Have you ever noticed that once you hear about someone for the first time, they often come back to haunt you? Christina de Pizan is like that for me. I had never really registered her before I interviewed Alison Weir this past February when she came up. Nowadays everywhere I look I see her.
Most recently, I have discovered an album by VocaMe in which the poetry of Christina de Pizan has been arranged in contemporary music. So I decided to learn a thing or two about this woman who is often credited as being one of the earliest feminists in Europe.
In an age where most women couldn’t even sign their name, Christina was a writer and all around creative bohemian living in Paris around 1400. She was the court writer for several dukes, including Louis or Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and John the Fearless of Burgundy, and was also at the French royal court. In addition to her court writings, she wrote poetry – ballades that took the idea of courtly love and spun it around to a female perspective, and wrote books of advice for women.
Her early life wasn’t particularly unusual. She was born in Italy but moved to France when her father accept an appointment at the court of Charles V to be the king’s astrologer, alchemist, and physician. As I’ve written before about John Dee, the idea that you could be both a physician and astrologer was completely normal in the medieval world.
Christina completed a humanist education, learned languages and explored a large library in Charles’ royal archive.
She married at age 15, and then her husband died in an epidemic ten years later. She needed to support herself and her family, including her two children. Christina tried to collect money from her husband’s estate, but they stalled with lawsuits, and she never got the money.
She turned to writing in order to support herself, and started writing love ballads which became popular at court. Noble patrons thought the idea of a female writer was novel. They had her compose poetry about their own romantic history. Between 1393 and 1412 she composed over 300 ballads, and many short poems.
She involved herself in a literary debate that enabled her to establish herself as a serious writer who stood up for the position of women in society. There was a famous poem written in the 13th century, the Romance of the Rose written by Jean de Meun. It satirizes the conventions of courtly love and critically portrays women as nothing more than seducers. Christina objected to the use of vulgar terms, and said that these terms denigrated the natural functions of sexuality. Her critique centered around the belief that the poem purposely slandered women. Many contemporary scholars believe that she was early feminist. Though there are others who challenge this assertion saying it is a misrepresentation of her writing.
In 1405’s The Book of the City of Ladies Christina created a symbolic city.
The city appreciates and defends women. She constructed three allegorical figures – Reason, Justice, and Rectitude. She enters into a dialogue, a movement between question and answer, with these allegorical figures. The dialogue is from a completely female perspective. Together, they create a forum to speak on issues important to all women. Only female voices, examples and opinions provide evidence within this text.
Christina, through Lady Reason in particular, argues that when women are prevented from entering into the conversation, the stereotypes remain.
The VocaMe album dominates my Spotify right now. A Flemish contemporary put one of her ballads, Dueil agnoisseus (Anguished Grief), a poem about melancholy an solitude, to music. There were probably others, and they just didn’t survive. VocaMe uses an approach popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They recycle already existing elements – either text or melodies – to create a new work. They set her love poetry to music of melodies that were popular almost a century before her time. And they assume that through her humanist and liberal education, she may have been familiar with them. It lets you experience her poetry through an interesting lens.
Whether she would have called herself a feminist or not seems to me to be irrelevant.
The fact is that she was a woman who needed to support herself and her family. And she was able to capitalize on her unique talents to do so, and stand up for women at the same time. For that, I label her an all around badass, and she has quickly become one of my historical heroines.
I also love the connection that Alison Weir made, suggesting that Anne Boleyn would have been familiar with her writing from her time in Burgundy and France. It likely would have influenced her own opinions of the role of women, which ultimately may have caused her to lose her head. So, you know, you could make a case that Christina de Pizan was to blame for Anne’s beheading. But I suppose that has less to do with her feminism, and more to do with her inability to birth a male heir (which, of course, was entirely Henry’s fault – the sex of the child is down to the man in the whole operation).
Check out Amazon if you want to read her writings:
Chansons & Ballades – the album from VocaMe
The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics)
The Writings of Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works
And there’s this In Our Time episode.