Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-c. 1430) was a philosopher, intellectual, writer, and protofeminist, born in Venice and raised in Paris. Her work gives modern historians insight into the gender roles and expectations of women in medieval society, as well as a window into the female psyche of the era. Her most famous works are The Treasure of the City of Ladies, The City of Ladies, and The Letter to the God of Love.
The Treasure of the City of Ladies
The Treasure of the City of Ladies is a pragmatic book of advice, written for the courtly women of medieval Europe. In this book, she instructs women to be soft-spoken and gentle, to be peacemakers, and to be subservient to their husbands. Additionally, she also instructs women on what not to do — not to plunge into love affairs, not to act above their stations, not to waste time or money, and not to gossip, as “the women of the court ought … never to rebuke or defame one another.” (Pizan, 107)
All of this advice clearly holds up the patriarchal status quo, which is not what Christine is known for, but also demonstrates the expected, or in some cases idealized, roles of women in society. Never once does Christine presume a woman is unmarried and childless in this book, unless that woman is widowed (or barren in the latter case), a child herself, or at a convent. Likewise, Christine’s attitudes vary between the noblewomen and the commoners. She dedicates nearly all of the book to the former class, and almost dismisses the lower classes but for the last part of her work, wherein she quickly covers an assortment of professions, basically telling each to remember their place, to obey their husbands, to live chastely and religiously, and to be modest in clothing and word.
In Christine’s defense, the fact that she mentions these women at all is noteworthy and probably reflects a “medieval penchant for all-inclusiveness.” (Lawson, XXI) She was writing this book for the nobility, and her quick survey does not necessarily demonstrate any disrespect towards the so-called lower classes on her part, but rather the strategic and financial goal (for her well-being was contingent on her male and female patrons being happy with her) of writing for her demographic. (Lawson, XXI)
The City of Ladies
Some of Christine’s more famous and idealized works argue against the very gender roles she stresses in The Treasure of the City of Ladies. In The City of Ladies, she posits that women can do literally anything men can do in society, from soldiering to building. In this book, she illustrates her point most forcibly in describing a city made by and entirely populated by women. It is something of a utopia, but in its utopian nature it is also a protest against her patriarchal “overlords.”
The book had no far-reaching effects on the status of women in her society, but the spirit of the undertaking suggests that not all women saw themselves as the root of all evil or as lesser beings, as the Church and secular government often did. In this way, Christine was a forerunner of women’s rights and value.
The Letter to the God of Love
Perhaps it is because Christine de Pizan was constrained by patriarchy and the patronage system throughout her career that she could not make more of her pro-women ideas. Yet regardless of how far she went (or did not go) in demanding equality between the sexes, she did challenge male misogyny at every turn.
In her famed treatise, The Letter to the God of Love, she argues against the misogyny of the Romance of the Rose, a very popular ballad by Jean de Meun harking back to the courtly love tradition of the High Middle Ages. This rebuttal “marks the first clear instance in European history of a woman writing against the slanders that women had so long endured,” and gave rise to a pitched debated between Christine de Pizans supporters and Jean de Meuns sympathizers, that lasted well into the sixteenth century. (Bennett, 374)
The mere fact that Christine is challenging one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages, and holding her own in arguments with male intellectuals, is demonstrative of her power in challenging the patriarchs. Likewise, this, her other writings, and her popularity in her own lifetime, all point to her historical importance and significance as both a person and a primary source on the social history of her day.
The Importance of Christines Writings
It is her popularity in her own society, and the information her works contain about both their subjects and her society, that make her important to medieval and early modern historians. Each of her writings gives the historian a wealth of information, even beyond the gender roles and gender expectations as detailed above.
For instance, in The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Christine gives us a peak into the day-to-day living environment of noblewomen: “When the princess or high-born lady wakes up in the morning, she sees herself lying luxuriously in her bed between soft sheets, surrounded by rich accouterments and everything for bodily comfort, and ladies-in-waiting around her focusing all their attention on her.” (Pizan, 6)
Continuing some pages later, she further describes the noblewomans day: The “wise” princess attends mass shortly after waking, sees to the government of her household or kingdom — as even in this age of declining power in the public realm, women are still a force to be reckoned with at home, as seen in the letters of the Pastons in England, or in this example from The Treasure of the City of Ladies — eats and listens to her servants and visitors, talks and plays and works with her ladies, walks in the garden for her health, eats again, prays at bedtime, and then sleeps. (Pizan, 32-35)
This book and Christine’s other writings — which included, in addition to the above, a companion volume for men, to be read with The Treasure of the City of Ladies; her autobiography; numerous prose and poetry pieces; a verse history of the world running from Biblical Creation to her own time; a study of great women in history; and even a military treatise called The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry (Bennett, 373-374 and Lawson, xxiv) — are important contributions to her society: they are moralistic, idealistic, religious, innovative, imaginative, extremely intelligent, and were widely read in their own time.
Bennett, Judith M. and C. Warren Hollister. Medieval Europe: A Short History (Tenth Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Lawson, Sarah. Christine de Pizan: The Treasure of the City of Ladies or the Book of Three Virtues. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Pizan, Christine de. The Treasure of the City of Ladies, trans. Sarah Lawson. London: Penguin Books, 2003.