Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in the Medieval World
WOMEN AND WOMEN'S WRITINGS FROM ANTIQUITY THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES: WOMEN IN THE MEDIEVAL WORLD
JENNIFER WYNNE HELLWARTH (ESSAY DATE JANUARY 2002)
SOURCE: Hellwarth, Jennifer Wynne. "'I Wyl Wright of Women Prevy Sekenes': Imagining Female Literacy and Textual Communities in Medieval and Early Modern Midwifery Manuals." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (January 2002): 44-64.
In the following excerpt, Hellwarth explores the subject of female literacy in the Middle Ages as a threat to patriarchal order, using late medieval midwifery manuals as her textual focus.
Defining the term 'literacy' in medieval and early modern England is not a simple task; it defies the more modern (and relatively uncomplicated) definition of having the ability to read and write. In medieval terminology, a litteratus was someone who was learned in Latin, while an illitteratus was someone who was not. Eventually, litteratus and illitteratus came to be associated with the clergy and laity respectively.1 But these terms were not used for describing literacy in the vernacular, or the various categories and levels of competence in both reading and writing, either in Latin or in the vernacular. Recently, scholars have increasingly been thinking in terms of multiple 'literacies', especially when considering the more elusive female literacy. In her 1998 book, Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, Eve Sanders asserts that literacy practices following the Reformation played a role in the formation of gender identity, and that 'different levels and forms of literacy' were assigned to each gender.2 Sanders contributes to what is the project of a growing number of literary scholars, such as Margaret Ferguson and Frances Dolan, who study literacy using gender as a category of examination.3 By adding gender to the mix, these scholars challenge the more narrow definitions of literacy such as those established by David Cressy's influential Literacy and the Social Order.4 They have sought instead to define literacies by exploring the multiple ways in which the 'products of a culture can be acquired and transmitted.'5
By imagining less traditional forms of female literacy, we allow for the possibility of interrogating the cultural currency these broader forms of literacy carried.6 The examination of medieval and early modern female literacy practices offer us opportunities to continue redefining what it meant to be literate. Evidence suggests that while women across the classes were often denied access to the same kind of education in reading and writing to which their male counterparts had access, some still managed to find ways to learn to read and get access to texts. Though these texts were most often devotional in nature, and therefore more 'acceptable' for use, it appears that women also had access to other kinds of texts and forms of knowledge. Women increasingly became important textual learners, and they were involved in and responsible for the education of their children and families, with or without traditional literacy skills. The means by which women educated their own daughters through communal instruction suggests the existence of a model of female textual communities; it was not uncommon for groups of women to gather around a 'text' with 'literate' women disseminating its contents.7
I take the basic notion of a textual community from Brian Stock, who argues that 'what was essential to a textual community was not a written version of a text, although that was sometimes present, but an individual, who, having mastered it, then utilized it for reforming a group's thought and action'.8 By modifying Stock's notion of textual community, which does not consider gender, we can apply it to women's textual practices in the medieval and early modern periods. These communities could, and did, use their shared 'literacy' to interpret, perpetuate, and rebel against the cultural structures that defined women and their relationship to God, to men, and to mothering. They did this through dissemination of knowledge, through oral transmission (reading aloud, gossiping, teaching), and through private and public reading. Anne Clark Bartlett suggests that reading 'is always a process of negotiation between … the culturally activated text and the culturally activated reader, an interaction structured by the material, social, ideological, and institutional relationships in which both texts and readers are inescapably inscribed'.9 The complexity of the reading process, then, is in part defined by the response of a textual community to its culture through a given text, and in part based on the reader's skills and strategies. In this model there is always circulation, perpetuation, exchange and reconfigurations of the larger culture's ideologies of class, gender, religion, and conduct. Teasing out and identifying some of the mechanisms of this circulation, and the interchange between more and less isolated communities and the larger culture, will have an impact on how we conceive of female textual communities, female literacy as cultural capital, and the negotiation of power between men and women.
One such negotiation that I take up in this essay occurs between the medical patriarchy and female textual and birth communities, and is most evident in midwifery, obstetrical, and gynecological manuals of medieval and early modern Europe. The medieval Trotula and 'Sekenesse of Wymmen', the early modern multi-edition der Swangern frawen und hebammen rosegarten (Rose Garden for Pregnant Women and Midwives), with its essentially English translation The Byrth of Mankynde, and Jane Sharp's The Midwives Book, all give us ways of thinking about the development of specifically female literacy as capital.10 These medieval texts draw our attention to the social management of 'women's privy sickness' and childbirth, illustrating the ways that women taught and were taught to manage childbirth. In addition, sixteenth and early-seventeenth century instructional manuals illustrate how men began to take over this field, and these manuals indicate various ways in which men's and women's anxieties about childbirth to some degree fueled this shift. At times these works offer us images of female textual communities and an authoritative social 'voice'; sometimes the voice seeks to participate in or enable the community, sometimes it seeks to infiltrate and disrupt it. While we cannot know whether the descriptions and imaginations of these female textual communities are representative of those who actually acquired and used these texts, they do infer a potential, desired, if not true readership. Thus, these texts give us a sense of a female literacy that is secret yet culturally valuable.
Specifically, midwifery manuals indicate the gendering of literacy in this period and ask us to define a particular 'female medical literacy' that differs from other categories of literacy. In her essay on medieval women's tenuous and limited relationship to 'literate medicine', historian Monica Green suggests the concept of 'medical literacy' as 'a way of acknowledging that not all kinds of texts are read in the same way'.11 As part of her ongoing inquiry, Green observes that female medical practitioners, prominent in the healing practices, most probably interacted with medical discourse in a number of ways as a result of the relationship between gender and acquisition of literacy. As a historian, Green is interested in defining a documentary relationship between reader and text. My project is interested in the ways this literacy gets imagined. I will argue that the acquisition of such a literacy—often through gossip and other potentially liminal and less formal or conventionally circulated forms of knowledge—was anxiety-producing to the patriarchy in general, and to the medical patriarchy in particular. Further, the cultural negotiations around such texts indicate a textual intercourse between the largely male medical profession and the experiential knowledge and authority of women; paradoxically, they also illustrate a reliance of the patriarchal communities on female textual communities for both their knowledge and their patronage.
Medieval midwifery manuscripts express a mode of empowerment available through the reproductive female body and privy knowledge of that body. Similarly, but with more ambivalence, early modern midwifery and gynecological and obstetrical handbooks emphasize the cultural capital of that power. The consumption and production of the text enables women's literacy practices, yet the text itself represents power over and infiltration into women's childbirth practices. These texts also offer a window into the ideology of the culture since they contain the potential response of men to the text and they imagine, simultaneously, female textual practice. A certain kind of subjection and submission is expected on the part of the female reader, yet the female reader concomitantly exerts a resistance to that force. Bartlett argues that one way resistance might occur is through the literacy skills a woman may or may not have. That is, potential gaps that a woman might have from her particular kind of schooling—full, interrupted, or non-existent-would force her to attempt to create sense out of phrases that might confound her; Bartlett calls these 'reconstructive readings' and shows how they might potentially change a work's meaning in significant ways (20-21). Bartlett argues this in her discussion of devotional texts, but this same hypothesis can be applied to a childbirth community processing information through textual transmission, oral transmission, or both. Reconstructive readings would have created an occasion for anxiety, and we can measure responses to this anxiety by investigating how a text's author addresses his or her 'audience'.
Nowhere is this negotiation better illustrated than in the prefaces and prologues of midwifery manuals—locations where the author, editor, and/or translator asserts his or her purpose and where imagined relationships to the reader and that reader's desired relationship to the text are configured. The prefaces, prologues and 'Notes to the Reader' articulate various relationships between a female and male 'author' and a female audience. The prefaces produced for pregnant women and midwives embody several cultural paradoxes related to the gendering of medical literacy in particular, and female literacy in general. They suggest an ambivalent relationship of the patriarchal medical profession to female literacy, one in which the literate female is both feared and desired. As a form of literacy becomes capital (when it becomes exchangeable), as it does in the case of the specific kind of female literacy practice, the conventional forms of literacy no longer function as viable categories. Thus, paradoxically, once a form of literacy is seen as valuable by the dominant culture, once it is viewed as capital, it becomes both a definable category and more difficult to manage and standardize.…12
- See M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, Second Edition (Oxford UK & Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 1993), Chapter 7, 'Literate and Illiterate', for a more detailed discussion of this issue.
- Eve Rachele Sanders, Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 2.
- See Margaret Ferguson, Dido's Daughters: Literacy, Gender and Empire in Early Modern England and France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). See also Frances Dolan, 'Reading, Writing, and other crimes', from Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan and Dympna Callaghan, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 158.
- David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
- See R. A.Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe (London: Longman, 1988), 3. Houston suggests that knowledge and information can be disseminated and/or obtained in a number of different ways: through looking at an image, through reading either privately or publicly, by attending that which is read either in small or large, informal or formal groups, and finally, through writing—from a signature to a composition.
- I am indebted to Margaret Ferguson's concept of literacy as a form of cultural capital from Dido's Daughters: Literacy, Gender and Empire in Early Modern England and France.
- Among others, Michael Van Cleave Alexander argues that medieval and early modern women who learned how to read almost always took care to educate their daughters—he cites Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters, and their daughters in turn. He also offers up family letters that provide 'graphic proof' of the spread of literacy among middle class women. The Growth of English Education: 1348-1648: A Social and Cultural History (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 40.
- Brian Stock is of course most specifically interested in the role the rise of literacy had in the 'formation of heretical and reformist religious groups' (88), and how these groups functioned as textual communities. See his section on 'Textual Communities' from The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 88-240.
- See Anne Clark Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 2-3.
- In 1981, Beryl Rowland published the Medieval Woman's Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1981). Rowland's transcription of the Medieval Woman's Guide has been particularly useful in drawing attention to some of the actual medieval medical obstetrical and gynecological practices of women, ostensibly from a female practitioners point of view. And while Wendy Arons has published a modern translation of Rosslin's The Rose Garden, there is not as yet a published modern edition of England's most significant midwifery treatise of the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, Raynald's translation of De Partu Hominis, The Byrth of Mankynde. See When Midwifery Became the Male Physician's Province: The Sixteenth Century Handbook: Rose Garden for Pregnant Women and Midwives, trans. Wendy Arons (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1994).
- Monica Green, 'The Possibilities of Literacy and the Limits of Reading: Women and the Gendering of Medical Literacy' in Women's Healthcare in the Medieval West (Ashgate Variorum, 2000), 6.
- Many thanks to Kate Koppelman for contributing her insights here, as well as in many other places.
SOPHIE MASSON (ESSAY DATE NOVEMBER 2002)
SOURCE: Masson, Sophie. "The Mirror of Honour and Love: A Woman's View of Chivalry." Quadrant 46, no. 11 (November 2002): 56-59.
In the following essay, Masson stresses the importance of chivalry and its attendant virtues to the lives of European women during the Middle Ages.
Chivalry. Isn't that a bloke's thing? Isn't it to do with being a man-at-arms, with strapping on armour and sallying forth into the wildwood on your horse, your lady's token on your arm, to right wrongs and do great deeds? Isn't the only role of the woman in chivalry to be the inspirer, the muse of a paragon of the knightly virtues? Well, yes—and no. Chivalry was much more than that. And its ideals encompassed both sexes, actively.
As the French-derived term chivalry indicates—it is originally from chevalerie, literally meaning horsemanship—it came about as a means of codifying and disciplining a mounted order of military types. Mounted men-at-arms—knights, in the English word, which by the way derives from the same root as knife, referring to weapons—could be a damn nuisance in the early and later Middle Ages. The way they were regarded by many people is perhaps best summed up in the German proverb, Er will Ritter an mir werden—he wants to play the knight over me, ride roughshod over me. That is, these mounted men were regarded as tyrannical bullies, delinquents and pests.
That they were pests more often than not is indisputable; a combination of young man's energy, a lack of efficiently centralised civic or moral teaching (the state did not really exist, and the church struggled mightily to tame the warriors for centuries), and the fact that on a horse you could quickly get away from the scene of your crimes, mixed with a kind of carte blanche, a blind eye turned to your high jinks by the man—or woman—who paid your wages when you were at war with their rivals or enemies (but cut you loose when they didn't need you, leaving you to fend for yourself), made for a potent cocktail of public nuisance. The Middle Ages was a young person's period; though many people did live on into old age, the average age of death for a woman was thirty-three; for a man, especially a knight, it was under thirty. The often wild energy, idealism and exaltation that characterises medieval culture comes from that demographic fact. This was real youth culture.
ON THE SUBJECT OF…
ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE (1122-1204)
Eleanor was born in 1122, and became heir to Aquitaine—a vast area in the southwest of what is now France—while still a young girl. Her father had supported troubadours, poets, and storytellers, and through exposure to them and other teachers, Eleanor received a superior education, unusual for a woman of her era. Honoring her father's deathbed wish to unite Aquitaine and France, fifteen-year-old Eleanor married the son of the King of France, and when the king died a few days later, she became the Queen of France, wife of King Louis VII. Their marriage was annulled in 1152, and Eleanor held such power in the south that Louis VII had no choice but to allow her to retain control of Aquitaine. She soon married Henry Plantagenet, who became King of England two years later. Four months after their marriage she gave birth to William, the first of the couple's eight children. Henry had numerous affairs; the most infamous was with Rosamond Clifford, the daughter of a knight. "Fair Rosamond" and her interactions with Eleanor have served as the inspiration for dozens of poems and romances.
Eleanor had considerable impact on the music of her time both as patron of and inspiration for troubadours. In 1168 she returned to rule her subjects in France, and her court became a center of culture. In her "court of love" she and her ladies regularly listened to and judged the poets delivering their verses. When Henry II died in 1189, her third son, Richard I (the Lionheart), became King. While Richard was fighting on a crusade in the Holy Land from 1190 to 1194, Eleanor ruled England herself. Numerous official writs and charters were issued under Eleanor's name, and she (or perhaps Richard) is given credit for publishing a compilation of maritime laws known as the Laws of Oleron. She died in 1204 in the abbey of Fontevrault, where she is buried along with Henry II and Richard the Lionheart.
But as time went on, and the disorder of the post-Roman period, the invasions, and the Norman adventures receded, and prosperity and peace descended in Europe, some kind of balance having been precariously achieved, more attention was paid to the fact that the youth had not only to be kept in line, but also to be given a channel for their energies which would make them more productive and more disciplined. Added to that was the change in peacetime culture, particularly in England and France, with women becoming more prominent again, able to provide a guiding hand.
Modern people all too often view the Middle Ages through distorting mirrors; and one of the most distorting is the idea of medieval women's position. In fact, it is probably true to say that women in the Middle Ages, especially after about the eleventh century and up to the fifteenth, enjoyed a level of relative freedom not equalled until the twentieth. The fall of Rome had also made many of her laws recede into the distance, slowly; Roman statute law was notably more misogynist than the customary law of the tribal groups the empire had conquered. Celtic and Germanic women enjoyed a degree of freedom that scandalised the Romans: perhaps the greatest and most serious of the rebellions against Rome in Britain occurred when an arrogant Roman governor flouted the realpolitik of his masters and cut across British customary law by refusing to ratify the awarding of the chieftainship of the Iceni to the widowed Queen Boudicca, or Boadicea.
Now as the Middle Ages advanced and people forgot about Roman law, or cheerfully ignored it, opting instead for a mixture of old and new in their customary law, so the position of women improved. Please don't think I'm talking feminism here. Medieval society, like pre-Roman society, was one of kinship and hierarchy (which is not the same as class, by the way). If you were related to the right people, if you were part of the clan, you had a right to exercise the rights given to you on that basis, no matter what your sex. So women in the Middle Ages, as in the Celtic and Germanic worlds, could openly be chiefs, could command armies, an huge estates, run businesses, inherit and so forth, in a way that women in Roman times and women in the Renaissance—which rediscovered Roman law and reinstated many of the old ways, including the institutionalised repression of women—could not, or could only do through subterfuge. Medieval people recognised custom, and its pre-eminence; kinship, and its inextricable centrality; hierarchy, which meant that everyone had a place but that people could move between places, in case of great personal merit (there were quite a number of serfs who became knights).
What we now think of as chivalry came out of that world. It began, as a codified idea, in the twelfth century, in the courts of two famous and talented and powerful women of the time: the extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie of Champagne. Eleanor was a force of nature, a brilliant figure whose true stature is only slowly being rediscovered. Sole heir to the vast lands of Aquitaine, the teenaged Eleanor married the pious, shy Louis VII of France, who was no match for her wilfulness and talents. She went along with him on Crusade, as an important person in her own right, had several children with him, including Marie, then tiring of him and his font-frog ways, and infatuated with the younger, sexy Henri Plantagenet d'Anjou, (Henry II of England) she concocted an excuse to get rid of Louis. She even managed to persuade the Pope to grant her an annulment on the basis of too-close kinship to her former husband, and so was able to enter into legal marriage with Henry.
She and Henry were a match for each other, but too much so in many ways; though they had six more children, and for a long time had a strong relationship, Henry's roving eye and Eleanor's pride proved the undoing of a partnership that had had all Europe enthralled. During this time, she ran her own court separately in Poitiers, and was the patron of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers.
It was at this court, and at her daughter Marie's in Champagne, that the codes of chivalry and of courtly love were established, in close contact with the great ladies. Eleanor and Marie were aware not only of the delinquent tendencies of knights, but also of the boredom of ladies—and of the many sexual adventures that went on. They would encourage the concept of a new form of chivalry, which would not only emphasise prowess in arms and great deeds, as had been the case in the past, but also the great adventure of love, the way it helped in the journey to self-knowledge and integration. It would mean that women would have a central part in the culture, as muses and inspirers certainly, but also as honourable beings in their own right.
Secular Woman in Romance, and Sacred Woman, the Madonna, dominated medieval culture from the twelfth century, in the process turning a rather rough and ready culture to a most beautiful, subtle and richly patterned one. As well, contact with the East meant that philosophy, astrology and astronomy, and the natural sciences in general, flourished. Indeed, I believe that it would be truer to speak of the twelfth century, rather than the fifteenth, as the Renaissance, for this was the true turning-point in medieval culture. I think too that the new concept of chivalry, whose ideals became deeply ingrained in Western modes of thinking and imagining, represents a major and important divergence between Eastern (particularly Arab, but also Byzantine) and Western cultures at the time.
What were the distinguishing elements of chivalry? I have devised a list of the Seven Qualities of Honour, gleaned from various medieval books, qualities which were firmly to be sought after by both men and women.
Franchise, or Frankness (that is, openness of mind); Pitie, or Compassion; Courage; Courtoisie, or Courtesy; Sagesse, or Wisdom; Largesse, or Generosity; and Temperance, or Moderation. As is obvious, these were not sex-limited characteristics. And though they were ideals, they were often lived up to. From those seven qualities, we can get a sense of the characteristics of post-twelfth-century medieval culture. Hotheadedness was to be restrained; greed and avarice, always pet hates of the times (and major problems) cast into the darkness; ignorant yobbo behaviour firmly rejected.
Respect for others, and for oneself as a growing soul, is intrinsic to the chivalric tradition. It is intended to carry through into all aspects of one's life; at its best it is truly impressive. It is pointless to keep saying, as all too many modern writers do, that the ideal wasn't always lived up to; what ideal ever is? The fact is that this ideal genuinely changed a whole society, and laid the groundwork for many other social developments in the future.
Writers like Chretien de Troyes and Andre le Chapelain—or Andreas Capellanus, as he's often known—wrote books demonstrating and portraying the new ways of being and relating between the sexes: incidentally also changing the face of literature (the romance being the true ancestor not only of the novel in general but of the fantasy novel). As time went on, more and more writers, inspired by the beauty and depth of the ideas embodied within the notions of chivalry, explored it in ever greater depth. Many of these (in the main) male writers saw Woman as Muse: whether spiritually as well as romantically, like Ramon Llull, for instance, or practically and realistically, like Godefroi de Charny (both men wrote books on chivalry which are still in print today). Of course, there were also those who fought hard against it and the implicit validation of women as real human beings worthy of respect, of true love, and even adoration. Such a one was Jean de Meung, writer of the Romance of the Rose, an anti-woman diatribe, and the anonymous authors of the scatological Roman de Renart, which in many ways functions as an anti-romance.
Between idealism and misogyny, though, there were also those who saw women as equal partners in the great journey of life, and in the quest for honour, and the development of the soul that chivalry represented. At least two of those writers were women: the twelfth-century Marie de France (not the same person as Marie de Champagne) and the early-fifteenth-century Christine de Pisan. Marie wrote lais, narrative poems, romances based on Celtic motifs, full of love, magic, humour and adventure. Christine was a non-fiction writer, who wrote hugely popular and influential books on the achievements and behaviour of women. Some of these were intended as self-help guides; others as witty and fierce ripostes to anti-woman propagandists. One of her books, The Treasury of the City of Ladies, talks at length about the ways in which women achieve honour and respect, and the ways in which the chivalric code can be applied to everyday life.
Let's have a look at some of the things the women writers said. Marie, who has a rather salty tongue and sardonic eye and ear for the way people behave, is particularly preoccupied with love and the different ways in which lovers act. She firmly tells her audience that chivalry and courtliness are about real things, that hypocrites and coy flibbertigibbets are without honour:
The professional beauty will mince
and preen her feathers, and wince
at showing she favours a man,
unless it's all for her gain.
But a worthy lady of wisdom and valour
will not be too proud to show her favour
and enjoy the love of her man
in every way that she can. (This quote is from Marie's poem
"Guigemar"—the translation is my own; you can
find it in my novel centred on Marie, Forest of
Marie's outlook is that of an upper-class medieval woman, fluent in several languages, moving easily around Europe, sure of her place and independent within it. She chastises strongly those critics who have said that what she writes about is not serious literature, or that it is immodest, or "untrue", because it has magic in it (I must say that as a writer of fantasy, I felt a great sense of kinship with her there). She is very concerned with female honour, and makes it quite clear that women must show as much courage, courtesy, generosity and the other chivalric virtues as men. She has several examples of female characters who run a love affair from beginning to end, fight, travel, and so on; just as she has a female character, werewolf knight Bisclavret's faithless wife, who is punished severely—not for being a woman but for being faithless. This savage justice is also meted out to men who transgress the code.
Women really did live by this code; there are numerous examples of women left in charge of large estates who faithfully and bravely mounted the defence of those estates against the enemies of their house, and were praised for it by chroniclers of the time. Medieval people had a horror of treachery and cowardice; the two were often felt to go hand in hand. The fact that you were a woman did not absolve you from keeping to the ideals of chivalry, in times of crisis and in your ordinary life. And in her fiction, Marie demonstrates clearly both the complex realities of medieval life, and what was considered honourable for both sexes.
From the twelfth century to the early fifteenth is quite a jump. We come here to the tail-end of the code of chivalry—we have been through the culture-shaking hideousness of the Black Death (which, incidentally, in the latest research is no longer thought to be bubonic plague but a kind of Ebola-like virus), and are close to the shift in thinking represented by humanism and the Reformation. In this climate, propaganda against women was growing, though much of the old chivalric spirit remained and indeed never went away altogether. Women of all backgrounds were still very much in evidence in ordinary life, in all kinds of ways; the cruel Roman-derived statutes, which wiped out many customary rights of inheritance and divorce and so on, had not yet been applied.
Christine de Pisan, a prolific and indefatigable writer who proselytised tirelessly for the recognition of the talents, achievements and potential of women, gave her advice and insights in the form of allegory and exposition. She was enormously influential and popular; her own life story is an inspiration for women desperate to know more about the lives and achievements of women in the past. Left a widow at a young age, with small children to support, Italian-born Christine launched into a professional career as a writer in early fifteenth-century Paris. She was not one to bite her tongue, but took part vigorously in many of the intellectual debates of the day, in which her sharp intelligence, comprehensive education and refusal to be beaten thrilled her fans and infuriated her enemies.
Christine launched into a lively denunciation of the anti-woman Romance of the Rose, pointing out tartly the many faults in its logic and its humanity. Her Book of the City of Ladies was conceived as a direct riposte to Jean de Meung's jeremiads. She used the device of three allegorical figures—Dame Reason, with her mirror of self-knowledge, the "mirror held up to nature", as she called it; Dame Rectitude, with her rod of peace; and Dame Justice, with her cup from whence she pours out stability and equilibrium—to frame a discourse in which a "City of Ladies" can be constructed which allows women to fully develop their talents and potential. In so doing, she refuted many of the criticisms of women made by contemporary writers, and highlighted the achievements of women in many areas.
Her sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies (recently republished, in English, as The Medieval Woman's Mirror of Honour), was more of a self-help and advice book, tailored not only to aristocratic women but to women of all social backgrounds, from rich merchants to poor cottage women. The thrust of her argument is that, in order to act honourably, women do not need to fight against nature, but to follow selectively and intelligently the dictates of their truest selves.
Real self-knowledge and respect for others, so central to chivalry, are also the centre of Christine's words to her readers, the armour she advises them to put on to sally forth into the great adventure of life. From it grow all those qualities of honour, from courage and generosity to openness of mind and temperance, compassion and courtesy—and the result is true wisdom. For that was the aim of chivalry: a way of reaching one's fullest potential as a human being, but always keeping in view the presence, the needs, and the worth of other people. Chivalry, both male and female, recognised that each of us is, indeed, our brother's or sister's keeper—but also courageously responsible for our own actions. It is an ideal which is of increasing and urgent relevance in the world today.
JO ANN MCNAMARA (ESSAY DATE 2003)
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