Christine de Pizan (c. 1363–c. 1431)
Christine de Pizan (c. 1363–c. 1431)
Writer, lyric poet, historian, and scholar of the royal French court, who argued passionately against the negative views of women propounded by male writers, and urged men and women to respect and admire all women for their many virtues. Name variations: Chrystyne; Christine de Pisan; Christine of Pisa; Christine of Pisan. Pronunciation: puh-ZAHN. Born between 1363 and 1365 in Venice, Italy; died after 1429, possibly 1431 or 1434, at convent of Poissy, France; daughter of Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano (a physician and astrologer); mother's name unknown; married Sir Etienne du Castel, in 1380; children: two sons, including the eldest Jean, and a daughter.
Family moved to France (about 1368); married (1380); widowed (1390); began composing poetry (1390); retired to convent of Poissy (1418); last known composition, Song of Joan of Arc, finished (July 1429).
One Hundred Ballads, Virelays, Rondeaux (1390–1400); Epistle to the God of Love (1399); Epistle to Othea (1400); The Book of the Mutations of Fortune (1400–03); Epistles on the Debate of the "Romance of the Rose" (1401–03); The Book of the Way of Long Study (1402–03); The Book of the Deeds and Good Customs of the Wise King Charles V (1404); The Book of the City of Ladies (1405); The Book of the Three Virtues (The Treasure of the City of Ladies) (1405); The Vision of Christine (1405); The Book of Feats of Arms and Chivalry (1410); The Book of Peace (1412–14); Song of Joan of Arc (1429).
One of the most remarkable of all medieval women, the Italian scholar Christine de Pizan was an internationally known writer, poet, and feminist at the French royal court. Yet despite her prolific output of poetry and prose and the far-reaching fame and admiration she enjoyed during her life, Christine and her works are known to few today, and only some of her works have been made into modern editions. She has been consistently "rediscovered" in every century since her death, but she has still been unable to take her place among the finest of medieval writers, most likely because her sex and her feminist attacks on the misogynist writers of her time have found little favor with the male historians and literary critics who have encountered her.
Unfortunately we do not know Christine's mother's name, but her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, was a well-to-do physician and astrologer in Bologna who became a municipal bureaucrat in Venice. He married in Venice where Christine was born in 1365. Tommaso enjoyed a widespread reputation for his knowledge and soon received invitations to join the courts of King Louis I of Hungary and Charles V of France as court astrologer. Tommaso chose France because it was known as a country of scholars, and shortly after Christine's birth he left for Paris. The next year, King Charles paid for Tommaso's wife and children to travel to Paris as well. Thus Christine left her homeland as a young child and was taken to France, where she would spend the rest of her life.
Christine de Pizan is at once one of the outstanding writers of world literature and one of the most neglected.
—Earl Jeffrey Richards
Because of her father's high position, Christine grew up close to the center of French court society, a closed, highly structured social setting with rigid rules of protocol, hierarchy, and etiquette. Tommaso strongly encouraged his intelligent daughter to study and learn as much as possible and taught her himself when he could. Christine's mother, as Christine herself records, was not in favor of her daughter's studies but did not go against Tommaso's wishes by keeping Christine from her reading. Christine thus gained an education rare for medieval women, being allowed to study in the king's library the great Greek and Roman authors, from Ovid to Boethius to Aristotle, as well as many medieval writers. She learned to read French, Italian, and Latin. At this time, only a few noblewomen were allowed a formal education in the classics; for Christine, daughter of a bourgeois, to have surpassed even her social betters in her learning makes her even more unique in medieval history.
Tommaso was shown great favor by King Charles, who admired him immensely. He soon became an advisor to the king on all political and state matters and was granted by Charles many gifts of land, pensions, and money. Thus, Christine's childhood was spent in relative luxury, made secure by the king's affection for her father. Being the daughter of a royal favorite, Christine had no lack of suitors when she entered her teen years, the age when most medieval women were betrothed and married. Tommaso chose a bright young noble from Picardy for his only daughter. Etienne du Castel was 25 years old at the time of his marriage to 15-year-old Christine in 1380; despite the difference in age and the prearranged nature of their marriage, Christine and Etienne fell deeply in love and were quite happy together, as Christine records in her autobiography. Her new husband even supported her studies and, like her father, encouraged her to learn. Christine gave birth to three children, two sons and a daughter, although the name of only one, the eldest boy Jean, is known. Soon after the wedding, Etienne's quick mind and his connection to Tommaso led Charles to appoint him as his personal secretary and notary.
The year 1380 proved to be a great turning point in Christine's life. It marked her marriage and the end of her childhood, and it came to mark as well the beginning of a downturn in her fortunes and those of her family. For, on September 16, 1380, their great and kindly benefactor King Charles V suddenly died. It was not uncommon in court society for a person's fortunes to rise with the good will of a king and fall with his death, but this could not have been consolation to Tommaso, his wife, and their children, who went from living very well to financial hardship. The new king, Charles VI, was only a child; his uncle, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, who acted as regent, had little use for his dead brother's astrologer. Tommaso retained his position but at a much-reduced salary, and all his pensions, annuities, and other stipends were immediately cut off. "Now the door to our misfortunes opened up, and I, still young, entered in," wrote Christine in The Vision of Christine.
Tommaso began suffering from ill health after Charles V's death and died around 1385. Etienne and Christine found themselves at the head of her family, which included their three children, Christine's brothers, and her mother. And yet another tragedy awaited Christine. Etienne had managed to retain his position in the new administration and spent much time traveling with the young king and his advisors across the kingdom. In 1390, Etienne died while in Beauvais with the royal court when an unspecified epidemic, possibly the bubonic plague, broke out suddenly.
Christine was devastated when she heard the news. As Etienne had not been an inheritor of his family wealth, nor had Tommaso left much to his own family, she also faced financial ruin. Only 25 years old, Christine had no resources except herself and had been left to care for her entire family. Her choices were narrowly circumscribed; she could remarry, but this was unlikely, as she could not bring a dowry to a new husband. Instead, she spent most of the next several years pursuing one lawsuit after another, trying to salvage what was left of her father's fortune. To escape from her financial worries, Christine used her spare time to continue her studies, reading as much history, science, and poetry as she could. She also began composing poetry herself.
Although many medieval women faced the kind of frightening situation Christine did as a widow, she was particularly fortunate in two ways: she had received an exceptional education, and she had friends at the royal court and among France's nobility. When it seemed her many lawsuits were to come to little fruition, it was to those wealthy friends that Christine turned to for help, not asking for gifts or charity, but for commissions to write for them. She received several, and her writing career began.
Christine proved to be one of the most talented scholars and writers of the Middle Ages and was well-rewarded for it during her lifetime. In the beginning, she concentrated on poetry, many of her works expressing her previous happiness in marriage and her desolation on her husband's death. For the first decade of her career, the young widow wrote on "universal" themes, such as love, grief, and the consolation of her faith in times of need. These poems established Christine as a gifted writer and earned her the patronage and admiration of many of France's most powerful figures, including King Charles VI and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria (1371–1435).
In May 1399, Christine composed a work in verse that was to change the course of her writing life. The Epistle to the God of Love was a spirited attack on the popular Romance of the Rose, a long misogynist poem that details the seduction of a lady by her lover and included many negative stereotypes about women's evil nature. In the Epistle, women from every social class complain to Cupid, God of Love, about the unjustified hatred and slander they receive at men's hands. They defend women's good nature against male writers both ancient and contemporary, including Jean de Meung, author of the Romance. Christine's work sparked a heated literary debate (which came to be called the "Quarrel of The Romance of the Rose"), in which France's leading thinkers and writers argued about the "true nature" of womankind. Some writers, including the chancellor of the University of Paris and the provost of Paris, sided with Christine that woman's nature is basically good and equal to man's, while other equally respected men agreed that the Romance represented women as they were, conniving, mean-spirited, greedy, insatiable in lust. The Epistle demonstrates Christine's developing consciousness of the slander against womankind; its wide reception led her to continue defending women in her writing.
Christine's growing reputation spread outside France. She received invitations from Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the duke of Milan, and King Henry IV of England to live and write at their courts, but she declined them both, preferring to stay in Paris. Her output between 1399 and 1405 was prolific: nine book-length works in verse and six book-length prose works were completed in six years, along with other small works of poetry and short stories. These major works ranged from The Book of the Mutations of Fortune—a poem over 23,000 lines long, which details the reversals and changes in fortune of various historical, mythical, and Biblical figures—to The Book of the Deeds and Good Customs of the Wise King Charles V, commissioned as the official biography of the late king by Philip the Bold.
Christine was a unique writer for her time in many ways. Not only was she a secular woman writer, but she also wrote several major works on commission at a time when most writers completed a work and then presented it to a potential patron, hoping for rewards. She was also closely involved with the copying and illumination of her work, unusual for a vernacular writer in the 15th century, and supervised the illustration of her manuscripts herself. Her writing style after 1400 changed from the traditional forms of lyric poetry to a complicated prose style. She wrote in French but chose ancient Latin prose as her model, creating what Earl Jeffrey Richards calls, in his introduction to the Book of the City of Ladies, an "experimental and innovative" style whose syntax was a "hallmark of stylistic refinement." Thus, Christine challenged herself as well as her readers.
At age 40, Christine found herself in a situation that must have been a far cry from what she had been brought up to expect. Instead of a quiet domestic existence, she was supporting herself and her family through her own labors. She had been a principal protagonist in the most celebrated literary debate of the Middle Ages and had found friends, protectors, and patrons among the highest of France's elite. The duke of Berry eventually collected a copy of almost everything she had written; the king and queen each rewarded her for her work; the powerful Duke Louis of Orléans and his duchess Valentina Visconti counted themselves among her admirers and owned several of her writings. And her works were being copied and translated into foreign languages, which increased her international reputation.
The same year that found 40-year-old Christine at the pinnacle of fame, 1405, proved to be an extremely busy one. She completed three of her most important prose works, including The Book of the City of Ladies, The Book of the Three Virtues, and The Vision of Christine. The City of Ladies was her final comment on the arguments raised by the "Quarrel of The Romance of the Rose." Here, Christine made her most reasoned and articulate argument in defense of women and advocated equality in the education of men and women. In the book, the characters Reason, Rectitude, and Justice appear to Christine when she is feeling despair about being a woman because authorities have written that women are sinful and immoral. The three allegorical Virtues console her and order her to construct, with their help, a new city where women from every social class can live together without men, and can reach their highest potential for true nobility—which for Christine meant nobility of the heart, rather than nobility of birth.
While they are building the new City of Ladies, the Virtues give Christine's character a new history of women, showing what important contributions wise and good women have made to the world. When the city is complete, the Virtues invite all women to come there, and ask Mary the Virgin , as the most perfect of all women, to preside over it as their queen. Christine followed the City of Ladies with The Book of the Three Virtues (also called The Treasure of the City of Ladies) in which the Virtues again appear and give advice on appropriate conduct and behavior to the women of each social class. Christine also completed her autobiographical work, The Vision of Christine, in 1405. It is from this work that almost all the biographical details extant of her life are recorded.
After 1405, Christine began writing on other topics, in part spurred by the growing political crisis in France, which was being torn apart by a civil war. In 1407, Christine's patron Louis, duke of Orléans, was murdered on the orders of his cousin John, duke of Burgundy (another of Christine's patrons). Paris quickly became a chaotic, unstable city, with nobles and commoners taking sides in the brewing conflict between the royal houses. Christine remained in Paris despite the conflicts but used her writing to protest for peace and good government. In 1407, she completed The Book of the Body Politic, which details recommendations for the proper behavior of each social class in dealing with the others, a work intended for the use of the king.
Three years later, she wrote The Book of Feats of Arms and Chivalry, a military handbook spelling out, among other things, battle strategies, techniques for besieging a castle, and the moral behavior of a wise and noble knight. In the work, realizing that as a woman with no military experience she might not be qualified to write on the subject, she calls on Minerva, goddess of war, to aid her and oversee her pen. This book was both accurate and practical, so much so that years later King Henry VII of England had it translated into English and given to his captains for their instruction.
Christine continued her writing in the areas of conflict and peace with The Book of Peace, written between 1412 and 1414. The fighting between the House of Orléans and the House of Burgundy had spread across the kingdom and was complicated by incursions of English forces; the king, Charles VI, had been mentally incapacitated for several years and his queen Isabeau was completely disinterested in providing even a semblance of leadership and authority. Christine wrote The Book of Peace for the king's son, the Dauphin Louis (Louis, duke of Guienne), and in it urges him to work for resolution and peace in his kingdom because of the great harm and suffering the civil war was causing. Unfortunately, the dauphin was not moved by the work, and the civil unrest continued.
By 1418, Christine was forced to leave Paris; it had become simply too dangerous a place, where armed men of all ranks wandered the streets and many Parisians were attacked and robbed at random. Now 53 years old, Christine retired to the convent of Poissy, some miles outside of Paris where her daughter had been placed in the 1390s. Christine described it as having immense grounds and beautiful gardens, where the abbess and her associates ate off gold plates with crystal goblets. (Poissy was a convent for noblewomen, who brought large endowments when they entered. Christine, as a bourgeois, had had to petition to get her daughter admitted.)
Between 1418 and 1429, Christine did not publish any works; we have no idea how she spent her time. Presumably, she kept up her lifelong passion for knowledge and study, as the abbey had a fine library. In 1429, however, at age 64, she broke her silence with one last work, The Song ofJoan of Arc , the only work known to have been written on that remarkable peasant during her lifetime. As Sarah Lawson writes in her introduction to The Treasure of the City of Ladies, the Song's unique subject and author "should have been enough by itself to ensure Christine's fame."
It is unclear exactly how many years Christine lived after 1429, since the records of the convent were eventually lost. But she left an impressive body of work behind: over 20 volumes of writing, which inspired, challenged, amused, and provoked her many readers during her life, and many of which remain as fresh and stimulating as the day they were penned. Christine de Pizan is finally being made the subject of study and translation by several scholars; it is hoped that her works will be as accessible and widely read as those of contemporary male medieval writers.
Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. NY: Persea Books, 1982.
——. The Treasure of the City of Ladies. Translated by Sarah Lawson. NY: Penguin Books, 1985.
Cherewatuk, Karen, and Ulrike Wiethaus, eds. Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
Wilson, Katharina, ed. Medieval Women Writers. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984.
Laura York , freelance writer in medieval history and women's history, Riverside, California