My niece Emily started school this week, and it’s got me thinking how much I take reading and writing for granted now. At Emily’s age, I found writing very difficult and have a vivid memory of repeatedly failing to spell ‘the’, Mrs. Bartlett’s face purpling prettily with each fresh failure. This isn’t Emily’s first step towards literacy; her parents and sister have encouraged a love of reading since she was a baby. In fact, her play sessions, in which she identifies as a ‘jewel thief’ suggest the influence of G.K. Chesterton. Her choice of birthday cake was reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘L’albatros’.
It is strange to think that, had Emily been born in fourteenth-century Europe, books would not have been part of her life. Literacy was not a universal even among men, but for girls it was extremely rare. Reading and writing was the preserve of clergy, merchants and some aristocrats. Authors were usually male (despite exceptions like Trotula of Salerno [12th century] and Hildegarde von Bingen [1098-1179]). Women were supposed to produce children and manage a household. Those who could read, like Catherine of Siena and Hildegarde, were considered so weird that their literacy was a miraculous sign of their holiness. Considering all this, the life and writing career of Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) is a remarkable anomaly and surprisingly little known outside of Gender-Studies departments.
Christine was born in Venice, daughter of Thomas de Pizan, a physician, court astrologer and Councillor of the Republic of Venice. Alessandro Barbero, in his lecture on her life, stresses that astrology at that time was considered a respectable science, inseparable from astronomy. It was accepted fact that heavenly bodies affected earthly bodies, and that by careful observation of the stars and moon it was possible to divine many things, including the propitious date for starting a war or embarking on a journey. Thomas de Pizan’s expertise was so valued that Charles V of France hired him to become court astrologer. The household moved to Paris when Christine was about five years old.
Thomas de Pizan was an unusual father in that he provided his daughter with a good education and encouraged her to read. She soon developed a love of books that would eventually enable her to earn a living, not to mention great fame. It didn’t hurt that she lived in the cultural and commercial heart of Europe, either. Paris was stimulating to her imagination—she talks of seeing a tightrope walker walk between two towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and a diplomatic visit from the Sultan of Egypt—a spectacle of exoticism that attracted a huge crowd.
While her father encouraged her love of books, her mother regarded them eccentric distractions. At the age of fifteen she was married off to Etienne du Castel, a secretary to the king and started the busy life of having babies and organizing a household. This left her little time to devote to reading.
A recurring theme of medieval literature is the Wheel of Fortune, embodied by the goddess Fortuna, often represented by a blindfolded woman spinning a wheel. The idea is that one’s life can be drastically and suddenly altered, usually for the worse, and there is not really anything you can do about it. It wasn’t a new idea–Tyche or ‘Fate’ was a capricious goddess in ancient Greece associated with uncertainty and risk. However, Boethius (480-524) refreshed the idea for Christian audience in his Consolations of Philosophy:
“I know the manifold deceits of that monstrous lady, Fortune; in particular her fawning friendship with those she intends to cheat, until the moment when she unexpectedly abandons them, and leaves them in agony beyond endurance.”
In 1388, Fortune spun the wheel, giving Christina’s husband the plague and leaving her a widow at the age of 25. The young mother was now solely in charge of her family, including her mother. On top of this, she had the task of trying to collect the backlog of wages owed her husband—many years’ worth. Despite her assiduous requests, she didn’t receive them until two decades after his death.
Christine de Pizan had a dream at about the time. She and her family were in a ship that was suddenly caught in a storm. Her husband was thrown from the ship and disappeared in the water. She dreamed she cried herself to sleep and, in a dream-within-a-dream, she was approached and touched by Fortuna. Waking on the ship, her dream-self noticed that her body has changed—her limbs were stronger, her voice was deeper—she had become a man. Now, instead of crying, she picked up a hammer and got to work fixing the ship.
The bereaved widow started writing poems, love ballads, not only to assuage her grief but also to capitalize on her unusual gift. She shared her poetry with the people she knew at court, dedicating many of them to members of the royal family such as Isabeau of Bavaria. Her friends and patrons encouraged her to write more on a greater variety of topics. Finally, in 1404 she gained a commission from one of the most powerful men in France, the Duke of Burgundy, who asked her to write a biography of his brother Charles V of France. In return, he offered a bag of gold francs.
This was the first of many commissions—in the next seven years she wrote fifteen works for members of the aristocracy in return for pay. She had become a professional writer.
In his lecture, Alessandro Barbero has a nice passage about her book-production methods. These days you don’t need anything more than a computer and an internet connection to publish a book (cue shamless ad for my book Teacher, We Girls!), but things were a bit more complicated in the fourteenth century:
“…what does it mean to write and to publish a book? We are at the beginning of the fifteenth century. She became famous in 1399, when her ballads went into circulation. And for the 1400s, she is a very successful writer. What does it mean to for a successful writer to publish a book? There is no printing press. So everything is done by hand so that publishing a book means you the author present your book to your client, to the king, to the Pope, to the cardinal, to the duke. There is only one copy at first. If someone else wants it, then it can be copied. If the book is a success then a lot of copies will be made. But at first there is one example. It is luxurious. The greater the personage you are presenting it to, the more you have to pay for it, the more luxurious the object will be. Christina does not limit herself to writing her works, but she produces the manuscript, not alone, naturally, she has a workshop. She hires some professional copyists, she hires some miniature artists, among which is one woman [known only as ‘Anastasia’] and she is the producer of the work of art that is each manuscript.”
She even includes a little trademark ‘author pic’ in each book, an illustration of herself. Sometimes she is writing, other times presenting the book to the dignitary who will receive the book, other times she is in her studio reading. Every time she is recognizable in the same dress, with the same hairstyle.
Her books included political treatises, epistles and poetry. She wrote several ‘mirrors for princes’—a genre instructing nobles in correct moral behavior. She infamously wrote literary criticism in Le Dit de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose) (1402), a sharp attack on the misogyny of the incredibly popular work Roman de la Rose (1275). This was followed by two more works that treat the role of women in society: The City of Ladies (c. 1405) and The Treasure of the City of Ladies (1405).
In 1407, Fortuna spun the wheel again and France was plunged into civil war marked by assassinations, revolts and massacre. The problem was (as usual) a succession dispute—the Armagnacs supported the line of Charles VI and his son; their rivals the Burgundians supported Henry V. Accordingly, Christina turned her quill to martial affairs. She wrote a manual of war Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410), which was translated into English in 1489 as The Book of Feats and Chivalry. In her last major work, Livre de la paix (1413) The Book of Peace., she directly addresses the Dauphin Louis of Guyenne encouraging him to continue in his quest for peace for France.
Taking advantage of infighting in France, Henry V sailed into the estuary of the Seine in August 1415. The Hundred Years’ War https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/Hundred_Years.html was on again, and on October 25 1415 had one of England’s big victories of the war at the Battle of Agincourt. In 1418, Christine de Pizan, a fierce French patriot, wrote a consolation for women who had lost family in the battle in her Epistre de la vie Humaine (Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life).
Since Paris was occupied by the English at this time, it is believed that she spent her last decade in the Dominican monastery of Poissy. She stopped publishing—probably because she was now away from the court and book-production staff and equipment. However, she briefly broke her silence after Joan of Arc’s remarkable victory over the English at Orléans in April 1429 with Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429). It is supposed that she died before Joan’s execution in 1430.