“The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall and bereft of a champion to take up arms in order to protect it…”
–The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, 1405
Feminism in the 15th century? This is considered a rare concept during the medieval period. This was an era of serfs/lords, arranged marriages, and a time when women were viewed as little more than property. This period lacked champions to stand up to the patriarchy that dominated society. Well, such a champion did exist, though many may not have been familiar with her. She is considered France’s (even Europe’s) first profession female writer and was popular internationally. Her name was Christine de Pizan.
Christine is considered one of the first feminist figures as, through her work, she directly addresses many of the injustices her sex had been subjected to. She calls out the injustice of their treatment in a very progressive manner. This is evident in two of her most famous books, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues. Christine’s version of feminism in the 15th century is still not like it is today (as she was still a woman of her time), but it was extremely radical for the period she lived through. I first learned about this amazing woman in an art history course in college and she has been a figure that I have wanted to highlight for a long time now.
Christine de Pizan went through much hardship to find that she had talent as a writer and to realize her purpose. Her early life began as many other young women’s lives did in the late medieval era. She was born in Venice around 1364. Her father, Tommaso di Benevenuto da Pizzano was an educated man who studied medicine and astrology at the University of Bologna. When Christine was four years old her father was offered a position at the court of Charles V in Paris and the family moved out of Italy into a completely new country. Tommaso changed his name to Thomas de Pizan. Due to her father’s position at court, Christine grew up with an admiration for Charles V. He was generous to her family and provided good financial compensation and access to the royal libraries and the fashionable French court.
Christine’s father, being an educated man himself, held the progressive view that women should be educated the same as men. Christine grew up surrounded by her fathers’ books and the royal library. He encouraged her lifelong love of learning and wanted Christine to have a formal education, but her mother held a different opinion. Her mother had the typical viewpoint of the era: young women should be taught practical household tasks, such a spinning, and avoid books and topics that belonged in the men’s sphere. How else was she supposed to be a proper wife for her future husband? It seems her mother’s influence won on this account and her formal education was brief. By 1379, she was married to a young royal secretary named Etienne de Castel. Christine was about fifteen years old.
Despite marrying so young (though it was common during her era) and participating in an arranged marriage, the couple’s life seemed to be very happy. In later years, Christine would write affectionately about this period in her life. Her husband had a prestigious career, had close access to the King and made a good salary. They had two surviving children together, Jean and Marie.
Everything changed when the Charles V passed away. This led to a destructive power struggle between the members of the French royal family. Charles V did leave behind a son (the future Charles VI, “The Mad King”) who was only eleven years old. This meant the regency was fought over by Charles V’s remaining brothers, Philip the Duke of Burgundy, Louis the Duke of Anjou, and John the Duke of Berry. The constant infighting would split the government. All three of these brothers would have influence on Christine’s future career.
Due to the change in power, Christine’s father received a significant pay cut and began to age quickly. Her father passed away by 1387. In 1390, Christine’s husband died suddenly due to a unexpected disease. This left Christine, at age twenty-five, with two young children, her mother, and a niece that she had to care for. Due to her sex and lack of education in financial matters, she was unable to collect the money she was due from her husband’s estate. Yet, Christine did not give up and became involved in suits in four different Parisian courts to obtain the money she believed was owed her. She wrote about this later in The Book of the Body Politic. She implored rulers to review their treatment of widows, women and orphans regarding financial matters. She advised those in power to stop taking advantage of people in need just for one’s own personal gain. She also gives advice to other widows in a similar situation (years after her own experience) when she writes the Book of the Three Virtues. She warns that people who were
“in the habit of honoring you while your husband was alive are no longer very friendly and have little regard for you. The second evil that afflicts you is the various suits and many requests to do with debts or disputes over land or pensions. The third is the abusive language of people who in the nature of things are inclined to attack you, so that you can hardly do anything without people finding something to criticize.”
Clearly, Christine felt all these things first hand. Yet, she advises that giving oneself up to the pit of loss and grief is not the way to take charge of one’s family, household, and children. A widowed woman must begin a new way of life. She needs to safeguard her rights and make sure her children have what they are due. Christine did not give up to her sorrow or give up after being cheated out of much of what she was owed. She needed to care for those who depended on her and provide a stable income. As a result, she began to write.
She began writing for the court of the Louis of Orleans. Each of the three royal uncle’s had their own courts which had become the centers of culture in France (the royal court was in complete disarray). They held poetry competitions, poetry debates, and had writers recite ballads. All of these contests would have attracted Christine to the court of Louis. She would use these opportunities to make a name for herself and form a career.
Christine used poetry to manage her frustrations and the grief she was experiencing as a young widow.
“Alone am I, alone I wish to be,
Alone my gentle love has left me,
Alone am I, without friend or master,
Alone am I, in sorrow and in anger,
Alone am I, ill at ease, in languor,
Alone am I, more lost than anyone,
Alone am I, left without at lover…”
-“Seulette suy et seulette vueil estre” Christine de Pizan
She also wrote the popular love poetry, which earned her favor at the court. Over the years, she studied and practice different styles (such as the rondeau and the ballade). Eventually, Christine started to create more complex poetry collections. A collection would involve a series of longer poems which were related by a common theme. One of her most famous collection started as “Cupids Letter” but would eventually factor larger in the “Debate of the Romance of the Rose” in 1402. This letter brought Christine out of the exclusive court circles and to a wider audience.
In “Cupids Letter” and the rest of the “Debate”, Christine disagrees with the popular Romance of the Rose by Jean de Meun. In this poem, Meun writes of courtly love, but also characterizes women as seducers and possessions. Christine’s public disagreement sparks the beginning of her first defense of women. This poem became very popular because a woman rising to the defense of her sex was extremely radical in the late medieval era. The debates continued for a period between Christine and other writers. Her “Cupids Letter” was quickly translated into English.
“Yet, malicious slanderers who debase women in this way still maintain that all women have been, are now, and always will be false, asserting that they have never been capable of loyalty…At every turn, women are put in the wrong: whatever wrong has been done is attributed to them. This is a damnable lie, and one can easily see that the contrary is true.”
In this quote, Christine points out the problem with the way men have treated women. He considers all women to be natural liars and untrustworthy.
With this letter, Christine pointed out that an entire sex cannot be generalized. There is more to women than the opinion of the Church which controlled much of medieval society. It was the common belief that since Eve created the first “original sin”, all women were responsible for this burden. Women, as a sex, were viewed as inherently sinful, the weaker, lustful, and the Satan’s tool to stir men down the wrong path. Since the church was the center of medieval society, this idea naturally shaped the secular opinion of women as well. This contributed to the reason why women were so heavily controlled and held to impossible standards. This letter also brings to attention Christine’s opinion on the trend of “courtly love” (see my previous post on the subject: The Tradition of Courtly Love). She has a negative opinion of the fad as she believed women had nothing to gain from the practice but further criticism and accusations. Men could use this practice as “evidence” of the sinful nature of women. These debates brought Christine’s talent of writing into the forefront and made her known internationally. Christine even sent the collection of letters from the debate to Queen Isabeau of France.
It is not surprising that others from high circles began to pay attention to her and patronize her works. During a time when the current King, Charles VI, was suffering from mental illness, the Uncles were attempting to establish dominance in the French court. Christine was commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy to write a full biography of his deceased brother, Charles V. This was to promote the Valois family, establish their power (despite the weakness of the current King), and make the Duke of Burgundy look good as well. Christine had to portray Charles V as an ideal and wise king. It was up to her to preserve the memory.
Christine highlighted the importance of Charles V’s education and how it contributed to his success. The choice of Christine as author is interesting because this would have been her first time writing a full-scale book. It was also written in prose and not the poetic style she was used to. This shows how she had successfully broken the barrier and became noticed in a male dominated career path. Christine even said herself that she had to take on a man’s role in order to change her life and make her children’s life better. The Duke of Burgundy passed away in the middle of the creation of the biography, so Christine had to present the work to his brother, the Duke of Berry. The Duke of Berry eventually accepted it and soon became a long-term patron of Christine de Pizan.
Christine would bounce around to different patrons. After, the Duke of Berry, she would perform services for John the Fearless (the Duke of Burgundy’s son) and even some of the royal household. She wrote The Book of the Body Politic with the dauphin in mind and dedicated the work to him. The book consists of three parts and details the proper education for princes, knights/noblemen, and, lastly, the commoners. This work was written during the Hundred Year’s War. This was a chaotic time riddled with conflict and rivalry among the French royal family, a ruling King who was suffering mental illness, they were losing the war against the English, and overall greed and ambition by those in power. The people of France suffered from a lack of strong leadership and were struggled with the high wartime taxes. Christine wrote this book on political theory to create an effective society during a time of difficulty and chaos. She wants to highlight that society needed to take on these challenges as a unified body. If everyone did their part, then there would be more stability. If those at the top could put aside their personal gain and focus more on the common good, then the world would not be as chaotic. It is an interesting political perspective from a woman of the 15th century.
Christine de Pizan is most well known for her feminist writings. This included her two books: The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues. These works build off what Christine started in the Debate of “The Romance of the Rose”. The Book of the City of Ladies begins with a frustrated Christine who is tired of reading works by men which wrongfully slander women. “Oh God, why wasn’t I born a male so that my every desire would be to serve you, to do right in all things, and to be as perfect a creature as man claims to be?” she asks herself in the book. That night three ladies appear to her: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. They task Christine with the mission of creating a walled city where she will invite all honorable women and defend them against the misogyny of their society. Throughout the book, Christine highlights the great women of history to evidence that the generalizations the male writers make are not true. These included the legendary Amazons and many strong and notable women from the ancient world. These examples proved that women could be strong, contribute to the written word, take part in judicial affairs, become inventors and could benefit from a good education. Women needed a chance to prove themselves and to show society that they are more than the male dominated opinions.
Christine encourages women to take the opportunity to use education to better themselves: “He [God] chose to endow women’s minds with the capacity not simply to learn and grasp all kinds of knowledge but also to invent new ones by themselves (The Book of the City of Ladies).” She expresses that women are the more generous ones and sacrifice much for the men in their lives: “They [the men who slander women] have no grounds for criticizing women: it’s not just that every man who is born of woman receives so much from her, but also that there is truly no end to the great gifts which she has so generously showered on him. Those clerks who slander women…really should shut their mouths once and for all. They and all those who subscribe to their views should bow their heads in shame for having dared to come out with such things…”
Christine emphasized that women need to take lives in their own hands, contribute to the greater good of society and to take control over their own lives. After Christine’s experiences and struggles in the early years of her widowhood, she questioned why “women are allowed neither to present a case at trial, nor bear witness, nor pass sentence…?” She encourages women to learn the law and to be knowledgeable of their rights. Christine would have benefited greatly herself if she had this knowledge when she fought for her dues after the death of her husband.
In the Book of the Three Virtues, Christine instructs women from all classes (royalty to commoner) on how to improve themselves to become a worthy lady of her city and how to defend themselves against those who wish would insult them. Both books would go down in history as her most popular works. Though Christine’s writings are not quite as progressive as feminism is in the modern world, it was still very radical for her time. She dedicated the works to Marguerite of Nevers (the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy and recently married to the heir of France) to help instruct her.
Christine passed away, it is believed, in the 1430s. She had continued to write poetry until she was sixty-five (a good old age in the medieval era). She successfully supported her children with her writings and lived to see three grandchildren. Yet, the legacy she left behind was even greater.
Christine had become Europe’s first female professional writer and created many internationally known works. Her works would continue to be circulated in the centuries that followed. Elizabeth I had a copy of the Book of the City of Ladies in her personal library. If any is familiar with the work of art, The Dinner Party by the artist Judy Chicago, Christine de Pizan holds a place setting at this table. Chicago created this work of art to bring attention to great women who had been omitted out of history and it is considered a great feminist piece. There are 39 place settings, and each highlight a specific woman. I believe Christine de Pizan does deserve a place at that table. She was the one who finally stood up and brought attention to the ridiculous way medieval society was portrayed women. She proved it to be wrong. Christine was not afraid to call out those who slandered others, despite all she had to lose. I am so happy I was able to discover this women in history and I hope others will be inspired by her as well.
The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, edited/translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant
The Treasure of the City of Ladies (aka Book of the Three Virtues) by Christine de Pizan, edited/translated by Sarah Lawson
Book of the Body Politic by Christine de Pizan, edited/translated by Kate Langdon Forhan
La Querelle De La Rose: Letters and Documents by Joseph L. Baird and John R. Kane
Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works by Charity Cannon Willard