Christine de Pizan (1364- c. 1430)
Art by April Babcock (tumblr)
Christine de Pizan is one of the best known writers of the medieval period, yet if not for circumstances beyond her control she might never have picked up a pen. The daughter of an Italian scientist at the court of Charles V of France, Christine was given a classical education before her marriage at the age of fifteen to a royal secretary named Etienne du Castel. When she was 25, her beloved husband died in an epidemic. As her father had already passed away, Christine found herself responsible for the care of not only herself and her two children, but also her mother and an orphaned niece.
Christine began writing love ballads that caught the attention of wealthy patrons who enjoyed both her poetry and the novelty of a female writer. Christine wrote hundreds of poems, many on commission for specific nobles, and this work allowed her to support her family and clear the debts left after her husband’s death.
Christine’s most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), is an impassioned defense of women. It challenged misogyny by creating a symbolic city of righteous women. The women profiled include historical figures such as Zenobia and Sappho, pagan goddesses such as Isis and Minerva, women from the Hebrew Bible such as Deborah and the unnamed Woman of Valor (Proverbs 31), and Christian saints such as the Virgin Mary and St. Lucy. Christine’s book was a testimony to the accomplishments of women and argued for wider access to education for women.
While The Book of the City of Ladies is primarily about female achievement, Christine also included an anti-rape message. As a character in the book, Christine says “I am therefore troubled and grieved when men argue that many women want to be raped and that it does not bother them at all to be raped by men even when they verbally protest…” Lady Rectitude, one of Christine’s guides in The Book of the City of Ladies, responds “Rest assured, dear friend, chaste ladies who live honestly take absolutely no pleasure in being raped. Indeed, rape is the greatest possible sorrow for them. Many upright women have demonstrated that this is true with their own credible examples…”
In 1418, Christine retired to a convent in Poissy. At the convent she wrote one final poem which she dedicated to Joan of Arc. It is the only known French language work about Joan of Arc written during Joan’s lifetime.