Christine de Pizan
An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
Victorian novelist Frank Smedley wrote that "All's fair in love and war"; though we cannot be sure, Renaissance scholar Christine de Pizan might have thrown her complete works at his head if she had heard that.
❧ Full name: Christine de Pizan [krĭs-tēn dĕ pē-zän; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: 1364-1430
❧ Areas active: mainly the Kingdom of France (mainly in and around Paris) and the Duchy of Burgundy (roughly equivalent to modern Switzerland and eastern France)
❧ Original language of writing: Old French
❧ Exemplary or important works: The Letter of Othea to Hector; The Book of the Way of Long Study; The Book of the City of Ladies; The Book of Peace; The Tale of Joan of Arc
The Republic of Venice was unusual among the city-states of Medieval Italy; it had retained its ties with Byzantium far longer than most of the West, and by the turn of the millennium it was a major power in its own right, which it remained for centuries. As was the custom of crowned or mitred heads in Europe, the Doges (the elected monarchs* of Venice) kept court astrologers; in 1368, Venice’s court astrologer was one Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano. That year he accepted an invitation from the French king to assume the same position in his court; and so, with his wife and their daughter Cristina (then just three or four years old), he moved from Venice to Paris. Growing up in France, the pronunciation and most typical spelling of the little girl’s name was changed from Cristina da Pizzano to Christine de Pizan.
At first, the family did well in France. The realm was prospering under King Charles V, also known as Charles the Wise; the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War had ended in 1360, and when the second began in 1369, the French made major advances into territories the English had conquered. Christine married in 1379 and had three children, one of whom later became a nun alongside Princess Marie, the granddaughter of Charles the Wise. But things began to go wrong the very next year. The king died, and his son, now King Charles VI, took the throne at the age of 11; even after he came of age, he was subject to fits of psychosis, some episodes of which were so severe that he could not remember his own name, or believed himself to be made of glass.** In 1388, Tommaso died; the next year, her husband also died, of plague.† Legal difficulties over his estate left the widowed Christine, her mother, and her children almost penniless, and with Christine the only person both old enough and young enough to earn them a living.
Her father had seen to her education—something that was, on the whole, more open to women in the Middle Ages than it became during the early Modern period—and she availed herself of the knowledge and skills she had thus acquired, becoming a court writer, poet, and scholar. She is believed to have been the first European woman of letters to support herself (including her dependents) entirely upon the income she received from writing. Much of her output was bought or sponsored by the Dukes of Burgundy, whose connection with the Kingdom of France was of varying strength. She also had the patronage and friendship of the Charles VI’s queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, who often acted as regent or shared the function with others during her husband’s episodes; Christine de Pizan presented Queen Isabeau with a lavish illuminated copy of her collected works in 1414, known as The Book of the Queen. Both readerships hint at some of the interests and images which recur most often in Christine’s writings.
One of her interests, which helped lead to her rediscovery in French and English scholarship in the twentieth century, was in the social role of women—the education they received, the autonomy they were permitted, and the reputation (of whatever kind) they enjoyed. In addition to recommending that girls be educated on the same basis as boys, Christine was bold enough to critique what was then a literary classic, The Romance of the Rose. The book was a little bit like the Pride and Prejudice of its day, in being a familiar and important love story; its authorship, outlook, and technique were not like Austen’s, and it seems to have been more popular with men than with women, too. Its technique is the most obvious difference—allegories are rather distinctive!—but more than that, the man who wrote it‡ showed a definitely low view of the female sex. Christine argued, based on both classical and Christian exemplars, that this attitude was uncalled for and that women were as apt to the life of virtue as men: her Book of the City of Ladies and Book of the Three Virtues (also called The Treasure of the City of Ladies) are alike directed to this, and, showing a talent of her own for allegory, she points out quite justly through her Lady Reason that such petty stereotypes of women can only be maintained by keeping actual women out of the discussion altogether.
In the Book of the Way of Long Study, also an allegory, she travels with the Sibyl to a debate held among Wealth, Nobility, Chivalry, and Wisdom about the world’s griefs and their appropriate solution. Given what we might think of as her surprisingly “modern” views on gender and society, as well as her Venetian origins, not to mention the vicissitudes of Charles VI, we may be surprised all over again to discover that she was not only deeply devoted to France, but a convinced supporter of monarchy as the best solution to the problems that afflict society. (This may have been thanks to Dante, whom she acknowledges as an influence upon her.) Indeed, the bulk of her writing is made up by treatises on political and military affairs, both theoretical and practical, including an account of the reign of Charles V. Forty years after her death, as part of an instructive novel for young men, a French nobleman and soldier named Jean de Bueil reproduced her description of the men and materials necessary to withstand a siege; and for two hundred years, royal libraries across Europe found a place for her Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry. This was not merely a fanciful description of an idealized code observed by Galahads and Lancelots, as we might expect from such a title today: it is a serious, practical discussion of just war theory and of whether and how it can be applied in practice, including discussions of topics like the treatment of prisoners and other noncombatants and how to rightly limit the authority to declare war.
Small wonder that the issue was much on her mind. During the second interruption in the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict within France (initially, a contest over who would control the regency council during the king’s madness) had escalated as of 1407 into the Armagnac-Burgundian War. The full causes and complications would be only too dull and bewildering to explain, becoming entangled with the differing economic models of French and English societies and the rival claimants to the Papacy enthroned at Rome and Avignon. During the civil war, which led before long into the third and final phase of the Hundred Years’ War, Christine continued to write. Her last major political work, The Book of Peace, on the subject of good and just governance, was written in 1413 for the dauphin (the heir to the French throne)—unless we count her public letter of consolation to those bereaved due to the Battle of Agincourt in 1418. One can only imagine her dismay two years later, when the Burgundians and the English conjointly forced the Treaty of Troyes upon France. Had it finally been followed, it would have made King Henry VI of England to be also Henri II of France.
But the dauphin was crowned King Charles VII in 1429, more or less by the skin of his teeth. The year before, out of nowhere, in the wake of a ruler who suffered bouts of madness, a champion had appeared for France: a teenage peasant girl (so, limited military training) who’d been hearing voices since she got religion, and said she needed to dress like a boy to save the kingdom. Just what every general wants to hear. Yet the dauphin trusted her, and when he sent the girl to lift the English siege against Orléans, it proved the beginning of a campaign that opened the road to Rheims Cathedral, where all the kings of France were crowned. And though like her daughter she had withdrawn to a convent, Christine de Pizan heard of it: only days after King Charles VII’s coronation, about a year before own death, Christine’s last poem was published, bearing the title The Tale of Joan of Arc.
*The phrase elected monarch may sound strange, but historically speaking these are quite common. They have the advantages of increased “buy-in” from the electors, and of allowing the candidate’s (real or perceived) suitability for the role to be considered. Several Italian city-states were “crowned republics” of this type; Genoa was also headed by a Doge.
**To be strictly fair to His Most Christian Majesty, to be made of glass would be quite distressing.
†The most severe phase of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis) in France had occurred in the late 1340s. However, the disease did not entirely disappear, but instead became endemic; occasional new strains appeared (presumably caused by mutations of the Y. pestis bacterium), and these continued to cause shorter or more local outbreaks of plague all the way down to the eighteenth century.
‡Or rather, most of it. Guillaume de Lorris began The Romance of the Rose, but died before completing it, and little is known about him. Nearly fifty years later, Jean de Meung undertook to complete to book, adding about eighteen thousand lines to de Lorris’s four-thousand-and-some. He thus turned what had been a compact, swiftly-paced narrative into something more like a highly disorderly, largely satirical encyclopedia. Unlike his predecessor, he presents women in general as seductive and manipulative.
Gabriel Blanchard studied Classics at the University of Maryland and serves as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other author profiles—our selection of Medievals embraces St. Bede, St. Hildegard of Bingen, Hugh of St. Victor, the Nibelungenlied, Thomas Malory, and many more; if you’d rather look further back to the ancients, try these profiles of Terence or Seneca, or if you want something more modern, take a look at Bartolomé de Las Casas, Oscar Wilde, or Zora Neale Hurston. Thank you for reading the Journal.
Published on 2nd October, 2023. Page image of an illumination depicting Christine de Pizan reading to a small assembly of men; the illumination comes from the Book of the Queen, otherwise known as Harley Manuscript 4431 (its enumeration in the British Library, where it now resides). Author thumbnail depicts a flagellant, taken from an illuminated copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, an encyclopedia produced in that city in the late fifteenth century.