CHRISTINE DE PIZAN AND HER NOBLE FRIENDS
Lady Isabelle de Foix
Note: My background is in social science (social history), not literature. This is not a discussion of Christine’s works. I can’t tell you why some critics consider her first poems, called ballades, "tentative", for example. Rather, this is about Christine’s life and those who shaped her. Without further ado……
Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1430) was born in Venice. Both her father and her grandfather were graduates of the University of Bologna. They were taught the science of medicine at this, the oldest university in Europe. They were also both active in Venetian politics, both being members of the Venetian government for a time. The family’s name was originally Pizzano, and was spelled either Pizan or Pisan by the French. When she was four or five years old her father was appointed court physician to the King of France and the family moved to Paris. Thus, Christine was exposed to the people and ways of the French royal court from an early age. She never ceased to consider herself French. When she was fifteen she was married to a notary, Master Etienne de Castel, who is believed to have attained the rank of Master of Laws at the University of Paris. This meant that he had spent at least ten years in long, difficult studies at the University. The year of their marriage he was given a court position and his future looked promising. Christine gave birth to three children, and the marriage was very happy—even though it had been arranged by the couple’s parents, not them. Etienne and Christine both loved learning and the company of other intelligent and well-educated people. Then tragedy struck these idyllic lives. Around 1396 Etienne died suddenly during an epidemic while he was attending the King on an official journey. It is believed that the epidemic was one of the returns of the bubonic and pneumonic plagues that had caused the Black Death between 1346 and 1349. Christine was left to fend for herself in a hostile, materialistic society. She had to find a way to support her family, which included her three children and her mother. She was completely unprepared to become a widow. She first went to work as a copyist. It is believed that she had learned the copyists’ art from watching her husband work. By this time the copyist’s occupation was secularized; manuscripts for books were being solicited by the universities and other institutions of learning as well as religious establishments. This was one of the few job markets open to women during this period, and it made perfect sense for a learned woman to work in the book industry.
Some might balk at the reference to Christine de Pizan as a "feminist" because she did not believe in the "equality" of the sexes. For example, she did not believe that women were capable of the practice of law, even though she believed that they could govern states. She did believe that women should have the opportunities to use the talents and capabilities that they had. It is proper to say that she was an advocate of her sex. She put this belief into practice. She solved the problems in her life herself; she did not need a man to "save" her. The one problem in her life that she was unable to solve was almost life-long widowhood, which she clearly found frustrating. But Christine was not the kind of woman to brood over her misfortune. She went on with her life, never asking for pity. She aspired to fame and immortality, as did other writers of her time. A highly intelligent and well-educated woman, Christine was out to use her talents and capabilities to get the things she wanted for herself, her family, and her gender. The rewards were noteworthy; William Caxton, the first English user of the moveable type printing press, translated and published one of her works at the end of the fifteenth century. He called her "the mistress and mirror of intelligence". Others praised her learning, and compared her to Cicero and other noted male writers. Since medieval society held tradition in high esteem and novelty and innovation with hostility and fear, a comparison to the great and talented of the past was the ultimate compliment.
Christine’s first works were "ballades", or poems, and her first patron was the King of France’s brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans. These appeared in 1400, about ten years after Etienne’s death. She had several patrons. These included the Dukes of Burgundy, Brabant, Limburg, and King Charles VI and his Queen, Isabeaux of Bavaria. She was commissioned to write books about deceased royal personages like King Charles V of France, the brother of the Duke of Burgundy. She is perhaps best known as the author of a book called "The Book of the City of Ladies", which was loosely modeled on St. Augustine’s "City of God" and Dante’s "Divine Comedy". This book mentions noteworthy women of the past. But more interesting and informative than this highly allegorical and abstract work is her sequel to this work called "Mirror of Honor: the Treasury of the City of Ladies". In this book we learn much about the daily lives of women in all walks of life, from princesses to prostitutes.
This work is also in the framework of allegory, but some concrete details of daily life come to work in the narrative. It showcases Christine’s tendency to be a practical moralist. The conversation in this book, as in the City of Ladies, is between Christine and the three Virtues represented as ladies, Dame Reason, Dame Rectitude, and Dame Justice. They want Christine to continue in their service; therefore she must pick up her pen again. They refer to her as Christine; name using like this was almost unheard of in medieval literature. More common was Margery Kempe’s reference to herself as "this creature", never "Margery". Christine early on asserted herself as a woman writer. The use of the word "mirror" in the title is noteworthy. The symbolism of the mirror meant that a person should be able to see himself or herself in it. Thus a princess should have been able to see herself while reading about proper behavior for a lady of her station, as well as the wives of merchants and artisans. Christine was a very religious woman, as were many other people in late medieval society. Thus, the first piece of advice she gave women was to observe their religious duties. She also condemns certain vices, which she believed gave woman a bad name, the tools that male moralists used to describe women as inherently evil. These were extravagance, envy, indolence, and upward social class mobility. Christine was very politically and socially conservative. She, like most people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, looked on the authority of her time as God-ordained. This authority was based on the social and political organization of medieval France, the feudal system of manor and serf, of the vassal swearing fealty to his lord. The power of the merchants and others of the middle class was starting to be a threat to the power of the monarchy and the aristocracy, causing these traditional authorities considerable anxiety. The economy was changing from one based on land as worth to one based on money, giving those who could make huge fortunes—the merchants—power. This made royalty and aristocrats feel threatened, and they protected their positions by emphasizing their peculiarities, such as titles, rank, and sumptuary laws regarding spending limits for members of untitled subjects. The nobility maintained their tax-exempt status as members of the First Estate; the Second Estate, the clergy, was likewise tax-exempt and politically powerful as well. It was everyone else—the Third Estate, which included the middle class—who paid all of the taxes and had no political power, but already it was causing much anxiety among her royal and aristocratic patrons. Parisian merchants had been greatly angered over the heavy taxation to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, particularly after devastating French defeats at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). By 1400 France had become an economic desert, causing much suffering among the people. Royalty and aristocracy, of course, were Christine’s patrons. As much as she criticized immorality and frivolousness at royal and aristocratic courts she never questioned the institutionalization of the differing roles and perceived worth of people in feudal society. Even though she herself was a member of the Third Estate, Christine’s world was feudal to the core, and she disapproved of anything that would alter it.
When one reads "Mirror of Honor", some preconceived notions about medieval society get thrown to the four winds. Contrary to popular belief, the late medieval princess or lady of rank did not exactly live a leisured life. For these women, their power carried onerous responsibilities. They started their day at dawn getting dressed, after which they attended mass. Getting up early was important; the household needed to be run from sunrise to sunset. The lady boss might have to go to the fields to make sure the workers weren’t sleeping on the job, or she might have field supervisors that had to report to her. She then might consult with ministers of state all morning, and then preside over a noontime feast. The guests were served different dishes according to their rank. The hostess was obliged to speak to all of her guests, asking them if she could be of any assistance to them and delivering on her promises. After this she had to attend to her financial books, a matter of no small importance. Medieval women of this estate had to maintain five types of expense accounts: gifts to the poor, financing her household, paying her officers and court ladies, gifts to strangers or to her subjects "who evidence particular merit", such as artists, writers, scientists; generosity was a virtue. It is interesting that the expense account Christine mentions fifth is the lady’s own expense account for fine gowns and all of her other apparel as well as jewels.
After this, the lady paid a visit to the nursery. Even though she had servants to help her with the children, she had to guide their education and make sure they were trained for their futures as noblemen and noblewomen in their own right. She had to take interest in those less fortunate than she, so she might visit a hospital, institutions that mainly took in poor sick people; the prosperous were cared for in their homes. Back at the palace, there was supervision of the preparation of the evening meal. Maintaining good relationships with the merchants was crucial, so she had to be present at all transactions with merchants who sold spices and other imported delicacies. She tasted all of the wine and beer being made by the vintners. By this time sunset beckoned and the lady made haste to vespers mass.
Nonetheless these ladies didn’t lack for time for leisure activities. They went to hunt in the chase; they sailed on boats, they danced, they sang. The high-born lady might also have entertainment at the evening meal from singers, dancers, jugglers, and other performers.
Reading this book, one gets some wind of Christine’s taste in clothes. She abhorred extravagance, and firmly supported sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws, in the Middle Ages, defined what members of various classes were allowed to own and what they were not. Only certain classes were allowed to wear jewels, expensive fabrics like silk or fine linen, and own certain luxury items. Christine believed that extravagance potentially caused impoverishment, set a bad example for children, and was generally pretentious. "Nothing is more ridiculous than to see a woman pretending to have great, exaggerated status," she says in "The Mirror of Honor". She describes a "simple" lady who placed an order with a Parisian dressmaker for a gown. The lady had purchased five ells (in Paris, an ell was the distance between the extended middle finger and the elbow) of brocade from Brussels which was "shot" with gold thread. In fact, this sort of material was known in Paris as "Brussels material". Modern writers on period garb call it "shot silk". The gown made out of this by the Parisian dressmaker had bombard sleeves, sleeves that swept on the ground. This was some of the most exaggerated garb ever worn in the Middle Ages, and Christine thoroughly despised it. She also disapproved of the high "horned" hats, which were in fashion at the time. Already, fashionable Parisians changed their fashions every year. Most other Europeans did not. Christine much preferred the more restrained fashions of her native Italy.
A story in "Mirror of Honor" illustrates Christine’s basic conservatism. A scandal erupted in Paris, over, of all things, the birth of a child. It was the custom at the time for women to go to the home of a woman who was giving birth to a baby. This was called a "lying-in". Before entering her room, Christine and the other guests walked through two splendid chambers, which contained furnishings covered with silver vessels. Then the women entered the room itself. The room was full of tapestries of red and gold portraying her family’s coat of arms. The gold thread used for the embroidery had been imported from Cyprus. The women’s sheets were made out of very expensive fabric—toile. Over this there was linen as fine as silk, "all in one piece without seams", a recent invention. It was very expensive. The woman was sitting up, leaning on a pillow made out of the same material and covered with pearls. Christine was shocked. This was not the socially accepted lifestyle for those without titles. The lying-in was the talk of Paris. If they’d had newspapers it probably would have made the front pages. The controversy was even discussed in the Queen’s chamber. The Queen, Isabeaux of Bavaria, was not a person any sensible person wanted to make jealous, for reasons we will later discuss. What was the answer to the problem of the breaking of the sumptuary laws? Simple—higher taxes or maybe even a few confiscations! Heck, this wasn’t even good business!
Christine finished the book in February of 1406 and was paid for it by the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless. She dedicated the book to his daughter, Marguerite. It is unclear if Marguerite’s parents, John and his Duchess, Marguerite of Burgundy had commissioned the book. . It could have been commissioned by her grandfather, Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy who died in 1404. A theory that it was originally intended for the Queen is discussed below. Marguerite had quite a turbulent life, since she was a pawn in political disputes between England, France and powerful Burgundy during the Hundred Years’ War. Because of Burgundy’s position in the eastern part of France, it was spared the damage inflicted by the Hundred Years War on most of the country. Their Dukes, brothers of the Kings of France, rivaled them in power and far surpassed them in wealth. Marguerite was born in 1393, and she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne at the age of eleven months. She was presumably in line to become Queen of France; this would give Burgundy even more clout at the French court. Before she had left the nursery she was even being called "Madame la Dauphine".
Unfortunately for these plans, Marguerite’s fiancé died in 1401. She was then betrothed to the Dauphin’s younger brother Louis of Guyenne, and then sent to live at the French court. A French chronicler claimed that the marriage was not consummated until 1409. The French court, such as it was, was not a good place for a young princess to grow up in. The King, Charles VI, was insane and little more than a figurehead. The Queen, Isabella of Bavaria (commonly called Isabeau or Isabeaux—what the heck, standardized spelling isn’t period), was a frivolous, vain, and extravagant woman. There is no doubt that many of Christine’s unflattering comments about extravagant and lazy women in high places were veiled criticisms of the Queen. She was unfaithful to her husband, having an affair with her brother-in-law, the King’s brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans. The Queen had secured the banishment from Court of Louis’ wife, the Duchess of Orleans.
Duke John of Burgundy came to the French court in 1405, supposedly to swear fealty to the French Crown for the county of Flanders. Actually, he and Louis of Orleans were at each other’s throats, trying to dominate French politics. They had serious disagreements over how to handle the Hundred Years’ War and the French government’s relationship with the chaos-plagued papacy. The Duke of Burgundy came at the head of a good-sized army. Louis found out about the Duke’s army and left the court, taking the Queen with him. Together they went to a hunting lodge on the Seine near Paris. Louis and Isabeaux forcibly took the Duke and Duchess of Guyenne—Louis and Marguerite—with them on their way to a royal hunting lodge a few miles north of Paris. Marguerite’s father, heading toward Paris, caught the young couple traveling to the lodge and sent them back to Paris. He was not going to let Marguerite associate with his most bitter political enemy. In Paris, the Duke and Duchess of Guyenne took refuge in the royal palace, the Louvre. The tension between the two dukes continued even after the dissolution of the armies in late 1405. It only ended with the assassination of Louis of Orleans in 1407 by partisans of the Duke of Burgundy.
There is no doubt that Marguerite used Christine’s book. She was facing a life full of danger, and she needed guidance and support for her personal and public life. When she was eighteen, Louis of Guyenne died. She now had no chance of becoming Queen of France, and she moved back to Burgundy. Her father was assassinated in 1419 and her brother, Philip the Good, became Duke of Burgundy. He arranged a marriage between Marguerite and Arthur, the younger brother of the Duke of Brittany, who was being held as a prisoner in England, even though there was a considerable social gap between Marguerite, a princess by birth and a former Dauphine, and Arthur, a count. According to some accounts, Marguerite was none too pleased at this social mismatch, but she at last agreed to do it to further the political agenda of Burgundy. She also already knew him from the French court, and she became a valuable supporter and partner to him. Her first act as his fiancée was to refuse to marry him unless he was released from captivity. This facilitated his release; he returned to Brittany and the couple was married in 1423. They lived on an estate called Richmont, in the Chateau de Chinon. For a short time Marguerite’s husband fell from favor at the court of Charles VII, who offered Marguerite protection provided she would renounce her husband. Marguerite would do no such thing. Instead, she escaped from the chateau and joined her husband at another estate on the Loire. She supervised his estate while he was away at war fighting England for France in the war. The couple returned to Paris after the city was liberated from English control in 1436. She lived there until her death ten years later. By continuing to live in Paris, she eased tensions between Burgundy and the French court. No doubt she had learned much from Christine’s book. The titles of the chapters devoted to proper behavior for a princess had names like "Which speaks of Prudence’s fourth teaching: How the princess will maintain a discreet manner even toward those whom she well knows do not like her and are jealous of her" and "Which speaks of Prudence’s second teaching: the way in which the princess will conduct herself toward her lord’s relatives". Clearly Marguerite had had her hands full at the French court, during her widow’s years in Burgundy, and then her time at the chateaux of Arthur. She was advised to show courtesy and respect to them at all times. She could not afford to make enemies in social situations; politics took care of this peril.
Who was Queen Isabeaux, and why did she bring such a wretched reputation on herself? She was born Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, the ruling house of the Duchy of Bavaria, around 1371. A German marriage to the Dauphin Charles was needed for political reasons as Bohemia had gained the alliance of England by royal marriage. After all, royalty couldn’t marry for love or affection in the Middle Ages. They married for politics only. Thus Elizabeth married King Charles. This couple was married in 1385, five years after Charles became King. In 1388 Charles took power and ruled well for four years. Then, in 1392, he suffered his first bout of "insanity". He couldn’t recognize Isabeaux and asked the strange woman to stop bothering him. No one could stand him, so they ignored him. How would you like to be married to a man who refused to change clothes for five days, and resisted a bath until subjected to one by the force of a dozen strong men? The King of France wondered about his palace vermin-infested. Isabeaux was never asked if she wanted to marry this man; she was told to, and did. The highborn consort was expected to be obedient, chaste, sweet-tempered, pious, and kind.
In July of 1405 an incident took place which sealed Isabeaux’s reputation. Isabeaux and Louis were out hunting near the hunting lodge. Suddenly a violent thunderstorm broke out, and the couple took refuge in Isabeaux’s coach. The horses madly dashed towards the Seine, and only stopped under the control of the coachman. Meanwhile the castle where the dauphin, Marguerite’s husband, was staying was struck by lightning. The exact date—July 12—of this event is known because of its notoriety. It was looked on as an omen. It was a sign to Louis and Isabeaux to stop their recklessly extravagant expenditures, which were a strain on the Treasury and a burden on the Third Estate’s taxpayers. Isabeaux’ reputation was shot; prior to the event, Isabeaux was quite popular. In 1402 she had been granted power to rule in her insane husband’s absence from affairs of state, which had required a fair amount of trust in Isabeaux from the King’s counselors. . There is a theory that Christine meant to dedicate "Mirror of Honor" to Isabeaux, but changed her mind after this incident occurred. Of course, this is inconsistent with the notion that the book had been commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy for Marguerite. But as we have seen this commission is not clear, either. However, it is worth noting that Christine never gave a copy of the book to Isabeaux. The French court was on shaky ground as it came under threat by a strong claimant, Henry V of England, especially after the disastrous Battle of Agincourt (1415). The Duke of Burgundy sided with the English so as to weaken the French Crown even further. To appease the English victors, Charles V claimed that the Dauphin was not his son and disowned him in favor of Henry V of England. Considering his wife’s lifestyle, that was no surprise. After being publicly exposed as an adulteress, how could she insist that Charles had to be her son? This agreement was called the Treaty of Troyes and was signed in 1420. Isabeaux’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, was married to Henry V as part of this treaty. Isabeaux loved expensive dresses and jewels; she was only too happy to accept money to indulge her lavish tastes. While the French didn’t care to give Isabeaux too much room in their history books, they rounded up enough information to make her look like the Queen of Vice, and a perfect example of why misogyny was perfectly acceptable to all self-respecting men. The whole matter became moot when Henry V died in 1422, leaving the nine-month old Henry VI as his heir to the throne of England. Charles was able to secure the throne of France; Henry VI was completely unfit for kingship as he hated politics and wars. He had no desire to press for his rights to the French throne.
What of Christine herself besides writing the book for Marguerite? It is unclear when she became involved in a controversy over a popular poem finished in 1305 called "Le Roman de la Rose", a Middle French poem written by two French poets. The first part of the poem, written by one poet before 1225, deals with a dream allegory on the theme of courtly love. The poet, Guillaume de Lorris, (William of Loire; he was from a town on the Loire River) died before he could finish the poem; it was completed by another poet with a completely different mindset. This poet, Jean de Meung, had a style that has been called coarse and satirical. He started work on the poem in 1280 or so and finished it sometime before his death in 1305. He attacked corruption in the church and also attacked women in blatant examples of misogyny. The poem attained a high esteem in late medieval society, which was the main reason Christine felt obliged to criticize the poem. She was, after all, a great respecter of tradition and authority, and the poem had taken on the form of an authority. The poem became known as "La Rose". In fact, it had such a strong influence on French culture that its influence continues to this day. "Un roman a l’eau de rose", which literally means "romance of rose water" actually refers to a romantic novel.
Christine accused Meung of using vulgar language in the Rose. She particularly objected to a graphic narrative of the castration of Saturn by Jupiter by a character de Meung calls "Dame Reason". Christine also has a "Dame Reason" in "The City of Ladies". In this book, she has one of her allegorical characters, Dame Reason, denounce the morality of telling this story, which she considered revoltingly vulgar. The characters in "The City of Ladies", Dame Reason, Dame Justice, and Dame Rectitude, helped her construct a Field of Letters as a refuge from misogyny. When de Meung’s defenders claimed that it was entirely appropriate for certain characters in the text to be vulgar and to be misogynist, Christine responded that the words spoken by these characters did not suit them. What, Dame Reason telling such a vulgar story? There are also pretty thinly veiled references to sexual intercourse in the Rose. Of such a chaotic mixture of religious sentiment and the desire for self-respect was the quest for the dignity of women as human beings born in the late Middle Ages.
Christine also hated the whole idea of courtly love on similarly prudish grounds. Courtly love broke the rules of a pillar of medieval society, the Church, often glorifying extramarital sex in its emphasis on the glorification of affairs between married aristocratic ladies and unmarried men despairing of ever finding true love because the ladies were married for political reasons. Divorce as we know it today did not exist. If you were Eleanor of Aquitaine you could petition the Pope for an annulment, but how many medieval women were queens with enough clout to negotiate marital politics with the Pope? Christine considered the theme of courtly love to be a threat to the virtue of chastity. Many modern writers consider this attitude too puritanical, but one must remember that Christine had no exposure to anything "romantic" in her observations of life at royal and aristocratic courts. It is easy to over-romanticize life at medieval courts. They were supposedly where courtesy reigned—in fact, the word "court", originally a Middle French word, is where the word "courtesy" itself comes from. It was an ideal that more often practiced in the breach than the proper. Christine saw too little "courtesy" at these courts. She saw much more of the bare, naked ugliness of late medieval politics and the corruption that, in fact, ruled these courts. She had her first bad experience at the court of Louis of Orleans. Louis’ Duchess was from Milan and her learning was impressive. Christine had gone there to try to get her son a court position, but nothing came of her request. She was chagrined to find frivolous entertainments more popular at court than serious artistic endeavors; perhaps she was too serious. Of course, she was fully aware of Louis’ scandalous relationship with his sister-in-law, the Queen, and she was bitterly disappointed when the Queen spitefully got the Duchess banned from the royal court. Christine grew disillusioned with life at the Orleans court and she accepted an invitation from the Duke of Burgundy to become his court writer. It was at this time she wrote "City of Ladies" and "Mirror of Honor". As a member of the middle class, she was never the aristocratic lady being honored by the practitioners of courtly love. She was distressed over the assassination of Louis of Orleans. In 1410 she wrote a book called "Lamentations on the Civil War". Then she wrote a book called "The Book of Feats of Arms and Chivalry", which was the work later translated and printed by William Caxton on his printing press. Christine may have used the terms "chivalry", but she was about as romantic as a rock about its practice. To her, it meant combat on horseback, and nothing more. This book contained protests against particularly ugly consequences of wars, and no mention of honor or courtesy. This included a complaint about the common practice of running through a peasant’s field during a battle and destroying a solid year of crops, often causing the peasants to starve to death. Christine asked why the peasants had to put up with this; she never got an answer. She cites the capture of an English student at the University of Paris by French troops as another injustice caused by war. She pointed out that this student had devoted his life to learning and had no interest in politics. In 1415 France suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Agincourt. Disgusted with life at courts, Christine retired to a convent. She was encouraged by the early successes of Joan of Arc against the English, and wrote a "Hymn to Joan of Arc" in 1429. She died soon after she wrote this, probably still in a convent.
While Christine de Pizan did not try to prove women to be men’s equals, and consequently did not, she was determined to show that women could do something else besides have babies. She wrote on the duties of women rulers to show that they could be entrusted with power; she wrote with learning to show that women could indeed learn and utilize what they learned, and she wrote for money to prove that they too could earn livings. In succeeding in just about every endeavor she undertook, she broke a great deal of ground for women’s opportunities for her posterity. We are all in her debt.
Pizan, Christine de, "Mirror of Honor", completed in 1406. Translated by Charity Cannon Willard, and edited by Madeline Pelner Cosman. Bard Hall Press and Persea Books, New York, 1989.
Pizan, Christine de, "Writings of Christine de Pizan", edited by Charity Cannon Willard, Persea Books, New York, 1994
Quilligan, Maureen, The Allegory of Female Authority: Christine de Pizan’s "Cite des Dames (City of Ladies)", Cornell University Press, 1991
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, "Christine de Pizan’s Well-Tempered Feminism", introduction to Christine’s "Mirror of Honor", Bard Hall Press and Persea Books, New York, 1989.
Willard, Charity Cannon, "Christine de Pizan’s Advice to Women", introduction to Christine’s "Mirror of Honor", Bard Hall Press and Persea Books, New York, 1989
Labarge, Margaret Wade, A Small Sound of the Trumpet, Women in Medieval Life,
Beacon Press, Boston, 1986