(1364 – 1430)
Christine de Pizan (also seen as de Pisan) (Venice, Italy, 1364 – Poissy, France, c.1430) was an Italian French late medieval author. She served as a court writer for several dukes (Louis of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and John the Fearless of Burgundy) and the French Royal court during the reign of Charles VI. As a poet, she was well known and highly regarded in her own day; she completed 41 works during her 30 year career (1399-1429), and can be regarded as Europe’s first professional woman writer. She married in 1380, at the age of 15, and was widowed 10 years later. Much of the impetus for her writing came from her need to earn a living for herself and her three children. She spent most of her childhood and all of her adult life based in Paris and then the abbey at Poissy, and wrote entirely in her adoptive tongue of Middle French.
Her early courtly poetry is marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day, particularly involving women and the practice of chivalry. Her early and later allegorical and didactic treatises reflect both autobiographical information about her life and views and also her own individualized and humanist approach to the scholastic learned tradition of mythology, legend, and history she inherited from clerical scholars and to the genres and courtly or scholastic subjects of contemporary French and Italian poets she admired. Supported and encouraged by important royal French and English patrons, she influenced 15th-century English poetry. Her success stems from a wide range of innovative writing and rhetorical techniques that critically challenged renowned male writers, such as Jean de Meun (author of the Romance of the Rose) who, to Christine’s dismay, incorporated misogynist beliefs within their literary works. On these grounds, Pisan criticized the Romance of the Rose as immoral.
Christine de Pizan’s most famous work is Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies, 1405), which showed the importance of women’s past contributions to society and defended the capabilities and virtues of women against misogynist writings of the day. Its sequel, Le Livre des trois vertus (The Treasury of the City of the Ladies, or The Book of the Three Virtues, also published in 1405), examined women’s roles in medieval society and gave moral instructions, at least partially again to counteract the growth of misogyny.
Christine’s final work was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who took a very public role in organizing French military resistance to English domination in the early fifteenth century. Written in 1429, Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (The Tale of Joan of Arc) celebrates the appearance of a woman military leader who, according to Christine, vindicated and rewarded all women’s efforts to defend their own sex. Besides its literary qualities, this poem is important to historians because it is the only record of Joan of Arc outside the documents of her trial. After completing this particular poem, it seems that Christine, at the age of sixty-five, decided to end her literary career. The exact date of her death is unknown. However, her death did not diminish appreciation for her renowned literary works. Instead, her legacy continued on because of the voice she established as an authoritative rhetorician.
In recent decades, de Pizan’s work has been returned to prominence by the efforts of scholars such as Charity Cannon Willard, Earl Jeffrey Richards and Simone de Beauvoir. Certain scholars have argued that she should be seen as an early feminist who efficiently used language to convey that women could play an important role within society. This characterization has been challenged by other critics who claim either that it is an anachronistic use of the word, or a misinterpretation of Pizan’s writing and intentions.
- Les Épistres du Débat sus le Romannt de la Rose (1401-1403)
(Letters on the Debate Concerning the Romance of the Rose)
- Complaintes Amoureuses (1402-1410)
- Le Livre des Fais et Bonnes Meurs du Sage Roy Charles V (1404)
(The Book of the Deeds and Good Customs of the Wise King Charles V)
- Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (1404-1405)
(The Book of the City of Ladies)
- Le Livre de Trois Vertus, ou Le Trésor de la Cité des Dames (1405)
(The Book of Three Virtues, or The Book of the Treasury of the City of Ladies)
- L’Épistre a la Reine (1405)
A/K/A: Épistre a Isabeau de Bavière, Reine de France
(An Epistle to the Queen of France)
- Le Livre de la Prod’hommie (ca. 1405-1407)
A/K/A: La Descripcion et Diffinicion de la Prodommie;
Le Livre de Prudence a l’Enseignement de Bien Vivre
(The Book of Man’s Integrity)
- Livre du Corps de Policie (1406-1407)
(The Book of the Body Politic, The Body of Polycy)
- Le Livre des Fais d’Armes et de Chevalerie (1410)
(The Book of the Deeds of Arms and Chivalry)
– Translated by William Caxton as The Book of the Fayttes of Armes and Chyualrye (1489).
- Les Lamentacions sur les Maux de la France (1410)
A/K/A: Lamentacion sur les Maux de la Guerre Civile
(Lamentations on the Troubles of France)
- Sept Psaumes Allegorisés (1410)
(Seven Allegorized Psalms)
- Le Livre de la Paix (1412-1414)
(The Book of Peace)
- L’Avision du Coq (1413)
– Lost work.
- The Writings of Christine Pizan (1992)
– Edited by Charity Cannon Willard.
- The Selected Writings of Christine De Pizan: New Translations, Criticism (1997)
– Edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski.
- Cent Ballades d’Amant et de Dame, Virelyas, Rondeaux (1394-1410)
(One Hundred Ballades of a Lover and His Lady)
- Rondeaux (1396-1402)
- L’Épistre au Dieu d’Amours (1399)
(Letter of the God of Love, Cupid’s Letter, The Letter of Cupid)
– Translated by Thomas Hoccleve (1721).
- Ballades d’Estrange Façon (1399-1402)
- Jeux a Vendre (1399-1402)
- Lais (1399-1402)
- Lay Leonime
- Lay de Dame (Épilogue des Cent Balades d’Amant et de Dame)
- Le Débat des Deux Amants (ca. 1400)
(The Debate of Two Lovers)
- Le Livre du Dit de Poissy (1400)
(The Tale of Poissy)
- L’Épistre d’Othéa (ca. 1400-1401)
(Othea’s Letter; The Epistle of Othea to Hector)
- Proverbes Moraulx (1400-1401)
(The Moral Proverbes of Christyne)
- Enseignemens Moraux (1400-1401)
A/K/A: Les Enseignemens que Christine Donne a Son Filz
- Le Livre des Trois Jugemens (1400-1402)
(The Book of Three Judgments)
- Le Dit de la Rose (1402)
(The Tale of the Rose)
- L’Oroyson Nostre Dame (1402-1403)
(Prayer to Our Lady)
- Une Oroyson de la Vie et Passion de Nostre Seigneur (1402-1403)
- Les .XV. Joyes Nostre Dame (1402-1403)
- Le Livre du Chemin de Long Estude (1402-1403)
(The Book of the Road of Long Learning)
- Autres Ballades (1402-1407)
- Le Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune (1403)
(The Mutation of Fortune)
- Le Dit de la Pastoure (1403)
(The Tale of the Shepherdess)
- L’Épistre a Eustache Morel (1403-1404)
- Le Livre du Duc des Vrais Amants (1403-1405)
(The Book of the Duke of True Lovers)
- L’Épistre a Eustache Deschamps (1405)
- Encore Autres Ballades (1407-1410)
- L’Épistre de la Prison de Vie Humaine (1414-1418)
(The Epistle of the Prison of Human Life)
- Les Heures de Contemplation sur la Passion de Nostre Seigneur (1420-1425)
(The Hours of Contemplation on the Passion of Our Lord)
- Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429)
(Song in Honor of Joan of Arc)
- Oeuvres Poétiques de Christine de Pisan (1886-1896)
(Poetic Works of Christine de Pizan)
– Edited by Maurice Roy.
- Christine de Pisan’s Ballades, Rondeaux, and Virelais (1965)
– Edited by Kenneth Varty.
- Avision-Christine (1405-1406)
Online editions of Christine de Pizan’s works:
A Selection of Quotes
Le Débat sur le roman de la rose
“I find it most offensive that the character of Reason, whom [Jean den Meun (author of the Romance of the Rose)] himself calls the daughter of God, should put forth such a statement as … where she says by way of a proverb that “in the war of Love it is better to deceive than be deceived.” And indeed I dare say that in making that statement Jean den Meun’s Reason denied her Father, for the doctrine He gave was altogether different.”
“[S]ince you are angry at me without reason, you attack me harshly with, “Oh outrageous presumption! Oh excessively foolish pride! Oh opinion uttered too quickly and thoughtlessly by the mouth of a woman! A woman who condemns a man of high understanding and dedicated study, a man who, by great labour and mature deliberation, has made the very noble book of the Rose, which surpasses all others that were ever written in French. When you have read this book a hundred times, provided you have understood the greater part of it, you will discover that you could never have put your time and intellect to better use!”
My answer: Oh man deceived by willful opinion! I could assuredly answer but I prefer not to do it with insult, although, groundlessly, you yourself slander me with ugly accusations. Oh darkened understanding! Oh perverted knowledge … A simple little housewife sustained by the doctrine of Holy Church could criticise your error!”
“[I]f you seek in every way to minimise my firm beliefs by your anti-feminist attacks, please recall that a small dagger or knife point can pierce a great, bulging sack and that a small fly can attack a great lion and speedily put him to flight.”
The Book of the City of Ladies
“How many women are there … who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens?”
“The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.”
“If it were customary to send little girls to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences.”
“Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”
“[J]ust the sight of this book, even though it was of no authority, made me wonder how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behaviour. Not only one or two … but, more generally, from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators – it would take too long to mention their names – it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts, hoping that I could judge impartially and in good conscience whether the testimony of so many notable men could be true. To the best of my knowledge, no matter how long I confronted or dissected the problem, I could not see or realise how their claims could be true when compared to the natural behaviour and character of women.”
“My Lady, you certainly tell me about wonderful constancy, strength and virtue and firmness of women, so can one say the same thing about men? (…)
Response [by Lady Rectitude]: “Fair sweet friend, have you not yet heard the saying that the fool sees well enough a small cut in the face of his neighbour, but he disregards the great gaping one above his own eye? I will show you the great contradiction in what the men say about the changeability and inconstancy of women. It is true that they all generally insist that women are very frail [= fickle] by nature. And since they accuse women of frailty, one would suppose that they themselves take care to maintain a reputation for constancy, or at the very least, that the women are indeed less so than they are themselves. And yet, it is obvious that they demand of women greater constancy than they themselves have, for they who claim to be of this strong and noble condition cannot refrain from a whole number of very great defects and sins, and not out of ignorance, either, but out of pure malice, knowing well how badly they are misbehaving. But all this they excuse in themselves and say that it is in the nature of man to sin, yet if it so happens that any women stray into any misdeed (of which they themselves are the cause by their great power and longhandedness), then it’s suddenly all frailty and inconstancy, they claim. But it seems to me that since they do call women frail, they should not support that frailty, and not ascribe to them as a great crime what in themselves they merely consider a little defect.”
“Causing any damage or harm to one party in order to help another party is not justice, and likewise, attacking all feminine conduct [in order to warn men away from individual women who are deceitful] is contrary to the truth, just as I will show you with a hypothetical case. Let us suppose they did this intending to draw fools away from foolishness. It would be as if I attacked fire – a very good and necessary element nevertheless – because some people burnt themselves, or water because someone drowned. The same can be said of all good things which can be used well or used badly. But one must not attack them if fools abuse them.”
The Treasure of the City of Ladies
“[The wives of powerful noblemen] must be highly knowledgeable about government, and wise – in fact, far wiser than most other such women in power. The knowledge of a baroness must be so comprehensive that she can understand everything. Of her a philosopher might have said: “No one is wise who does not know some part of everything.” Moreover, she must have the courage of a man. This means that she should not be brought up overmuch among women nor should she be indulged in extensive and feminine pampering. Why do I say that? If barons wish to be honoured as they deserve, they spend very little time in their manors and on their own lands. Going to war, attending their prince’s court, and traveling are the three primary duties of such a lord. So the lady, his companion, must represent him at home during his absences. Although her husband is served by bailiffs, provosts, rent collectors, and land governors, she must govern them all. To do this according to her right she must conduct herself with such wisdom that she will be both feared and loved. As we have said before, the best possible fear comes from love.
When wronged, her men must be able to turn to her for refuge. She must be so skilled and flexible that in each case she can respond suitably. Therefore, she must be knowledgeable in the mores of her locality and instructed in its usages, rights, and customs. She must be a good speaker, proud when pride is needed; circumspect with the scornful, surly, or rebellious; and charitably gentle and humble toward her good, obedient subjects. With the counsellors of her lord and with the advice of elder wise men, she ought to work directly with her people. No one should ever be able to say of her that she acts merely to have her own way. Again, she should have a man’s heart. She must know the laws of arms and all things pertaining to warfare, ever prepared to command her men if there is need of it. She has to know both assault and defence tactics to insure that her fortresses are well defended, if she has any expectation of attack or believes she must initiate military action. Testing her men, she will discover their qualities of courage and determination before overly trusting them. She must know the number and strength of her men to gauge accurately her resources, so that she never will have to trust vain or feeble promises. Calculating what force she is capable of providing before her lord arrives with reinforcements, she also must know the financial resources she could call upon to sustain military action.
She should avoid oppressing her men, since this is the surest way to incur their hatred. She can best cultivate their loyalty by speaking boldly and consistently to them, according to her council, not giving one reason today and another tomorrow. Speaking words of good courage to her men-at-arms as well as to her other retainers, she will urge them to loyalty and their best efforts.”
“Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning.”
“Women particularly should concern themselves with peace because men by nature are more foolhardy and headstrong, and their overwhelming desire to avenge themselves prevents them from foreseeing the resulting dangers and terrors of war. But woman by nature is more gentle and circumspect. Therefore, if she has sufficient will and wisdom she can provide the best possible means to pacify man.”
Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc
“Oh! What honour for the female sex! It is perfectly obvious that God has special regard for it when all these wretched people who destroyed the whole Kingdom – now recovered and made safe by a woman, something that 5000 men could not have done – and the traitors [have been] exterminated. Before the event they would scarcely have believed this possible.”
“When we take your person into account, you who are a young maiden, to whom God gives the strength and power to be the champion who casts the rebels down and feeds France with the sweet, nourishing milk of peace, here indeed is something quite extraordinary!
For if God performed such a great number of miracles through Joshua who conquered many a place and cast down many an enemy, he, Joshua, was a strong and powerful man. But, after all, a woman – a simple shepherdess – braver than any man ever was in Rome! As far as God is concerned, this was easily accomplished.
But as for us, we never heard tell of such an extraordinary marvel, for the prowess of all the great men of the past cannot be compared to this woman’s whose concern it is to cast out our enemies. This is God’s doing: it is He who guides her and who has given her a heart greater than that of any man.”
“[W]hen someone finds himself quite unjustly attacked and hated on all sides, there is no need for such a person to feel dismayed by misfortune. See how Fortune, who has harmed many a one, is so inconstant, for God, Who opposes all wrong deeds, raises up those in whom hope dwells.”
“[A] person whose head is bowed and whose eyes are heavy cannot look at the light.”
The Letter of the God of Love (L’epistre au dieu d’amours)
“Those who plead their cause in the absence of an opponent can invent to their heart’s content, can pontificate without taking into account the opposite point of view and keep the best arguments for themselves, for aggressors are always quick to attack those who have no means of defence.”
“[Women] complain about many clerks who attribute all sorts of faults to them and who compose works about them in rhyme, prose, and verse, criticizing their conduct in a variety of different ways. They then give these works as elementary textbooks to their young pupils at the beginning of their schooling, to provide them with exempla and received wisdom, so that they will remember this teaching when they come of age … They accuse [women] of many … serious vice[s] and are very critical of them, finding no excuse for them whatsoever.
This is the way clerks behave day and night, composing their verse now in French, now in Latin. And they base their opinions on goodness only knows which books, which are more mendacious than a drunk. Ovid, in a book he wrote called Cures for Love, says many evil things about women, and I think he was wrong to do this. He accuses them of gross immorality, of filthy, vile, and wicked behaviour. (I disagree with him that they have such vices and promise to champion them in the fight against anyone who would like to throw down the gauntlet …) Thus, clerks have studied this book since their early childhood as their grammar primer and then teach it to others so that no man will undertake to love a woman.”
“Yet if women are so flighty, fickle, changeable, susceptible, and inconstant (as some clerks would have us believe), why is it that their suitors have to resort to such trickery to have their way with them? And why don’t women quickly succumb to them, without the need for all this skill and ingenuity in conquering them? For there is no need to go to war for a castle that is already captured. (…)
Therefore, since it is necessary to call on such skill, ingenuity, and effort in order to seduce a woman, whether of high or humble birth, the logical conclusion to draw is that women are by no means as fickle as some men claim, or as easily influenced in their behaviour. And if anyone tells me that books are full of women like these, it is this very reply, frequently given, which causes me to complain. My response is that women did not write these books nor include the material which attacks them and their morals. Those who plead their cause in the absence of an opponent can invent to their heart’s content, can pontificate without taking into account the opposite point of view and keep the best arguments for themselves, for aggressors are always quick to attack those who have no means of defence. But if women had written these books, I know full well the subject would have been handled differently. They know that they stand wrongfully accused, and that the cake has not been divided up equally, for the strongest take the lion’s share, and the one who does the sharing out keeps the biggest portion for himself.”
“Does a rake deserve to possess anything of worth, since he chases everything in skirts and then imagines he can successfully hide his shame by slandering [women in general]?”
“The foolish rush to end their lives.
Only the steadfast soul survives.”
- Christine de Pizan on A Medieval Woman’s Companion
- Charity Cannon Willard’s papers on Christine de Pizan (Smith College)
- The Christine de Pizan Database (University of Edinburgh)
- Christine de Pizan: The Making of the Queen’s Manuscript
- Christine de Pizan biography at the Kirjasto Authors’ Calendar
- Christine de Pizan at Britannica.com
- Reviews and blog posts related to Christine de Pizan on this blog, Lioness at Large