Cité des Dames Master."31 They are important not merely for their artistic merit, however, but because of their close replication of authorial intention. In a brilliant study of the different political programs for two separate manuscripts of Christine's Epistre Othéa, Sandra L. Hindman has shown that Christine not only herself wrote the manuscript of the text that is presently collected in the volume known as Harley 4431 in the British Library, she also indicated in special rubrics in purple ink specific instructions for the illuminator to follow.32 The illuminations of the Cité are from the same Harley two-volume collection of Christine's work. Although the text of the Cité does not bear the same authority as the text of the Othéa, its illuminations are so close to the copy which probably was overseen by Christine, that they will serve for our purposes.33

The first thing that strikes the eye about the incipit illumination to the Livre de la Cité des Dames is the femaleness of the enterprise. Christine's illuminator represents her as an author already; the text opens in Christine's book-filled study. The three crowned ladies holding their duly explained emblems are Reason, in the back, holding her mirror; Droiture, or Rectitude holding her ruler in the middle; and Justice in the foreground, holding her measuring vessel. To the right we see the actual construction of the city under way, with Reason handing Christine a building block, while Christine holds her trowel—or her pen. The coequal activity of the figure of authority and the author collapses their authority; it replicates the insistence in the text that the three ladies share with Christine the same opposition to the tradition against which she reacts. In an echo, I suspect, of Dante's cry that he was neither Aeneas or Paul to undertake such a journey, Christine complains that she is not Thomas the apostle to build in heaven a city for the king of India. When she complains that furthermore she has a weak female body, Reason tells her that she will carry materials on her own shoulders (much like father Virgil carries Dante over some difficult spots). Together they construct both a book and a city that will become a haven for women safe from further misogynist attack. Christine has the books—Reason provides the bricks. The two sides of the illumination are held together by a textual pun. Each of the three figures continually tell Christine that they will "livrerons" the material for her city: "Thus, fair daughter, to you is given the prerogative among women to make and build the City of Ladies. For the foundation and perfection of which, you will take and draw from us three living water as from clear fountains, and we will deliver (te livre-rons) enough material, strong and more durable than any marble with cement could be. So will your city be very beautiful without parallel, and of perpetual duration in the world" (Richards, p. 11, revised).34 The "livre" and the "cité" are written and built simultaneously, with the delivery of the same "matiere."35 Thus, every story narrated in the first section is another "pierre" laid in the walls of this edifying edifice.

The opening of the second section of the Cité is illuminated by another miniature. Droiture receives into the city the ten sybils, famous prophetesses whose authority is greater than all the Old Testament prophets; their stories begin the completion of the internal palaces.36 In this section, Droiture tells the story of the Sybil Almathea; in her oral and prophetic authority, Droiture has more accurate knowledge than even the tradition of Virgil. Justice takes over for the third and final section of the Cité, shown welcoming Mary into the city as its queen. A later illumination rereads the figure of Mary, substituting a baby for the book. Such a book/baby translation is a legitimate reading of the corporeal textuality of the hagiography of the third section and one may say that this illuminator grants us a legitimate and interesting reading of the text. It is not merely a conventional substitution as the earlier, more careful count of ten sybils in the miniature for the second section attested. Before we consider how sensitively poised this body/book tension is in the last section, it will be useful to consider how the female body is represented in Boccaccio's text, at least as that text was read by Christine's contemporaries. There is a persistent vision of the display of violence against the female body throughout the illuminated manuscripts of the Des Cleres Femmes; such violence in Boccaccio's text may have provided another reason for Christine's inclusion of a martyrology in the Cité. A fairly representative miniature. [Shows] Nero having his mother Agrippina cut open so he may see the womb from which he was born.37

Christine's text incorporates and rewrites this violence against the female body by authorizing it as hagiography. In switching genres in her change of auctors, she not only moves against Boccaccio's decision not to write about martyred Christian women, she also selects a genre which insists upon a parity between male and female passion.38 Both male and female saints are tortured and die in similar ways. Furthermore, the representations of such torture in the illuminations often insist upon the sexlessness of the saint's body. Two representative miniatures, one of Pope Urben, a male saint, and of Marcienne, a female saint, in a late 14th-century manuscript of Vincent of Beauvais Miroir Historial illustrate the gender-neutral body of the saint. The lack of genitals and the parallel musculature insist that in this moment of physical suffering the experience of martyrdom is sexless (in both senses of the term).

Christine, of course, in only telling of female saints' lives in the Cité, changes the pattern of parallelism. She further regenders the body and changes its social contexts by including a number of different details; her revisions of Vincent of Beauvais, her auctor for the last section, are thus similar to her subtle suppressions and corrections of Boccaccio. She also uses a similar maneuver to her well-timed naming of Boccaccio when she cites Vincent as her auctor, just before Justice recounts the story of St. Christine, Christine's own patron saint.

If you want me to tell you all about the holy virgins who are in Heaven because of their constancy during martyrdom, it would require a long history, including Saint Cecilia, Saint Agnes, Saint Agatha, and countless others. If you want more examples, you need only look at the Speculum historiale of Vincent de Beauvais, and there you will find a great many. However, I will tell you about Saint Christine, both because she is your patron and because she is a virgin of great dignity. Let me tell you at greater length about her beautiful and pious life.

(Richards, p. 234)

In naming Vincent just before she tells the story of her own patron saint, Christine distinguishes her own authority from his; she also implies that the story she tells will be necessarily different. One reads Vincent; we hear Justice speak.

The largest difference between Christine's and Vincent's versions of St. Christine's story is the Cité 's treatment of the saint's parents. In the Miroir, it is both pagan parents who separately attempt to dissuade their headstrong daughter from refusing to sacrifice to their pagan gods. In Vincent's text, St. Christine's father has shut her up in a tower with some ladies in waiting so she may worship his gods.39 When the young female companions tattle on her, and confess that she has not been worshiping the idols but rather looking out the window to pray to a single celestial god, he has her tortured. As soon as her mother finds out about this torture, she comes to visit her daughter to try to stop her from being so obstinate. Vincent's mother is a study in hysterical pathos:

And then her mother, wife to Urben, hearing that her daughter had suffered so great pain, tore her clothes and put ashes on her head and went to the prison and threw herself at her daughter's feet and, crying, said, "My only daughter, have pity on me who nursed you at my breasts and make it clear why you worship a strange god."40

St. Christine harshly answers: "Why do you call me daughter; for you have no one in your lineage who is called a christian (crestiene). Do you not know that I have my name from Christ my savior? He is the one who tests me in celestial chivalry and has armed me to conquer those who do not understand." The mother, hearing this, returns to her house and denounces all to her husband.

In the Cité, St. Christine has no mother. Urben is sole parent, and it is to him, both father and first torturer, that Christine abjures her parentage.

"Tyrant who should not be called my father but rather enemy of my happiness, you boldly torture the flesh which you engendered, for you can easily do this, but as for my soul created by my Father in Heaven, you have not power to touch it with the slightest temptation, for it is protected by my Savior, Jesus Christ."

(Richards, pp. 235-36)

Such a suppression is of a piece with Christine's persistent emphasis on patriarchal control exercised by earthly fathers (as well as surrogate tyrant figures) in a number of other lives; it equally coheres with an emphasis on the generous and loving relations between earthly mothers and daughters.

In both texts, Urben has St. Christine stripped naked, beaten by twelve men, tied on a wheel over a fire, and rivers of boiling oil poured over her body. Angels break the wheel so that the virgin is delivered "healthy and whole," while in the meantime more than a thousand treacherous spectators who had been watching this torture without pity are killed. Urben decides to drown her; a great stone is tied around her neck and she is thrown into the sea, but angels save her and she walks on the water with them. Praying, she asks that the water be for her the holy sacrament of baptism which she has greatly desired, "where-upon Jesus Christ descended in His own person with a large company of angels and baptized her and named her Christine from His own name" (Richards, p. 236); "la baptisma et nomma de son nom Christine." However, in the Miroir, the waters are only a "signacle de beptesme," while a voice from heaven merely announces her prayer has been heard, as a cloud and a purple star descend on her head, representing the glory of Jesus Christ. While the notion of the name in the Miroir is the wedge between mother and daughter—and is present, if at all, only in a fairly unstressed use of the word "crestiene"—the granting of the baptismal name "Christine" from Christ's own name in the Cité is nowhere mentioned in the Miroir; neither is the baptism a literal sacrament in the Miroir as it is in the Cité, and Vincent also does not reiterate Christine's loyal suffering for Christ's "nom." Christine revises Vincent to make the baptism a literal event that underscores the naming of the saint by the divine son himself, with his own name. He is, of course, the baby who substituted for the book, the Logos who suffered a fleshly sacrifice. The baptism is one of two central events—both intricate conflations of verbal and physical issues—in the Cité 's version of Christine's story; the other also concerns the physical fact of language.

Yet a third judge, named Julian, takes a different and very interesting tack in his torture. After having set some snakes upon her who merely nurse at her breasts, he decides to have them cut off (milk and blood issue forth). Then he commands that her tongue be cut out. In the Cité, Julian's decision is precisely motivated: "because she unceasingly pronounced the name of Jesus Christ," he decides to have her tongue cut out. She has already told him that he is blind—"if your eyes would see the virtues of God, you would believe in them." Her tongue is duly "coupee," but she goes on speaking more clearly than before of divine things. God speaks to her again, praising her for upholding the name of Christ. Hearing this voice, Julian charges the executioners to cut her tongue so short that she cannot speak to her Christ "whereupon they ripped out her tongue and cut it off at the root" (Richards, p. 239). Immediately thereafter:

She spat this cut-off piece of her tongue into the tyrant's face, putting out one of his eyes. She then said to him, speaking as clearly as ever, "Tyrant, what does it profit you to have my tongue cut out so that it cannot bless God, when my soul will bless Him forever while yours languishes forever in eternal damnation. And because you did not hear my words, my tongue has blinded you, with good reason."

(Richards, p. 239-40)

The French makes the witty connection between langue and parole more obvious: "Et pource que tu ne congnois ma parolle, c'est bien raison que ma langue t'ait aveugle." (II. 1009).41 In the Miroir, the saint has a less witty if far more grisly denunciation:

Je te condamne mengier en tenebras les members de mon corpse. Tu les avois destruez & tua trenchee ma langue qui beneissoit dieu. Et pource as tu droicturierment perdue sa veue.

(f. 485)

I condemn you to eat in hell the parts of my body. You have destroyed them and have cut off my tongue which blessed god. And therefore you have rightfully lost your sight.

In the Cité, this body is not accessible to a metaphorical infernal punishment. While in both texts, it is the physical, literal tongue which puts out the literal physical eye, only Christine calls attention to the metaphorical blindness that has been the problem all along.42 One senses that the saint's curse in the Miroir has a literal, Dantesque character—a contrapasso punishment of the tyrant's eating the body parts of the saint he has so hideously dismembered. Christine de Pizan sacrifices this wittiness to stress her own sense of the relations between the power of the saint's fleshly, physical tongue to speak the truth in its continuing and miraculous confession of Christ's name and its power to make people see that truth—thousands have been converted by the saint's virtue. The dismembered tongue is capable of making a political intervention.

In the Miroir the story ends with the remark that "ung home de son lignage" writes the saint's legend. In the Cité, an ungendered "parent" takes "le saint corps et escript sa glorieuse legende" (II.1009). The body and its scripted legend are kept more closely connected, not consigned to an infernal region, but remaining a sainted flesh-form, apparently resurrected and still coextensive with the saint herself. Breaking into her own text for the only time, Christine directly addresses a prayer to St. Christine.

O blessed Christine, worthy virgin favored of God, most elect and glorious martyr, in the holiness with which God has made you worthy, pray for me, a sinner, named with your name, and be my kind and merciful guardian. Behold my joy at being able to make use of your holy legend and to include it in my writings, which I have recorded here at such length out of reverence for you. May this be ever pleasing to you! Pray for all women, for whom your holy life may serve as an example for ending their lives well. Amen.

(Richards, p. 240)

If the authorities of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice may be said to be merely allegorical representations of Christine's own female authority, this prayer stands finally outside the fiction of the text, in a "real" appeal to a functioning saint. St. Christine is one of the citizens who will dwell in the Cité —but of course she already dwells in the civitas dei, transtemporally accessible to the author in this prayer. One could say that the details of the legend of Christine are exquisitely suited to representing a female anxiety of authorship. Christine did not make up the detail of the dismembered tongue; she does however save St. Christine's physical body in her text, against the witty authority of her auctor. The literal prayer, fully functional as active language, collapses distinctions between saint's legend, author's "escriptures," and the instrumental effect Christine hopes her text will have on her female readers in the political present of the French court in 1405 and in the future. Christine de Pizan remakes herself as her own figure of authority, punningly calling attention to the divine authority of her own name by dramatizing the naming of her patron saint.

Stephen G. Nichols has recently argued that hagiography is a mediated scripted genre controlled by the institution of the church, designed to marginalize unauthorized prophetic voices that would subvert central institutionalized authority, most specifically the voices of women. The only body that speaks in a hagiographical text is a dead body; it speaks, moreover, by having been turned into a text.43 Christine's rewrite of Vincent's details, I have tried to suggest, reinvests the body with a living instrumentality, even as it is being dismembered. The mediated, interpreted events of St. Christine's legend in Vincent's rendition are made literal, present events in Christine's revision of her auctor. Mere signs become actual events. The prayer to St. Christine also functions to bring the possibilities of a present power into the text, which, while it remains a mere record, makes contact with a transtemporal and prophetic present. Christine's revisions of Vincent begin to turn hagiography into prophecy and connects the saints' legends of the last section of the Cité with the persistent emphasis on prophecy in the first two.

At the end of her life Christine de Pizan took to actual prophecy. After having retreated to a convent before the Burgundian invasion of Paris, and having remained silent for eleven years, Christine wrote the last poem of her life, the Ditié de Jehanne D'Arc, finishing it on July 31, 1429. It was the only poem to have been written about Joan during her lifetime. Christine nowhere mentions her own earlier texts in this poem; she does not call attention to her former persistent arguments about female virtue, her political treatises on peace, on the arts of war, or any of her other writings. She does, however, begin with her formulaic "Je, Christine," which may function as an authoritative sign for the existing corpus of texts.44 It has always seemed like a peculiarly appropriate accident of history that Joan should appear on the scene of the hundred years' war in time for Christine to write about her and to welcome her as an (at that point) unambiguous sign of God's special love for the female sex: "Hee! quel honneur au feminin Sexe! Que Dieu l'ayme il appert" (265-66). As far as I know, no one has asked if there might not be a connection between the two unique occurrences, the presence of a prominent female author, the first professional woman of letters who made public and constant arguments for the virtue of women at the French court for over twenty years, and the acceptance by that court, a generation later, of a low-born female teenager as the martial savior of her country. To suggest a possible causal connection may be to do no more than to question whether or not the practice of a prominently placed author contributed to the "discursive possibilities" of a culture.45 Criticism is now more comfortable with thinking of literature in its potential social instrumentality, how, in fact, the practice of an individual author may be seen as an "intervention" in the ideological constructs of a society. This was certainly Christine's stated intention in the Livre de la Cité des Dames, as well as in a number of her more overtly didactic manuals. With the Ditié 's specific address of the king, the soldier, Joan herself, the city of Paris, and the nation at large, Christine certainly intended a prophetic and immediate intervention for this particular poem, as she apparently also assumed, from her first critique of the Roman de la Rose, that literature had real moral impact.

Her radical insertion of her gender-specific authority into a misogynist tradition proceeds in the case of her three different, explicitly named, auctores, in an almost text-book like demonstration of how it should be done. That she in the process creates an almost monolithically stable subjectivity in her persona as female author defies our current notions of the historical progress in the construction of the modern "subject." Her seeming modernity, predicated as I have tried to show, on the most "medieval" practice of authorial citation and revision, and her explicit and inexplicit scrutiny of a misogyny driven by what can be termed various oedipal anxieties, as well as her focus on the problematic relations between oral and written traditions of authority in the representation of the female body would seem to place her at the center of a number of late twentieth century critical concerns and therefore in a position somewhat anachronistic to her late medieval moment. However, her not entirely coincidental overlap with Joan of Arc negates such an ahistorical accounting for her career. Christine doubtless wrote the text of the Ditié with a simple pen, but she appears to have written it with a sense of the political instrumentality of literature that we are only now beginning to appreciate. If the laws decreeing the legitimacy of the middle ages do not at the moment account for her political practices, need it be said that they should perhaps be rewritten?


  1. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
  2. A quick overview of the various positions taken by different French theorists may be found in Susan Suleiman, "(Re)Writing the Body: The Politics of Female Eroticism," in The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Suleiman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 7-29.
  3. For a recent study which places Christine in the context of the French court, see Sandra L. Hindman, Christine de Pizan's "Epistre Othea": Painting and Politics at the Court of Charles VI (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1986).
  4. Although a modern edition of the French text by Monica Lange has been forthcoming since 1974, the Cité has yet to be printed. The more obviously conservative Trésor de la Cité des Dames (Le Livre des Trois Vertus) was published in three early printed editions in 1497, 1503, and 1536; the Cité remains the only major text by Christine never to have been printed. See Angus J. Kennedy, Christine de Pizan: a Bibliographical Guide (London: Grant and Cutler, Ltd., 1984).
  5. Although a miniature can provide no sure check on textual interpretation, because visual evidence can be as easily misinterpreted as texts, the two were assumed to be coherently readable together. Early fifteenth-century understandings of the similar moral impact of both picture and text thus offer some historical legitimacy in taking pictures as evidence of possible interpretations. Jean Gerson, for instance, questions: "Mais qui plus art et enflemme ces ames que paroles dissolues et que luxuryeuses escriptures et paintures?" (But what burns and enflames these souls more than dissolute words and libidinous writings and paintings?) Eric Hicks, ed., Le Débat sur Le Roman de la Rose (Paris: Editions Honore Champion, 1977), p. 68.
  6. "Et la vituperacion que dit, non mie seullement luy mais d'autres et messement le Rommant de la Rose ou plus grant foy est adjoustee pour cause de l'auctorite de l'auteur" (II. 624); "As for the attack … made not only by Mathéolus but also by others and even by the Romance of the Rose where greater credibility is averred because of the authority of its author." Citations are to "The 'Livre de la Cité des Dames' of Christine de Pisan: A Critical Edition," ed. Maureen Curnow (Ph.D. diss. Vanderbilt, 1975), 2 vols.: English translations are from The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea Books, 1982).
  7. Hicks, pp. 13-14, 117-118. For English translations of the documents see "La Querelle de la Rose": Letters and Documents, ed. J. L. Baird and K. R. Kane (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Dept. of Romance Languages, 1978); Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Felix Lecoy (Paris: Editions Honore Champion, 1965), 3 vols; I, line 5507.
  8. The miniature is from Douce 195, Bodley Library, Oxford; it was done in the late fifteenth century for Louise of Savoy and the Count of Angouleme, parents of Francis I. For a peculiarly full illustration of the whole story, showing the birth of Venus from the dismembered genitals as well as the castrated body, see John V. Fleming, The Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), Fig. 33. The Valencia MS Fleming prints may have been illuminated by one of the miniaturists Christine used, causing her—so Charity Canon Willard guesses—greater consternation about the vulgarity of the text. See Willard, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea Books, 1984), pp. 229-30, n. 24.
  9. When Lady Reason explains that Ovid turned to writing attacks on women only after he had been punished for his political and sexual transgressions by being "diffourmez de ses membres" (i.e. castrated), Christine would appear to point to this origin (Cité, II, 648; Richards, p. 21). The argument about Ovid was, of course, conventional, but in the context of the Cité's rejection of the whole misogynist tradition, Christine would appear to anticipate a series of modern feminist critiques of Freudian theories about the oedipal complex and female sexuality. See, in particular, Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," Signs 1 (1976), 875-93, and Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Catherine Porter, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
  10. For further discussion of the perhaps defensible tactic Jean de Meun uses and his revision of his precursors, see my "Allegory, Allegoresis, and the Deallegorization of Language: the Roman de la Rose, the De planctu naturae, and the Parlement of Foules, "in Allegory, Myth, and Symbol, ed. Morton Bloomfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 163-86.
  11. Willard quotes Christine's basic argument: "If you wish to excuse him by saying that it pleases him to make a pretty story of the culmination of love using such images [figures], I reply that by doing so he neither tells nor explains anything new. Doesn't everyone know how men and women copulate naturally?" See Hicks, p. 20. Christine makes clear in a later document in the "Querelle" that her objections to the words are, in essence, political. Having argued that "the word does not make the thing shameful, but the thing makes the word dishonorable," Christine explains to Pierre Col that the "thing" in question is not precisely the physical body part (made by God, although polluted by the Fall), but the speaker's "intention" in using the word: in contrast to Christine's own use of a polite term, for instance, whereby "la fin pour quoy j'en parleroye ne seroit pas deshonneste," a use of the proper name would be shameful because "la primere entencion de la chose a ja fait le non deshonneste" (Hicks, p. 117). Christine's ultimate objection to the Rose was to Jean's authorial misogyny: "lui, seul homme, osa entreprendre a diffamer et blasmer sans excepcion tout un sexe" (Hicks, p. 22). Her quarrel with his choice of words would appear to take aim at the bawdiness of a discursive practice which underwrote the overall misogyny. For a discussion of Christine's essentially political objections to the Rose, see Pierre-Yves Badel, Le Roman de la Rose au XIVe siècle: Étude de la Réception de l'Œuvre (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1980), pp. 411-47, esp. p. 428.
  12. The four-part incipit miniature in a manuscript of the French translation of the De Claris, the De Cleres et Nobles Femmes, probably done by Laurent de Primierfait in 1401, reveals the importance of Semiramis' story in the fourteenth-century French reading of the text. The episode of the messenger's arrival while Semiramis is having her hair braided is represented in the lower left quadrant, just beneath the author portrait in the upper left quadrant (British Library, London, MS Royal 20 C.V, f.1). The only text of the Cité to have any of its internal stories illustrated, the late fifth-century Flemish translation De Lof der Wrouwen (MS Add 20698 in the British Library) also illuminates this moment, for it is a signal event in Christine's version of the story as in Boccaccio's (f. 41).
  13. Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, trans. Guido A. Guarino (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963), p. 6. Ceterum hec omnia, nedum in femina, sed in quocunque viro strenuous, mirabilia atque laudabilia et perpetua memoria celebranda, una obscene mulier fedavit illecebra. Nam cum, inter ceteras, quasi assidua libidinis prurigine, ureretur infelix, plurium miscuisse se concubitui creditum est; et inter mechose, bestiale quid potius quam humanum, filius Ninias numeatur, unus prestantissime forme iuvenis, qui, uti mutasset com matre sexum, in thalamis marcebat ocio, ubi hec adversus hostes sudabat in armis. De Mulieribus Claris, ed. Vittorio Zaccaria, Tutte Le Opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, ed. Vittore Branca (Mondadori, 1967), 12 vols., XI, 36.
  14. For a discussion of Christine's and Boccaccio's different relations to textual tradition, see Liliane Dulac, "Semiramis ou la Veuve heroique," Mélanges de Philologie Romane offerts à Charles Camproux (Montpellier: C.E.O. Montpellier, 1978), 315-43.
  15. "Sy prens la truelle de ta plume et t'aprestes de fort maçonner et ouvrer par grant diligence. Car voycy une grande et large pierre que je veuil qui soit la premiere assise ou fondement de ta cite" (I, 676).
  16. Susan Groag Bell, in "Christine de Pizan (1364-1430): Humanism and the Problem of a Studious Woman," Feminist Studies 3 (1976), 1 173-84, points out that whereas Boccaccio denigrates women's traditional pursuits, Christine ignores his deprecations in her rewrites of his stories. Bell also notices that in the sequel to the Cité, the Trésor de la Cité des Dames or Le Livre des Trois Vertus, Christine does not counsel women to study letters but rather gives practical advice on how to gain power in the current social conditions; Bell concludes that such a practice demonstrates Christine's assumption that "it was 'woman's work' that kept the fabric of society intact" (p. 181).
  17. It is possible that Christine knew Alain de Lille's De planctu naturae, in which Lady Nature gives a long explanation of reading "per antiphrasim"; in the Cité Lady Reason explains that we are to read by "the grammatical figure of antiphrasis" (p. 7). In the debate over the Rose, Gerson had specifically taken Jean de Meun to task for plagiarizing Alain, pointing out however, that, after having reread Alain, he can state unequivocally that Alain never speaks as Jean does, but consistently condemns vices against nature (Hicks, p. 80).
  18. For a discussion of this moment in Levi-Strauss' text, see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 101-40.
  19. Motherhood is one of the more immediate stances for female authority; Christine was herself a mother of three children, and she uses this authoritative position in the Ensignemens moraux to address her son, Jean Castel, Œuvres poétiques de Christine de Pisan, ed. M. Roy (Paris: Firmin Didot), 3 vols: III, 27-44. The significant importance of her own mother, however, in the opening pages of the Cité, calls up large questions about the relation of real mothering to any female's identity as author or otherwise. Recent feminist discussions of female authors writing in later periods make interesting use of the object relations theory of mothering outlined by Nancy Chodorow in The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). At base, it is more difficult for a female to detach from the first love object, the mother, and to create a separate identity because of their shared gender (as well as their shared sociological role). The fact that Christine's mother is still feeding her (calling her to supper) also broaches notions of orality held over from infant attachments, and would need to be taken into account in a fuller discussion of the problematic relations of an oral, prophetic and specifically female tradition by which Christine in the Cité "corrects" a written male tradition.
  20. Hicks, pp. 141-42; Dante's poem is a "hundred times better written"; there is "no comparison."
  21. "Helas Dieux, pourquoy ne me faiz tu naistre au monde en masculin sexe, a celle fin que mes inclinacions fussent toutes a te mieulx servir et que je ne errasse en riens et fusse de si grant parfeccion come homme masle ce dit estre?…"Telz parolles et plus assez tres longuement en triste pensee disoye a Dieu en ma lamantacion, si comme celle qui par ma foulour me tenoye tres malcontent de ce qu'en corp femenin m'ot fait Dieus estre au monde. (II, 621)
  22. "En celle dollente penssee ainsi que j'estoye, la teste baissiee comme personne honteuse, les yeulx plains de larmes, tenant ma main soubz ma joe acoudee sur le pommel de ma chayere, soubdainement sus mon giron vy descendre un ray de liumiere" (II, 621-22; emphasis added). Richards translates "joe" as "armrest" which is, of course, possible; however, I think the main burden of Christine's list of body parts in this description would tend to make the "joe" a human cheek rather than the side-part of an armchair. For "joe" as "joue," specifically as "cheek," see A. J. Greimas, Dictionnaire de l'Ancien Francais (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1968). See also fig. 4.
  23. Suzanne Solente, ed., Le Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune (Paris: Éditions A. & J. Picard, 1959), 2 vols; I, 9-12; lines 51-156. See Willard, p. 108, for a discussion of the transformation in the Mutacion.
  24. I am indebted to Prof. Eugene Vance for this interesting reading of the detail of the knife.
  25. Jane Gallop, "Writing and Sexual Difference: the Difference Within," in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 287.
  26. Hélène Cixous, in The Newly Born Woman, co-authored with Catherine Clément, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), assumes a relationship between the female body and "writing" as she conceives it: "woman is body more than man is. Because he is invited to social success, to sublimation. More body hence more writing" (p. 95). Punning on the French word "voler," Cixous provides a double metaphor for a specifically female writing: "To fly/steal is woman's gesture, to steal into language to make it fly" (p. 96). Christine not only shares the wordplay with such a theorist, who assumes a continuity between writing and the body, she also would appear to have anticipated the anti-oedipal stance of such a theorist as Luce Irigaray, who bases her description of "écriture féminine" in a critique of Freud's too oedipally based sense of female sexuality. See in particular, "Psychoanalytic Theory: Another Look" in This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985) as well as the title essay.
  27. "nullo in hoc editor volumine speciali … et a ne-mine demonstrata, describere, quasi aliquale redditur premium" (Zaccario, ed. p. 28).
  28. David Anderson, unpublished manuscript.
  29. See Richards' note for further corroboration, p. 262.
  30. Sandra L. Hindman, Christine de Pizan's "Epistre Othéa" (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1986), p. 57, argues for a similar conflation of the authorities of Christine and the figure of Othea through the epistolary form. The Cité makes the conflation a part of the dramatic dialogue as the three figures dictate the stories to Christine as named author.
  31. Millard Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: the late XIVth Century and the Patronage of the Duke (London: Phaidon, 1967), 2 vols.
  32. Hindman, pp. 75-89. Hindman also discusses Christine's naming of a female border-painter, pp. 69-70.
  33. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. fr. 607; the MS was a presentation copy for the Duc de Berry.
  34. "Ainsi, belle fille, t'est donne la prerogative entre les femmes de faire et bastir la Cite des Dames, pour laquelle fonder et parfaire, tu prendras et puiseras en nous trois eaue vive comme en fontaines cleres, et te livrerons assez matiere plus forte et plus durable que marbre.…Si sera ta cite tres belle sans pareille et de perpetuelle duree au monde" (II, 630).
  35. Such wordplay is typical of allegory. See my The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), esp. pp. 58-79, for the function of puns in William Langland's Piers Plowman.
  36. A later 15th century illumination counts their uncanonical number more carefully—Christine says there are ten rather than nine; Paris, B.N. f. fr. 1177, f. 45.
  37. In a miniature illustrating even so chaste a story as that of Penelope, the violence of the suitors seems implicitly directed at the exemplary wife rather than at each other (Royal 20 CV, British Library, f. 6 1vo)).
  38. The incipit illumination of Jean de Vignay's translation of Vincent of Beauvais' Miroir Historial (Paris, BN, f. fr. 313, f. 1) is split down the middle; on the left is a group of male saints standing before a monk seated in a high chair writing; on the right is a group of female saints standing before a monk seated in a slightly lower chair, also writing. While the difference in the size of the chairs, the placement of the figures (the floor of the males' side is higher than the floor for the females), and the use of a nimbus around one male saint's head but no corresponding haloes for the females, all suggest that the hierarchical nature of the gender division is observed, the miniatures are the same size and use the same format. The overall effect is of perfect parallelism.
  39. The sexuality implicit in this miniature of the clothed St. Christine, opposed to the naked pagan idols, one white, one darker in color, strikes a contrast with the sexless nature of other martyrs' suffering, painted by the same hand. The idols are not nude, but naked, their shields covering genitals that must be present as a menace to the virgin saint. The color code of the pagan idols suggests that the threat of idolatry is both without and within, signed as a cultural other in the darker figure, but as the same in the lighter. Both of course, as male, represent idolatry as a sexual threat to the female saint, who bends away from them with hand gestures that cover her own genital areas (though this is, in fact, a typical placement for female hands even when there are no contextually present sexual implications).
  40. Et donc sa mere femme Urben ouyante q' sa fille avoit suffert si grant peine derompit ses vestemens & mist cendres sus son chief & ala chartre et cheust aux pieds dicelle a pleur disant. Ma seule fille ayez pitie de moi qui alaictas mes mammelles qui ta len fait pour quoi tu aoures ung estrange dieu. (Paris, 1495, f. 483.)
  41. Greimas notes that "langue" as meaning "langage parlé ou écrit" is "rare" in ancien français; however, if it ever slips into this meaning, it does so here.
  42. The question of sightedness and blindness curiously recurs in a number of different father-daughter relations in other saints' lives. The stories of two cross-dressed saints, Euphrosine and Marine, both of whom become monks, are told in immediate sequence by both Christine and Vincent. However, Christine transfers the miraculous ability of St. Euphrosine's dead body to St. Marine's, whose dead body, when kissed by a monk who has lost the use of one eye, restores his sight. The signal difference between the two saints is that Euphrosine fled to the monastery to escape her father's attempt to marry her to an unwanted suitor, while Marine goes to the monastery, called there by her father who misses her too much after he has turned monk. Why Christine should suppress the power to restore eyesight in rebellious Euphrosine's case and to grant it to the dutiful daughter Marine is, to say the least, suspicious; what seems to be shifting about in this floating eyeball is a weird marker of Oedipal relations. Vincent's text allows the initially hostile father of Euphrosine to "see" his daughter again before her death; she is—like the monk's eyesight—"restored" to him. Christine's text insists upon this father's further suffering, and his death. In Christine's text Euphrosine's dead body tenaciously holds the script that identifies it as female until the father can read it; this script-holding body does not restore sight.
  43. Paper presented at the University of Pennsylvania, Spring 1987.
  44. Christine de Pisan, Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc, ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1977), p. 28. The specification of the eleven years' of lamentation spent in an "abbaye close," since the time that Charles was forced to flee Paris, not only coordinates the present moment of the poem with contemporary history, but also establishes Christine's signature biography which marks the peculiarly specific authority of her texts. The poem is a part of history, but it is also a part of the writings of a speaker who persistently names herself.
  45. There is doubtless some social coherence in the mistaken assumption that Jean Gerson, Christine's companion in arms during the Querelle de la Rose, was the author of a Latin tract defending Joan's transvestism, dated 14 May 1429, titled De Mirabili Victoria Cujusdam Puellae, as well as the Breviarum Historiale which describes the meeting at Chinon and compares Joan to Deborah, Esther and Penthesilea. The dauphin Charles who gave Joan further men of arms after their famous but rather mysterious meeting at Chinon, was the youngest son of Isabeau of Bavaria (if not of the mad king), for whom Christine had made the presentation edition of her works, the present Harley 4431. Marina Warner makes a very interesting argument about Joan of Arc's name having less to do immediately with the family name than with the subterranean Amazonian message it carries, the "arc" being the bow the famous warrior women carried; see Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (New York: Knopf, 1981), pp. 198-200. Christine was not the only writer to do so, but she was one who had discussed the Amazon kingdom at length. Christine devotes two huitains of her poem to a discussion of the process at Poitiers, at which clerks and learned men investigated Joan's "fait" before the battle of Orleans; but Christine also "proves" Joan's legitimacy by prophecy, including in the usual list of Bede and Merlin a "Sebile." Although Christine herself does not call La Pucelle an amazonian warrior, her presentation of Joan as authorized by sybilline prophecy connects her to the sybils prominent in the Epistre Othéa and the Cité des Dames.


SOURCE: Brown-Grant, Rosalind. "Christine de Pizan: Feminist Linguist Avant la Lettre?" In Christine de Pizan 2000: Studies on Christine de Pizan in Honour of Angus J. Kennedy, edited by John Campbell and Nadia Margolis, pp. 65-76. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

In the following essay, Brown-Grant links Christine's language to her arguments, noting how she employed unique and innovative word choices to underscore her defense of women from earlier misogynist texts. Brown-Grant suggests that Christine changed the connotations of such words as dames ("ladies") and created a language for imagining women as philosophers and poets in the same class as men.

As a fervent opponent of the misogyny which she saw as all-pervasive in the culture of her day, Christine de Pizan was well aware of the power of language not just to reflect but also actively to construct social reality.1 Yet although much critical attention has been devoted to her texts in defence of women, particularly the Cité des dames, 2 very few scholars have analysed how Christine's own linguistic practice was informed by her stand against misogyny.3 Until recently, only Lucy Gay, Jan Gerard Bruins and Suzanne Solente have discussed her language in depth (Solente noting Christine's fondness for feminine diminutive forms), but none of them sought to link their analysis of her style to her pro-woman stance.4 However, two major articles by Nadia Margolis have now begun to remedy this lack. In the first, Margolis develops Solente's comments and argues that Christine radically alters the significance of diminutive forms such as seulette, pucelette and femmelette (which were traditionally used to belittle women) in order to represent herself and other female figures such as Joan of Arc in a more favourable light.5 In the second, Margolis shows how Christine, through her innovative use of suffixes (such as -esse in clergesse) and of sex-neutral or epicene words (such as artiste) by which to refer to female creativity, undertakes "[une] féminisation de la langue [qui] pourrait encourager les femmes de s'arroger, au moyen des signifiants de la sagesse et l'étude resuffixés à leur genre, le droit d'être intelligentes, savantes, plus conscientes du monde réel et donc meilleures participantes au bien-être de leurs familles et de leur pays—au niveau correspondant à celui des hommes."6

This leaves certain questions open. Just how far did Christine's "feminisation" of the language actually go? What other linguistic strategies were available to her in her critique of misogyny?7

Building on Margolis's findings, I thus propose here to compare Christine's linguistic usage in the Cité des dames with that of the anonymous (and almost certainly male) author of her main source, Des cleres et nobles femmes (1401),8 the French translation of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus. A comparison between these two texts, which are of similar length, is particularly illuminating because, although they both belong to the "lives of famous women" genre, Christine makes her catalogue of heroines into a comprehensive defence of the female sex both past and present.9 Unlike the author of the Cleres femmes, she was confronted not simply with the task of rewriting the history of women but also of finding a language which was adequate to express her defence of her sisters. Since Christine relied heavily on this French version of Boccaccio's text when writing the Cité des dames, 10 any stylistic divergence from her source is thus likely to have been the result of conscious choice rather than mere accident.

This study, which is intended to be the first of two on Christine's use of language in her defence of women,11 focuses exclusively on nouns, a key area since it raises important morphological and semantic issues related to gender. By examining feminine and generic nouns in turn, I shall demonstrate that Christine's usage differs markedly from that of the author of the Cleres femmes. However, perhaps less expectedly, her difference from her source arises as much from her desire to genericise the language by using sex-neutral forms so as to mark the common essence of male and female as from any wish to feminise language in order to represent women's experience fully within it.12

One of the most significant ways in which the author of the Cleres femmes and Christine diverge from each other is in their use of two of the commonest nouns which referred to women in Middle French: femme(s) and dame(s). In standard usage of the period, femme(s) designated the female sex as a whole, individual women, wives, and nonnoble women, whereas dame(s) was employed as a term of address, as an indicator of a woman's noble rank, to distinguish between a married, mature woman and a young, unmarried girl, and as the female equivalent of a seigneur.13 The divergence in usage between the Cité des dames and the Cleres femmes is signalled by their very titles. Whilst the male author's text is concerned with the neutral femmes—women rather than ladies—whose distinction is indicated by the adjectives "cleres" and "nobles," Christine's work discusses dames, whose noble or high status is implicit in the noun itself. This difference in emphasis is mirrored not just in the titles but also in the body of their two works since the author of the Cleres femmes uses the less prestigious femmes even on those occasions where standard usage indicates that a high-ranking lady would normally have been referred to as a dame, as in the cases of the goddesses Ceres and Minerva (1:28-31 and 1:31-34), or the queens Semiramis or Penthesilea (1:19-24 and 1:101-13). It is only in the stories of Dido, Rhea Ilia, Gaia Cyrilla, Lucretia, Thamiris and Mariamme that he employs dame throughout, though it is not clear why he singles out these particular women in this way as they are not of higher status than any others in his catalogue (1:134-46, 1:150-53, 1:154-55, 1:158-61, 1:161-64, 2:109-12, respectively). In all, though, there are fewer than 40 examples of dame(s) in the Cleres femmes compared with 516 in the Cité des dames. Instead, to indicate a lady of high social standing, he prefers a different term altogether: matrone(s), meaning a respectable married woman, of which there are 25 examples.14 Yet his use of this noun is highly selective as he employs it only to refer to Roman patrician women such as Veturia (2:7) or Virginia (2:36).

Moreover, following Boccaccio, the author of the Cleres femmes at times employs femmes as a derogatory term in order to insult men by referring to them as women. This is because, in the original text, Boccaccio deployed much of his invective to accuse his male contemporaries of effeminacy for having allowed themselves to be upstaged by mere pagan women who had shown much greater courage, strength or intelligence. For example, of Penthesilea and her followers the author of the Cleres femmes remarks: "ceste femme vierge et semblables a elle sont moult plus faites hommes en armes que ne soient ceulx que nature a fait masles et oiseveté et volupté ou delit charnel les tourne en femmes et lievres" (1:103). His use of femme as both a neutral and a pejorative term in preference to the noble dame and his parsimonious use of matrone only for certain types of women would thus seem to reflect much of Boccaccio's ambivalence towards the female examples in his catalogue, many of whom are chosen more for their personal notoriety than for the virtue of their deeds.15

In the Cité des dames, by contrast, Christine follows standard Middle French usage for both dames and femmes. Given that most of the women in her catalogue of heroines are of noble status, they are termed dames, whereas others of non-noble origin, like the low-born widow who begged Jesus to save her child (88), are referred to as femmes. Yet Christine deviates from standard practice in the Cité des dames in one very important way when she extends the normal connotation of dame from being one of noble birth to that of moral worth irrespective of social origin. This is clearly seen at the end of her text when she addresses all the ladies in her catalogue as dames who have earned themselves a place in her city of the virtuous elect: "Mes tres redoubtees Dames, Dieux soit louez! Or est du tout achevee et parfaicte notre Cité des dames, en laquelle a grant honneur vous toutes, celles qui amez gloire, vertu et loz, povez estre hebergees, tant les passees dames, comme les presentes et celles a avenir, car pour toute dame honorable est faicte et fondee" (496). Likewise, Christine signals this shift in connotation when she describes high-ranking women of dubious morality, such as the evil queens Jezebel and Athaliah, as femmes and not dames, since she regards them as unworthy examples who should be shunned (344). Thus the way in which both the author of the Cleres femmes and Christine use dames as opposed to femmes is clearly dictated by each work's polemical agenda: whilst the former undermines the status of the vast majority of his examples by terming them simply femmes, Christine blurs the moral and social connotations of dames in order to upgrade all of her examples to the ranks of a meritorious élite.

In addition to exploiting or reinterpreting the meaning of well-established terms for women such as dames and femmes, both Christine and the author of the Cleres femmes were also concerned with feminising masculine noun forms for roles in which women had distinguished themselves. The main method at their disposal was to add suffixes such as -esse to the masculine noun (with -eresse as a variant corresponding to words ending in -eur). As Jean Batany observes, this suffix, which was brought into productive use in the twelfth century in the term abbesse (from the masculine form abbé) gained currency in the later Middle Ages as the most popular means of feminising masculine nouns, and was also used for feminine adjectival endings.16 However, though our two authors both adopt this same method of morphological marking, their individual usage differs significantly, with important consequences for the status of the nouns themselves.

Discounting more familiar terms such as princesse and baronesse, which denote a woman's specific rank in society, both Christine and the male author employ the -esse/-eresse feminine suffix for a wide variety of roles. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are more of these suffixed terms in the Cleres femmes than in the Cité des dames : 21 different ones as opposed to 12. Many of those found in the male author's text are extremely evocative terms: "batailleresses" (1:44) and "combateresses" (1:45)) in the military domain; "divineresse" (1:45), "prestresce" (1:53) and "enchanteresse" (1:120) in the spiritual realm; and "poeteresse" (1:150) and "painteresse" (2:13) in the artistic sphere. Others, which are more metaphorical than concrete terms, include "testamenteresse" (2:41), "trouverresse" (2:44) and "accroisseresse" (2:88). Indeed, the author of the Cleres femmes would appear to have been particularly innovative in this respect since neither Godefroy nor Tobler-Lommatsch list any prior instances of 5 of the 21 terms used: "batailleresses" (1:44), "divineresse" (1:45), "painteresse" (2:13), "quereresse" (2:44), and "rachateresse" (2:186) would all seem to be his coinages.

Given Christine's aim in the Cité des dames of celebrating the achievements of women in areas traditionally reserved for men, it might at first sight appear odd that there are fewer examples of these suffixed terms in her text than in the Cleres femmes and that she is less innovative than her source in coining new terms. Thus, whilst she employs "maistresse" (162), "clergece" (166) and "vainqueresse" (140) as concrete terms and "amministraresse" (58) and "defenderresse" (432) for women in more metaphorical roles, the only terms she herself appears to have created is "protectarresse" (432) (which is used to describe the Virgin Mary's chief role as Queen of the City of Ladies). However, Christine's decision not to borrow more of the large number of the -esse/-eresse suffixes from the author of the Cleres femmes becomes less surprising if we compare both the textual and grammatical circumstances in which such terms are used in each text. Firstly, Christine's choice of vocabulary was often dependent on the specific rhetorical point she was arguing. For example, in the case of the Amazon virgins Hippolyta and Menalippe, who brought down the Greek heroes Hercules and Theseus in combat, she makes great capital out of the fact that these two were mere "pucelles" and "damoiselles" fighting against two of the bravest and most fearsome "chevaliers" the world had ever seen (116-22). Elevating these two women into batailleresses or combateresses in this instance would actually have undermined the contrast Christine was drawing between their supposed physical inferiority and the knights' superior military prowess and experience. Secondly, there is a subtle but important grammatical difference between the way in which she and the author of the Cleres femmes use terms with the -esse/-eresse suffix within a sentence. In his text, their function is often to qualify a feminine noun: for example, "les filles combateresse" [sic] (1:45), "ceste femme enchanterresse et empoisonneresse Circés" (1:120), "ceste femme cruelle et procureresce de mort" (2:64), and "pucelles prestresses" (2:155). Used adjectivally, the force of such terms is lessened: they are reduced to indicating a quality of a person, rather than specifically designating that person themselves.17

For Christine, in comparison, these terms are almost always used as self-standing nouns, such as when she describes the inhabitants of the City as its "possessarresses" (250). Only in the one case of "femmelette pecharesse" (90) is the term in -eresse made adjectival. Thus, although there are fewer examples of such forms in Christine's text than in her source, where she does employ them they retain their full nominal value, particularly in those spheres of activity where she wants to highlight women's illustrious deeds.

However, where Christine and the author of the Cleres femmes differ most radically from each other is not in their suffixation of masculine nouns but in their use of epicene terms in order to refer to women. Being nouns which can take either a male or a female article, these terms designate roles that both men and women can potentially play without the need for any specific feminine morphological marking, particularly since such words already tend to end in silent -e,18 as in the example of "disciple" which both Christine and her source employ (Cité des dames, 190, and Cleres femmes, 2:27). Apart from this noun, there is only one other epicene in the male author's text ("hoir", 1:69), whereas Christine also uses "prophete" (228), "chef" (98, 432), "philosophe" (94, 158, 160), and "poete" (154, 156, 158). Though they may be few in number, these examples are extremely important for what they reveal about Christine's neologising practice. On the one hand, she seems to have revived the use of epicene prophete, which had been sex-neutral in Old French, whereas in Middle French the feminised forms prophetesse or propheteresse were employed instead to refer to a woman.19 On the other hand, she was clearly innovative in her use of the terms chef, philosophe and poete as epicenes, given that they were traditionally deemed to be solely masculine roles, with poeteresse as the only feminised form of the three available at that time.20 Christine therefore employs these epicene terms for the kind of high-status roles to which she herself aspired in her works, and which she deemed to be particularly important in her feminist agenda to put women firmly on the map of human creativity and achievement.21 That she treats prophete, philosophe and poete as epicene is all the more significant given that she herself occasionally precedes prophete by the word femme (Cité des dames, 288), but never seems to feminise it or any of these other terms with the suffix -esse/-eresse. The higher the status of the role concerned—and the greater the credit accruing to women for their achievement within it—the more likely Christine therefore was to genericise the role name to include the feminine rather than simply find a feminine equivalent of a masculine term, as the author of the Cleres femmes preferred to do.



"Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. Did You yourself not create woman in a very special way and since that time did You not give her all those inclinations which it pleased You for her to have? And how could it be that You could go wrong in anything? Yet look at all these accusations which have been judged, decided, and concluded against women. I do not know how to understand this repugnance. If it is so, fair Lord God, that in fact so many abominations abound in the female sex, for You Yourself say that the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence, why shall I not doubt that this is true? Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service." I spoke these words to God in my lament and a great deal more for a very long time in sad reflection, and in my folly I considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.

Christine de Pizan. Excerpt from The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982, p. 5.

Christine's use of epicene noun forms is, however, by no means an isolated example of her genericising practice. Her critique of sex-bias in language also extends to questioning the masculine term hommes which, when used as a generic noun, "absorbs" and thereby masks the feminine.22 As Marina Yaguello puts it, through use of this term "l'homme a en quelque sorte 'confisqué' symboliquement la qualité d'être humain à son profit."23 In the medieval context, the significance of hommes as an implicitly exclusive rather than inclusive generic term can be seen in the fact that many misogynist writers implied that women were somehow less human than men, being endowed with an inferior rationality, a voracious sexuality and a bestial nature.24 Jean de Meun, for example, famously characterises woman as a "venimeuse beste" which seeks to destroy man.25 Christine, in the Cité des dames, clearly rebuts this definition of women as a non-human race when she states, "les femmes sont aussi bien ou nombre du peuple de Dieu et de creature humaine que sont les hommes, et non mie une autre espece" (376-78).

Christine's art of refutation, here as elsewhere, must accomplish two seemingly conflicting goals: she must defeat a key point of misogynist doctrine by using the very language that underpins misogyny itself. In this instance, her challenge was to make the potentially exclusive noun hommes serve the feminist cause. The author of the Cleres femmes gives no indication that, for him, the noun hommes is in any way problematic. In his text, the term serves both to designate men, as for example, when he explains how the women of Lemnos freed themselves from male control, "la dominacion et servitute des hommes" (1:57), and to refer to people in general when he recounts how the pagans mistakenly regarded Opis, wife of Saturn, as a goddess: "ceste femme (…), selon l'erreur des hommes mortelz, est eue et reputee deesse et mere des dieulx" (1:24). Christine too, in the Cité des dames, uses hommes in a specific sense when she wants to distinguish between the male and the female sex, as in those passages in which Reason explains why some men slander women: "Ceulx a qui il est venu de leurs propres vices sont hommes qui ont usé leur jeunece en vie dissolue et abondé en plusieurs amours de diverses femmes" (70). However, though in a very few instances Christine clearly employs hommes in a generic sense, as when she states that "l'entencion—dist on—juge l'omme" (66), in many other cases, particularly those where Reason outlines all the benefits that women such as Ceres and Carmentis have brought into the world with their respective inventions of agriculture and the Latin alphabet, it is by no means as obvious whether hommes is being used specifically or generically. For example, in referring to Ceres's discoveries which rescued humankind from a primitive existence, Reason notes how "les engins des hommes vagues et pareceux, estans es cavernes d'ignorance, mua, attray et ramena a la haultece de contemplacion et excercitacions convenables, et ordena aucuns hommes es champs pour faire les labours par lesquieulx tant de villes et de citez furent remplies et ceulx soustenus qui font les autres oeuvres neccessaires a vivre" (182). Likewise, Reason explains that, thanks to Carmentis's achievement, "[en] infinis livres et volumes (…) sont mis et gardez en perpetuelle memoire les fais des hommes," and that "par elle, sont hommes, quoyque ilz ne le recongnoiscent, tirez hors de ignorence" (178-80). Unless one were translating these passages and needed to choose between reading hommes as meaning men in particular as opposed to humankind in general,26 it is in fact possible, if not positively desirable, to read them as both being present simultaneously. This is because such semantic indeterminacy allows Christine to stress just how much the human race as a whole—but men especially—have benefitted from women's inventions, and to condemn the ingratitude of misogynist clerks and knights in calling women's intelligence into question when they themselves are the chief beneficiaries of women's gifts. Paradoxically then, whilst modern feminists have criticised the use of the term hommes as a generic precisely because it tends to mask the feminine in favour of the masculine, Christine turns this semantic ambiguity to her own rhetorical advantage, in order to criticise men, just as men had turned it to women's disadvantage in the past.

Yet though Christine often plays on the indeterminacy of hommes for her own ends, she is well aware of the need for a less ambiguous term when wanting to refer explicitly to both sexes at once. In the Cité des dames, the three unequivocally generic nouns which she employs as alternatives to hommes are gens, creature and personne, each of which, as we shall see, occurs with significantly greater frequency than in the Cleres femmes. Although all three words can take a male or a female referent, the last two are feminine nouns, whilst the first can be of either gender depending on its position and function in a sentence.27 Thus, unlike the generic hommes with its grammatical and semantic masking of the feminine, none of these sex-neutral terms is more inclusive of one sex than the other. By using each term in a significant array of contexts, Christine appropriates them as important elements of her linguistic revisionism.

By far the most extensively used generic alternative to hommes in the Cité des dames is the term gens (with gent as a variant). Excluding other meanings of this word, such as an estate in society (e.g. "les gens de cheval et de pié," Cité des dames, 140), an army or followers (e.g. "Jason avec ses gens," Cleres femmes, 1:58), a race or nation (e.g. "les gens d'Egipte," Cité des dames, 176), gens in the sense of people in general occurs only 17 times in the Cleres femmes as against 34 in the Cité des dames. This compares with 27 instances of generic hommes in her source, as opposed to 22 in Christine's text (though we have already noted how difficult it is to identify many of these instances here as unquestionably generic). In both texts, gens can refer specifically to men or women, or can be used generically where the sex of the referent is left indefinite. In the Cleres femmes, for instance, "les corps de gens mors," which refers to the dead soldiers amongst whom Polynices' widow Argia searches for his corpse, are obviously male (1:92), as in the Cité des dames are the misogynists whom Reason condemns as "mauvaises gens dyaboliques" for claiming that women are childish (84). Conversely, Rectitude uses gens anaphorically to indicate women when she says that the City she and Christine are busy building must be "habitee toute de dames de grant excellence, car autres gens n'y voulons" (250). Finally, as an example where gens is used generically to mean people, male or female, Rectitude explains how Nero's destruction of Rome meant that "par ceste pestillence moururent moult de gens" (Cité des dames, 340). However, where the term is clearly meant to refer to both men and women, Christine's usage in the Cité des dames diverges from that of the Cleres femmes in preferring gens to hommes and in employing it in a more inclusive way to indicate the equally human essence of both male and female. For instance, in order to counter the misogynist view that women are inherently less worthy than men, Reason replies that "la haulteur ou abbaissement des gens ne gist mie es corps selon le sexe mais en la perfection des meurs et des vertus" (80). In other words, virtue is not the prerogative of one sex to the exclusion of the other, a key point in Christine's defence of women.

Just as for gens, so the relative importance for Christine of the term creature is seen by the fact that it occurs only twice in the Cleres femmes as against 18 times in the Cité des dames. Unlike the word homme, whose meaning is largely determined in opposition to femme, enfant or bête, creature lays the emphasis on humans as part of God's creation; "(l'être humain) face à son créateur."28 It can thus apply equally to a man or a woman.29 Compared to the Cleres femmes, which uses creature solely in the neutral sense of "living creature" (1:17), Christine in the Cité des dames systematically exploits both its sex-neutrality and its stress on the human as part of the natural order of things. Applying it to women when Rectitude chides Christine for complaining about being a member of the female sex ("du sexe de tieulx creatures," 226), the text also uses the term to refer to men, describing Eve's creation from the rib of Adam as being from "la tres plus noble creature qui oncques eust esté creé" (78). Where the term really comes into its own in the Cité des dames is in Christine's bid to prove that God cherishes women as part of His creation, and has thus endowed them with the same capacity for rational thought and virtuous conduct as men possess. Reason uses creature in a particularly inclusive sense when discussing how both men and women alike can profit from gazing into her mirror and seeing their faults: "il n'est quelconques personne qui s'i mire, quelque la creature soit, qui clerement ne se congnoisce" (52). This emphasis on rationality is underscored when Christine couples creature with the adjective raisonnable on four separate occasions. For instance, Reason demonstrates women's aptitude for learning, given the opportunity to do so, exclaiming: "il n'est rien qui tant appreigne creature raisonnable que fait l'excercice et experience de plusieurs choses et diverses" (152). Christine even uses this term in a superlative sense when countering the misogynists' claim that women, in being more fickle in their emotions, are less virtuous than men. For example, in describing Artemisia's boundless grief at her husband's death as that of "si grant douleur que creature peut porter" (262), Christine does not just compare her suffering to that of other women but rather implies that Artemisia's heart-felt emotion is greater than anyone, woman or man, has ever had to bear.

If the noun creature allows Christine to stress the equality of the sexes in terms of their God-given rational essence, the generic personne enables her to highlight their common humanity. As Yaguello explains: "Le mot homme se trouve dans une relation d'opposition 'participative' avec le mot femme: le féminin est inclus dans le masculin. Le mot personne, lui, ne s'oppose à rien d'autre qu'à la non-personne (les animaux, les choses): il 'contient' à égalité le féminin et le masculin."30 Setting aside examples where personne is used to mean "no-one" or "in person", which are not relevant to this discussion, there is once again a greater occurrence of this term in the Cité des dames than in the Cleres femmes (21 examples as against 16). More significantly, there is a noticeable difference in the way in which it is employed by the two writers. The male author largely uses personne to refer to unspecified individuals as in, for example, his account of how Agamemnon was killed "sans ce qu'il veist la personne qui ainsi faul-cement et trayteusement le tua" (1:110), or in set phrases such as "par personne moyenne," which recurs three times (1:88, 2:116, and 2:143). Christine, on the other hand, capitalises fully on the implications of the term to include the two sexes, particularly when discussing women's intellectual and moral faculties. Thus Reason explains the conditions necessary for someone to act with good judgement as being "constance, noblece et vertu, sans lesquelles graces avoir ne peut estre en personne droite prudence" (202). Conversely, Christine exploits the non-exclusiveness of personne in order to deflect criticism away from women, thereby countering the misogynist habit of specifying certain sins and vices as exclusively feminine. For instance, on the question of inconstancy, Rectitude is careful to explain to Christine that this fault can be found in both sexes alike: "quant l'omme ou femme laisse vaincre a sensualité le regart de raison, c'est fragilité et inconstance. Et de tant que la personne chet en plus grant deffaulte ou pechié, de tant est en lui la fragilité plus grande, car elle est plus loing du regart de raison" (344). Rectitude similarly defends women against anti-feminist accusations of avariciousness by declaring that carefulness with money is indispensable when a person, implicitly either male or female, has little to play with: "qu'en peut povre personne se elle est escharce?" (416). This judicious use of generics such as personne is thus an integral part of Christine's project to show that neither vice nor virtue is the exclusive province of one particular sex.

Christine de Pizan is rightly famous for being the first female writer to plead the case for women against the misogynist culture of her day. However, for Christine, the challenge confronting her lay not just in changing what was said about women but how it was actually said. To this extent, then, she can truly be dubbed a feminist linguist avant la lettre. In the Cité des dames, her most forthright refutation of misogyny, she broke new ground in her use of both feminine and generic nouns. Far from simply feminising masculine forms in order to mark women's achievements, as the author of the Cleres femmes chose to do, Christine's innovations were more wide-ranging: employing dames as a marker of moral worth; making chef, philosophe and poete epicene indicators of women's prowess as intellectuals and leaders; and substituting sex-neutral terms such as gens, creature and personne for the more ambiguous hommes. To Christine's mind, therefore, it was only by universalising the human to encompass both sexes that her vision of the moral equality of men and women could properly be expressed in language.


  1. Solterer 1995, 355-78.
  2. For a detailed bibliography of studies of the Cité des dames, see items 392-400 in Kennedy 1984, and items 805-30 in Kennedy 1994.
  3. One important exception is Curnow 1992, 157-72, who analyses her use of legalistic language in this text.
  4. Gay 1908-9, 69-96; Bruins 1925; and Solente 1974/1969, 335-422.
  5. Margolis 1992, 111-23.
  6. Margolis 1996-97, 381-404, 396.
  7. For a modern feminist linguist's view of feminisation, see Moreau 1999.
  8. Boccaccio 1993-95; Cité des dames, ed. Richards.
  9. McLeod 1992, 37-47.
  10. Cité des dames, ed. Curnow, 1: 138-66; Dulac 1978, 315-43; Philippy 1986, 167-93; Bumgardner 1991, 37-52; Quilligan 1991; and Brown-Grant 1999, 128-74.
  11. Christine's pronouns and adjectives relating to gender in the Cité des dames are treated in a paper given at the Fourth International Congress on Christine de Pizan, Glasgow, July 2000.
  12. This usage is consistent with her practice in the Epistre Othea: see Brown-Grant 1999, 78-87.
  13. Grisay 1969, 55-155; Andrieux-Reix 1987, 227-32.
  14. Grisay 1969, 32-35, notes that this term was imported into the French language from Latin in the thirteenth century.
  15. Jordan 1987, 25-47; McLeod 1991, 59-80.
  16. Batany 1992, 191-19. See also Harrison 1989, 436-44.
  17. See Batany 1992, 194: "l'adjectif réfère à une réalité inanimée, la qualité, tandis que le nom réfère plutôt à une personne (ou à une chose personnifiable)."
  18. Yaguello 1987, 132; Gervais 1993, 130.
  19. The epicene use of prophete in early texts such as Dolo-pathos is noted in Godefroy X, 433. The feminine form propheteresse is cited from the early fifteenth-century French translation of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium in Godefroy, 6: 436.
  20. The use of philosophesse in the 1518 edition of Le Rebours Matheolus is noted in Godefroy 6: 138.
  21. See Margolis 1996-97, 397, for Christine's similar use of artiste in this respect.
  22. Spender 1980, 138-62; Cameron 1990.
  23. Yaguello 1989, 88.
  24. Lhoest 1991, 343-62; Blamires 1992 and 1997.
  25. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, ed. Lecoy, 2: 254.16577.
  26. See my translator's note in City of Ladies, trans. Brown-Grant, xxxviii-xxxix.
  27. Jokinen 1988, 114-40.
  28. Yaguello 1989, 58.
  29. Grisay 1969, 190-1.
  30. Yaguello 1989, 89.


Critical studies: frequently-cited volumes of essays devoted exclusively to Christine de Pizan are made in the following manner: editor(s) and date of publication. Below is a list of these abbreviated forms, followed by their full citations:

McLeod 1991 McLeod, Glenda, ed. The Reception of Christine de Pizan from the Fifteenth through the Nineteenth Centuries: Visitors to the City. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

Richards, et al. 1992 Richards, Earl Jeffrey, with Joan Williamson, Nadia Margolis, and Christine Reno, eds. Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

General Bibliography

Primary Sources: Standard Editions and Translations of Christine's Works.


Cité des dames, ed. Richards = La Città delle Dame. Introduction, original text, and translation by Patrizia Caraffi. Middle-French text edited by Earl Jeffrey Richards. Milan, Luni Editrice, 1997. Revised edition 1998.

" Le Livre de la Cité des dames of Christine de Pisan: A Critical Edition." Maureen Cheney Curnow. 2 vols. Ph.D. diss. Vanderbilt University, 1975.

Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.


Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Le Roman de la rose. Edited by Félix Lecoy. 3 vols. Classiques Français du Moyen Age, 92, 95, 98. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1966-76. Reprinted 1982.

Secondary Sources


Kennedy, Angus J. Christine de Pizan: A Bibliographical Guide. Research Bibliographies & Checklists, no. 42. London: Grant & Cutler, 1984.

——. Christine de Pizan: A Bibliographical Guide: Supplement I. Research Bibliographies & Checklists, no. 42.1. London: Grant & Cutler, 1994.


Andrieux-Reix, Nelly. Ancien Français: fiches de vocabulaire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1987.

Batany, Jean. "Les 'Estats' au féminin: un problème de vocabulaire social du XIIe au XVe siècle." In Approches langagières de la société médiévale, 191-219. Caen: Paradigme, 1992.

Blamires, Alcuin. The Case for Women in Medieval Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

——, ed. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. [De claris mulieribus] Boccace "Des cleres et nobles femmes" Ms. B. N. 12420 (Chap. I-LII). Edited by Jeanne Baroin and Josiane Haffen. 2 vols. Annales Littéraires de l'Université de Besançon 498, 556. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993-95.

Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women: Reading beyond Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Bruins, Jan Gerard. Observations sur la langue d'Eustache Deschamps et de Christine de Pisan. Dordrecht: Dordrechtsche Drukkerrij, 1925.

Bumgardner, George H. "Christine de Pizan and the Atelier of the Master of the Coronation." In Seconda Miscellanea di studi e ricerche sul Quattrocento francese, edited by Jonathan Beck and Gianni Mombello, 37-52. Chambéry: Centre d'études franco-italiennes, 1981.

Cameron, Deborah. The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. London: Routledge, 1990.

Curnow, Maureen Cheney. "'La pioche d'inquisicion': Legal-judicial Content and Style in Christine de Pizan's Livre de la cité des dames." In Richards, et al. 1992, 157-72.

——. "Un mythe didactique chez Christine de Pizan: Sémiramis ou la veuve héroïque (du De Claris Mulieribus à la Cité des Dames)." In Mélanges de philologie romane offerts à Charles Camproux, 315-43. Montpellier: Centre d'Etudes Occitanes de l'Université Paul Valéry, 1978.

Gay, Lucy M. "On the Language of Christine de Pizan." Modern Philology 6 (1908-09): 69-96.

Gervais, Marie-Marthe. "Gender and Language in French." In French Today: Language in its Social Context, edited by Carol Sanders, 121-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Godefroy, Frédéric. Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française … du XIeau XVesiècle … 10 vols. Paris: F. Vieweg, 1881-92.

Grisay, A., G. Lavis, and M. Dubois-Stasse. Les Dénominations de la femme dans les anciens textes littéraires français. Gembloux: Duculot, 1969.

Harrison, Ann Tukey. "Fifteenth-Century French Women's Role Names." French Review 62 (1989): 436-44.

Jokinen, Ulla. "Le genre de gens en moyen français." Studia Philologica Jyväskyläensia 22 (1988): 114-40.

Jordan, Constance. "Boccaccio's In-famous Women: Gender and Civic Virtue in the De Claris Mulieribus. "In Ambiguous Realities: Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Carole Levin and Jeanie Watson, 25-47. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Lhoest, Benoît. "Les dénominations de la femme en moyen français: approche lexicale et anthropologique." Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 107 (1991): 343-62.

Margolis, Nadia. "Elegant Closures: The Use of the Diminutive in Christine de Pizan and Jean de Meun." In Richards, et al. 1992, 111-23.

——. "Les Terminaisons dangereuses: lyrisme, féminisme et humanisme néologiques chez Christine de Pizan." In Autour de Jacques Monfrin. Néologie et création verbale. Actes du Colloque international, Université McGill, Montréal, 7-8-9 octobre 1996, edited by Giuseppe Di Stefano and Rose M. Bidler, 381-404. Le Moyen Français 39-40-41 (1996-97).

McLeod, Glenda K. "Poetics and Antimisogynist Polemics in Christine de Pizan's Le Livre de la cité des dames. "In Richards, et al. 1992, 37-47.

Moreau, Thérèse. Le Nouveau Dictionnaire féminin-masculin des professions, des titres et des fonctions. Geneva: Metropolis, 1999.

Phillippy, Patricia A. "Establishing Authority: Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus and Christine de Pizan's Cité des Dames." Romanic Review 77 (1986): 167-93.

Quilligan, Maureen. The Allegory of Female Authority: Christine de Pizan's "Cité des Dames." Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Solente, Suzanne. "Christine de Pisan." Histoire littéraire de la France 40 (1974): 335-422. Originally, as separate pre-print (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).

Solterer, Helen. "Flaming Words: Verbal Violence and Gender in Premodern Paris." Romanic Review 86 (1995): 355-78.

——. The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Yaguello, Marina. Les Mots et les femmes. Paris: Payot, 1987.

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Christine de Pizan: Title Commentary

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