A Medieval Feminist

Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), often called the first professional female author, wrote to support herself and her family. She is one of the few women who had prominence as a secular writer during a time when women were neither educated nor independent.

Christine de Pisan Teaching Her Son – Unknown illuminated manuscript from British Library, London
Christine de Pisan Teaching Her Son – Unknown illuminated manuscript from British Library, London

Christine was born in Venice in 1364. When she was five, her family moved to France so that her father, a physician and astrologer, could work as a councilor to King Charles V.

In Paris Christine’s mother wanted her to learn domestic skills, but her father believed that it would benefit her to learn how to read and write. In the milieu of a court that had an immense library, she learned Italian, French, and some Latin.

When she was 15 years old, she married Étienne du Castel, a nobleman and courtier who became the king’s secretary. But that same year Charles V died and her father lost his position, and with it the high income. Three years later her husband died, leaving her with the burden of three small children. Her widowed mother, also dependent on her, cared for her children while Christine threw herself into literature, philosophy, and anything she could learn.

Instead of remarrying, she decided to enlarge upon her studies. Fortunately she was allowed access to the libraries of the courts. In 1394 she began to write and sell her poems and receive commissions by patrons of the court.

As Christine continued to write poetry and prose, a feminist voice emerged. In The Book of the City of Ladies she created a utopian world where women had power and control and proved that many of the negative myths regarding the female sex were false.

Illuminated page from The Book of the City of Women. Paris about 1405. Photo credit: Manuscript Department/Library of Congress
Illuminated page from The Book of the City of Women. Paris about 1405. Photo credit: Manuscript Department/Library of Congress

In this illustration from The Book of the City of Women, aided by Reason, Uprightness, and Justice, she lays the foundation of a City exclusively for women who have served the cause of women (female warriors, politicians, good wives, lovers, and inventors, among others). The imagined City will be crowned by the glory of the Virgin and sainted women.

Its sequel, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, was different, written specifically for upper-class women and members of the court, to give them advice on managing their homes during their husbands’ absences. In this book she cautioned against dishonest governors and protecting one’s rights as a landowner so that unscrupulous agents would not take advantage of a woman’s status.

Christine was knowledgeable in farming and spoke to the role of women as housekeepers in a time when their domain included fields, crops, laborers, and maids.

“The good housekeeper must keep her eyes wide open.” Christine was well acquainted with the chores involved in livestock maintenance, as well as agriculture. Every detail of the work involved in a responsible woman’s life was spelled out. She stressed that the mistress of a domestic enterprise should constantly be watchful.

Illustrations from The Treasure of the City of Ladies Credit: Special Collections, Boston Public Library
Illustrations from The Treasure of the City of Ladies Credit: Special Collections, Boston Public Library

The left side of this illustration shows Christine reclining on a canopied bed trying to rest after finishing The Book of the City of Ladies. The three Virtues awakening Christine giving her such a mighty tug that she pulls her into an upright position, commanding: Have you already put away the tool of your intelligence and consigned it to silence? Take your pen and write.

 The right side of this miniature portrays all of the women addressed in the text. The middle class women are seated on a bench in the foreground, with their backs to the viewer.  Three of these women wear hoods with long tails hanging down their backs.  These hoods indicate their lower status. There are several women on the bench with white horned headdresses identical to the one our author wears, spelling out their slightly higher status as servants of the court, or members of the affluent middle class.

Christine de Pizan lecturing men (I) and in her study) Both illustrations accompany the Cent Ballades, in the Queen’s Manuscript of 1411-12, now in the British Library.
Christine de Pizan lecturing men (I) and in her study) Both illustrations accompany the Cent Ballades, in the Queen’s Manuscript of 1411-12, now in the British Library.

The Book of the Queen contains the largest extant collection of Christine’s writing, and was written and decorated under her supervision, commissioned for Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen consort to Charles VI of France.

Christine’s life was dramatically altered by the Hundred Years War clash between France and England. Sometime after France lost the Battle of Agincourt she entered a convent in Poissy, France. In 1429 she penned a work to praise Joan of Arc. This proved to be her final contribution to literature. Christine died around 1430.

 

 

 

 

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