Christine de Pizan: Not Your Average Working Mom

Christine de Pizan's plate in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party

At age 24, Christine de Pizan (or de Pisan) found herself widowed with no money, no inheritance, and two small children, a mother, and a niece to support. After being blocked from accessing her husband’s estate, she decided to become a writer and just be a working single mom. That doesn’t sound particularly interesting… except that it was 1390. There were no professional female writers. There were no working single moms. There was, in fact, nothing to indicate that Christine could successfully pursue the course she embarked on, but successfully pursue it she did.

Some background: our heroine was born in Venice in 1364 to Tommaso di Benvenuto di Pizzano, an astrologer, and his wife. When she was a small child, her father took a position as Royal Astrologer at the court of French king Charles V, and the family moved to Paris. Tomasso, progressively, allowed her to receive an excellent education, odd for a girl at the time. She was schooled in subjects like languages, history, religion, and literature. This was all cut short when she was married to a royal secretary at the court named Etienne du Castel. She was all of fifteen at the time. Luckily, however, the marriage proved exceptionally happy, producing three children (one died young), and Christine was devastated when Etienne died suddenly in 1390, leaving her with the financial burdens outlined in the first paragraph.

Christine soon found success as a writer of courtly love ballads in the Middle French vernacular, enjoying the patronage of many at court, which allowed her to provide for her family. Lovely. She did not, however, limit herself to poetry. There’s this book called Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose in English) written by Frenchman Jean de Meun in the late 13th century. It’s all about chivalry and courtly love, the medieval world’s favorite literary subjects, it was extremely popular for several hundred years after it was written, and it’s one of the most significant works produced in Middle French. It’s also extremely misogynistic. Christine was so pissed off by this that she initiated a famous debate known as La Querelle (quarrel) du Roman de la Rose. She attacked the book for being bawdy, slandering women, and justifying rape. Her role in the debate made her into a public intellectual, and brought her a much wider audience, and she continued to speak out against misogynistic literature for her entire life.

Christine’s most important prose works follow in this vein. In her most famous work, 1405’s Le Livre de la Cité des Dames

Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan, probably in the act of telling some misogynists to shove it.

(The Book of the City of Ladies), she uses an allegorical city of famous women to celebrate women and to argue for the criminality of rape, and women’s education. In La Trésor de la Cité des Dames (The Treasure of the City of Ladies), also 1405, she told women to learn to speak eloquently and persuasively, in order to utilize their abilities as peacemakers, protect the bonds of sisterhood between women, and, overall, to assert themselves. Her skill with rhetoric, as showcased in these books, is admired even today. Additionally, throughout her career, Christine specifically sought out craftswomen (not that there were that many) for the copying and illumination (or illustration) of her books. Christine seems to have ended her career in her mid-60s, with the exception of a eulogy for Joan of Arc written in 1439. Around this time, she moved from Paris to an abbey at Poissy, France. Her date of death is unknown.

Christine was, when all is said in done, a medieval woman. She did not argue against gender roles or believe that women should do everything men did. She did, however, believe women should be educated, and could excel and benefit society in the roles they had. She believed, fundamentally, that women were to be respected and treated well. She also was probably the first woman in all of Europe to support herself by writing. At a time when most women were simply wives and mothers, Christine was a poet, essayist, memoirist, biographer, philosopher, rhetorician, scholar, critic, advocate, and trailblazer. One fierce and fabulous lady, if I do say so myself.

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