|French literary history|
Christine de Pizan (also seen as de Pisan) (1364–1430) was a medieval writer, rhetorician, and critic, who strongly challenged misogyny in the male-dominated realm of the arts. De Pizan’s prolific writings, forty-one known pieces, written over her thirty year (1399–1429) career, earned her fame as Europe’s first professional woman writer (Redfern 74). Her success stems from a wide range of innovative writing techniques that critically challenged renowned male writers who, to Pizan’s dismay, incorporated misogynist scrutiny within their literary works. Overall, de Pizan and her writings have been celebrated and embraced; she is seen as an early feminist who effectively utilized language to demonstrate that women could play an integral role within society.
Christine de Pizan was born in Venice. She was the daughter of Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano (Thomas de Pizan), a physician, professor of astrology, and Councillor of the Republic of Venice. Following Christine’s birth, Thomas de Pizan accepted an appointment to the court of Charles V of France, as the King’s astrologer, alchemist, and physician. In this atmosphere, Christine was able to pursue her intellectual interests. She successfully educated herself by immersing herself in languages, the rediscovered classics and humanism of the early Renaissance, and within Charles V’s royal archive that housed a vast amount of manuscripts. However, de Pizan did not assert her intellectual abilities, or establish her authority as a writer until she was widowed at the age of twenty-four. (Redfern 76).
Christine married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary to the court, at the age of fifteen. She bore three children, a daughter (who went to live at the Dominican Abbey in Poissy in 1397 as a companion to the king's daughter, Marie), a son Jean, and another child who died in childhood (Willard 35). However, de Pizan’s familial life was threatened in 1390 when Christine’s husband, while in Beauvais on a mission with the king, suddenly died in an epidemic (Willard 39). Following du Castel’s death, Christine was burdened by economic disasters. When she tried to collect money due to her husband’s estate, she faced complicated lawsuits regarding the recovery of salary due to her husband (Willard 39). In order to support herself and her family, Christine established literary contacts within the court. By 1393, Christine was writing love ballads, which caught the attention of wealthy patrons within the court (Redfern 77). However, de Pizan’s participation in the first literary quarrel, in 1401-1402, allowed her to move beyond the courtly circles, and to ultimately establish her status as a woman writer.
Early in her literary career, de Pizan involved herself in a renowned literary debate, the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” which took place between 1401 and 1402 (Willard 73). Pizan helped to instigate this particular debate when she began to question the literary merits of Jean de Meun’s the Romance of the Rose. Written in the thirteenth century, the Romance of the Rose satirizes the conventions of courtly love while also critically depicting women as nothing more than seducers. De Pizan specifically objected to the use of vulgar terms within Jean de Meun’s allegorical poem. She argued that these vulgar terms denigrated the proper and natural function of sexuality, and that such language was inappropriate for female characters such as Lady Reason. According to de Pizan, noble women did not use such language (Quilligan 40). Her critique primarily stems from believing that Jean de Meun was purposely slandering women through the debated text.
The debate itself is quite extensive and by the end of it, the principal issue was no longer Jean de Meun’s literary capabilities. Instead, due to the participation of Christine in the debate, the focus had shifted to the unjust slander of women within literary texts. This dispute helped to establish Christine’s reputation as a female intellectual who could assert herself effectively and defend her claims in the male-dominated literary realm. Christine continued to refute abusive literary treatments of women.
By 1405, Christine had completed her most successful literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, or The Book of the Three Virtues. The first of these proves to show the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities in order to counteract the growth of misogyny (Willard 135).
Christine’s final work was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who took a very public role in organizing French military resistance to English domination in the early fifteenth century. Written in 1429, The Tale of Joan of Arc celebrates the appearance of a woman military leader who according to Christine, vindicated and rewarded all women’s efforts to defend their own sex (Willard 205-205). After completing this particular poem, it seems that Christine, at the age of sixty-five, decided to end her literary career (Willard, 207). The exact date of her death is unknown. However, her death did not indicate a ceased appreciation for her renowned literary works. Instead, her legacy continued on because of the voice she created and established as an authoritative rhetorician.
During the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” de Pizan responded to Jean de Montreuil, who had written her a treatise defending the misogynist sentiments within the Romance of the Rose. She begins by claiming that her opponent was an “expert in rhetoric” as compared to herself “a woman ignorant of subtle understanding and agile sentiment.” In this particular apologetic response, Christine belittles her own style. She is employing a rhetorical strategy by writing against the grain of her meaning, also known as antiphrasis (Redfern 80). Her ability to employ rhetorical strategies continued when Christine began to compose literary texts following the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose.”
Within The Book of the City of Ladies Christine creates a symbolic city in which women are appreciated and defended. Christine, having no female literary tradition to call upon, constructs three allegorical foremothers: Reason, Justice, and Rectitude. She enters into a dialogue, a movement between question and answer, with these allegorical figures that is from a completely female perspective (Cambell 6). These constructed women lift Christine up from her despair over the misogyny prevalent in her time. Together, they create a forum to speak on issues of consequence to all women. Only female voices, examples and opinions provide evidence within this text. Christine, through Lady Reason in particular, argues that stereotypes of woman can be sustained only if women are prevented from entering the, dominant male-oriented, conversation (Campbell 7). Overall, Christine hoped to establish truths about women that contradicted the negative stereotypes that she had identified in previous literature. She did this successfully by creating literary foremothers that helped her to formulate a female dialogue that celebrated women and their accomplishments.
In The Treasure of the City of Ladies Christine highlights the persuasive effect of women’s speech and actions in everyday life. In this particular text, Christine argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace. This ability will allow women to mediate between husband and subjects. She also claims that slanderous speech erodes one’s honour and threatens the sisterly bond among women. Christine then, argued that "skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire" (Redfern 87). Christine realized that a women’s influence is realized when their speech equates chastity, virtue and restraint. Christine proved that speech, rhetoric, is a powerful tool that women could employ to settle differences and to assert themselves. Overall, Christine presented a concrete strategy that allowed all women, regardless of their status, to undermine the dominant, patriarchal, discourse.
Christine de Pizan contributed to the rhetorical tradition as a woman counteracting the dominant discourse of the time. Rhetorical scholars have extensively studied her persuasive strategies. It has been concluded that de Pizan successfully forged a rhetorical identity for herself, and also encouraged all women to embrace this identity by counteracting misogynist thinking through the powerful tool of persuasive dialogue.