The Radical Views of Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan
Born in Venice around 1364*, Christine de Pizan led a life of excitement, turmoil, hardship and privilege. Her father was an astrologer who left Italy to work in France for Charles V. Thus Christine was taken from her native country and forced to learn a new language. Her family enjoyed many advantages while her father worked for the French king and Christine secured a good marriage to Etienne de Castel. They lived happily for a time, producing one daughter and two sons. Their happiness was not to last though, as Charles V died and his successor did not show the same generosity towards Christine and her family. Christine's father died and shortly afterward so did her husband, leaving Christine a widow at the young age of twenty-five, with three children, a widowed mother and a niece to care for. In Christine's time there was not much hope for her to run a financially stable household without a husband. The easiest thing for her to do would have been to remarry but she decided to sing for her own supper. Christine began to write poetry to make a living. She started writing poems about widowhood and love to appease her patrons. However, Christine's ambitions went beyond love poetry and she began to write longer and more serious works regardless of the fact that "literary misogyny had, after all, consistently relegated women to minor genres(in medieval literature those lacking immediate ethical utility)."(Richards 37) Several of her longer works speak to the treatment and views of women. Christine had radical views toward the treatment and lives of women but could not push for equality due to the fact that she was trapped in a culture and a time period which prized male-dominated and religious ideals.
There were not many options open to women at the time when Christine decided to support herself and her family. Some scholars have speculated that before she began her own writing career, she may have been working as a copyist which would explain her knowledge of the other sources that she uses throughout her own texts later on. "Christine's defense of women reveals both her indebtedness to scholastic traditions and her shrewd reappropriation of them."(Richards 37) Another way in which she may have come into contact with her sources is through her father, who would have had access to the royal library at the French court. Willard says, "she was, in a very true sense, self-educated, though the inspiration must have come from her father and perhaps also her husband."(34) She also points out that her father was encouraging with respect to Christine's education. "His views on the education of women were notably liberal for his day, believing as he did that women were not the worse for acquiring knowledge. Christine's mother was more conventional in her outlook and believed that her daughter should tend to her spinning."(33) The education of women was not considered important at the time and her father's liberal views may have been the reason that Christine was able to be well-informed later in life. Her mother, on the other hand, saw the education of women as useless and felt that Christine should focus on learning the domestic tasks which she would need to run a successful household. If it had not been for her father's encouragement, Christine may not have enjoyed being perhaps the first professional female writer, creating a lucrative career for herself in a profession which was entirely male. Christine's choice to support herself and her family was a precarious position to put herself in but as Willard points out, "Christine herself had the intelligence and the force of character to overcome her worst misfortunes and to establish herself in a new life. Most important of all, she recognized the fact that it was to circumstances of misfortune that she owed the life of study that she came to enjoy so much, as well as the discovery of her vocation for writing."(48)
Although Christine was able to educate herself and the early part of her life was one of privilege, Delay points out that "even an exceptional woman had neither complete freedom nor complete equality with men."(196) There were drastic changes taking place during Christine's lifetime, including revolts, separation of the church and wars, which allowed for more open-minded views and allowed women some more small freedoms but they were in no way considered equals of men. Women were not allowed to hold public offices or be involved in professions which were limited to men. However, they were able to won and inherit property. A woman's place in society was to care for her husband and children in a domestic manner only. Women were not considered to be financially responsible for anything. Their separation from men was even more extreme in the church, which also tried to govern their private lives. "They prohibited women from becoming teachers and preachers or holding any authoritative role in their churches."(Bitel 103) Not only were women excluded form any authority in the church they were also told how to live their lives. Church leaders "were urging women to maintain traditional postures as housewives in normative families rather than attempting radical new lifestyles, such as a residence in celibate communities or leadership positions among Christian congregations."(103) Women were advised to live normal lives running their households. They weren't even encouraged to enter into convents. There was a popular book at the time called Instruction of a Christian Woman which taught women how to behave. "The Instruction certainly advocates the education of women but only for the edification of the individual, as women have no role to play outside the home...Women are temperamentally unsuited to public life because in such a situation they are disposed to become proud, headstrong and combative."(McLeod 85) These were the types of opinions held about women during Christine's lifetime.
Not only were there actual restrictions put on women as to how they could live, there were also misogynistic views about how to treat women and what sort of people they were. Christine began one of her most famous works after reading part of The Lamentations of Matheolus because she was disheartened by its attitude toward women. She also was involved in a quarrel with several male scholars over The Romance of the Rose. She wrote a long response called The God of Love's Letter, in which she tried to refute all the accusations about women in The Romance of the Rose. There was no shortage in her time of misogynistic writings and also plenty of men to read these writings. Christine's views however were very different from her male counterparts.
The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan
In her writings, Christine expresses her views of women and how she feels they should be treated. She points out in The God of Love's Letter that many men have a bad opinion of all women because they have mistreated by one. However, she refutes this idea of absolutism by saying, "Even granting that some women are foolish, or full of every kind of vice, or faithless in love and lacking all loyalty, or proud, wicked, cruel or inconstant, fickle, changeable, or crafty, false hearted and deceptive-should all women therefore be put in the same category, with not a single exception?"(19) Christine wrote this passage due to her anger at The Romance of the Rose because it defames all women. Christine also denounces Ovid's The Art of Love because it tells how to deceive women and how men can trick women into loving them. Christine believes that women should not be deceived into loving a man and any man who uses deception to win a woman does not deserve her. She takes care to point out that the multitude of female literary characters who fit the slanderous descriptions of women cannot be used as examples of the behavior of women because all of those women were created by men. Women have not had a voice with which to record their own kind. They have been slandered and defamed by the pens of men. Thus Christine suggests that had women written the stories, they would not have been vilified in this way. This leads Christine to write The Book of the City of Ladies in which she gives examples of loyal, upstanding women. She also reworks several examples of supposedly bad women to explain how their actions were acceptable due to the way that they were treated by men. She builds a city out of great women and makes a place where future great women can go.
Christine's writings attempt to undo the slander and defamation that women have suffered at the hands of men, but she could never place herself or any other woman on the same level as men because of the time period in which she lived. Although she was a successful author, she was still required to please her patrons. Her patrons may have been open-minded and willing her her defense of women but they certainly would not have been ready to hear that women were the equals of men. Her views were radical enough that it did impede her popularity. "Prejudice did cripple her reception...as a woman writer she was seen as an anomaly."(McLeod ii) Equality of the sexes also would never have crossed Christine's mind because of the way that she was raised. As pointed out before, her mother was not interested in furthering her education and although her father was supportive of her education and recognized that she was intelligent, she was never formally educated as her male counterparts would have been. Due to this upbringing, Christine could never have viewed herself as any man's equal.
While Christine may not have been able to see herself or other women as the equals of men, she did believe tha they had the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Many of her male contemporaries saw women as lesser human beings and that they were not worthy of being educated or treated fairly. In men's eyes, women were only good for running the daily chores and tasks of the household and raising children. They never would have considered women to be their intellectual equals or have thought to engage them in a debate about the ways in which they had been portrayed. Christine took it upon herself to place herself among her male contemporaries and engage them in philosophical, social and political debates. In this way, Christine made herself somewhat of an equal to them without even realizing it. She would not have been as audacious as to say it out loud but she knew that she could stand among them as an intellectual force. Just as Lady Reason says to her in The Book of the City of Ladies, "you reject what you know for certain and believe what you do not know."(De Pizan 121) Christine rejected what she knew deep down because she was told all her life that she was not the equal of men and therefore she was not able to view herself this way even though she knew that she was every bit as good as they were.
Due to the fact that men controlled every aspect of Christine's life, even her thought process, she could not begin to understand her own importance and the impact she would have over the next several centuries. She also most likely could not have fathomed her work being used as proof of feminism in medieval times because she would not have considered herself a feminist. She did not want equality of the sexes because it would have been an absolutely foreign concept to her. Little did she know, by simply writing positive ideas and opinions about women she fashioned herself as proto-feminist, despite the society in which she lived.
Bitel, Lisa M. Women in Early Medieval Europe 400-1100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Delany, Sheila. "Mothers to Think Back Through: Who are They? The Ambiguous Example of Christine de Pizan." Medieval Texts & Contemporary Readers. Ed. Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman. New York: Cornell University Press. 1987.
DePizan, Christine. The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan. Trans. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.
McLeod, Glenda K. The Reception of Christine de Pizan from the Fifteenth through the Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Edwin Mellen Press. 1991.
Richards, Earl Jeffrey. Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan. Georgia: University of Georgia Press. 1992
Willard, Charity. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea Books, Inc. 1984.
*All biographical information is taken from the introduction to The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan.