Biography of Christine de Pizan, Medieval Writer and Thinker

"Christine de Pisan Presenting Her Works to the Queen" - chromolith by Thomas Wright. Whitemay / Contributor / Getty Images.

Christine de Pizan (1364 – 1430), born in Venice, Italy, was an Italian writer and political and moral thinker during the late medieval period. She became a prominent writer at the French court during the reign of Charles VI, writing on literature, morals, and politics, among other topics. She was particularly noted for her unusually outspoken defense of women. Her writings remained influential and oft-printed through the 16th century, and her work returned to prominence during the mid-20th century.

Early Life

Pizan was born in Venice to Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, later known by the Gallicized moniker Thomas de Pizan, in reference to the family’s origins in the town of Pizzano. Thomas was a physician, astrologer, and politician in Venice – then a republic in its own right – and accepted a posting to the French court of Charles V in 1368. His family accompanied him there.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Pizan was well educated from a young age, in large part thanks to her father, who encouraged her learning and provided access to an extensive library. The French court was highly intellectual, and Pizan absorbed it all.

Wed and Widowed

At the age of fifteen, Pizan married Etienne du Castel, a court secretary. The marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one. The pair were close in age, and the marriage produced three children in ten years. Etienne encouraged Pizan's intellectual and creative pursuits as well.

Pizan's father Thomas died in 1386, with some debts outstanding. Because Thomas had been the royal favorite, the family’s fortunes were not as bright after his death.

In 1389, tragedy struck again. Etienne fell ill and died, most likely from the plague, leaving Pizan a widow with three young children.

With no surviving male relatives, Pizan was left as the sole supporter of her children and her mother (and a niece, according to some sources). When she attempted to claim the salary still owed to her late husband, she was forced to engage in legal battles to get what was owed.

Writer at Court

The royal courts of England and Milan both expressed interest in Pizan's presence, but her loyalty remained with the court where she had spent nearly her entire life. The natural decision might have been to remarry, but Pizan made the decision to not seek a second husband among the men at court. Instead, she turned to her considerable writing skill as a means to support her family.

At first, Pizan's output mainly consisted of love poetry in the favored styles of the era. Several of the ballads were expressions of grief over Etienne’s passing, again highlighting the genuine affection of their marriage. Pizan was highly involved in the production of her books, and her skillful poetry and embrace of Christian morals caught the eyes of many of the wealthy, titled courtiers.

Writing romantic ballads was also a crucial means of gaining patrons, given the popularity of the form. As time passed, she gained many patrons, including Louis I, Duke of Orleans, Phillip, Duke of Burgundy, Marie of Berry, and even an English earl, the Earl of Salisbury.

Because of her ability to utilize these powerful patrons, Pizan was able to navigate time of major turmoil in the French court during the reign of Charles VI, who earned the moniker “the Mad” due to his bouts of mental illness that rendered him unfit to rule for stretches of time.

Pizan also wrote many of her works for and about the French royal family. In 1404, her biography of Charles V was published, and she often dedicated pieces of writing to the royals. A 1402 work was dedicated to Queen Isabeau (Charles VI’s wife) and compared the queen – who often functioned as quasi-regent during her husband’s bouts of madness – to the historical queen Blanche of Castile.

Literary Quarrel

Pizan's poetry was clearly influenced by her own experience of losing her husband and being left to fend for herself, but some poems had an unusual tone that set her apart.

One poem describes a fictionalized Pizan being touched by the personification of Fortune and “changed” into a male, a literary depiction of her struggles to be her family’s breadwinner and fulfill a “male” role. This was only the start of Pizan's writings on gender.

In 1402, Pizan gained attention as the instigator of a famous literary debate, the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose” or the “Quarrel of the Romance of the Rose.” The debate centered on the Romance of the Rose, written by Jean de Meun, and its harsh, misogynistic depictions of women. Pizan's writings defended women from these portrayals, using her extensive knowledge of literature and rhetoric to debate at a scholarly level.

The Book of the City of Ladies

The work for which Pizan is best known is The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la cité des dames). In this work and its companion, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Pizan created an extensive allegory in defense of women, marking her as one of the earliest Western feminist authors.

The central idea of the work is the creation of a great metaphorical city, constructed by and for heroic, virtuous women throughout history. In the book, Pizan's fictionalized self has a lengthy dialogue with three ladies who are the personifications of great virtues: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Her rhetoric is designed to critique the oppression of women and the vulgar, misogynistic attitudes of male writers of the day. It included profiles and “examples” drawn from great women of history, as well as logical arguments against oppression and sexism.

Additionally, the book exhorts women of all stations to cultivate their skills and to live well.

Even in the production of her book, Pizan advanced the cause of women. The Book of the City of Ladies was produced as an illuminated manuscript, which Pizan herself oversaw. Only skilled women were employed to produce it.

Political Writings

During Pizan's life, the French court was in considerable turmoil, with various factions constantly vying for power and the king incapacitated much of the time. Pizan's writings urged unity against a common enemy – the English, with whom the French were fighting the Hundred Years’ War – rather than civil war. Unfortunately, civil war broke out around 1407.

In 1410, Pizan published a treatise on warfare and chivalry, in which she discussed the concepts of just war, treatment of troops and prisoners, and more. Her work was balanced for her time, adhering to the contemporary concept of war as divinely ordained justice but also critiquing the cruelties and crimes committed in wartime.

As her connection to the royal family remained intact, Pizan also published The Book of Peace, her final major work, in 1413. The manuscript was dedicated to the young dauphin, Louis of Guyenne, and was filled with advice on how to govern well. In her writing, Pizan advocated against civil war and advised the prince to set an example for his subjects by being wise, just, honorable, honest, and available to his people.

Later Life and Death

After the French defeat at Agincourt in 1415, Pizan stepped away from court and retired to a convent.

Her writing ceased, although in 1429, she wrote a paean to Joan of Arc – the only such French-language work written in Joan’s lifetime. Christine de Pizan died at the convent in Poissy, France in 1430 at the age of 66.

Legacy

Christine de Pizan was one of the earliest feminist writers, defending women and placing value on the perspectives of women. Her works criticized the misogyny found in classical romances and were seen as vindications of women. After her death, The Book of the City of Ladies remained in print, and her political writings continued to circulate as well. Later scholars, most notably Simone de Beauvoir, brought Pizan's works back to prominence in the twentieth century, studying her as one of the earliest instances of a women who wrote in defense of other women.

Christine de Pizan Fast Facts

  • Full NameChristine de Pizan, later Christine du Castel
  • Occupation: Writer
  • Born: 1364 in Venice, Italy
  • Died: 1430 in Poissy, France
  • Key Accomplishments: One of the earliest feminist thinkers and a major part of the French court, Christine de Pizan was an influential writer, famous for her defense of women. She also wrote significant works on politics and exemplified the art of rhetoric.
  • Famous Quote: “The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.” (from The Book of the City of Ladies)

Sources

  • Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • “Christine de Pisan.” Brooklyn Museum, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/place_settings/christine_de_pisan
  • “Christine de Pizan Biography.” Biography, https://www.biography.com/people/christine-de-pisan-9247589
  • Lunsford, Andrea A., editor. Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women and in the Rhetorical Tradition. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
  • Porath, Jason. Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. New York: Dey Street Books, 2016.