Christine de Pizan, the first person to write while female (as told by my ninth-grade self)

I promised months ago in my post on Caterina Sforza that I would talk about Christine de Pizan, the medieval figure I chose to be for Medieval Day in the ninth grade. In looking back at my previous research, I found my actual research paper I turned in as part of the assignment. I was actually pretty impressed by it so I thought I would post that original paper below and add in some additional facts I’ve come to know about Christine since then, as well as some commentary on the moments I am not quite as proud of. The original text, unaltered in any way) is black and my notes will show up in coral. Enjoy.

Giant Strides on the Road to Equal Rights (a little heavy handed I admit)

By Elena Burnett (from 2011)

Women have shaped history for centuries in different ways. Some by their ruling, some by their courage and strength and some by their simple everyday actions. This has contributed to the long road to women’s rights and equality. In the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century, another woman added giant strides to this road through her writing. Christine de Pizan was a poet, essayist, historian, writer of the first full-length feminist book and the first woman to make her living as a writer. Throughout her different writings and points of view discussed in her two most famous works, Christine de Pizan broke through the boundaries of a male-shaped world and speaks out for women. (That, my dear friends, is what we call a thesis statement written by a person who hates thesis statements, or, as I like to call them, spoiler alerts.)

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Christine de Pizan was born in Italy in 1365. When she was three, her father, Tommas di Benvenutoda da Pizzano, was hired as an advisor and counselor to Charles V and so she grew up in Paris close to the court. Christine had an advanced education, unusual for her gender and for the time period. She wrote later that she didn’t appreciate it until misfortune forced her to use it. When she was fifteen, she married Etinne du Castel, a twenty-four year old scholar of noble birth. Even though this was an arranged marriage, both Christine and Etinne were happy together. Etinne was incredibly supportive of Christine’s studies and encouraged her to continue refining her already apparent talent. So he was pretty awesome.

After the king died, Christine’s father was removed from his position and died soon afterward. Then, in 1389, her husband passed away. At the age of twenty-five she was left a widow with a mother, two brothers, and three children to support on her own. She was so distraught, she frequently wished for her own death to set her free from the financial and emotional burden she now found herself in.

Christine began using her skills in penmanship to work as a scribe and copyist. She became fascinated with the process and eventually decided to become a writer herself. She began to write love ballads and poetry to Etinne, mourning his absence, which she sent to potential court patrons. They responded by sending money for her writing and began to commission works of both poetry and prose from her. From these projects and funds, Christine was able to work her way out of her family’s debt and became the first woman paid for her writing. In doing so, she rebuked the custom for widows to remarry for financial stability. 

Scholars have identified at least fifty-five manuscripts written partly or fully by her. Many of her manuscripts were altered by men and republished over time. They changed the pronouns from feminine to masculine, and deleted all of Christine’s invocations to goddesses. Recently, historians have been able to identify many of these as Christine’s writing.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

She first penned the official biography of Charles V. She also produced love lyrics, history and allegory, and even completed a manual on military strategy (which I’ll discuss more below). She was proud of her work and included an image of herself in her study in most of her own books. She was aware that by becoming a scholar and a writer, she had entered and intruded into the male world.

One of her first books was called “The Tale of the Rose.” Its purpose was to condemn the popular book “Romance of the Rose” by Jean de Meun, who argued that women were not only worth next to nothing, but that they were also seducers bent on destruction. To debate the slander of the book, Christine invented the word “invective,” meaning “abusive language,” to describe the misogyny and vulgarity of the book. She also said that the text “would be better engulfed by fire than crowned with laurel,” which, of course, could be considered invective as well but we’re gonna give her a freebie. This debate sparked the first documented literary quarrel in history.

History has carried two overall meanings: the actual occurrence of an event and its recording. (no idea what I meant by that) In her second book, the first full-length feminist book, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” Christine showed that the occurrence of history and the recording of history (ah) have both been given from the perspective of men and that, in her opinion, they have mishandled both. Public events, legislation, war and government have been controlled by men. She also speaks of men tainting history with their misogynist writing (check out my post on Cleopatra for more on that). Christine suggests that women are better suited to control the government and rule because they are much more peaceful than men. In “The Book of the City of Ladies,” Christine also talked about the roles of women in society and their power relative to men. The most powerful women in Christine’s world were most often widows—married women were subject to their husbands, unmarried women to their fathers and brothers. Christine told of three “saints” coming to speak with her as she writes. These three saints are Lady Reason, Justice, and Rectitude. (Because she based her arguments in Christian virtue and morality, her writing, though heavily critical of the ruling patriarchy, was well received)  Posing as an innocent inquirer, Christine spoke through her guides, allowing them to answer her queries: Why do men speak disparaging of women? Have females ever been successful rulers? Are women capable of learning, and if so have they ever invented anything new? She cast herself as the restorer of truth and requested only that her readers know of the dishonesty of misogyny:

“In brief, all women—whether noble, bourgeois, or lower-class—be well informed in all things and cautions in defending your honor and chastity against your enemies! My ladies, see how these men accuse you of so many vices in everything. Make liars of them all by showing forth your virtue, and prove their attacks false by acting well. Repel the deceptive flatterers who, using different charms, seek with various tricks to steal that which you must consummately guard, that is, your honor.”

In another book of hers, “The Treasure of the City of the Ladies,” Christine argued that “skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire.” She urged that a woman’s voice should be just as valued as her virtue, regardless of status.

In “The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry,” Christine pushed into the masculine world of warfare and discussed not only military strategy and technology, but urged that sovereign rulers should engage moral law more than blood lust and fight only in defense of justice. She also informed women how to act in the event of a siege, providing them with the necessary knowledge to defend a castle or walled city. This included ensuring proper provisions, the laws of arms and how to drive off attackers. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia

In 1418, the English defeated the French forces at Agincourt and during the civil war, Christine fled Paris, taking refuge in the convent Poissy where her daughter was a nun. To Christine, there seemed no saving France. The Burgandians had allied with England. The Armagnecs, Christine’s party, seemed helpless to resist. Then, in 1429, a young peasant girl donned armor, rallied French troops against the English and had Charles V crowned. Christine came out of her planned retirement and composed her last work, “The Tale of Joan of Arc.” Christine expressed how Joan was “moynnerresse par excellence,” meaning she mediated between God and humankind, saved France, and brought peace. After nearly a lifetime of carefully writing to uphold traditional ways, she no longer viewed the female role as secondary, for the mediator between God and humankind—the Savior of France—was now a young woman. Joan had rescued a wasted kingdom—something that a hundred thousand men could not do (that’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do…I BLESS THE RAINS…sorry…). “A new age has begun in this year of 1429; the sun had begun to shine again, bringing good times anew.” Christine died in 1430 but was able to see her dream of the City of the Ladies come true because of Joan of Arc.

Christine’s writings have transformed the thirteenth century and have further impacted the modern world. Images from her illuminated manuscripts cover websites, datebooks (I’m not even sure I knew what these were), and calendars. She was said to have influenced Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their works. Throughout her life and her writings, Christine added greatly to the female society, helping to shape and progress it. In doing so, Christine was able to join the many women before and those after her who also walked the road to equal rights for women.

Little did I know then that I would dedicate my life to telling the story of those women? That’s kinda cool.

On a less sentimental note, I would also like to point out that this paper fell before the phase in my life that I both challenged myself and tormented my teachers by putting the words “aforementioned” and “tomfoolery” somewhere in every single paper I turned in. It was like a nerdy, scrawled “Where’s Waldo?” of my own creation. That’s when I truly peaked.

And, to wrap this baby up, y’all know that no post about medieval times is complete without my favorite video of all time:

Have a fantastic weekend, you fabulous weirdos.