Christine de Pizan: The First European Female Writer

Christine de Pizan lecturing men in Paris.

Christine de Pizan stood as a pillar during her time and is considered by many to be the first professional female writer in Europe.  Living from 1365 to c. 1430, she was a founding mother of a feminist literary movement, completing forty-one pieces during her thirty-year career.  Pizan was born in Venice to father Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, a lecturer in astrology at the University of Bologna. Just after Pizan was born, in 1368, he became court astrologer to Charles V and moved his family to Paris to be closer to him. It was in Paris that Pizan grew up as a scholar with access to tools like the Charles V library.  Her father supported her education although her mother did not think higher learning was necessary.

Pizan married at the age of 15 to Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary to the court.  Castel was understanding and wished for her to continue her studies as well.  Unfortunately, Castel died 10 years later, leaving Pizan with three children.  Much of the reason for her writing came from the need to make a living for her family after the deaths of both her husband and father, (who had died two years previously).In 1393, Pizan began writing love stories that drew the attention of some members of the upper-class, especially because of the novelty surrounding a female writer and her romantic exploits.

Pizan began a literary debate from 1401-1402 that gave her the status establish herself as a female writer. The debate was the called “Querelle du Roman de la Rose.” Pizan helped to instigate this debate by beginning 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 makes fun of the conventions of courtly love while critically depicting women as nothing more than seducers. Pizan disliked the way Jean de Meun used vulgarity and argued that these terms “denigrated the proper and natural function of sexuality, and that such language was inappropriate for female characters such as Madame Raison.[1]” According to Pizan, noble women did not use such language. “Her critique primarily stems from her belief that Jean de Meun was purposely slandering women through the debated text.[2]”  The debate was very long and in the end, the main issue had shifted to the unfair slander of women in literature: “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 counter abusive literary treatments of women.”[3]

During the civil war, 1418, following the French defeat by the British at Agincourt, Pizan left Paris and spent the rest of her life as a lay resident in a convent, most likely at the royal priory where her daughter was a nun.

One of my favorite quotes from Pizan includes: “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. Did You yourself not create woman in a very special way and since that time did You not give her all those inclinations which it please You for her to have? And how could it be that You could go wrong in anything? Yet look at all these accusations which have been judged, decided, and concluded against women. I do not know how to understand this repugnance. If it is so, fair Lord God, that in fact so many abominations abound in the female sex, for You Yourself say that the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence, why shall I not doubt that this is true? Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, 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 man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.’ I spoke these words to God in my lament and a great deal more for a very long time in sad reflections, and in my folly considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.” [4]

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