Christine De Pizan Essay, Research Paper
Christine de Pizan
An unlikely candidate to dispute the unfair, misogynistic treatment of women by men and society, Christine de Pizan successfully challenged the accepted negative views that were being expressed about women by the all-male literary world of her era. Part of Christine’s uniqueness stems from the time in which she lived, the middle to late 1300’s. The lack of a positive female role model to pattern herself after made Christine a true visionary in the fight for the equal rights of women. Her original ideas and insight provided a new and more intelligent way to view females. Pizan’s work, The Book of the City of Ladies, provided women much needed guidance in how to survive without the support of a man.
Born in Venice around 1364, Christine was the first professional woman writer in Europe. Her father, Thomas of Pizan, was a famous astrologer and physician who took Christine as an infant to France. His fame as an astrologer allowed him to be appointed to the court of the French King Charles V (Kosinski xi).
Depending on her father for the majority of her education, Christine’s great love as a child was learning; however, Christine’s mother felt that educating Christine was inappropriate, which led to a premature halt in her instruction. (Kosinski xi). Christine’s accomplishments and her mothers views that “ladies should not be educated” (Kosinski xi) show the contrast between mother and daughter. Although she is said to have described her education as “nothing but picking up the crumbs of learning that fell from her father’s table” (Kosinski 299), Christine’s writing is filled with allusions to “classical authors, church fathers, poets, and historical writers” – -revealing intellect greater than table scraps (Kosinski 299).
At the age of fifteen, Christine married Etienne de Castel, a notary and secretary of the royal court (Kosinski xi). Just as her writing reflected her uniqueness, so did her marriage which was evidently a “love match,” something remarkable in the medieval days of arranged marriages (Kosinski xi). Christine spoke of a loving relationship by describing her marriage to Etienne as, “a sweet thing” and her husband as “kind and considerate” on their wedding night (Kosinski xi ).
Christine’s family relied on the charity of Charles V for their livelihood; therefore, his death in 1380 proved detrimental to Christine and her family. The successor to the throne, King Charles VI, was not as generous toward the Pizan family, and both Christine’s father and husband lost most of their pay. Between 1384 and 1389, Thomas de Pizan died leaving little inheritance for his young daughter (Kosinski xi). Christine was left to depend entirely on her husband for financial security. Christine and her husband would have three children together before his death due to a 1389 epidemic (Leon 214).
At the age of 25, Christine was a widow with three small children and her mother to support (Kosinski xii). Christine describes this period of her life as a time when she was “forced to become a man,” as she began to seek out patrons for her writing (Kosinski xii). Although Christine was obviously a brilliant and talented writer, necessity was her true inspiration, as she literally had to write in order to feed her family.
Christine’s first literary endeavors were the highly demanded love poems of the 14th century, as well as devotional texts that emphasized her strong Christian faith (Kosinski xii). However, it is Christine’s literary work The Book of the City of Ladies, that is most intriguing to contemporary readers. Christine was the first woman writer to possess the ability to identify and address the issues of misogyny in the literature of her time, as well as society (Kosinski xii). This characteristic made her a champion of the feminist movement that was yet to come. Although Christine never addressed the issue of “changing the structures of her society” (Kosinski xiii), her ability to identify misogyny during a time when it was a normal aspect of women’s lives, reveals the insight of the young woman.
The beginning scene of The Book of the City of Ladies describes Christine looking at a book by Matheolus:
When I held it open and saw from its title that it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had often heard that like other books it discussed respect for women. (de Pizan 3)
Christine’s belief in intellectual equality is found in the theme of this story with a young lady reading for pleasure. 14th century women were rarely literate. Choosing reading as a pleasurable activity would have been uncommon. What Christine discovers upon reading this text is just the opposite of her expectations. She realizes that Matheolus is not respectful toward women, but just the opposite. His work represents women as “devilish and wicked.” However, she uses her wit to describe her displeasure in the text:
Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. (de Pizan 3)
Christine’s remarks here criticize the subject of Matheolus text, and also his choice in diction. Her comments not only let the reader know that she is displeased with this piece of literature, but that she feels that reading it is neither elevating nor useful. Thus, she insinuates the futility of the work itself.
Christine cleverly goes on to comment on the subject of the character of women by flattering her male contemporaries. She writes:
…it would be impossible that so many famous men–such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed–could have spoken falsely on so many occasions…. (de Pizan 4)
Christine intelligently uses this “sugar coated” method to emphasize the point –- the point that these men were
wrong. Although Christine was obviously outspoken, she knew her limitations. Her work would not be recognized, or even read, if she had openly attacked the male writers. Therefore, she instead chose to build them up the “solemn scholars” before opposing their positions.
Christine’s ironic humility does not stop with the prominent male writers of her time. She addresses God with the same rhetorical question as she asks:
Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. (de Pizan 5)
Again, Christine carefully opposed the male point of view this time using Biblical references. Christine makes an unarguable point– God would not create anything that was not good. Christine goes on to ask God how she could possibly doubt what these “learned men” have written about women when He Himself has said, “…the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence…why shall I not doubt that this is true?” (de Pizan 5). The irony of her question is in the fact that she knows the testimony to be untrue. By asking God for guidance and understanding in the matter, she is revealing that she is a good, moral woman — not the stereotypical “devilish demon.” Christine continues to question God as she asks:
Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a male, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a male is said to be? (de Pizan 5)
As Christine describes men as “perfect,” an ironic overtone is felt. Although Christine was a very devout Christian, her question to God is not one of sincerity. The statement, “Indeed, I maintain that when men are perfect, women will follow their example” (de Pizan 186), is found much later in the text exemplifying Christine’s ability to use men’s own words against them and reveals the depth of her wit and wisdom.
Upon crying out to God for wisdom in these matters, Christine is visited, not by God Himself, but by three women who He has sent to her. The fact that Pizan chose to use these “three women” to bring forth comfort and wisdom is symbolic of the importance of women. She could have had God speak directly to Christine in a masculine voice, like the voice that spoke to Moses and Abraham. However, Pizan uses the three wise and angelic women to strengthen her defense of women.
Another strategy Pizan uses to emphasize the moral strengths of women is by alluding to powerful, mythological women throughout her text. She writes of Thisbe’s love for Pyramus in Ovid’s tale Metamorphoses,of Medeas love for Jason, and of Hero’s love for Leander. She cites these women as examples of faithful and undying love by women, therefore, refuting the statement made by men that, “. . . so few women are faithful in their love lives” (de Pizan 186). By using these women as examples, women who have been immortalized by the writings of men, she again benefits from men,s contradictions. Men were saying how unfaithful and frivolous women were with their hearts, yet they depicted many women throughout literature who, “. . .persevered in their love until death. . .” (de Pizan 188).
Not only did Pizan allude to mythological women who were faithful in love, she also mentions a city governed by powerful queens, “…very noble ladies whom they elected themselves, who governed them will and maintained their dominion with great strength” (de Pizan 11). This example of powerful women portrays them in a masculine role –-as leaders and successful rulers. Pizan uses this example to foreshadow the building of the “City of Ladies” that Christine has been chosen by God to construct. By giving an example of a successful and strong dominion run by women, Pizan makes this idea of a city of women a more believable concept.
Christine de Pizan was an extroidanary woman who has yet to be fully discovered. The wit and wisdom found within The Book of the City of Ladies eclipses some contemporary literature that defends the rights of women. Although Pizan’s writing was done for practical reasons, survival, her work revealed a vision that women are still striving to accomplish today -– equality in all things.
The Selected Writings of Christine De Pizan. Ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski. Trans. By Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.
Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. Introduction. The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan Ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Koninski. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Ltd., 1997. xi – xvi.
Zemon-Davis, Natalie. Foreword The Book of the City of Ladies. By Christine de Pizan. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Pesea Books, 1998. xv-xxii.
Lawson, Sarah. Introduction. The Treasure of the City of Ladies or the Book of the Three Virtues. Trans. Sarah Lawson. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Leon, Vicki, Uppity Women of Medieval Times. New York; MJF Books, 1997.