Saturday, 18 October 2014
Christine de Pizan: A Remarkable Woman
The fourteenth-century was, in many respects, a century of remarkable women. Christine de Pizan was one of them, and her name continues to resonate today with connotations of learning, chivalry and courtliness. Born in 1365, Christine was a French Renaissance writer who, some have argued, wrote some of the first feminist works of literature, although it seems somewhat anachronistic to label them as such. Christine was remarkably educated and this allowed her to write, becoming what King's College termed 'the first woman in Europe to successfully make a living through writing'.
Born in Italy in 1365, Christine later departed for France at a young age when her father, Thomas de Pizan, was appointed to the position of astrologer to the French king at that time, Charles V. This atmosphere allowed his daughter to pursue her intellectual interests, for Thomas clearly believed that his daughter should enjoy a fine education. At the age of fifteen, in 1380 Christine married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary at court, with whom she had three children (a daughter, a son, and another child who tragically died in childhood). In 1390, her husband sadly died in an epidemic, meaning that, on his death, Christine had to support her mother, her niece, and two small children. As a means of supporting herself and her family, she devoted herself to writing. By 1393 she had attracted attention for her love ballads, and between 1399 and 1412 she is said to have composed over three hundred ballads, as well as many shorter poems.
Above: Christine de Pizan presents her book to the queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria.
In 1401-2, Christine participated in a literary debate that allowed her to move beyond the courtly circles she had up to that moment moved in. Following this, she became involved in a renowned literary controversy known as the 'Querelle du Roman de la Rose', which she helped to instigate by calling into question the literary merits of Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose, a medieval French poem that satirised and entertained about the Art of Love. Its focus on sensual language and imagery caused particular controversy, leading to individuals, including Christine, to question it. She, in particular, condemned its suggestion that women were little more than seducers. Christine began to counter and oppose literary treatments of women that were negative or even abusive.
Christine was, and remains, best known for her vernacular works, both in prose and in verse. These include political treatises and mirrors for princes, which consequently brought her a great deal of attention from the very highest orders. Her most famous literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies (in which she created a symbolic city in which women are both appreciated and defended) and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, were both published in 1405. They both offered positive representations of women, stressing how to cultivate useful feminine qualities and celebrating women's past contributions to society. Christine emphasised that women should seek to bring about peace between people, while arguing that slanderous speech eroded one's honour. Christine also later wrote a poem eulogising the tragic Joan of Arc, burned at the stake at the age of nineteen. She died in 1430 aged sixty-five or sixty-six.
Above: A scene from The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).
Christine de Pizan was not a medieval feminist. However, she was remarkable in that, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, her work was 'the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex'. Historians have debated whether this period saw a 'golden age' for women that was tantalisingly brief but which afforded women splendid opportunities not experienced before. While this remains uncertain, Christine de Pizan's astonishing life demonstrates the opportunities for women of the upper orders in particular, who, mobilised by their education and status, could achieve incredible feats.