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December's Woman of the Month - Christine De Pizan

Updated: Feb 26

Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1364, her father was Thomas de Pizan, physician, court astrologer and councillor of the Republic of Venice. We can assume she was well-educated by her father despite the neglect of female education for the middle and lower classes in medieval Europe.

After he father became the King of France's astrologer, Christine moved to Paris, and married royal secretary Etienne du Castel in 1379 (when she was just 15!!:/).

Illustration from "The Book of the City of Ladies"

In 1389, the Black Plague was virulently sweeping across Europe and unfortunately Christine's father and husband were two of its fatalities. It's speculated as many as 200 million died across Eurasia and North Africa. The deaths of Christine's male relations left her in an extremely vulnerable position unless she immediately remarried. Christine had her mother and children to support, so she turned to writing to preserve her freedom from debtors prison or wedlock. She began by writing love ballads which were a great success in the courts of France; she soon became a prolific writer as one of the first professional female author and scholar in Europe.

In 1400, she published a book on political doctrine called L'Épistre de Othéa a Hector (Letter of Othea to Hector) in which Hector of Troy is tutored in the arts of statesmanship by the goddess Othea (Christine). Christine's influence was such that she wrote personalised prefaces for the most powerful men in Europe such as Henry IV of England, Philip of Burgundy and Jean de Berry. A woman exercising such influence over contemporary politics in the middle ages was unprecedented. Christine's talents forced men to listen to what she had to say!

In 1402, Christine came under attack for her criticism of Jean de Meun's courtly love poem Romance of the Rose which depicted women exclusively as manipulative and cruel seductresses in a famous controversy known as the "Querelle du Roman de la Rose". An exchange of treatises took place between the two authors; with Christine arguing his work was misogynistic, slanderous and outright vulgar and it appears she came out top (you go Christine!)

Perhaps her most famous publication series was Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) and Le Livre des trois vertus (The Treasure of the City of the Ladies) in 1405. The books were based on the lives of royal female leaders and intellects and served as a feminist conduct book for young women of the French court (although the term feminist would have not have been used then). City of Ladies advocates for female education and argues that every woman has value as a participant in society. Other topics it explores include the criminality of rape, the natural affinity of women to learn and their talent for government. Until this point, literature was dominated by monks and other elite male writers who tended to either idolise women or slander them. Christine gave women a voice in a world where they were largely mute.

Christine de Pizan in the "Queen's Manuscript" c.1410

The Treasure of the City of the Ladies was a guide for women of all classes on how to cultivate useful qualities in able for them to advance in society. Refreshingly, only female voices appear in these texts; as Christine argued that misogynistic stereotypes are perpetuated when women are excluded from conversation. Christine addressed the community of women in France, and advised them on how to navigate a deeply hostile, patriarchal society. She also supported other women in the printing industry; Christine worked with a manuscript illustrator known only as Anastasia, who she believed was the most talented of her day. In fact, most manuscripts were produced by female artisans and the Parisian workshops were the centre of manuscript illumination in medieval Europe.

This network of female artists decorating Christine's manuscript is a refreshing vignette into the realities of the medieval period; it was rarely the orgy of violence featuring mud-splattered, illiterate peasants as popular culture often portrays it.

Christine was a devoted monarchist, and, despite her Italian heritage, an ardent French nationalist. She set out a detailed political treatise on the customs and governments of European states. She believed that hereditary monarchy could provide the best governance compared to the Italian city-states which were governed by a prince or trading family. Neither did Christine shy away from discussing the traditionally masculine concepts of military tactics and statesmanship despite the criticism this would cause. In fact, she directed her writing at pivotal French political figures, advising them on the best course of action, passing judgement on the state of French court and going as far to suggest how they improve their statesmanship. This is quite revolutionary considering most men considered women should remain illiterate.

As France was plunged into civil war due to the insanity of its king, Charles VI, Christine advised the dauphin on good governance in her book Livre de la paix (The Book of Peace). Christine was not just well-versed in statesmanship, she was actively influencing politics on a national level by giving advice to key political figures who respected her wisdom. Christine also wrote a consolation piece for women who had lost men at the infamously disastrous Battle of Agincourt in Epistre de la prison de vie Humaine (Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life). However, following the English occupation of Paris, Christine retired to the Convent of Poissy and her literary activity reduced.

It is believed Christine died in 1430 (aged 65 years old, very old for the time!); after a remarkably successful career. Simone de Beauvoir noted that Christine's texts were "the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex". Certainly, Christine was the first woman to get her work published in European history and procure an elite following. After her death, her work continued in popularity and her influence was acknowledged by a diverse set of authors. In particular, the Book of the City of Ladies was published in Portuguese, Dutch and English and Elizabeth I was known to have several of Pizan's volumes in her library as Queen. She was a remarkable woman who has remained on the sidelines of history but I believe her story is worth telling.

- Ellie x


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