Christine de Pizan

Around 1400, the most famous woman author was Christine de Pizan (or Pisan, both short for Pizzano, south of Bologna, Italy). Christine spent her life at the French court, originally moving there as an infant when her father was hired as the court physician. She spoke—and wrote—in medieval French, not Latin.

Fifty years earlier, the most disruptive event of its era had taken place: the first emergence of the plague now known as the Black Death. King Charles V, who hired Doctor de Pizan, had been a 12 year old entering an arranged marriage during 1350, the year the plague struck so hard in northern Europe. His marriage had been private because public ceremonies were too dangerous, and the prince himself may have suffered a bout of the plague and then recovered. The plague came back ten years later, carrying off two of his three babies. A few years after that, Doctor de Pizan, also a survivor of the plagues, came to Paris.

The plague visitations began a period of rapid social change. Education broke down for a while, probably leading to more writing and publishing in the “vulgar” tongues of medieval English, French and German. Peasants, legally tied to the land, could earn much more in the depopulated economy, so they began uprisings to demand change. The church had to change; people who are keenly aware of death don’t want a perfunctory religion. As feudalism broke down, so did some traditional social roles. Christine, raised at court during this period, helped to push forward a re-examination of women’s identity.

Christine was almost certainly educated at home; we don’t know the extent of her learning, except that she was very literate. She was married at 15 to the king’s secretary, but he died (probably of the plague) when she was 25. She should have been provided for, but her husband’s money got tied up in a lawsuit and never arrived. Christine’s father was probably gone by then, so the whole de Pizan family depended on her next actions.

Christine began writing love ballads; she knew many noblemen and women, and they liked her work and commissioned her to write love ballads specifically for them. By 1399, she was fully supporting her family with prolific poetry output.

Christine had also been thinking a lot, and she did not like the beliefs about women portrayed in the literature of the previous century. Since 1275, the most popular book had been Le Roman de la Rose, the Romance (or Novel) of the Rose. The Rose stood for women’s sexuality, and the work was essentially satirical. It took “courtly love,” the anti-marriage love concept of the troubadors, as truth about human nature. It portrayed women as deeply sensuous, manipulative, and cold. Marriage was a trap.

Christine wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson. Gerson, son of a peasant family, was trying to rewrite theology for the new, more challenging time. She appealed to Gerson to agree with her that the Roman de la Rose was slandering women, who could be virtuous, rational humans. Their correspondence caught the attention of others, and eventually the letters (in verse) were collected as first one book, then a second.

Christine had a powerful patroness in mind. Isabeau, Queen of France, was ruling as regent after her husband developed paranoid schizophrenia. Isabeau’s political enemies used the “courtly love” tropes to attack her character. They said her dresses were too revealing and they claimed she was sleeping around the court. Christine de Pizan’s defense of women as basically human, rather than basically wicked, pleased Isabeau.

Christine wrote some long poems about women, writing about an imaginary City of Ladies. She argued that women need to sharpen their rhetorical skills to make peace among themselves and between men. Her last published work, written when she was 65, was a formal praise of Joan of Arc: God had chosen to use a woman to deliver the nation. She probably died soon after, around 1430, just as the Italian Renaissance prepared the way for even more radical ideas.

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