Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan


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Biography of Christine de Pizan, Medieval Writer and Thinker

Christine de Pizan (1364 to 1430), born in Venice, Italy, was an Italian writer and political and moral thinker during the late medieval period. She became a prominent writer at the French court during the reign of Charles VI, writing on literature, morals, and politics, among other topics. She was noted for her unusually outspoken defense of women. Her writings remained influential and oft-printed through the 16th century, and her work returned to prominence during the mid-20th century.

Fast Facts: Christine de Pizan

  • Known For: Early feminist thinker and influential writer in the royal court of Charles VI of France
  • Born: 1364 in Venice, Italy
  • Died: 1430 in Poissy, France
  • Published Works: The Book of the City of Ladies, The Treasure of the City of Ladies
  • Famous Quote: “The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.” (from The Book of the City of Ladies)

Christine de Pizan - History

Christine de Pizan was a French Renaissance writer who wrote some of the very first feminist pieces of literature. During the Renaissance, Christine de Pizan broke with the traditional roles assigned to women in several ways during a time when women had no legal rights and were considered a man's property. Because she was one of the few women of the time period that were educated, she was able to write. When she was unexpectedly left to support herself and her family on her own, she became the first woman in Europe to successfully make a living through writing. She wrote in many different genres and styles depending on her subject and patron. Eventually, she began to address the debate about women that was happening during her life through works like Letters to the God of Love (1399), The Take of the Rose (1402), and Letters on the Debate of the Romance of the Rose (1401-1403). Her writing finally culminated in her most famous book, The Book of the City of Ladies (1404-05) and its sequel Book of the Treasury of Ladies (1405).

Christine de Pizan's early life left her well prepared for the challenges that she would later face. Born in Italy, she moved to France at a young age when her father, Thomas de Pizan, became the astrologer of King Charles V. Her father assured it that she had the best education possible. She was married at the age of fifteen to Etienne de Castel. Though an arranged marriage, they were very happy together. Etienne was a nobleman and a scholar who encouraged Christine to continue her studies while they were married.

Soon after their marriage, tragedy struck Christine 's life. When Charles V died in 1380, her father lost his position at the court. he became ill and eventually died in 1385. She and her husband assumed the care for her family after this. Then, in 1389, Etienne suddenly took ill while he was abroad with Charles VI. Christine was left alone to support her mother and her three small children.

Despite wishing for death, Christine persevered and turned to writing as a way to support her family. She began to write both prose and poetry that she sent to various members of the court. As was the custom, they began to send her money in return. She would make copies of poems and send them to multiple people. Eventually, they started commissioning work from her and she was able to pull herself out of debt and save her family. Christine 's ability to write for specific audiences helped build her popularity with her patrons. After her children grew up and became independent from her, Christine was once again able to read and study along with her writing.

As her life progressed, she began to deal directly with the cause of women in her writing. Her most important work, The Book of the City of Ladies , was written to combat the current ideas that existed about woman's nature. City of Ladies is divided into three sections in which Christine builds her symbolic city for women. She includes all the famous women who have ruled in history, women who have honored their parents, guarded their chastity, been faithful to their husbands, and all of those women who have become martyrs for their faith. Her book honored all kinds of great women and gave them a place to be safe from the attacks of men. Christine's book stood as a testimony to the greatness and accomplishments of women, putting them on the same level as men.

Christine's life was remarkable because of the age she was living in. Women were not allowed to have a voice or be independent, but she managed both. Her writing allowed her family to survive and gave her the means to create not just for money, but for her own purposes. She worked to refute the negative ideas that scholars were spreading about women in the Renaissance and showed at least the elite women of her time how they could navigate successfully in what was a man's world.

Annotated Bibliography

Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defense of Women: Reading Beyond Gender . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999 .
This was written by a French professor at the University of Leeds. Brown-Grant writes on medieval literature and has translated a version of the Book of the City of Ladies . Here she does an in-depth analysis of Christine's major work, examining it from a feminist perspective. Brown-Grant's aim is to show how the culture and audience effected Christine's writing and her moral vision of the world. She looks at Christine's strong beliefs in good morals and how she changed the genres and voices she wrote in so that she could convince men that women should have more rights. This is an interesting and informative source that is written on a scholarly level. It would be suitable for students and professors of literature.

Chess, Simone. "Vision and Revision: Christine de Pizan and Feminist Histography." (Last Updated 2002) < http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/

schess/courses/christine/ > (22 November 2005).
This site looks at Christine's work from a feminist perspective, specifically looking at how The Book of the City of Ladies can be used to start a reading of history that focuses on women's history rather than more traditional male dominated historical texts.. Chess finds that Christine's book can be seen as a model for future feminist modern revisions of history. This is an interesting essay that would be useful for anyone interested in a feminist critique of Pizan. However, Chess offers a few warnings about her page. While her work was certainly original, the author tends to disregard the fact that City of Ladies did not result in any large change in thinking, nor did a large number of women read it. Keeping these points in mind will help the reader interpret the page better. This site also features quite a few paintings of Pizan working and reading. It also has a fair selection of links to other online sources on Pizan, though several of them are in French.

Desmond, Marilynn, ed. Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
This collection of essay comes from a conference titled "Christine de Pizan: Texts/Intertexts/Contexts" that took place at Binghamton University in 1995. There are several illustrations in the collection. They include paintings of Pizan, paintings included in her work, and other paintings of places or situations that influenced her writing. Much of the focus of the essays is how Pizan was able to write in so many different styles and tailor her work to specific audiences. This is a good source that focuses on her work more than her life. It is easy to understand and would be accessible to college level students.

Desmond, Marilynn, Harris, Roy, Sheingorn, Pamela. Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture. Binghamton: University of Michigan Press, 2003.
This book focuses specifically on Christine's work Epistre Othea and how she uses the appearance of the text itself to affect the reader. The authors look at the process of creating a text during Pizan's time and how these luxury items used illustrations as well as text to shape the reading experience. This is an excellent source for anyone looking to explore in great detail how Pizan would fit her texts to suit her audiences. She wrote to her rich patrons in different styles and genres depending on their tastes and the topics. It is not as helpful for someone trying to learn about her life or all of her works, and is written on a scholarly level.

Disse, Dorothy. "Christine de Pizan." Other Women's Voices. (Last Updated 16 November 2005)<http://home.infionline.net/

ddisse/christin.html> (22 November 2005).
This site is filled with quite a bit of useful information, but the format is quite cumbersome. It will take some time to find what you are looking for here. The page starts with a list of links to Christine's works online along with some essays written about her. The next part of the page, which makes up the majority of it, contains excerpts form a variety of her works. Next, collections that feature her work are listed, followed by a list of secondary sources on Pizan. This single page contains a lot of information, but the poor formatting makes it difficult to find what you want. The most helpful part is the small table of contents at the top. It has links to the different sections on the page, including each of the translations. Using this is much easier than trying to scroll straight down the page. It would be worth the time for anyone who is having trouble finding print sources on Pizan because the list on the site is extensive.

Dufresne, Laura Rinaldi. "Women Warriors: A Special Case From the Fifteenth Century: The City of Ladies." Women's Studies . 23, no. 2 March 1994, 111-132.
This article examines how the text and imagery relate in The City of Ladies. In the opening, the author compares it to how Boccaccio's Concerning Famous Women portrays the 'women warriors'. When comparing the two, Dufresne finds that Pizan takes women much more seriously and tries to defend the idea of the woman warrior. Yet, she also notes that the images of women throughout City are highly conservative when compared to the ideas in the work. Dufresne discusses the reasons for this and goes on to compare the original images that Pizan used to images that were used in editions that came out after her death. This is a scholarly article that would be helpful for studying City of Ladies and the relationship between images and text in medieval literature.

Enders, Jody. "The Feminist Mnemonics of Christine de Pizan." Modern Language Quarterly. 55, no. 3 Sept 1994, 231-250.
This article examines how Pizan developed her theories on women through rhetoric, which was a male dominated and controlled institution. Enders, a professor of French at the University of California, argues that Pizan is successful in using the tool that has been so often used to criticize and belittle women to make her case. Examining the visuals in City of Ladies shows how Pizan was able to rework history and give women a place in it. This is an interesting essay, but it requires some previous knowledge of Pizan and her work. Advanced students of language would best be able to understand and work with this piece.

Forhan, Kate Langdon. The Political Theory of Christine de Pizan. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002.
Like the title suggests, this book looks at Christine's work from a political perspective. By looking at historical context and the work of her predecessors, Forhan shows how Christine's theories differed from her contemporaries. Her works are also examined to find out how she felt about things like kingship, laws and war. In the preface, the author states that this book is intended for political scientists and theorists. While this is a good source, it will be difficult to read for those who don't understand the language of politics.

Isman, Josette A. "The Resurrection According to Christine de Pizan." Religion & the Arts. 4, no. 3 Sept 2000, 337-358.
This is one of the more unique articles on this list. Isman chooses to explore the work of Pizan from a religious viewpoint. Specifically, it looks at what Pizan has to say about the resurrection of Christ. Isman looks at how she uses the sermon genre to discuss this topic and the significance of this. The article also uses Biblical and theological sources to explain the resurrection. Isman looks at how Pizan presents her information and what that says about how people of the Renaissance understood this doctrine. This is an interesting and useful article that would help anyone looking to understand how Pizan fit the style of her writing for her purpose. It also would be a great source for anyone interested in the connections between Pizan and religion.

Nowacka, Keiko. "Reflections on Christine de Pizan's 'Feminism.'" Australian Feminist Studies . 17, no. 37 March 2002, 81-97.
This article examines The Book of the City of Ladies from a feminist perspective, paying close attention to Christine's claims to the moral and intellectual equality of the sexes. The author examines the literary styles of Pizan and what makes up 15th century feminism. Nowacka examines her work through the lens of 15th century feminism because she feels that judging the work through the current standards would be unfair and result in a condemnation of all of Pizan's work. This is one of the best articles on this list and is worth reading. It would be acceptable for any undergraduate student wanting to better understand Pizan and her work. By looking at Pizan not through what we see as proper feminism, but through the feminism of her time, the reader learns just how different and important her ideas were.


Christine de Pizan

An unlikely candidate to dispute the unfair, misogynistic treatment of women by men and society, Christine de Pizan successfully challenged the accepted negative views that were being expressed about women by the all-male literary world of her era. Part of Christine’s uniqueness stems from the time in which she lived, the middle to late 1300’s. The lack of a positive female role model to pattern herself after made Christine a true visionary in the fight for the equal rights of women.

Her original ideas and insight provided a new and more intelligent way to view females. Pizan’s work, The Book of the City of Ladies, provided women much needed guidance in how to survive without the support of a man. Born in Venice around 1364, Christine was the first professional woman writer in Europe. Her father, Thomas of Pizan, was a famous astrologer and physician who took Christine as an infant to France.

His fame as an astrologer allowed him to be appointed to the court of the French King Charles V (Kosinski xi). Depending on her father for the majority of her education, Christine’s great love as a child was learning however, Christine’s mother felt that educating Christine was inappropriate, which led to a premature halt in her instruction. (Kosinski xi). Christine’s accomplishments and her mothers views that “ladies should not be educated” (Kosinski xi) show the contrast between mother and daughter.

Although she is said to have described her education as “nothing but picking up the crumbs of learning that fell from her father’s table” (Kosinski 299), Christine’s writing is filled with allusions to “classical authors, church fathers, poets, and historical writers” – -revealing intellect greater than table scraps (Kosinski 299). At the age of fifteen, Christine married Etienne de Castel, a notary and secretary of the royal court (Kosinski xi). Just as her writing reflected her uniqueness, so did her marriage which was evidently a “love match,” something remarkable in the medieval days of arranged marriages (Kosinski xi).

Christine spoke of a loving relationship by describing her marriage to Etienne as, “a sweet thing” and her husband as “kind and considerate” on their wedding night (Kosinski xi ). Christine’s family relied on the charity of Charles V for their livelihood therefore, his death in 1380 proved detrimental to Christine and her family. The successor to the throne, King Charles VI, was not as generous toward the Pizan family, and both Christine’s father and husband lost most of their pay. Between 1384 and 1389, Thomas de Pizan died leaving little inheritance for his young daughter (Kosinski xi).

Christine was left to depend entirely on her husband for financial security. Christine and her husband would have three children together before his death due to a 1389 epidemic (Leon 214). At the age of 25, Christine was a widow with three small children and her mother to support (Kosinski xii). Christine describes this period of her life as a time when she was “forced to become a man,” as she began to seek out patrons for her writing (Kosinski xii). Although Christine was obviously a brilliant and talented writer, necessity was her true inspiration, as she literally had to write in order to feed her family.

Christine’s first literary endeavors were the highly demanded love poems of the 14th century, as well as devotional texts that emphasized her strong Christian faith (Kosinski xii). However, it is Christine’s literary work The Book of the City of Ladies, that is most intriguing to contemporary readers. Christine was the first woman writer to possess the ability to identify and address the issues of misogyny in the literature of her time, as well as society (Kosinski xii). This characteristic made her a champion of the feminist movement that was yet to come.

Although Christine never addressed the issue of “changing the structures of her society” (Kosinski xiii), her ability to identify misogyny during a time when it was a normal aspect of women’s lives, reveals the insight of the young woman. The beginning scene of The Book of the City of Ladies describes Christine looking at a book by Matheolus: When I held it open and saw from its title that it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had often heard that like other books it discussed respect for women. e Pizan 3) Christine’s belief in intellectual equality is found in the theme of this story with a young lady reading for pleasure. 14th century women were rarely literate. Choosing reading as a pleasurable activity would have been uncommon. What Christine discovers upon reading this text is just the opposite of her expectations. She realizes that Matheolus is not respectful toward women, but just the opposite. His work represents women as “devilish and wicked. ” However, she uses her wit to describe her displeasure in the text:

Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. (de Pizan 3) Christine’s remarks here criticize the subject of Matheolus text, and also his choice in diction. Her comments not only let the reader know that she is displeased with this piece of literature, but that she feels that reading it is neither elevating nor useful.

Thus, she insinuates the futility of the work itself. Christine cleverly goes on to comment on the subject of the character of women by flattering her male contemporaries. She writes: …it would be impossible that so many famous men–such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed–could have spoken falsely on so many occasions…. (de Pizan 4) Christine intelligently uses this “sugar coated” method to emphasize the point –- the point that these men were wrong. Although Christine was obviously outspoken, she knew her limitations.

Her work would not be recognized, or even read, if she had openly attacked the male writers. Therefore, she instead chose to build them up the “solemn scholars” before opposing their positions. Christine’s ironic humility does not stop with the prominent male writers of her time. She addresses God with the same rhetorical question as she asks: Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. (de Pizan 5) Again, Christine carefully opposed the male point of view this time using Biblical references.

Christine makes an unarguable point– God would not create anything that was not good. Christine goes on to ask God how she could possibly doubt what these “learned men” have written about women when He Himself has said, “…the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence…why shall I not doubt that this is true? ” (de Pizan 5). The irony of her question is in the fact that she knows the testimony to be untrue. By asking God for guidance and understanding in the matter, she is revealing that she is a good, moral woman — not the stereotypical “devilish demon. ” Christine continues to question God as she asks:

Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a male, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a male is said to be? (de Pizan 5) As Christine describes men as “perfect,” an ironic overtone is felt. Although Christine was a very devout Christian, her question to God is not one of sincerity. The statement, “Indeed, I maintain that when men are perfect, women will follow their example” (de Pizan 186), is found much later in the text exemplifying Christine’s ability to use men’s own words against them and reveals the depth of her wit and wisdom.

Upon crying out to God for wisdom in these matters, Christine is visited, not by God Himself, but by three women who He has sent to her. The fact that Pizan chose to use these “three women” to bring forth comfort and wisdom is symbolic of the importance of women. She could have had God speak directly to Christine in a masculine voice, like the voice that spoke to Moses and Abraham. However, Pizan uses the three wise and angelic women to strengthen her defense of women. Another strategy Pizan uses to emphasize the moral strengths of women is by alluding to powerful, mythological women throughout her text.

She writes of Thisbe’s love for Pyramus in Ovid’s tale Metamorphoses,of Medeas love for Jason, and of Hero’s love for Leander. She cites these women as examples of faithful and undying love by women, therefore, refuting the statement made by men that, “. . . so few women are faithful in their love lives” (de Pizan 186). By using these women as examples, women who have been immortalized by the writings of men, she again benefits from men,s contradictions. Men were saying how unfaithful and frivolous women were with their hearts, yet they depicted many women throughout literature who, “. persevered in their love until death. . . ” (de Pizan 188).

Not only did Pizan allude to mythological women who were faithful in love, she also mentions a city governed by powerful queens, “…very noble ladies whom they elected themselves, who governed them will and maintained their dominion with great strength” (de Pizan 11). This example of powerful women portrays them in a masculine role –-as leaders and successful rulers. Pizan uses this example to foreshadow the building of the “City of Ladies” that Christine has been chosen by God to construct.

By giving an example of a successful and strong dominion run by women, Pizan makes this idea of a city of women a more believable concept. Christine de Pizan was an extroidanary woman who has yet to be fully discovered. The wit and wisdom found within The Book of the City of Ladies eclipses some contemporary literature that defends the rights of women. Although Pizan’s writing was done for practical reasons, survival, her work revealed a vision that women are still striving to accomplish today -– equality in all things.

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The Creation of a City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan and her Legacy

Feminism in the 15 th 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 15 th 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.

Charles V of France

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.

Portrait of Christine de Pizan in her study

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.

Philip, Duke of Burgundy, one of Christine’s de Pizan’s patrons

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.

Christine presenting her works to Queen Isabeau

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.

John, Duke of Berry, another of Christine de Pizan’s patrons

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 15 th 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.

City of Ladies

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 Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. Located in the Brooklyn Museum. Close up on Christine de Pizan’s table setting in The Dinner Party

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


Portraits of Christine de Pizan in The Queen’s Manuscript

One of the thirty-nine women who gets a seat at the table in Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist artwork The Dinner Party , from 1979, is Christine de Pizan. As the first professional author and an important female role model from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, she is certainly worth celebrating. A number of portraits that accompany her written works survive that show her in the act of writing. Since she often played a role in directing artists (sometimes other women) in how to depict her, we can conclude that these portraits reveal a great deal about Christine and how she wanted to be represented and understood within her lifetime.

Christine de Pizan in her study, for The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 4r (Harley MS 4431, British Library)

Christine in Her Study

In one of the most recognizable portraits of Christine de Pizan, she wears a simple but brilliant blue dress, called a cotehardie , with her hair tucked back and covered with a double horned headdress covered by a transparent white veil. This distinctive headdress looks like one called the Attor de Gibet, or horned hennin (or possibly even the butterfly hennin), which originated in Burgundy and France.

Aristocratic or royal women typically wear them. The horns would be made to stand with wire to hold up cloth, and then often the veil draped over them. Christine communicates her noble status with her headdress, and dress. The saturated, luminous blue of the dress is painted with ultramarine, which comes from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli which is mined in Afghanistan and was extraordinarily costly at this time. Throughout The Queen’s Manuscript, she wears the same blue cotehardie, with the expensive material undoubtedly conveying her status and a sense of luxury.

In the portrait, Christine sits within a study, framed by a rounded arch, which belongs to a larger architectural setting. She holds a pen as she writes in a book. Accompanying her in the study is a small white dog, loyally seated next to her chair. While we might wonder if Christine’s portrait is a fiction, Pizan actually did have a study with a desk, writing tools, and various books. The portrait imagines what it would have looked like. It is within her study that Pizan wrote her poems and prose texts, as well as studied the literary works of other authors–both her contemporaries and those who preceded her.

Christine gave The Queen’s Manuscript to Isabeau de Bavière, Queen of France and wife of Charles VI . The portrait of Christine writing appears early on in the manuscript, accompanying the One Hundred Ballades of a Lover and His Lady ( Cent Ballades d’amant et de dame, virelyas, rondeaux ), which Christine wrote around 1402.

Hildegard of Bingen experiencing a mystical vision and recounting it to the monk Volmar, from the Liber Scivias, completed 1151 or 1152 (photo: Manfred Brückels)

Christine’s portrait is remarkable for a number of reasons, including that it shows a known late medieval/early renaissance woman writing in a study. She was not, however, the first woman to be depicted in the art of writing or engaged in intellectual activities. Several centuries earlier, we find images of Hildegard of Bingen recording some of her mystical experiences (as in the Liber Scivias ).

We know of other medieval women, such as Diemund of the Cloister of Wessobrun in Bavaria or the painter Ende, who wrote or illuminated manuscripts. Still, it was uncommon to show women in the act of writing since this was not understood to be their domain. Christine’s portrait is also noteworthy because it is not the sole portrait portraying her engaged in intellectual pursuits. There are a number of others within The Queen’s Manuscript, as well as in many other manuscripts as well.

Saint Matthew, folio 18 verso of the Ebbo Gospels (Gospel Book of the Archbishop of Reims) from Hautvillers, France, c. 816-35, ink and tempera on vellum, 10 1/4 x 8 1/4 (Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay)

Christine as author and intellectual

The portrait of Christine seated at a desk in her study while writing is a familiar type that dates back to antiquity. There are numerous examples of the solitary thinker and scholar, writing and engaged in deep thinking and other intellectual pursuits. Christine’s portraits likely called to mind portraits of the four evangelists who are often shown seated and in the act of writing, such as portrait of St. Luke from the Lindisfarne Gospels from c. 700 or St. Matthew in the Ebbo Gospels from the ninth century. Medieval scribes, such as Eadwine, were frequently displayed similarly, seated and writing in their studies or scriptoria. Christine’s portrait draws on this long heritage of images of educated authors.

Christine’s life

Christine was born in Venice, Italy, but at a young age her father (Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, or Thomas de Pizan) joined the French court in Paris as an astrologer and secretary to the king, Charles V. She had a humanist education, learning history, classical languages, and literature (among other subjects). She was married at fifteen to the royal secretary and notary, Etienne du Castel, with whom she had three children. Historical records, and even Christine herself, indicate that they got along well, which was certainly not always the case in arranged marriages.

Etienne supported Christine’s continuing education and literary endeavors. He died suddenly in 1390, when Christine was only 25, and her father died shortly thereafter, leaving Christine to support her children and mother. She turned to writing full time to make a living, and she was the first person in France to earn a living as a professional author. Later in her life, she entered a convent where she remained until her death in 1431. One of her final works was a poem celebrating Joan of Arc, likely written shortly before Joan was burned at the stake for her supposed heresy during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). The War pitted England and France against one another, and Christine had witnessed the chaos and devastation the ongoing conflict wrought on the people of France.

Christine de Pizan talking with her son (detail), for The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 261v (Harley MS 4431, British Library)

Throughout her literary career, Christine wrote on a number of topics, ranging from religion and political theory to courtly love poetry and military tactics. She also wrote in different genres, including poetry and prose texts. Many of her writings refer or allude to the upheavals that she experienced in her lifetime, including lingering deaths from the plague, an unstable crown, civil wars, and foreign occupation.

She produced many manuscripts in her own scriptorium, of which about 50 survive. There are many others (about 150) that include some of her work. Of those that she completed, we know that she determined how they would be arranged, what would be included or excluded, including the types of images. She had a direct hand in their entire composition, which is all the more remarkable as a female professional author at a time when women were not expected or encouraged to work—particularly not noble ladies—and most were not well educated.

Christine’s manuscripts, and the images she determined would be included within them, help us to learn what types of messages and ideas she hoped to convey to her readers. While she herself did not draw and paint the illustrations, it seems that she did employ female artists to produce them. She even mentions this fact in her Book of the City of Ladies (c. 1405) , naming the artist Anastaise whom she said was “so good at painting decorative borders and background landscapes for miniatures that there is no craftsman who can match her in the whole of Paris, even though that’s where the finest in the world can be found…. [S]he is so well regarded that she is entrusted with finishing off even the most expensive and priceless of books.” [1]

Christine de Pizan presents her manuscript to the Queen of France (detail), for The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 3r (Harley MS 4431, British Library)

Christine presents her manuscript to the Queen of France

Christine’s other portraits within The Queen’s Manuscript are easily identifiable because the artist (under the direction of Christine herself) consistently portrays her wearing the brilliant blue dress and horned white headdress. In the first image of the manuscript we see her kneeling and presenting a book before the Queen, who sits on a lounger within her royal chamber with a small white dog. Other ladies in waiting sit in the room. Another white dog rests at the foot of the bed, set to the right in the room. Blue textiles decorated with the royal golden fleur-de-lis adorn the walls.

The Queen and many of her ladies in waiting wear more elaborate clothes than Christine and have more intricate headdresses. The book that Christine offers is supposed to represent the very manuscript from which the image comes. This portrait was based on a type called presentation images, which typically showed a male author presenting a book to a king. Christine, and the artist she employed, modeled the image on established artistic conventions so that she could establish her position as legitimate author.

Christine instructs four men (detail), for The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 259v (Harley MS 4431, British Library)

Christine in the act of disputation

In another portrait Christine appears at the beginning her Moral Proverbs (Proverbes moraux). She sits on what looks like a throne, once again dressed in a brilliant blue dress with a white headdress. The chair is similar to a cathedra, or a bishop’s chair, which was associated more generally with ecclesiastics but was also commonly associated with authors or men of intellectual regard in the medieval era. She has a book, open on a stand, that rests on a desk.

To the side of the desk are four men, three of whom look in her direction. The five of them seem to be engaged in conversation. Some have suggested that Christine and these four men are engaged in a debate, known as a disputation ( disputa ) in the Middle Ages. Disputations were common at universities, where students and professors would engage in intellectual debates to prove their wisdom. Women were not permitted at universities, so Christine’s seat in a position of authority and engaged in debate with four men communicates her intellectual abilities and elevates her to a position of authority.

This portrait, along with all of Christine’s portraits in The Queen’s Manuscript, highlight her important status. Still today, works like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party recognize Christine’s significant contribution.

Acknowledgments

Thanks are due to Lydia Parker.

Notes

[1] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies , trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant (London: Penguin, 1999), part 1, p. 41.

Additional Resources:

View the entire Queen’s Manuscript at the British Library

Susan Groag Bell, The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004)

Charlotte E. Cooper, “Ambiguous Author Portraits in Harley MS 4431,” In Performing Medieval Text , ed. Ardis Butterfield, Henry Hope, and Pauline Souleau (Cambridge: Legenda, 2017), pp. 89–107

Sandra Hindman, Christine de Pizan’s ‘Epitre Othea’: Painting and Politics at the Court of Charles VI ( Wetteren: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1986)

Nadia Margolis, An Introduction to Christine de Pizan , New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012)

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies ( London: Penguin Classics, 2000)

Christine Sciacca, Illuminating Women in the Medieval World ( Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017)


Christine de Pizan - History

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladiesnote organizer and study questions

The motivation for Christine's work has been echoed by many writers throughout history: how does one distinguish between what women really are and what they are claimed to be? Her response to misogynistic writers is personally felt, for she was criticized as a woman for her negative reactions to the poem, The Romance of the Rose, in an on-going critical debate.

Christine's book is a material reminder of women's accomplishments and capacity to act morally and prudently. It is a direct response to the overwhelming accounts about women that she has read that cast doubt on women's intellectual abilities, their chastity, and their faith in God. But without erasing the focus in Christine's book, we can also see a fundamental philosophical question in her approach to her subject matter: how do we know the truth of anything? How do we distinguish essence from -- as Plato would say -- opinions about it?

Christine's answer curiously anticipates the empirical epistemological searches of sixteenth-century Protestantism and seventeenth-century New Science: search for truth by collecting data. She is not, of course, exhaustive in her search. But there is reason to believe that her educational debt to her father, a physician/astrologer in the French court, gave her this sort of scientific impetus.

Her examples of accomplished and admirable women typify what E. J. Richards calls "medieval notions of universal history" (BCL, 264, n. II.22.2). Christine mixes together figures from recent history, ancient history, mythology, the Bible, and fictional accounts, as well as contemporary women. Fictional or factual, all her examples take on a "mythic" value, defying other authors' claims of women's inferiority. She sustains her pro-female position within Christianity, claiming that Christian writing, which includes the adoration of the Virgin Mary and female saints, also stands against misogyny.


Minatures from a 15-century illuminated manuscript of "The Book of the City of Ladies"

City of Ladies highlights the importance of education to shaping virtuous and strong women. One passage reads: “If it were customary to send little girls to school like boys . . . they would learn as thoroughly the subtleties of all the arts and sciences.” Christine points out that foolish men considered it bad for females to be educated “because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.” (These are the best places to be a woman today.)


The Writings of Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-c. 1430) was a philosopher, intellectual, writer, and protofeminist, born in Venice and raised in Paris. Her work gives modern historians insight into the gender roles and expectations of women in medieval society, as well as a window into the female psyche of the era. Her most famous works are The Treasure of the City of Ladies, The City of Ladies, and The Letter to the God of Love.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies

The Treasure of the City of Ladies is a pragmatic book of advice, written for the courtly women of medieval Europe. In this book, she instructs women to be soft-spoken and gentle, to be peacemakers, and to be subservient to their husbands. Additionally, she also instructs women on what not to do — not to plunge into love affairs, not to act above their stations, not to waste time or money, and not to gossip, as “the women of the court ought … never to rebuke or defame one another.” (Pizan, 107)

All of this advice clearly holds up the patriarchal status quo, which is not what Christine is known for, but also demonstrates the expected, or in some cases idealized, roles of women in society. Never once does Christine presume a woman is unmarried and childless in this book, unless that woman is widowed (or barren in the latter case), a child herself, or at a convent. Likewise, Christine’s attitudes vary between the noblewomen and the commoners. She dedicates nearly all of the book to the former class, and almost dismisses the lower classes but for the last part of her work, wherein she quickly covers an assortment of professions, basically telling each to remember their place, to obey their husbands, to live chastely and religiously, and to be modest in clothing and word.

In Christine’s defense, the fact that she mentions these women at all is noteworthy and probably reflects a “medieval penchant for all-inclusiveness.” (Lawson, XXI) She was writing this book for the nobility, and her quick survey does not necessarily demonstrate any disrespect towards the so-called lower classes on her part, but rather the strategic and financial goal (for her well-being was contingent on her male and female patrons being happy with her) of writing for her demographic. (Lawson, XXI)

The City of Ladies

Some of Christine’s more famous and idealized works argue against the very gender roles she stresses in The Treasure of the City of Ladies. In The City of Ladies, she posits that women can do literally anything men can do in society, from soldiering to building. In this book, she illustrates her point most forcibly in describing a city made by and entirely populated by women. It is something of a utopia, but in its utopian nature it is also a protest against her patriarchal “overlords.”

The book had no far-reaching effects on the status of women in her society, but the spirit of the undertaking suggests that not all women saw themselves as the root of all evil or as lesser beings, as the Church and secular government often did. In this way, Christine was a forerunner of women’s rights and value.

The Letter to the God of Love

Perhaps it is because Christine de Pizan was constrained by patriarchy and the patronage system throughout her career that she could not make more of her pro-women ideas. Yet regardless of how far she went (or did not go) in demanding equality between the sexes, she did challenge male misogyny at every turn.

In her famed treatise, The Letter to the God of Love, she argues against the misogyny of the Romance of the Rose, a very popular ballad by Jean de Meun harking back to the courtly love tradition of the High Middle Ages. This rebuttal “marks the first clear instance in European history of a woman writing against the slanders that women had so long endured,” and gave rise to a pitched debated between Christine de Pizans supporters and Jean de Meuns sympathizers, that lasted well into the sixteenth century. (Bennett, 374)

The mere fact that Christine is challenging one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages, and holding her own in arguments with male intellectuals, is demonstrative of her power in challenging the patriarchs. Likewise, this, her other writings, and her popularity in her own lifetime, all point to her historical importance and significance as both a person and a primary source on the social history of her day.

The Importance of Christines Writings

It is her popularity in her own society, and the information her works contain about both their subjects and her society, that make her important to medieval and early modern historians. Each of her writings gives the historian a wealth of information, even beyond the gender roles and gender expectations as detailed above.

For instance, in The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Christine gives us a peak into the day-to-day living environment of noblewomen: “When the princess or high-born lady wakes up in the morning, she sees herself lying luxuriously in her bed between soft sheets, surrounded by rich accouterments and everything for bodily comfort, and ladies-in-waiting around her focusing all their attention on her.” (Pizan, 6)

Continuing some pages later, she further describes the noblewomans day: The “wise” princess attends mass shortly after waking, sees to the government of her household or kingdom — as even in this age of declining power in the public realm, women are still a force to be reckoned with at home, as seen in the letters of the Pastons in England, or in this example from The Treasure of the City of Ladies — eats and listens to her servants and visitors, talks and plays and works with her ladies, walks in the garden for her health, eats again, prays at bedtime, and then sleeps. (Pizan, 32-35)

This book and Christine’s other writings — which included, in addition to the above, a companion volume for men, to be read with The Treasure of the City of Ladies her autobiography numerous prose and poetry pieces a verse history of the world running from Biblical Creation to her own time a study of great women in history and even a military treatise called The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry (Bennett, 373-374 and Lawson, xxiv) — are important contributions to her society: they are moralistic, idealistic, religious, innovative, imaginative, extremely intelligent, and were widely read in their own time.

Bennett, Judith M. and C. Warren Hollister. Medieval Europe: A Short History (Tenth Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Lawson, Sarah. Christine de Pizan: The Treasure of the City of Ladies or the Book of Three Virtues. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Pizan, Christine de. The Treasure of the City of Ladies, trans. Sarah Lawson. London: Penguin Books, 2003.


Writing

Christine produced a large amount of vernacular works in both prose and verse. Her works include political treatises, mirrors for princes, epistles, and poetry.

Her early courtly poetry is marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day, particularly involving women and the practice of chivalry. Her early and later allegorical and didactic treatises reflect both autobiographical information about her life and views and also her own individualized and Humanist approach to the scholastic learned tradition of mythology, legend, and history she inherited from clerical scholars, and to the genres and courtly or scholastic subjects of contemporary French and Italian poets she admired. Supported and encouraged by important royal French and English patrons, she influenced 15th century English poetry.

By 1405, Christine had completed her most famous literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies. The first of these shows the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities. In The Treasure of the City of Ladies, she highlights the persuasive effect of women’s speech and actions in everyday life. In this particular text, Christine argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace between people. This ability will allow women to mediate between husband and subjects. She also argues that slanderous speech erodes one’s honor and threatens the sisterly bond among women. Christine then argues that “skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire.” She believed that a woman’s influence is realized when her speech accords value to chastity, virtue, and restraint. She argued that rhetoric is a powerful tool that women could employ to settle differences and to assert themselves. Additionally, The Treasure of the City of Ladies provides glimpses into women’s lives in 1400, from the great lady in the castle down to the merchant’s wife, the servant, and the peasant. She offers advice to governesses, widows, and even prostitutes.

Picture from The Book of the City of Ladies

The Treasure of the City of Ladies is a manual of education by medieval Italian-French author Christine de Pizan.


Christine de Pizan - History


Christine de Pisan
The Book of the City of Ladies
(1405)

Excerpts from one text provided by Anne Kelsch at the University of North Dakota and another provided by S. Spishak at George Mason University.

<1>One day as I was sitting alone in my study surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, devoting myself to literary studies, my usual habit, my mind dwelt at length on the weighty opinions of various authors whom I had studied for a long time. I looked up from my book, having decided to leave such subtle questions in peace and to relax by reading some small book. By chance a strange volume came into my hands, not one of my own, but one which had been given to me along with some others. When I held it open and saw its title page that it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had often heard that like books it discussed respect for women. I thought I would browse through it to amuse myself. I had not been reading for very long when my good mother called me to refresh myself with some supper, for it was evening. Intending to look at it the next day, I put it down. The next morning, again seated in my study as was my habit, I remembered wanting to examine this book by Matheolus. I started to read it and went on for a little while. Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. But just the sight of this book, even though it was of no authority, made me wonder how it happened that so many different men - and learned men among them - have been and are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior. Not only one or two and not even just this Matheolus (for this book had a bad name anyways and was intended as a satire) but, more generally, from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators - it would take too long to mention their names - it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts, hoping that I could judge impartially and in good conscience whether the testimony of so many notable men could be true. To the best of my knowledge, no matter how long I confronted or dissected the problem, I could not see or realize how their claims could be true when compared to the natural behavior and character of women. Yet I still argued vehemently against women, saying that it would be impossible that so many famous men - such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed - could have spoken falsely on so many occasions that I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain sections attacking women, no matter who the author was. This reason alone, in short, made me conclude that, although my intellect did not perceive my own great faults and, likewise, those of other women because of its simpleness and ignorance, it was however truly fitting that such was the case. And so I relied more on the judgment of others than on what I myself felt and knew. I was so transfixed in this line of thinking for such a long time that it seemed as if I were in a stupor. Like a gushing fountain, a series of authorities, whom I recalled one after another, came to mind, along with their opinions on this topic. And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have designed to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. As I was thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature and in my lament I spoke these words:
Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. Did You yourself not create woman in a very special way and since that time did You not give her all those inclinations which it please You for her to have? And how could it be that You could go wrong in anything? Yet look at all these accusations which have been judged, decided, and concluded against women. I do not know how to understand this repugnance. If it is so, fair Lord God, that in fact so many abominations abound in the female sex, for You Yourself say that the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence, why shall I not doubt that this is true? Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.

The story continues in the form of allegory, as three women (Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice) come to instruct Christine and to show her how to build a city for virtuous women. As Lady Reason explains

<2>There is another greater and even more special reason for our coming which you will learn from our speeches: in fact we have come to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have a refuge and defense against the various assailants, those ladies who have been abandoned for so long, exposed like a field without a surrounding hedge, without finding a champion to afford them an adequate defense, notwithstanding those noble men who are required by order of law to protect them, who by negligence and apathy have allowed them to be mistreated. It is no wonder then that their jealous enemies, those outrageous villains who have assailed them with various weapons, have been victorious in a war in which women have had no defense. Where is there a city so strong which could not be taken immediately if no resistance were forthcoming, or the law case, no matter how unjust, which was not won through the obstinance of someone pleading without opposition? And the simple, noble ladies, following the example of suffering god commands, have cheerfully suffered the great attacks which, both in the spoken and the written word, have been wrongfully and sinfully perpetrated against women by men who all the while appealed to God for the right to do so. Now it is time for their just cause to be taken from Pharaoh's hands, and for this reason, we three ladies who you see here, moved by pity, have come to you to announce a particular edifice built like a city wall, strongly constructed and well founded, which has been predestined and established by our aid and counsel for you to build, where no one will reside except all ladies of fame and women worthy of praise, for the walls of the city will be closed to those women who lack virtue.

. . . .

<3>"My lady, according to what I understand from you, woman is a most noble creature. But even so, Cicero says that a man should never serve any woman and that he who does so debases himself, for no man should ever serve anyone lower than him." She replied, "The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher neither the loftiness nor the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues. And surely he is happy who serves the Virgin, who is above all the angels." "My lady, one of the Catos -- who was such a great orator-- said, nevertheless, that if this world were without woman, we would converse with the gods." She replied, "You can now see the foolishness of the man who is considered wise, because, thanks to a woman, man reigns with God. And if anyone would say that man was banished because of Lady Eve, I tell you that he gained more through Mary than he lost through Eve when humanity was conjoined to the Godhead, which would never have taken place if Eve's misdeed had not occurred. Thus man and woman should be glad for this sin, through which such an honor has come about. For as low as human nature fell through this creature woman, was human nature lifted higher by this same creature. And as for conversing with the gods, as this Cato has said, if there had been no woman, he spoke truer than he knew, for he was a pagan, and among those of this belief, gods were thought to reside in Hell as well as in Heaven, that is, the devils whom they called the gods of Hell - so that it is no lie that these gods would have conversed with men, if Mary had not lived."

Christine and Lady Reason discuss women's education.

<4>Christine, spoke, "My lady, I realize that women have accomplished many good things and that even if evil women have done evil, it seems to me, nevertheless, that the benefits accrued and still accruing because of good women-particularly the wise and literary ones and those educated in the natural sciences whom I mentioned above-outweigh the evil. Therefore, I am amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters, wives, or kinswomen to be educated because their mores would be ruined as a result." She responded , Here you can clearly see that not all opinions of men are based on reason and that these men are wrong. For it must not be presumed that mores necessarily grow worse from knowing the moral sciences, which teach the virtues, indeed, there is not the slightest doubt that moral education amends and ennobles them. How could anyone think or believe that whoever follows good teaching or doctrine is the worse for it? Such an opinion cannot be expressed or maintained. . . .

<5>To speak of more recent times, without searching for examples in ancient history, Giovanni Andrea, a solenm law professor in Bologna not quite sixty years ago, was not of the opinion that it was bad for women to be educated. He had a fair and good daughter, named Novella, who was educated in the law to such an advanced degree that when he was occupied by some task and not at leisure to present his lectures to his students, he would send Novella, his daughter, in his place to lecture to the students from his chair. And to prevent her beauty from distracting the concentration of her audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her. In this manner she could on occasion supplement and lighten her father's occupation. He loved her so much that, to commemorate her name, he wrote a book of remarkable lectures on the law which he entitled Novella super Decretalium, after his daughter's name.

. . . .

<6>Thus, not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did. Your father, who was a great scientist and philosopher, did not believe that women were worth less by knowing science rather, as you know, he took great pleasure from seeing your inclination to learning. The feminine opinion of your mother, however, who wished to keep you busy with spinning and silly girlishness, following the common custom of women, was the major obstacle to your being more involved in the sciences. But just as the proverb already mentioned above says, No one can take away what Nature has given,'your mother could not hinder in you the feeling for the sciences which you, through natural inclination, had nevertheless gathered together in little droplets. I am sure that, on account of these things, you do not think you are worth less but rather that you consider it a great treasure for yourself and you doubtless have reason to. " And Christine, replied to all of this, "Indeed, my lady, what you say is as true as the Lord's Prayer."

. . . .

Lady Reason explains the causes of misogyny.

<7>Lady Reason explains that some men who blame women do it with good intentions, though good intentions are no excuse for error. Others blame them because of their own vices, others because of the infirmity of their own bodies, others by pure jealousy, others still because they like to slander. Some, finally, eager to show that they have read a lot, take their stand on what they find in books and simply quote familiar authors, repeating what has been said before.

<8>By those who do it because of their own vices I mean those men who dissipated their youth in debauchery and dedicated themselves to promiscuity. The great number of their adventures has made them rogues. Grown old in sin, they spend their time regretting the transgressions of their youth -- the more so since Nature prevents them from slaking their impotent desires. They purge their bile by denigrating women, thinking thus to disgust others from enjoying what they cannot enjoy.

<9>Those motivated by the infirmity of their bodies are cripples with misshapen bodies and crooked limbs. Their minds are malicious and sharp, and they have no other means of vengeance for the misery of their impotence than to blame those [women] who bring gladness to others.

<10>Those who blame women by jealousy are unworthy men who, having known or met many women of greater intelligence or nobler heart than theirs, have conceived bitterness and rancor.

<11>As for those who are scandal-mongers by nature, it is not surprising that they slander women, when they speak ill of everyone. Yet I assure you that every man who takes pleasure in vilifying women has an abject heart, for he acts against Reason and against Nature because there is no bird or beast that does not naturally seek out its other half, that is to say the female. It is thus unnatural for a reasonable man to do the contrary. . . .

Christine and Lady Reason discuss the inventions and other advantages women have given humanity.

<12>And was there ever a man who did more for humanity than the noble queen Ceres . who brought the barbarian nomads who dwelt in the forests, without faith or law, like savage beasts to come fill towns and cities where now they live respectful of the law? She provided them with better food than the acorns and crab apples that they used to eat: wheat, corn, foods that make the body more beautiful, the complexion more radiant, the limbs stronger and more agile, for they are more substantial and better suited to the needs of the human race. What is more worthy than to develop a land filled with thistles, thorn bushes and wild trees, to till it and sow it and turn wild heath to cultivated fields? Human nature was thus enriched by this woman who carried it from barbarous wildness to orderly society, rescuing these lazy nomads from gloomy ignorance and opening access to the highest forms of thought and the noblest occupations.

<13>Isis did the same for crops. Who can detail the good she brought humanity by teaching it to graft fine fruit trees and to husband the good plants appropriate to human sustenance?

<14>And then Minerva! . People went clad in skins and she provided woolen garments people carried their goods in their arms and she invented the art of building carts and chariots, relieving humanity of that burden she taught noble knights how to manufacture coats of mail, so that their bodies should be better protected in war -- a handsomer, nobler, more solid armor than the leather jerkins they had before that!

<15>Then I said to her: Ah! My Lady! To hear you, I realize more than ever how great is the ignorance and the ingratitude of all those men who speak so much ill of women! I already believed that having had a mother and having experienced the services that women normally provide to men would be sufficient to still their mischievous tongues. But I see now that women have overwhelmed them with gifts, and continue bounteous with their blessings. Let them shut up! Let them henceforth be silent, those clerks who speak ill of women! Let all their accomplices and allies who speak ill of women in their writings or poems hold their tongues. Let them lower their eyes in shame to have dared lie so much in their books, when one sees that the truth goes counter to what they say.

<16>And let noble knights, many of whom speak ill of women, hold their tongues, knowing that it is to a woman that they owe armor, the art of war and of marshalling armies, that profession of arms of which they are so proud. And generally, when one sees men living on bread and dwelling in civilized towns subject to civil law, when they work their fields, how can one in view of so many good turns condemn and despise women the way so many do? For it was women -- Minerva, Ceres, Isis -- who brought them all those useful things that they enjoy all their lives and that they will always enjoy. Are these things insignificant? Not at all, My Lady, and it seems to me that not the philosophy of Aristotle -- so useful and so highly praised, and rightly too! -- nor all other philosophies that ever existed, ever brought or ever will bring so many advantages to humanity as the inventions that we owe to the spirit of these women.


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