Christine de Pizan
by Maryann Corbett
f Petrarch can be called the first modern man, then Christine de Pizan, the poet and author who introduced her countrymen, Petrarch and Boccaccio, to Parisian culture in the early 1400s, is surely the first modern woman." This claim of Joan Kelly's (69) is quite a large one. And it may give the wrong impression, because Christine de Pizan was very much a woman of the fourteenth century. She adhered to orthodox Catholic thinking and in most respects to the orthodox courtly-love code as well. But she had some special advantages of position and education, and she had extraordinary determination and courage. Although she began her literary career by focusing on her widowhood and feminine powerlessness, she soon used the connections thus made to widen her range. Even her early poems contain certain elements of "protofeminist" thought. When she decided that ideas popular in her day were putting all women under attack, she mounted a spirited defense.
Christine's autobiographical prefaces to her own works provide a great deal of information about her life. So do her long poems Fortune's Mutation (told in the form of an allegory) and Christine's Vision. We learn from those sources that her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, was a judicial astrologer, a specialist consulted to predict the outcomes of wars, natural disasters, and other uncertainties. That many people in power still believed in astrology—though some, like Petrarch, doubted—is clear from the fact that Tommaso was offered a position as official court astrologer with the court of Charles V of France, accepted it, and moved his family from Venice to Paris when Christine was a child of about five.
Her father gave her the same education that a boy would have received: an education in the liberal arts, including Latin. Although Christine lamented that she learned only "scraps" of what she might have gained from her father, she clearly had access to the privileges of the court and the intellectual resources of Paris. The papal court at Avignon—one of two rival papal courts, during the strange period of double papacy known as the Great Schism—was a center for French and Italian artistic exchange, further enriching the culture available to Christine (Margolis, 6). At fifteen, Christine married Êtienne de Castel, a royal notary. The marriage not only gave her a secure position but was also, as she tells us in her poems, a love match, a rare benefit at that time and place. In the ten years that followed, they had three children.
But in 1380 Charles V died, and political intrigue roiled the court for years after. At the same time, the credibility of astrologers and alchemists was being called into question in intellectual circles, and Christine's father suffered a loss of prestige and of income. When he died, in 1388 or 1389, he left his family little or nothing. Christine's older brothers returned to Italy. Then in 1390, Christine's husband fell ill, probably with plague, and died. Denied her inheritance, Christine was now left as head of household at the age of 25, with the obligation to support her children, her mother, and a niece. And all this took place at a time when the young king, Charles VI, was going mad and relationships within the court were coming apart.
Christine's response to all this was—as she came to understand it herself and to tell it later—to "be transformed into a man." She dealt with the law courts to try to gain the inheritance that should have been hers, sold lands for income, resumed her studies, and in about 1394 began to write. She used her court contacts to gain patronage, both for her own support and for the future positions her children would need. Patronage for written work—presenting writings as gifts to members of the court and being rewarded with such items as small jewels, cloth, or cash—was common for male writers of the French and English courts, but not for women. Christine succeeded in finding patrons in high places both in France and in England.
Christine herself described her early poems merely as "pretty things." This undervalues the work but contains a grain of truth: Early attention to her work was based on the love poems she wrote concerning her late husband and her widowhood. Rather than try to remarry, she decided to continue supporting herself by writing. She gained even more patronage when she turned to longer forms and more serious topics. The great turning point in her sense of herself as a writer came in about 1400, and it involved an intellectual debate about the thirteenth-century poem we know as The Romance of the Rose.
The poem was enormously popular; many manuscript copies and early printed versions are still in existence, and Chaucer himself translated portions of it. C.S. Lewis, in the third chapter of The Allegory of Love, explains some of the sources of its popularity. It was in the form of an allegory, a popular genre in many literary modes of the late Middle Ages. It was also psychologically realistic, since it was about love: Its first section, by Guillaume de Lorris, built on the basic courtly-love material begun by Ovid's Ars Amatoria, digested by Andreas Capellanus's De Arte Honesti Amandi, and developed into the Arthurian legends by Chretien de Troyes. Its second section, by Jean de Meun, was also popular, but for very different reasons. Although based on the first, the second section was a meandering encyclopedia of all manner of received medieval wisdom—wide-ranging, discursive, and bitingly satirical on many subjects, but also deeply misogynistic. A brief example will illustrate the tone:
All women are, have been, and ere will be
In thought if not in deed, unvirtuous;
Though some may hesitate to do the act,
None can restrain their wish." (Romance, 185.)
When the cleric Jean de Montreuil wrote in praise of the Jean de Meun material, Christine responded with a letter blasting both the Rose and Montreuil. Here is a small taste of the tone of her exchanges on the subject, from her letter to Gontier Col:
And if you despise my reasons so much because of the inadequacy of my faculties which you criticize by your words, "a woman impassioned," etc., rest assured that I do not feel any sting in such criticism, thanks to the comfort I find in the knowledge that there are, and have been, vast numbers of excellent, praiseworthy women, schooled in all the virtues—which I would rather resemble than to be enriched with all the goods of fortune (Boehm).
Letters back and forth on the subject among many intellectuals, always including Christine, established her position as a thinker equal in prestige with the men of the court, the universities, and the church. The debate continued—without real resolution—until about 1404. Christine included copies of the debate letters in the manuscript she presented to Queen Isabeau. At this point her reputation as woman of letters was solid enough for her to seek commissions for other kinds of writing besides poetry.
She was astonishingly prolific. The reported number of her completed works varies, but according to the numbering in the most complete bibliographies, she completed some 40 or 42 books: poetry collections such as One Hundred Ballades, long poems such as Fortune's Mutation, prose allegories like The Book of the Three Virtues, prosimetra (works interspersing verse and prose), religious works, works of political theory, and even a treatise on war and arms. The principle that most unifies these works is the use of religious authority and real people's experience to update and enrich the classical authorities on which a medieval writer had to depend in order to be taken seriously. Here is an example of her style of reasoning, from The Book of the City of Ladies:
"My lady, one of the Catos— who was such a great orator— said, nevertheless, that if this world were without women, 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 honour 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" (Boehm).
Christine's work is distinctive for her refusal to take the authorities at face value and for rebutting them when they conflict with her own observations. "I could not see or realize," she writes, "how their claims could be true when compared to the natural behavior and character of women."
The Book of the City of Ladies begins with Christine's despair at the authorities' "devilish and wicked thoughts about women" and proceeds when three allegorical goddesses—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—arrive to direct Christine to build a city for honorable women of all sorts. Its plot is to tell their many stories, from the ancient authorities. The moral defense of women in Christine's prose works has naturally attracted much attention from feminist critics since the 1970s, and so have her rhetorical strategies or methods of constructing her arguments.
Most of Christine's major works were completed between 1400 and 1418. This listing shows how many and how various they are; more detailed study would show how deeply and widely Christine read to prepare to write. She stayed busy for two decades. But when the French suffered a humiliating defeat by the English at Agincourt in 1415, France was left an occupied country, and civil unrest followed. The turmoil forced Christine to retire from the court and spend the rest of her life as a lay resident in a convent. (Biographers guess that this was at Poissy, the royal priory which her daughter Marie had entered as a nun.) Her last known work was the The Song of Joan of Arc, a long poem in celebration of Joan's victory at Orleans and success in bringing the dauphin to be crowned Charles VII at Reims.
It is not certain when Christine died, although we know that she was dead by 1434, and she may have been dead by 1431. Perhaps, as her biographer Charity Willard has hoped (207), she was spared the knowledge that Joan was burned at the stake by the Anglo-Burgundians in 1431.
That Christine enjoyed critical approval in her own time, and just after, we know because important manuscript copies of her work survive, along with versions in early printed books. But after that, she seems to have faded from sight for some centuries. Around the time of the French Revolution, the scholar and translator Louise de Keralio included Christine in a 14-volume collection of works by women, and by the late nineteenth century, in the context of the fight for women's suffrage in England, she was being called "a champion of her sex" (Selected Writings, 274-75).
Among twenty-first century audiences, Christine's long prose works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, are the most studied and the most popular of her writings because they focus squarely on the matter of modern feminism. But since the focus of the Timeline is women poets, it makes sense to look more closely at her poems. She certainly wrote long and serious poetic works, and her poem Fortune's Mutation would repay study, but it is very long, and there appear to be no poetic translations, even of sections, that preserve the formal satisfactions of the poetry, and form and its requirements were very important to Christine.
The short poems are much easier to deal with, and one can argue that the early poems display many of the ideas that become major themes in Christine's later and better-known works. The translations in the following discussion, except for the two rondels, are my own.
Ballade 11 from One Hundred Ballades
Alone is what I am, and wish to be.
Alone, because my dearest friend is gone.
Alone, robbed of his counsel, his company.
Alone and racked with anger as I mourn.
Alone with listlessness and deep unease.
Alone, my straight road lost among the trees.
Alone, without my love, yet I live on.
Alone, framed in a window or a door,
Alone, hunched in a corner no one sees.
Alone, my tears the bitter drink I pour.
Alone whether I weep or seem at peace.
Alone, locked in a solitude I want.
Alone, shut in my study on my knees.
Alone, without my love, yet I live on.
Alone in every place, every condition.
Alone whether I rise or I lie down.
Alone more than all beings in creation.
Alone, from every other soul forlorn.
Alone, brought low, pulled under by this stone.
Alone. My face is streaked with tears. I groan.
Alone, without my love, yet I live on.
Prince, here they begin: my miseries.
I am alone, by every sorrow torn.
Alone. My life is black as widows' weeds.
Alone, without my love, yet I live on.
(link to the original and an alternate translation here.)
This is probably Christine's best known poem, both because of its subject—her widowhood—and because Charles d'Orleans wrote a translation/adaptation of it in English (his ballade 59). Charles's choice to begin every line with "Alone" has steered translators forever after, even though Christine's lines begin with "Seulete," which takes in not only aloneness but also smallness and femaleness.
We tend to take this poem at face value, as something spoken from the heart, and that certainly contributes to its popularity. But it is also tightly formal, even though the exact formal rules of the ballade had not yet been set in stone and quite a number of patterns appear in collections called "ballades." Beginning almost every line with the same word is an extreme formal limitation, certainly not an emotional outpouring. The same is true of the rhyme scheme, which in the original uses only two rhymes—full rhymes. And the images in the poem repeat many of the standards of courtly love-loss.
The stress on the courtly element probably played a role in Christine's success in finding patrons. The literary conventions of courtly love had of course been commonly used in France, and all of Europe, since the eleventh century and the troubadours. They had been common currency long enough, in fact, to be getting a little stale. Courts themselves, and feudal relationships, were undergoing political and economic strain in the early fifteenth century. Bourgeois literary realism was on the rise, and the court and its poets were trying hard to reassert the old themes, as part of a protection of their own position. Christine set herself a useful foundation by framing her personal situation in terms, and forms, that her court audience found valuable and attractive.
But Christine did not limit herself long to her own personal situation. Such a limitation would not have been in keeping with the medieval habit of completeness and encyclopedic coverage. It's difficult for us to say exactly when she made the decision to expand—the manuscripts that contain the Hundred Ballades are late works and subject to much polishing, editing, and rearranging. But the final product contains sequences that recite the development of an affair of fin' amor. The shape of the story begins with the standard courtly-love line. The novelty lies in Christine's treatment of the woman's side of the story, as in the following poem:
Ballade 53 from One Hundred Ballades
She's wise, I think, the lady who knows how
to guard against false lovers—men who try
sweet, plaintive words on women, meant for show
and for deceit. They coo so piteously,
these doves cooped up in love's captivity,
pleading as though their fevers left them wan.
But here's a thing I know with certainty:
The loudest moans don't make the sickest man.
So when you hear one swear and see him go
around, obedient as a servant boy,
back-and-forthing, look-and-thinking so,
recutting the design of what he'll say,
it's all a ruse—though wrought so charmingly
everyone's fooled. Such ardor! Such élan!
But judge them by their faces and you'll see
the loudest moans don't make the sickest man.
May God correct such lovers! Sadly, though,
there are so many of them. Soon they'll be
everywhere, begging ladies to bestow
grace, or sending love notes for merci,
for their own selfish ends. And this is why
my song is sung, to help you understand:
In such a case, no matter his degree,
the loudest moans don't make the sickest man.
The deceitful lover described here is one of Christine's principal targets in her arguments about the position of women. During the same several-year period when she was at work on One Hundred Ballades, she also wrote The Debate of Two Lovers and The God of Love's Epistle, long poems in which she particularly targets Ovid and Jean de Meun as teachers of the "arts of deceit" (Margolis, 49). This ballade and those longer poems demonstrate that Christine was gathering her thoughts about deception in fin' amor long before she was moved to write the letters that set off the "debate of the Rose."
But not all the poems in One Hundred Ballades are so straightforwardly representative of Christine's own real thoughts. Sometimes she adopts the voice of a medieval stock character, as in this next poem:
Ballade 78, from One Hundred Ballades
This jealous husband! What are we to do?
I wish to God we could just skin the man
who keeps his narrow eye fixed on us so
we can't get close. If only we could plan
to throttle the old villain with a mean
garrotte! the filthy, gout-foot shrivel-brain
who brings us so much anger, so much pain!
I want him strangled. I want wolves to chew
his flesh, the worthless, skulking ball-and-chain.
What is he good for but to hack and spew,
screw up his face and whinge, and hack again?
Love him? Ha! The devil himself would strain.
I hate him, wrecked and broken thing, old man
who brings us so much anger, so much pain.
He doesn't do a thing but stalk and stew
—oh, but he needs a beating, that baboon—
in his own house. Rattle him through and through.
Drub him, so he takes to his bed, and soon!
Send him downstairs without his walking cane—
straight down, that spy who lurks behind the screen
and brings us so much anger, so much pain!
This lively poem is about as far from the courtly tradition as we can get; the character of the Jealous Husband is not only an element of the fabliaux, but also one of the principal speakers in Jean de Meun's portion of the Romance of the Rose. He is the character who most gives voice to the standard medieval accusations against womankind. These are the views that Christine would object to so vehemently during the "debate of the Rose." Even this early, Christine was expressing her firm dislike of the Jealous Husband's standard 14th-century anti-woman attitudes. To do this acceptably, in her role as submissive woman, she had to adopt the recognized persona of the offending wife.
Personas like this one explain why she was careful, at important points in One Hundred Ballades, to explain that her poems must not be taken as autobiographical (Margolis, 37). Later in her life, when her reputation was more firmly established, she would take the position that there are few such offending wives, and that if women had written the books, women would have been very differently portrayed. She argued that husbands abused wives because of the constant and unreasonable suspicions that were fostered by such anti-woman portrayals.
We should not forget that, in addition to their content, Christine's short poems are ambitious in their form. As we read in poetry@Harvard's online discussion of 14th and 15th century French poets, she was an enthusiastic formal experimenter, even while she adhered closely to the very complex formal dictates in the handbooks of Machaut and Deschamps. Consider these two rondels from Ballades in Strange Fashion, translated by Virginie Greene, in monometer and even monosyllables!
Je vois /Jouer./ Au bois/ Je vois./Pour nois/ Trouver/Je vois.
(I go/To play. /To the wood /I go./To find /hazelnuts/I go.)
Small as this sample of her work is, it serves to demonstrate that Christine's thinking was focused very early on the situation of women in her time and on the built-in injustice of the standard medieval view. Under the polished forms of court poetry, Christine was preparing for moral and ethical combat in women's defense.
My Christine de Pizan
The books that have been on my shelves for more than thirty years show that I should have been aware of Christine de Pizan decades ago, when I was doing graduate work in medieval English literature. But she disappeared from my memory until just last year, when I was casting about for a medieval poet to translate. The poem I chose then (Ballade 78, above) sent me the wrong way around in my thinking about its author. It sounds like a straying wife's heartfelt longing for freedom, when in fact it's a persona poem, a set piece based on the Jealous Husband. Not until I looked for more material did I discover the real Christine, the protofeminist, polemicist, and activist poet and essayist. Her attraction for me is in her ideas, her self-revelations, and her spirited—and genuine, and realistic—resistance to the accepted misogyny of her time. It's clear that most modern readers value her for those reasons too, as we can see by her inclusion in Judy Chicago's great feminist art installation, The Dinner Party.
Boehm, Ulrike. "Medieval and Renaissance Women's Voices: Christine de Pizan." Excerpts from Letters on the Romance of the Rose. Online: Click here
Retrieved June 12, 2012.
Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women.Cambridge, 1999.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. John J. Parry, trans. W.W. Norton, 1969.
Christine de Pizan, excerpts from The Book of the City of Ladies. Online: Click here Retrieved June 11, 2012.
Christine de Pizan: A Casebook. Altmann, Barbara K., and Deborah L. McGrady, eds. Routledge, 2003.
Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. St. Martin's, 1949; Doubleday Anchor, 1954.
Kelly, Joan. Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly. Chicago, 1984.
Laennec, Christine Moneera. "Unladylike Polemics: Christine de Pizan's Strategies of Attack and Defense." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol 12, no. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 47-59.
Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford, 1958; repr. 1973.
Margolis, Nadia. An Introduction to Christine de Pizan. Florida, 2011.
Muscatine, Charles. Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning. California, 1957.
Poems of Cupid, God of Love: Christine de Pizan's Epistre au diue d'Amours and Dit de la Rose; Thomas Hoccleve's The Letter of Cupid. Editions and Translations. With Goerge Sewell's The Proclamation of Cupid. Thelma S. Fenster and Mart Carpenter Erler, eds. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990.
Greene, Virginie. "French Medieval Poetry: Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Poets," Poetry@harvard. Online at Click here Retrieved June 11, 2012. Translations of rondels used by kind permission of Virginie Greene.
Power, Eileen. Medieval People. Barnes & Noble, 1963.
The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Harry W. Robbins, trans. Charles W. Dunn, ed. E.P. Dutton, 1962.
The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan: New Translations; Criticism. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee, trans. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, ed. W.W. Norton, 1997.
Smith, Sydney E. " The Opposing Voice: Christine de Pisan's Criticism of Courtly Love," Stanford Honors Essay in Humanities, Number XXXIV, Stanford, California, 1990.
Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea Books, 1984.
Links to important online resources on Christine de Pizan:
Medium Aevum: Click here
Complete poetic works of Christine de Pisan at Google Books:
Christine de Pizan: The Making of the Queen's Manuscript: Click here
Extensive bibliography, in French and English:
Christine de Pizan Database:
Christine de Pizan: An Illuminated Voice: