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.

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B is for Black Death

Pieter Bruegel’s Triumph of Death 1562, from wikipedia.

It’s 1347 in Caffa. The Mongols have been besieging the Genoese for four years, and some of the newest recruits turn out to be stricken with a rather nasty disease that causes bleeding lumps. As soldiers die, the troops catapult the infected bodies over the walls, which some note as one of the first instances of biological warfare. Since Caffa is a port, many escape in ships, carrying the disease with them to Sicily. By the time the pandemic spreads across Europe, somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 the population would die, and, in densely-populated cities, near 70-80%.

A 14th century French mass grave, photo from wikipedia.

The Pandemic After-Party

The Black Death didn’t launch the Renaissance, and it wasn’t even the only widespread calamity of the day. There were massive famines throughout the 14th century in Europe as a mini-Ice Age followed centuries of relatively warmer weather. A different kind of climate shift–a drying out in the grasslands to the far east–may have pushed rats out of those drying grass of Siberia down south and east, to the population centers nearer to Mongolia and China. Virus + fleas + rats + people on horseback and on ships, all moved west. (Of course, China and India also suffered massive casualties from the plague, earlier than 1347, which is often overlooked.)

Large-scale reduction in populations cause upheaval, but they can be followed by opportunity. When the peasants recovered, they were in high demand. Their standard of living increased dramatically.

Travel and trade had dwindled for decades, but now it was turbo-charged, with traders flying around the Mediterranean, the Silk Road, the round-the-tip-of-Africa route to carry goods again. People were healthier, food was more abundant, more resources were available. You could stop worrying about how soon you were going to die and start thinking about pillows, cinnamon, and how to paint Venus on a seashell.

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A is for Age…

Welcome to the Renaissance. It’s an Age of …

Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence completed in 1436, photo from WantedinRome.com.
  • Promise
  • Expansion
  • Mercantilism
  • Art
  • Knowledge
  • Rebirth

Renaissance, as I’m sure you remember, means “rebirth.” Ironically this term was created by a French historian centuries after the reborn age was long redead. You can thank Jules Michelet for making the era so hard for historians to spell.

What Was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance was a historical period when culture bloomed like algae on a lake. With the right conditions in place, the growth of population and wealth combined with receding constraints allowed ideas to flourish and accelerate. It exploded out of Italy primarily at first but the changes in art, science, fashion, commerce, and knowledge spread across large swaths of Europe. Soon, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into yet another statue or domed ceiling or argument about which subject in the quadrivium was most important.

Statue from St. Peter’s basilica, Rome. Photo by kajmeister.
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