05 March 2014

Female Pioneers: Writer Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan made her mark on history as a writer in the late medieval / early Renaissance period. She was not the first notable female writer; Anna Comnena and Hildegard von Bingen predated her, but Christine relied upon her writing as a means of financial support. Christine’s work stands out because of her defense of womanhood and the quest for gender equality centuries before the modern ideals of feminism. Her ideas could be considered revolutionary for a time in which European women were little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. Through her writing, she challenged the prevailing depiction of women in literature as seductresses of figures with loose morals, and she criticized misogynistic views offered by her mostly male counterparts. More importantly, her writing provided the means for her family's survival.

Christine and her son Jean
A Venetian by birth, Christine came from an educated family. Her father Tommaso di Benvenuto hailed from Pizanno, Italy, which is near Bologna where he completed his studies. When Christine was aged four, her family came to France where Tomasso served as the court astrologer, alchemist and physician to King Charles V at the monarch’s invitation. Christine’s father encouraged her education in classical languages, religion, history and literature although his wife disapproved, thinking intellectual pursuits did not suit a young lady. 

When she was 15, Christine married the royal secretary Etienne de Castel who was ten years her senior. In 1380, her father lost his patron with the death of Charles V. Christine and Etienne had three children. The couple seems to have been happy, as evidenced in some of Christine’s later writing. She experienced three great losses, the death of her father followed by that of her husband in 1390 of an epidemic, possibly the bubonic plague, while he was on a mission for King Charles VI, and lastly one of her children with Etienne died, leaving as survivors a daughter Marie and a son Jean. Although grief-stricken and widowed in her mid-20’s, Christine had to support her family, which included her mother and niece. There were complications with recovering the salary owed to Etienne.

Christine presents a book to Isabelle of Bavaria
To get by Christine turned to writing, first ballads as an ode to her lost husband. She wrote in Rondeau I: Like the Mourning Dove“Like the mourning dove I'm now all alone, and like a shepherdless sheep gone astray, for death has long ago taken away, my loved one whom I constantly mourn. Her prose became popular so that courtiers commissioned her work and so Christine became a professional writer. Between 1399 and 1405, the focus of her writing changed to politics, religion, history, morals and the role of women. Christine composed a history of her father's savior Charles V and his court, The Book of the Deeds and Good Character of King Charles V the WiseThe mutation of Fortune speaks eloquently of her personal history and struggle as she takes on the role of provider for her family; “Let me summarize, this moment, just who I am, what all this meant. How I, a woman, became a man by a flick of Fortune’s hand….” 
The City of Ladies

Her best-known writing, which examines the depiction of women, is The Book of the City of Ladies, which serves as a testament of the accomplishments of women laid out in three sections. She speaks of famous women throughout history and the means by which they demonstrated temerity, faithfulness, filial piety, or embraced martyrdom for their faith. It serves as a refutation of the unjust oppression or outright dismissal of women as contributors to society. The discussion occurs as through three personas Christine adopts, Lady Justice, Lady Reason, and Lady Rectitude. In each part, these three virtues lays out a plan for bolstering this city of ladies. Reason fortifies the city by dispelling outdated and misguided beliefs about women, Rectitude fills the city with examples of notable women, and Justice emphasizes the role of religion in women's lives.   

In her later years, Christine retired to a convent in Poissy, France. In 1429, she dedicated one of her last works to Joan of Arc and her struggles on behalf of France during the Hundred Years' War. She died at least a year later.

Source: A Medieval Woman's Mirror of Honor - The Treasury of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, introduction by Charity Cannon Willard

Images: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s LegacySultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.