C is for Christine de Pizan

Christine was clever and lucky. Then, tragedy struck, but she rebounded with hard work and intellect to become one of the earliest professional women writers. Sound like the American Dream? Christine de Pizan was born in Italy, raised in the French court, and the year was 1390.

Illumination from Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. The Yorck Project.

From Disaster to Acclaim

Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, Christine’s father, brought her to Paris as a child when he was appointed the court astrologer and physician. Remember that astrology in this era required highly complicated calculations of the positions of stars, so this was like being a combination quantum physicist and heart surgeon. Tommaso (Thomas) had a large library, and he let Christine loose in it. She attracted the attention of the royal court secretary who married her at age 15.

Hubby let her continue to read the books. She bore him three children. Within a year of turning 25, however, her husband and father both died of the plague. Her husband’s creditors entailed the estate, and she was left without enough funds to support her mother and children. But, as noted yesterday in letter “B” for Black Death, tragedy and plague sometimes create opportunity.

Christine de Pizan started writing courtly poetry, and the French royals loved it. As the 14th century ended, she correctly judged the pulse of the court and was churning out love ballads and cementing the patronage of the crown.

Queen Anne of France, consort twice, patron to Christine de Pizan. Photo from Wikipedia.

Attracting Queens and Repudiating the Misogynists

As it turned out, Christine’s upbringing in the court made her a savvy judge of navigating the turbulent politics of the court. Though France endured mad rulers, civil war, and various crises of leadership, Christine was able to obtain the favors of one queen after another. She dedicated one book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and another to Queen Anne of France.

One of the most popular books circulating in Christine’s day was a snarky send-up of courtly love called The Romance of the Rose. In this set of stories written by two men, the women pursued by chivalrous gentlemen were seducers and sirens rather than pure of heart. Christine criticized the work in what was called “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” or “The Debate over the Romance of the Rose.” She claimed the work was blatantly misogynistic, depicting women as unfairly corrupt. The quality of her response led to a culture-wide debate about the treat of women, placing her among the early feminist-intellects.

Pizan’s criticism sparked a continent-wide discussion of issues that is still alive today in disputes about art and morality, especially the civic responsibility of a writer or artist for the works he or she produces.

David Hult, University of Chicago Press
Illustration from the Treasure of the City of Ladies from wikipedia.

When Ladies Run Households and Cities

Christine wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of books, but two of the most notable are Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) and Le Livre des trois vertus (Book of Three Virtues, known as The Treasure of the City of Ladies).

The Treasure is especially interesting in that it dispenses advice to women at various roles in society: princesses, other nobles, widows, nuns, and prostitutes. For example, in a section on managing finances (now you see why I found her!), she explains that all women need to be knowledgeable about the household budget. Princesses might need to be aware of the court’s financial state when fathers and husbands are away at war, and merchant’s wives might have to deal with collecting and paying debts as well. No matter what a woman’s role was in the still-rigid social hierarchy, she needed to inform herself of what the family’s financial state was. Someone whose dead husband left an entailed estate would be particularly sensitive to that topic.

Sounds like an early version of Suze Orman to me. The frugal feminist!

7 Replies to “C is for Christine de Pizan”

    1. The financial part doesn’t get much notice, but I came across it because I was researching medieval accounting. She covered it all!

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