De Pizan
An unlikely candidate to dispute the unfair, misogynistic treatment of women by
men and society, Christine de Pizan successfully challenged the accepted
negative views that were being expressed about women by the all-male literary
world of her era. Part of Christines uniqueness stems from the time in which
she lived, the middle to late 1300s. The lack of a positive female role model
to pattern herself after made Christine a true visionary in the fight for the
equal rights of women. Her original ideas and insight provided a new and more
intelligent way to view females. Pizans work, The Book of the City of Ladies,
provided women much needed guidance in how to survive without the support of a
man. Born in Venice around 1364, Christine was the first professional woman
writer in Europe. Her father, Thomas of Pizan, was a famous astrologer and
physician who took Christine as an infant to France. His fame as an astrologer
allowed him to be appointed to the court of the French King Charles V (Kosinski
xi). Depending on her father for the majority of her education, Christines
great love as a child was learning; however, Christines mother felt that
educating Christine was inappropriate, which led to a premature halt in her
instruction. (Kosinski xi). Christines accomplishments and her mothers views
that “ladies should not be educated” (Kosinski xi) show the contrast between
mother and daughter. Although she is said to have described her education as”nothing but picking up the crumbs of learning that fell from her fathers
table” (Kosinski 299), Christines writing is filled with allusions to”classical authors, church fathers, poets, and historical writers”
-revealing intellect greater than table scraps (Kosinski 299). At the age of
fifteen, Christine married Etienne de Castel, a notary and secretary of the
royal court (Kosinski xi). Just as her writing reflected her uniqueness, so did
her marriage which was evidently a “love match,” something remarkable in the
medieval days of arranged marriages (Kosinski xi). Christine spoke of a loving
relationship by describing her marriage to Etienne as, “a sweet thing” and
her husband as “kind and considerate” on their wedding night (Kosinski xi ).

Christines family relied on the charity of Charles V for their livelihood;
therefore, his death in 1380 proved detrimental to Christine and her family. The
successor to the throne, King Charles VI, was not as generous toward the Pizan
family, and both Christines father and husband lost most of their pay.

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Between 1384 and 1389, Thomas de Pizan died leaving little inheritance for his
young daughter (Kosinski xi). Christine was left to depend entirely on her
husband for financial security. Christine and her husband would have three
children together before his death due to a 1389 epidemic (Leon 214). At the age
of 25, Christine was a widow with three small children and her mother to support
(Kosinski xii). Christine describes this period of her life as a time when she
was “forced to become a man,” as she began to seek out patrons for her
writing (Kosinski xii). Although Christine was obviously a brilliant and
talented writer, necessity was her true inspiration, as she literally had to
write in order to feed her family. Christines first literary endeavors were
the highly demanded love poems of the 14th century, as well as devotional texts
that emphasized her strong Christian faith (Kosinski xii). However, it is
Christines literary work The Book of the City of Ladies, that is most
intriguing to contemporary readers. Christine was the first woman writer to
possess the ability to identify and address the issues of misogyny in the
literature of her time, as well as society (Kosinski xii). This characteristic
made her a champion of the feminist movement that was yet to come. Although
Christine never addressed the issue of “changing the structures of her
society” (Kosinski xiii), her ability to identify misogyny during a time when
it was a normal aspect of womens lives, reveals the insight of the young
woman. The beginning scene of The Book of the City of Ladies describes Christine
looking at a book by Matheolus: When I held it open and saw from its title that
it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had
often heard that like other books it discussed respect for women. (de Pizan 3)
Christines belief in intellectual equality is found in the theme of this
story with a young lady reading for pleasure. 14th century women were rarely
literate. Choosing reading as a pleasurable activity would have been uncommon.

What Christine discovers upon reading this text is just the opposite of her
expectations. She realizes that Matheolus is not respectful toward women, but
just the opposite. His work represents women as “devilish and wicked.”
However, she uses her wit to describe her displeasure in the text: Because the
subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of
no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction
and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down
in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. (de Pizan 3)
Christines remarks here criticize the subject of Matheolus text, and also his
choice in diction. Her comments not only let the reader know that she is
displeased with this piece of literature, but that she feels that reading it is
neither elevating nor useful. Thus, she insinuates the futility of the work
itself. Christine cleverly goes on to comment on the subject of the character of
women by flattering her male contemporaries. She writes: …it would be
impossible that so many famous men–such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep
and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed–could
have spoken falsely on so many occasions…. (de Pizan 4) Christine
intelligently uses this “sugar coated” method to emphasize the point –
the point that these men were wrong. Although Christine was obviously outspoken,
she knew her limitations. Her work would not be recognized, or even read, if she
had openly attacked the male writers. Therefore, she instead chose to build them
up the “solemn scholars” before opposing their positions. Christines
ironic humility does not stop with the prominent male writers of her time. She
addresses God with the same rhetorical question as she asks: Oh, God, how can
this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite
wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. (de
Pizan 5) Again, Christine carefully opposed the male point of view this time
using Biblical references. Christine makes an unarguable point– God would not
create anything that was not good. Christine goes on to ask God how she could
possibly doubt what these “learned men” have written about women when He
Himself has said, “…the testimony of two or three witnesses lends
credence…why shall I not doubt that this is true?” (de Pizan 5). The irony
of her question is in the fact that she knows the testimony to be untrue. By
asking God for guidance and understanding in the matter, she is revealing that
she is a good, moral woman — not the stereotypical “devilish demon.”
Christine continues to question God as she asks: Alas, God, why did You not let
me be born in the world as a male, so that all my inclinations would be to serve
You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as
a male is said to be? (de Pizan 5) As Christine describes men as “perfect,”
an ironic overtone is felt. Although Christine was a very devout Christian, her
question to God is not one of sincerity. The statement, “Indeed, I maintain
that when men are perfect, women will follow their example” (de Pizan 186), is
found much later in the text exemplifying Christines ability to use mens
own words against them and reveals the depth of her wit and wisdom. Upon crying
out to God for wisdom in these matters, Christine is visited, not by God
Himself, but by three women who He has sent to her. The fact that Pizan chose to
use these “three women” to bring forth comfort and wisdom is symbolic of the
importance of women. She could have had God speak directly to Christine in a
masculine voice, like the voice that spoke to Moses and Abraham. However, Pizan
uses the three wise and angelic women to strengthen her defense of women.

Another strategy Pizan uses to emphasize the moral strengths of women is by
alluding to powerful, mythological women throughout her text. She writes of
Thisbes love for Pyramus in Ovids tale Metamorphoses,of Medeas love for
Jason, and of Heros love for Leander. She cites these women as examples of
faithful and undying love by women, therefore, refuting the statement made by
men that, “. . . so few women are faithful in their love lives” (de Pizan
186). By using these women as examples, women who have been immortalized by the
writings of men, she again benefits from men,s contradictions. Men were saying
how unfaithful and frivolous women were with their hearts, yet they depicted
many women throughout literature who, “. . .persevered in their love until
death. . .” (de Pizan 188). Not only did Pizan allude to mythological women
who were faithful in love, she also mentions a city governed by powerful queens,
“…very noble ladies whom they elected themselves, who governed them will and
maintained their dominion with great strength” (de Pizan 11). This example of
powerful women portrays them in a masculine role -as leaders and successful
rulers. Pizan uses this example to foreshadow the building of the “City of
Ladies” that Christine has been chosen by God to construct. By giving an
example of a successful and strong dominion run by women, Pizan makes this idea
of a city of women a more believable concept. Christine de Pizan was an
extroidanary woman who has yet to be fully discovered. The wit and wisdom found
within The Book of the City of Ladies eclipses some contemporary literature that
defends the rights of women. Although Pizans writing was done for practical
reasons, survival, her work revealed a vision that women are still striving to
accomplish today – equality in all things.

The Selected Writings of Christine De Pizan. Ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski.

Trans. By Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee. New York: W.W. Norton
& Co., 1997. Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. Introduction. The Selected
Writings of Christine de Pizan Ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Koninski. New York: W.W.

Norton & Co. Ltd., 1997. xi xvi. Zemon-Davis, Natalie. Foreword The Book
of the City of Ladies. By Christine de Pizan. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New
York: Pesea Books, 1998. xv-xxii. Lawson, Sarah. Introduction. The Treasure of
the City of Ladies or the Book of the Three Virtues. Trans. Sarah Lawson. New
York: Penguin Books, 1985. Leon, Vicki, Uppity Women of Medieval Times. New
York; MJF Books, 1997.