Christine de Pizan (1364 – c.1430)

Christine de Pizan at work in her study; possibly the earliest portrait of a real woman in medieval Europe

Christine de Pizan at work in her study; possibly the earliest portrait of a real woman in medieval Europe

Christine de Pizan, taken from her birthplace in Venice at the age of three to join her father at the Court of Charles V in Paris, experienced both faces of fortune.  Her father was wealthy, influential and indulgent, her mother loving.  At the age of fifteen she was married to the perfect man: gentle, chivalrous, intelligent, loyal and faithful.  She was raised among the courtiers of the excellent Charles V, comfortable among the great nobles of France at its most gloriously medieval height.

The deaths of Charles, her father Tomasso, her husband Etienne and the devious machinations of a decade of venal lawyers reduced her and her family to poverty, misery and self-reflection. The result was a thirty year career of writing, campaigning and self-education which has produced one of the great corpuses of medieval literature, moral philosophy and politics.

Hailed by some as the first European feminist, Christine is certainly the first woman we know of to support herself by writing.  Rarely published in France, her work was championed in England by William Caxton, who published and made popular several of her works.  She is fearless, witty, barbed, uncompromising and impressively self-critical.  After centuries of neglect she takes her place among the elite of European women writers and thinkers.


Christine presenting a manuscript to Charles VI of France

Christine presenting a manuscript to Charles VI of France

From the opening of Livre de la cite des dames 1404-5
No matter which way I looked at it and no matter how much I turned the matter over in my mind, I could find no evidence from my own experience to bear out such a negative view of female nature and habits. Even so, given that I could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex, I had to accept their unfavourable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possible have lied on so many different occasions…. Thus I preferred to give more weight to what others said than to trust my own judgement and experience.

Letter to Jean de Montreuil, Secretary to Charles VI, 1400
…I wish to hold, proclaim, and sustain publicly that, with all due respect, you are entirely in error and without justification in giving such accomplished praise to the aforesaid work, which were better called utter frivolity than any profitable book, in my opinion…

Letter to Monsieur Gontier Col, Secretary to the King, 1401
You insult me still further because I am a woman, which according to you makes me fickle, mad, and pretentious, for daring to correct and reprimand such a reputable scholar as you claim this author to be….

When told that it ‘did not become a woman to be learned, as so few are,’ she replied that ‘it did not become a man to be so ignorant, as so many are.’

Rondeau I: Like the Mourning Dove
Like the mourning dove I’m now all alone,
And like a shepherdless sheep gone astray,
For death has long ago taken away
My loved one whom I constantly mourn.
It’s now seven years that he’s gone, alas
Better I’d been buried that same day,
Like a mourning dove I’m all forlorn.
For since I have such sorrow borne,
And grievous trouble and disarray,
For while I live I’ve not even one ray
Of hope of comfort, night or mourn.
Like the mourning dove I’m now all forlorn

WilliamCaxton’s preface to The Morale Proverbes of Cristyne printed 1478
Of these sayynges Cristyne was auctoresse
Which in makyng hadde such inteligence
That thereof she was mirreur and maistresse
Here werkes testifie the experience…

Emprinted by Caxton in Feverer the Colde season


Christine de Pizan timeline

1364 Charles V accedes French throne, having been dauphin since Poitiers 1356
1364 Tomasso de Pizan brought to Court from Venice as King’s Astrologer
Christine de Pizan born, Venice
1368 Wife and daughter Christine brought to Paris
1372 Tomasso given fief of Orsonville in Villiers en Biere and 100francs per month
1379 Christine marries Etienne de Castel
1380 Charles V dies, succeeded by infant son under regents
1381 Christine bears (unnamed) daughter who later enters monastery at Poissy
1385 Son Jean born after death of infant first son
1389 Etienne dies suddenly while on Royal trip with King.
1393 Bal des Ardents, in which Charles VI is nearly killed
1397 Son Jean goes to England in service of Earl of Salisbury under Richard II
1399 Approx: completion of the Cent Ballades
1400-1 The debate over the Roman de la Rose; Le Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune
1402-3 Le Chemin de Longue Estude
1405 Lavision Christine completed: philosophical allegory; Paris riots; La Cite des Dames completed; Le Tresor de la Cite des Dames completed.
1406 Le Livre de corps de Policie completed
1407 Louis d’Orleans murdered by John the Fearless of Burgundy
1411 Civil war between Orleanists and Burgundians begins
1415 Battle of Agincourt; Henry V defeats French army
1418 Christine retires to Abbey
1429 Jeanne d’Arc: Siege of Orleans; Christine dies



Enid McCleod: The Order of the Rose 1976 Chatto and Windus