Christine de Pizan Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: The first woman of letters in France and the first known woman in Europe to earn her living by writing, Christine was a prolific, versatile, and acclaimed lyric poet, didactic writer, and Humanist scholar; she was a precursor to the femmes savantes of the Renaissance and to nineteenth and twentieth century feminists.

Early Life

Shortly after Christine was born in Venice in 1364, her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, who held a chair in astrology at the University of Bologna (where he had also studied medicine and astrology), was offered two attractive invitations—to go to Hungary to the court of Louis I or to Paris to the court of Charles V. Although he was reluctant to leave his family (the invitations were for him alone), Tommaso found the offer to go to the city of the celebrated University of Paris particularly attractive, and he agreed to go to the French court for one year. The king, pleased with the counsels of Thomas de Pizan (as his name was gallicized) in medical, scientific, and political matters, persuaded him to stay as the royal astrologer, alchemist, and physician; in 1368, Thomas sent for his wife and four-year-old daughter.

Thus Christine was reared in the stimulating environment of the court of Charles V, known as “the Wise,” an intellectual and progressive monarch. Under his patronage, Thomas prospered and acquired property—the feudal estate of Orsonville—and Christine was reared in a literate and cultured home frequented by leading intellectuals. She studied the liberal arts under the tutelage of her father, whose intelligence and knowledge she admired—despite the fact that her mother disapproved of academic learning for girls. Later, Christine would complain that her education had been restricted on account of her gender, but she was able to learn to read and write, opportunities usually reserved for very high-ranking women.

At fifteen, around 1379, Christine married Étienne du Castel, a twenty-four-year-old graduate scholar born of a noble, though not wealthy, family in Picardy, who became a court notary and secretary. Christine had known Étienne since infancy, and he was well regarded by her father. Étienne promised that they would be “true friends” when they married, and he seems to have kept his promise: The period of her marriage was a very happy one. The two had three children: a daughter, born in 1381, who later became a nun at the Poissy convent; a son who died in infancy; and a second son, Jean, born in 1385, who as a youth was reared in England by Christine’s patron, the Earl of Salisbury, and later joined the household of the dukes of Burgundy.

After 1380, when Charles V died, Christine’s father began to lose his prestige and was eventually dismissed from his court appointment. Within a few years, he became ill and died, disillusioned and poor. A greater sorrow followed: In 1389, while accompanying Charles VI to Beauvais on matters of state, Étienne fell victim to the plague and died, at the age of thirty-four. Within two years, Christine had lost both father and husband, the two people to whom she was closest and who had also been her mentors.

Life’s Work

Her husband’s unexpected and premature death precipitated an abrupt turning point in Christine’s life, which she later referred to as her “mutacion de fortune” in a book of that name. At twenty-five she was forced into “the role of a man,” responsible for providing for her children and herself. She had no income or means of support and, in order to recover a small inheritance from her husband, had to engage in protracted and frustrating legal proceedings for the next ten years. Yet she determined to support herself rather than remarry; in a famous ballade, written shortly after her husband’s death, she declared, “Seulete suy et seulete vueil estre” (I am alone and I want to be alone).

Christine’s initial lyrics, considered to be some of her finest work, focus on her love for her husband and her grief over his death. Nevertheless, she soon turned to themes of chivalry and courtly love, more suited to the nobles who became her patrons. Immediately successful, she wrote prolifically on these topics for the next decade in lyric poems, short narratives, and didactic works. There is some evidence to suggest that she also worked as a manuscript copyist during these years to supplement her income from writing.

In 1398, Christine embarked on a rigorous, interdisciplinary program of study (including history, science, religion, philosophy, and literature, both classical and contemporary) and soon began to write her first mature works, Le Livre de la mutacion de fortune (1400-1403; the book of changes in fortune) and Le Livre du chemin de long éstude (1402-1403; the book of the road of long study). By this point, she had stopped writing about chivalry and courtly love, whose antimarriage and pro-infidelity themes she in fact rejected, suggesting in subsequent writings that the courtly love ethic was devised by men for men and had no redeeming value for women. In Le Livre de la mutacion de fortune, a scholarly, allegorical, seven-part poem, she initially recounts her own encounter with the Roman goddess of fortune, whose capriciousness Christine blames for the death of her husband and for transforming her into a man—though at the same time she acknowledges that without the necessity of having to support herself, she would never have become a scholar and writer. The remainder of the encyclopedic, philosophical work presents an account of Fortune’s influence in specific moments in world history. (The Wheel of Fortune was a common motif in medieval culture and was used to explain apparently arbitrary vicissitudes of human experience.) Le Livre du chemin de long éstude, an allegorical voyage analogous to Dante’s Le divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), concerns the evils of the world and how to remedy them; Christine dedicated the work to the young Charles VI. On the basis of the renown she achieved from these two works, Christine was commissioned to write a biography of the late Charles V, Le Livre des fais et bonnes moeurs du sage roi Charles V (1404; the book of the deeds and virtues of the wise King Charles V), a monarch whose reign she considered exemplary.

During the years Christine was writing Le Livre de la mutacion de fortune, Le Livre du chemin de long éstude, and Le Livre des fais et bonnes mœurs du sage roi Charles V, she concurrently became an important spokesperson in la querelle des femmes (the woman question), a debate among intellectuals in response to Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung’s Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, 1900). Proponents of The Romance of the Rose’s broad social satire saw its authors, especially Meung, as advocates of progress; its opponents censured the work for subverting public morality. Christine, whose reputation as a scholar was being established, was moved to attack the cynical satire against women in The Romance of the Rose and also the tradition of misogynist literature. She presented her arguments in four works: L’Épistre du dieu d’amours (1399; the epistle to the god of love), her first feminist work, in which Cupid, who has received complaints from women about deceitful and disloyal men, issues a decree ousting slanderers of women from his court; Le Dit de la rose (1401; the tale of the rose), a poem in which the goddess Loyalty founds an order of the Rose, inducting chivalrous knights who promise to uphold the honor of women and speak no ill of them; Les Épistres sur “Le Roman de la rose” (1401-1402; epistles on The Romance of the Rose), the collected correspondence which came out of the debate; and Le Livre de la cité des dames (1405; The Boke of the Cyte of Ladyes, 1521, better known as The Book of the City of Ladies, 1982), her most famous feminist work.

As The Book of the City of Ladies begins, Christine, in her study, ponders the work of Matheolus, a malicious thirteenth century misogynist. Her reading leads her to wonder why, historically, so many philosophers, clerics, poets, and rhetoricians have slandered women: Misogyny has a long and authoritative tradition....

(The entire section is 3466 words.)