Christine de Pizan Biography

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(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...

(The entire section is 3,466 words.)