The honor of being a pioneer, of paving the way to something, is usually much disputed. Today we are going to see a female case, that of the considered first female professional writer in the western world, an honour that tradition bestows on the Venetian Christine de Pizan. Her legacy would have a considerable influence on the French, Portuguese and Dutch Renaissance.
Actually, Christine was preceded by others, as is almost always the case.The Akkadian priestess Enheduanna was the first woman known to have composed a literary work in the third millennium B.C. (Nin-Me-Sar-Ra or Exaltation of Inanna) and we should not forget the Greek poet Sappho of Mytilene, who lived between the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Nor should we forget the German nuns Hroswitha of Gandersheim (author of poems, legends and theatrical dramas in the 10th century) and Hildegard of Bingen (author of theological treatises in the 12th century), or famous trobairits such as Maria de Ventadorn, Alamanda de Castelnau, the Countess of Dia, Azalais de Porcairagues, etc.
Christine de Pizan would be closer to Aphra Behn (17th century) in the sense that writing was her work, not entertainment, although she differed in that her works fell into very different genres, academic and fundamentally philosophical and moralistic. Something in keeping with the era in which she lived, the late Middle Ages, which was not the best time for women to stand out with paper and pen because their conception then – even later, in the Renaissance – was more in keeping with being the object of admiration and praise by men than with their own intellectual development.
The Venetian one was one of the clearest exceptions along with a predecessor like the also medieval Héloïse of Paraclete. She was helped by the fact that she was the daughter of Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, a famous Bolognese astrologer and physicist who became Chancellor of the Serenissima Republic of Venice but before that lived in the court of the French King Charles V the Wise, where he carried out intense cultural work. Christine, a Venetian by birth (1364), joined her father at the age of four and thus grew up in an elitist and cultured environment that favoured her own erudition.
In 1379 she married Étienne du Castel, the royal secretary, with whom she had a happy but brief marriage. The following year the monarch died and his successor did not hire Étienne’s services, so the couple’s income was considerably reduced. In fact, death hit the family hard because in less than a decade Christine had lost her father and her husband as well, leaving her homeless and with three children to support, and bogged down in lawsuits to claim her late husband’s back pay.
Luckily for her, she had received an exquisite education -and was largely self-taught- that made her master several languages (French, Italian and Latin) and get to know the classics that were beginning to establish themselves as the vanguard of a new historical and cultural period, the Renaissance, which took its first steps bringing the new concepts of humanism and would later hatch in Spain with a good handful of female professors and doctors. Thus, while other widows would have had to accept second marriages in order to get ahead, Christine began to publish romantic poems and songs that were very successful among the wealthy ones, causing her to receive patronage from the Dukes of Burgundy first and those of Berry, Brabant and Limburg later on.
The royal family itself took an obvious interest in her, as Christine’s verses were addressed to its members, if not as protagonists: Queen Isabella of Bavaria was praised in 1402 for her role as regent in her husband’s absence (he suffered mental crises that left him temporarily incapacitated), comparing her to Blanca of Castile; to her daughter Marguerite of Burgundy he dedicated Le Livre des trois vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues) on the occasion of her marriage to the Duke of Guyena; and the late Charles V was honoured in Le Livre des Fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V (The Facts and Good Manners of King Charles V). ..
Louis d’Orléans, brother of his successor Charles VI, also received a special treat in L’Épistre de Othéa a Hector (Letter from Othea to Hector), a book in which she attributes the founding of France to the Trojans who fled the destruction of their city and included a series of tips for reigning (Louis was seen as more than likely a replacement for Charles VI). This book became one of the author’s most notable successes, to the point that it was reprinted many times, all of them personalized for those who commissioned it (including Henry IV of England).
This didactic tone was also expressed in the Livre de la mutation de fortune (Book of the Mutation of Fortune) and Le Chemin de long estudi (The Way of the Long Study), in which she raised questions about justice in the world and the qualities that a universal king should have. In Livre du Corps de policie (The Book of the Political Body) she analyzed the customs of the European governments and societies of her time. In 1410 she even wrote a manual entitled Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (Book of the deeds of arms and chivalry), designed to instruct the military in matters such as just war, the treatment of prisoners and, in short, the laws of war, making clear her rejection of ordeals and trials by combat.
This work, inspired by the civil strife that had devastated France shortly before, was completed three years later with the Livre de la paix (The Book of Peace), whose title already indicates that she once again insisted on the theme of good governance. It was her last great work, although in 1414 she gave the queen an anthology of about thirty of them illustrated with almost one hundred and a half miniatures and in 1418 she would still publish Epistre de la prison de vie Humaine (Letter on the Prison of Human Life), a kind of consolation for the women who had lost their relatives in the Battle of Agincourt.
This work constituted her swan song, for the civil war led Christine to a certain pessimism about the impossibility of peace on earth and she entered the Dominican convent of Poissy, where she spent the last ten years of her life. In that environment so different from the courtier she stopped writing and only recovered pen and paper in 1429, when the English were defeated and the dauphin of France was crowned as Charles VII, to compose a poem entitled Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (The Tale of Joan of Arc) in which she identifies the Maiden of Orleans as the manifestation of a series of prophecies, from those of Merlin, the Sibyl of Cumae and Beda the Venerable to those of Charlemagne.
Christine died within these walls in 1430, at the age of sixty-five, shortly before the famous French heroine was processed and burned at the stake. However, we cannot finish this brief biography without mentioning the four books that led her to maintain a strong controversy with some contemporaries and that place her today as an unusual precursor of feminism, to the point that Simone de Beauvoir quoted her as a reference in Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex). These are L’Épistre au Dieu d’amours (The Epistle to the God of Love), L’Avision de Christine (Christine’s Vision), Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) and Le Livre des trois vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues), all considered the best of her production.
The Venetian woman took part in what is considered one of the first literary controversies in history, the so-called Querelle des femmes (Women’s Quarrel), which lasted hundreds of years and revolved around Roman de la Rose, a successful allegorical work in octosyllables in which its author, the poet Jean de Meung (who in fact continued what had been started by another, Guillaume de Lorris), sarcastically described the society in which he lived and left a portrait of the woman as a simple prostitute “by action or by intention”.
Although Roman had been published two centuries earlier, Christine criticized it harshly accusing Jean de Meung of misogyny, defamation and immorality, writing a forceful response in 1399: L’Épistre au Dieu d’amours, expanded in 1402 with Le dit de la Rose (The Saying of the Rose), in which she allowed herself the luxury of using the antiphrase (a rhetorical figure consisting of saying the opposite of what one thinks) throughout the text.
As Meung’s defenders reacted against her, over the next seven years she insisted on the same line by publishing the other works mentioned above: in 1405 L’Avision de Christine (an autobiography) and Le Livre de la cité des dames (in which she imagined a city inhabited by illustrious women of history, from Mary Magdalene and the Queen of Sheba to some French queens, including Zenobia, Artemisia, Semiramis, etc.). Le Livre des trois vertus completed this series in 1406.
Her argument was synthesized in theology and supported by references to the dimension of St. Augustine: breaking with the classic image of woman as sinful, lewd and immoral Eve, of whom there was even doubt about the character of her soul and even her humanity, asking whether she should be educated or not, Christine assured that she was created the same as man, since God made both in his image and likeness. She also explained that the clichés about women would remain if they were not allowed to enter into conversations and were not allowed to attain virtue (reason, righteousness and justice) through their instruction.
And she preached by example, since it is known that many of the miniature illustrations in her books were commissioned from a collaborator of whom we only know her name, Anastasia, thanks to the quotation in Le Livre de la cité des dames. In short, as Christine herself said in that same work:
If it were customary to send girls to school and then have them learn the sciences, as is done with boys, they would learn to perfection and understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences equally to them…for…although as women have a more delicate body than men, weaker and less able to do some things, so much the more keen and free is their understanding when they apply it. The time has come for men’s strict laws to stop preventing women from studying science and other disciplines. It seems to me that those of us who can avail ourselves of this freedom, coveted for so long, should study to show men how wrong they were in depriving us of this honor and benefit. If any woman learns so much as to write her own thoughts, let her do so and not despise honor but rather display it, instead of wearing fine clothes, necklaces or rings. These jewels are ours because we wear them, but the honor of education is entirely ours.
Sources: Christine de Pizán: un nuevo modelo de mujer medieval a través de las imágenes miniadas (Ainhoa Agós Díaz)/Misoginia y defensa de las mujeres. Antología de textos medievales (Robert Archer)/Mujeres, casas y ciudades. Más allá del umbral (Zaida Muxí Martínez)/The vision of Christine de Pizan and the categories of difference (Marilynn Desmond)/La escribana de París (Sabrina Capitani)/Christine de Pizan. Mujer inteligente, dama de corazón (Simone Roux)/La ciudad de las damas (Cristina de Pizán)/Wikipedia.