14th Century Art

Christine de Pizan was unusual in many ways for a fourteenth century woman. Not only was she a forerunner of the feminist movement, but she was also a prolific writer. Between the years 1399 and 1431, she penned a of works, belonging to such diverse genres as courtesy books, biographies, psalms, poems and verse. She was revolutionary for her time, as she was the first known woman to have definitely earned her living by her pen (Marie de France, who lived approximately 250 years before Christine is also alleged to been paid for her story telling, but not much is known about her).  In this paper, I shall demonstrate just how pioneering she was, focusing particularly on her writing, including her introduction of a neoligism into the vernacular. I will begin by including some background on her work and the influence it has yielded.
Diverse Genres
Revolutionary Writing
Her writings vary substantially from one work to the next. Much of her work is focused on the defense of women and demands for respect for their roles in the society, for example, L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours and Epistres du Debat su le Roman de la Rose. She also wrote many verses with love as their main theme, including Le Debat Deux Amants, Le Livre du Duc des Vrais Amants and Le Livre des Trois Jugemens. Her most famous works are Le Livre de la Cité des Dames and Livre de Trois Vertus, which were both published in 1405. The former is another example of her defense of women, and the latter is a courtesy book, classifying women’s roles in the society.
Literary Influence
Christine’s literary influence has been immense: “many influential women of the next generation owned and read copies of de Pizan's work including Marguerite of Austria and Mary of Hungary, two future governors of the Netherlands of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; Louise of Savoy, regent of France during the minority of Francis I; Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France, and Queen Leorna of Portugal” (Sunshine for Women). Christine would have been delighted to know of this as her idea was to spread her message through noble ladies in the hope that they would in turn spread the message to all women:

"And to this end I thought that I would multiply this work in various copies throughout the world … so that it can be presented in various places to queens, princesses, and noble ladies … that through their efforts it may be circulated among other women" (qtd. in Willard 211).

Further proof of her influence is that Anne of France wrote Enseignements à sa fille Suzanne de Bourbon for her daughter in 1505, which was heavily influenced by Christine’s Livre des trois vertus. Her daughter, recognizing the worth of her mother’s book for other women, had it published in 1521 (Bornstein 71). Today, “Christine is ... regarded as one of the major figures of late medieval French literature” (Huot 89).It is no great surprise that her writing is so influential. It was revolutionary in many regards. She wrote in the vernacular, French, when all around her, her male contemporaries, were writing in Latin, which was the language of the aristocratic intellectuals. Christine herself had Latin withheld from her education by her father: he provided her with “learning in the vernacular, i.e., the mother language, while withholding a full clerkly formation in Latin, i.e., the father language” (Brownlee 368). This may have resulted in her feeling as if a door had been shut in her face, which she wanted to open for others. Perhaps she could foresee a future when all citizens would be able to read, which they would naturally do in the vernacular, and therefore potentially have access to her books. To this end, the Livre des trois Vertus contains sections for bourgeois and peasant women along with one for ladies.
Language
Use of Invective
Christine was also a pioneer in her use of particular types of language, particularly invective. According to the lexicographer Littre, she is the first to make use of the word ‘invective’ and “is considered the trailblazer who introduced the neologism into the vernacular” (Solterer). Invective is defined as ‘abusive language’; Solterer describes Christine’s version as “verbal violence”. She used this verbal violence effusively in her many letters on the debate over the Romance of the Rose (Epistres du Debat su le Roman de la Rose). Christine claimed that the language of the Rose was misogynist and violent toward women, and so in response, she bravely donned her invective hat: she suggested the Roman de la Rose “would better be engulfed in fire than crowned with the laurel” (qtd. in Solterer). Gontier Col, a royal secretary and one of her adversaries in the debate, complained, "again you have written in the style of invective against what my master, teacher and kinsman, Master Jean de Meun has done and compiled in the book of the Rose" (qtd. in Solterer). She basically had no problem getting into the grittiness of the game that had been initiated by her male adversaries; if the game happened to be dirty, then she would get dirty with the boys. As Solterer writes, “Christine fights words with more fiery words.

”Later, in Livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V, a biography of King Charles V of France, she uses invective again:To all nobles and lovers of wisdom as well, I address to them my new invective in which I hope to treat the virtues and properties of nobility, chivalry, and wisdom, what follows from them, and what good comes from them (qtd. in Solterer). Here she is using invective in a positive way, but with the intention of agitating all “nobles and lovers of wisdom,” whom she sees as, in fact, not being virtuous and wise. According to Solterer, she was passing “blame ... by way of its opposite number – praise.” Christine’s autobiography, L’Avision Christine, is yet another example of a text in which she uses invective liberally: “L’Avision Christine inaugurated the nationalistic persona of France who attacked with the scorching terms of invective” (Solterer).     

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames has yet more examples of Christine’s verbal violence. In the final passage of the work she writes speaks to her readers didactically making liberal use of aggressive language towards their detractors. She refers to them as women’s “enemies and assailants” and encourages her readers not to misuse the empowerment she bequeathes them, “like the arrogant who turn proud when their prosperity grows and their wealth multiplies” (Pizan 254). She could be referring here to prosperity and wealth of power, ie., held by men, who because they have all the power in society, have become arrogant and proud, thinking they alone are the virtuous ones. Later in the passage she warns the ladies to beware of “the snares of evil men” (Pizan 256). She uses abusive language selectively, insunuating that not all men are evil, but merely to beware of the ones that are (Pizan 256).

A Female Perspective
Her writing also broke new ground in that it was the first time works were written by a woman and therefore, women’s lives in the Middle Ages from a woman’s perspective were finally being given a hearing. Prior to Christine’s works, many books had been written about women, but none by women. The Livre des trois vertus is a courtesy book, detailing various classifications of women’s roles. The only other courtesy book written in the Middle Ages was Reggimento e costumi di donna, which was written by Francesco Barberino. Although both books are similar in that they both address women from all classes, Barberino stresses women’s familial and domestic roles (Bornstein 120). Christine, on the other hand, writes about what the roles actually were as opposed to what patriarchal society wished them to be: she “provides an accurate picture of the full range of women’s responsibilities within the familial, social, political, and economic spheres” (Bornstein 121). And according to Sylvia Huot’s article in Modern Philology, Christine uses literature to best define women’s social conditions in the Middle Ages (90).
The Book of the Three Virtues
The Livre des trois Vertus is didactic in style and is written as sets of instructions to the various classes of ladies on how to behave in their respective roles. According to Charity Canon Willard in Christine de Pizan Her Life and Works, “most of the book is devoted to constructive suggestions for improving the quality of [women’s] lives, illustrated by accounts of women who have been able to deal successfully with the demands made on them by society” (148-9). So, not only is her intention to document women’s lives, but also to improve them presumably in an effort to sustain her arguments of women’s value in society. She instructs the noble lady to be kind to the people who live on her land:

This noble lady will not be above calling sometimes on women in childbed, both the rich and the poor. She will give alms to the poor and honor the rich. She will sponsor the christening of their children and, in short, will show herself so charitable and so kind in all things and so humane toward her subjects that they will speak only good of her, praying for her and holding her in great affection (qtd. in Willard 149).

She clearly does not see their role ending there. She also instructs them to guard their estates while their husbands are away:

We have also said that she should have a man’s heart, which means that she should know the laws of warfare and all things pertaining to them so that she will be prepared to command her men if there is need of it, knowing how to assault and defend, if the situation requires it … She should try out her defenders and ascertain the quality of their courage and determination before putting too much trust in them, to see what strength and help she can count on in case of need; she should make sure of this and not put her trust in vain or feeble promises. She must give special attention to what resources she would have until her husband could get there… (qtd. in Willard 149).

So, it would seem women were responsible for much more than familial and domestic roles as written by Barberino. Christine’s writing then must have come as a breath of fresh air to her readers, who could finally read about what was actually happening in their lives.
Conclusion
  To conclude, Christine’s writing was indeed revolutionary. Her standpoint as a woman, her use of the vernacular and her pioneering use of the invective are all evidence of this. Her huge influence on literature is further supports this. That one woman could achieve so much in a society where she was a second-class citizen was an overwhelming feat. 
Works Cited

Bornstein, Diane. The Lady in the Tower Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women. Hamden: Archon Books, 1983

Brownlee, Kevin. “Literary genealogy and the problem of the father: Christine de Pizan and Dante.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies Fall. 1993: 365 – 387.

Huot, Sylvia. Rev. of Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan, by Earl Jeffrey Richards, Joan Willamson, Nadia Margolis and Christine Reno. Modern Philology August. 1994: 89 – 93.

Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea. 1982.

Solterer, Helen. “Flaming words: verbal violence and gender in premodern Paris.” The Romanic Review March. 1995: v86

Sunshine for Women. Feminist Foremothers 1400 to 1800. 12 April 2001. http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/march99/pizan3.html.

Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea. 1984.

It is no great surprise that her writing is so influential. It was revolutionary in many regards. She wrote in the vernacular, French, when all around her, her male contemporaries, were writing in Latin, which was the language of the aristocratic intellectuals. Christine herself had Latin withheld from her education by her father: he provided her with “learning in the vernacular, i.e., the mother language, while withholding a full clerkly formation in Latin, i.e., the father language” (Brownlee 368). This may have resulted in her feeling as if a door had been shut in her face, which she wanted to open for others. Perhaps she could foresee a future when all citizens would be able to read, which they would naturally do in the vernacular, and therefore potentially have access to her books. To this end, the Livre des trois Vertus contains sections for bourgeois and peasant women along with one for ladies.

 

Source for Modified Image: http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~kstaples/gallery.html

Christine Offering Her Book to the Queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria. Christine de Pizan, British Museum, MS Harley 4431, f.-- c. 1411

Anne of France presented by Saint John the Evangelist

Click on image to go to Excerpt from Romance of the Rose

 

 

France in the 13th Century

Click on the image to go to an Excerpt from The Book of the city of Ladies