Was Christine de Pizan a feminist? Considering the word ‘feminist’ evolved more than four hundred years after her lifetime, it is somewhat difficult to measure. However, her outlook on women’s issues is very similar to a mode of feminism that existed at the outset of the movement in the 1890’s. Relational feminists believed that there were “physiological and cultural distinctions between the sexes, and adhered to the concepts of womanly or manly ‘nature,’ and to a sharply defined sexual division of labor in the family and throughout society” (Offen 338). Similarly, Christine did not seek political, economic nor social equality for women, as is demanded by modern feminists, but instead respect for women’s designated roles in her society. She believed that women’s roles were distinct from men’s.
Christine herself, however, lived a life idealized by many modern feminists that was totally contradictory to that of the typical female of her time, as the sole earner and head of the household. She was the first known French (and possibly European) woman to make her living by her pen, which she did to support her family and to create a more positive view of women in late fourteenth and early fifteenth century France. In the following paragraphs, I will explore Christine’s life and works in an attempt to ascertain the extent of her feminist leanings.
Unlike many women of her time, Christine was very well educated. Being an only child no doubt helped. Educated by her father in spite of her mother's objections, Christine was happily married at age 15 to Étienne du Castel, a royal secretary, who encouraged her to continue her studies (Sunshine for Women). Widowed when she was only twenty-five years old, she was forced to support herself, her three children, her mother and her niece – a daunting task indeed for anyone, particularly a woman during that time. Her husband died in an epidemic in 1390, preceded by her father’s death three years earlier, leaving her the head of a household with few assets and no income. Her main priority was to provide for the household and to secure her children’s futures. At this point her role as provider and mother came before all else, even though she had begun to write and circulate her poetry, and may even have been, like her husband, a scribe to the French court.
It was through her poetry that she became acquainted with the earl of Salisbury, who was a patron of literature and who offered “to take her son Jean into his household in England as a companion for his own son” (Willard, Life 42). This was a typical form of aristocratic education in this period. By doing this, “it is likely that she believed that she had thus secured her son’s future because Salisbury enjoyed an especially favored place “ with the then ruler of England, Richard II (Willard, Life 42). She wrote the Moral Teachings and the Moral Proverbs for Jean in an attempt to morally guide him while he lived away from her under the supervision of others:
Son, I have no great treasure
To make you rich, but a measure
Of good advice which you may need;
I give it hoping you’ll take heed.
Later in the same work, she advises him not to believe all the bad things that are said about women and hopes that he will meet one that is “good and sweet” (Willard, Writings 59).
Next, it was time for Christine to secure her daughter’s future. She did not have the money for a dowry, which all girls were required to have, and so was delighted when Marie was accepted into the royal Dominican convent at Poissy (Willard, Life 43). This was a particularly prestigious convent where only well-born children were admitted and then only with the authorization of the King, who provided dowries for a certain number of these young women (Willard, Life 43). Christine wrote The Tale of Poissy to describe a visit she paid to her daughter at the convent. Christine’s third child, who was a boy, died in unknown circumstances. Like most mothers, whether feminists or non-feminists, Christine’s priority was her children’s welfare. She secured their welfare before attempting to secure the welfare of the women of France, which during that time was in need of some attention: women were severely ridiculed in the ‘fabliaux’ (popular anti-feminist stories of the time); wife beating was allowed under canon law; and women were described by the clergy as “the gate of hell” (Power 3).
She began to do this by writing the L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours in 1399, which was a defense of women to counter the courtly love attitudes of the time, which were in many respects, defamatory toward women in Christine’s view. In this work, ladies from all social classes complain to Cupid about their detractors (Richards xxii). Christine presents herself as Cupid’s secretary, who is relating a letter from him, which states that all men who speak falsely about women are banished from his court (Willard, Life 62). Her specific argument focused on the popular works of misogynist writers such as, Ovid, a classical author, whose works remained popular in the Middle Ages, and Jean de Meun, a contemporary of Christine’s. According to Lula McDowell Richardson in The Forerunner of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance, Christine’s argument is surprising:
Her method of attack is rather unexpected, for far from arguing that women are equal in intelligence, culture and education to men, or demanding for them equal privileges educationally or politically, she begins by stating that those who are combining to slander and malign her sex are guilty of base ingratitude.
She goes on to say that women look after men from the cradle to the grave and that men should be grateful for this lifelong care, instead of rudely speaking ill of women (Richardson 16). Christine is clearly propagating what later became an important part of relational feminism by emphasizing the complimentary roles of women and men; far from seeking equality between the sexes, she merely sought acknowledgement and respect for women’s roles as they were constructed at that time.
The clergy and the aristocracy were primarily responsible
for constructing these roles for women. According to Eileen Power’s Medieval
Women, “the expressed opinion of any age depends on the persons and the
classes who happen to articulate it; … in the Middle Ages what passed for
contemporary opinion at that time came from two sources – the Church and the
aristocracy” (1). Whilst women were responsible predominantly for child rearing
and household duties, they also held roles outside the home. Wives of tradesmen
were often trained in their husbands’ trade and continued the business on
his death, and in fact, many women were active in separate trades while their
husbands were still alive. The term ‘femmes soles’ was established for such
women, so that they could be held personally responsible; i.e., her husband
“could not be held responsible for her debts as he otherwise would be” (Power
51). Similarly, noble ladies held responsible positions involving the running
of vast homes with large staffs, and also large family estates in their husbands’
absence. While most of these roles confined women to being helpers of men
(apart from femmes soles), Christine tried to ensure that women earned respect
for these roles instead of being painted with the same brush as the minority
of females who may have been manipulative and frivolous. Here, however, Christine
seems to differ from the relational feminists of the 1890’s, who viewed the
female-male relationship as non-hierarchical (McMillan). Christine wrote in
L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours that, “woman is the ever present aid of
man” (qtd. in Richardson 16).
The clergy and the aristocracy were primarily responsible for constructing these roles for women. According to Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, “the expressed opinion of any age depends on the persons and the classes who happen to articulate it; … in the Middle Ages what passed for contemporary opinion at that time came from two sources – the Church and the aristocracy” (1). Whilst women were responsible predominantly for child rearing and household duties, they also held roles outside the home. Wives of tradesmen were often trained in their husbands’ trade and continued the business on his death, and in fact, many women were active in separate trades while their husbands were still alive. The term ‘femmes soles’ was established for such women, so that they could be held personally responsible; i.e., her husband “could not be held responsible for her debts as he otherwise would be” (Power 51). Similarly, noble ladies held responsible positions involving the running of vast homes with large staffs, and also large family estates in their husbands’ absence. While most of these roles confined women to being helpers of men (apart from femmes soles), Christine tried to ensure that women earned respect for these roles instead of being painted with the same brush as the minority of females who may have been manipulative and frivolous. Here, however, Christine seems to differ from the relational feminists of the 1890’s, who viewed the female-male relationship as non-hierarchical (McMillan). Christine wrote in L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours that, “woman is the ever present aid of man” (qtd. in Richardson 16).
Christine’s next journey on her crusade to end the ridicule and belittlement of women was her involvement in a controversial debate with proponents of the misogynist work Le Roman de la Rose, which developed out of L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours. Written in part by Jean de Meun, and supported by Jean de Montreuil, a royal secretary and humanist, the poem described women as passive objects who are frivolous, weak and manipulative. Christine writes in Epistres du débat sur le Roman de la Rose that if women are so weak and frivolous, then why was it necessary for writers “to have written such lengthy treatises on how to capture a woman’s love (for why should skill and force be necessary to capture something weak and easy to take?” (qtd. in Richardson 19). This debate initiated the three-century long debate on the status of women known as the Querelle des femmes (Sunshine for Women). It was the first time a woman defended her sex at this intellectual level. Christine stood alone in her ability to communicate with the male intellectuals of her time, sometimes using a “pretended modesty and humility,” which enabled her to get through to the previously closed minds of patriarchal fifteenth century French society (Richardson 20). Clearly she had a large task on her hands. Unlike the relational feminists who followed her, who were able to attempt such feats as the dismantling of patriarchal institutions, Christine had to use her wiles merely to achieve respect for women (Offen 332).
She continued her battle for recognition of women’s positive attributes in 1405 with two of her most famous works: The Book of the City of Ladies, and its sequel, The Book of Three Virtues. The Book of the City of Ladies is an impassioned defense of women against misogynistic attacks by men, which uses reason and logic, and includes accounts of famous, important, and historic women (Sunshine for Women). She begins by lamenting that she is a woman, because women are seen to be such vile creatures, but then reason prevails, and Christine sees that it is society and the philosophers, who debate about the rights and wrongs of society, who say women are vile. Such philosophical discussions are of course not foolproof and to illustrate this, Christine’s voice of reason says, “Notice how these same philosophers contradict and criticize one another“ (7).
The Book of the City of Ladies addresses many questions concerning the differences between the sexes which are still controversial today, for example, the lack of, or minority status of, women in the sciences, and the relative differences in body strength between the sexes. Christine ascertains that women’s ignorance of science has nothing to do with natural ability, but instead with the fact that society does not promote women’s education in this field, which results in scientific studies being withheld from them. She says that their natural ability is, in fact, equal to men’s (Willard, Life 139). She refers to the differences in body strength between the sexes as being compensatory in nature, i.e., that women may be physically weaker than men, but they have other attributes that compensate for this. She deduces this by starting out saying that “women have weak bodies, tender and feeble in deeds of strength, and are cowards by nature” (36). But then reason prevails, again in the form of the fictitious Lady Reason, who says that nature compensates for such weaknesses, using Aristotle as an example of a brilliant mind, with a physical deformity of “one eye lower than the other and with a strange face“ (36). Again, it comes across how ahead of her time Christine was, considering these very topics remain contentious to the present day, seven centuries later. The current controversy has the benefit of scientific and sociological research behind it, which show on the one hand that, “men have more fibers in the reasoning areas … which may make them more naturally suited to disciplines such as mathematics and engineering”, but on the other hand that, “biological differences explain general tendencies, not specific social behaviors (Parillo, Stimson, Stimson 227).
Christine spoke about other issues that resonate today: lack of access to education for women, the disappointment women sometimes feel at the birth of a daughter, the accusation that women invite rape, the idea that women can be pretty and enjoy fine clothes without forfeiting their title to chastity, violence in marriage, drunken beatings, and spendthrift husbands (Sunshine for Women). She defended women when no one else dared or even thought of doing so. Such insight and bravery exhibit her strong feminist leanings. However, similarly to the relational feminists, she did not want equality for the sexes and “did not advocate the eligibility of woman for every position commonly held by men” (Richardson 29). She believed women should stick to the roles dictated to them and do them well, unlike today’s feminists who believe women can do anything. But today’s expectations of women can also be daunting – now that a woman can be a CEO and a mother, some women feel almost obliged to do both, which surely drives them beyond exhaustion. Christine’s views are not in line with modern feminist thought, but are very similar to the relational feminism of the 1890’s. To conclude, whilst not being a feminist in the modern sense of the word, Christine de Pizan was certainly one of the forerunners of the movement.
Offen, Karen. “Liberty Equality, and Justice for Women: The Theory and Practice of Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Ed. Renate Bridenthal, Clausia Koonz. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 335 – 62.
Parrillo, Vincent N, John Stimson, and Ardyth Stimson. Contemporary Social Problems. Allyn and Bacon, 1999
Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea, 1982.
Power, Eileen. Medieval Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Richardson, Lula McDowell. The Forerunner of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance Part I From Christine de Pisan to Marie de Gournay. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1927.
Sunshine for Women. Feminist Foremothers 1400 to 1800. 5 March 2001. http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/march99/pizan3.html.
Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan Her Life and Works. New York: Persea. 1984.
Willard, Charity Cannon. The Writings of Christine de Pizan. New York: Persea. 1994.