Christine de Pizan, Europe's first feminist

Christine de Pizan became famous first for her passionate love of, and sorrow for, her dead husband, then for her passionate love of her adopted country, France, as it was torn apart by civil war and English invasion. But she is remembered today largely for her well-argued defence of women against the more misogynist clerical establishment of her day, (and the astonishing fact that she, a woman, managed not just to earn a living and support her family but to become influential at court as a poet and writer) – and is now often thought of as an early feminist.

The daughter of a Venetian astrologer who had brought his wife and toddler daughter to France to work at the French King Charles V’s court, Christine grew up playing with the king’s two children, Charles and Louis, in the gardens of the royal Hotel St.-Paul. Unusually for a girl, she had considerable access to learning, and her father was allowed into the world’s finest library, the King’s personal collection of books at the Louvre.

When the elder of her royal childhood playmates, Charles, became king in his turn – but then suffered periodic bouts of insanity – Christine remained closely involved with the fate of his family.

It was the drama of Christine’s own personal life that provided much of the material for her work, once she started writing. Her love marriage to Etienne de Castel was happy, and the couple had two children. But when he died young, revealing financial troubles she hadn’t dreamed of, her woes began. She was forced into writing and becoming learned – which she had been naturally inclined towards as a girl, but not sufficiently encouraged – so as to find a way to keep herself and her children afloat.

Here is the essence of her story, in her own words:

Ballade 26
Marriage is a sweet thing,
I can prove it by my own example,
God indeed gave to me
A good and sensible husband.
Thank God for being willing
To save him for me,
for I have truly
Experienced his great goodness:
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

The first night of our marriage, I could already feel
His great goodness, for he never did to me
Any outrage which would have harmed me,
But, before it was time to get up,
He kissed me, I think, one hundred times,
Without asking for any other base reward:
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

And he said, with such tender words:
“God made me live for you,
Sweet friend, and I think that he had me raised For your personal use.”
He did not stop raving like that
The whole night,
Without being any more immoderate:
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

Prince, he makes me mad for love,
When he says that he is all mine;
He will make me die of sweetness;
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

Christine moved from writing love poems to elaborate dream sequences and allegories. She earned herself a startling new reputation by taking on the anti-feminist establishment with a harsh critique of the age’s most famous love story, the Romance of the Rose.

The Romance of the Rose is two books within one. The first short part is by Guillaume de Lorris, who relates a dream in which he penetrated the closed garden where he found perfect Rose in bud, with which he fell desperately in love. Various allegorical personages – God of Love, Fair Welcome, Frankness and Pity conspire to help him, but Danger, Evil Tongue and Even Reason warn him against pursuit of his heart’s desire to win the Rose, who represents an exquisite virgin. It ends with Jealousy having Fair Welcome and the Rose imprisoned in a castle.

Forty years after Lorris’s death, Jean de Meun took up the poem and wrote a longer second half. He used the story as a peg for an indictment of women – which outraged Christine. He puts a cynical passage into the mouth of an allegorical personage called La Vieille, describing all the tricks and artifices, both in appearance and behaviour, which he says women use to deceive and ensnare men. As critic Charity Canon Willard explains, he exonerates himself by saying that in any case he’s only repeating what ancient authors have said: Virgil, who thinks all women capricious and changeable, Solomon, who says they have vicious dispositions, Livy, who finds them so credulous and naïve that only flattery will serve. Often the Scriptures proclaim that all feminine vice springs from avarice.

One of his criticisms galling Christine was that women can’t keep secrets and even a loyal wife will betray the confidence of her husband. It’s true that de Meun does mention a few chaste and faithful women, such as Dido and Oenone, and blames fickle men who deserted them, saying he could name a thousand such; but he spends much more time denouncing.

Christine was indignant at his picture of men as victims of these rapacious creatures – which was unlike the impression she’d received. She burned to redress the balance; and since writing was now her way of expressing her feelings, she found a literary framework in which to clothe them and produced her first sustained work.

Christine circulated her various challenges to the literary establishment at court, presenting copies to the Queen and others.

Perhaps surprisingly, she won support from the illustrious Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, in what became known as the Quarrel of the Rose.

Opposition to her was spearheaded by Gontier Col, the King’s secretary for the past 20 years.

This was the period of Christine’s most famous books, the Book of the City of Ladies and the Treasure of the City of Ladies (or the Book of the Three Virtues), all completed by 1405. The first shows the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities to counteract the growth of misogyny.

With her reputation now well established, she went on to write on a wide range of other topics – military history, a biography of King Charles V, books of moral lessons for her son and for Prince Louis, Charles VI’s eldest surviving son at the time, pastorals, advice on love, advice on marriage, and advice on sorrow.

Christine was deeply hostile to the invading English armies, and sorrowful about the violent feuding among French noblemen that ultimately became full-scale civil war.

As Henry V tightened his grip on France, after 1415, she stopped writing altogether and retired to the monastery at Poissy where her daughter lived.

But she came out of retirement just once more – after at least a decade of silence years – to publish an ecstatic and triumphant poem celebrating the early victories of Joan of Arc against the English in 1429.

It is not known when Christine, who would have been around 65 at the time,  died. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.

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