Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss: Let's Talk About the Medieval Feminist Icon Christine de Pizan
Hello, Book Nerds! Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life or welcome if you are new. I don’t have a book review for you this week. Instead, I want to introduce you all to the feminist icon you didn’t know you needed.
Please give the warmest welcome to Christine de Pizan.
Full disclosure, I really miss Spooky Season so I’ve summoned her through an Ouija board. Not to interview her, just to tell her how awesome she is.
I was first introduced to Christine de Pizan all the way back in 2016, and I haven’t let her go since. She deserves more recognition! And I’m gonna give that to her today. Buckle up, Book Nerds, we're going back in time to the 1300’s and I’m gonna give you a history lesson.
The year: 1364. The setting: Venice, Italy. Our future feminist icon has just been born. Only a few years later, her father moved her to France when he accepted the position of the king’s astrologer for King Charles V of France. This is where Christine grew up and would live her entire life.
Flashforward to 1379, Christine gets married. This is where our story gets interesting. At the ripe old age of 15, she marries the love of her life: Etienne de Castel. The pair grew up together in the French court and grew to greatly love one another. Marrying for love during the Middle Ages, what a concept!
Flashforward another ten years. Christine has birthed two to three children at this point; sources love to differ on the number of kids this couple had. I'm gonna say she had two. Anyway, Christine is ten years into her happy marriage when tragedy strikes. Etienne de Castel dies! He dies from a plague and leaves Christine in poverty. You see, she couldn’t collect any money from her husband’s estate for some reason or another and no court wanted to rule in her favor. I don’t know all the details about why she couldn’t collect the money she was owed, so we’ll go with men in charge said no because they could. She was recognized as Etienne de Castel’s widow, but that was it. No money for her or her children.
This is the point of her story where she becomes a feminist icon. Left with two children, her mother, and possibly a niece to raise on her own, Christine needs to make money. The easiest way to support her family would be for her to marry again. Except she doesn’t do this. Instead she begins to write love ballads about her deceased husband and read them at court.
Soon, she catches the eye of many wealthy, influential people who want to become her patron. The most notable of her patrons was Isabeau of Bavaria who was the Queen of France at the time, and the Queen absolutely adored her.
Our girl was raking in the dough at this point. The Queen loves her, she taking on many paid projects from her patrons, and she was publishing her works so they could be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
By the mid-1400’s, Christine is at the height of her career. In 1405, her most famous piece of literature, The Book of the City of Ladies, is published. And earlier, in 1402, she is caught up in a major debate/controversy with Jean de Meun about his poem “Romance of the Rose.” In the poem, Jean de Meun satirizes courtly love ideals and claims that women are nothing more than seducers out to destroy men. Christine is not standing for this slander. She fights back against Jean de Meun’s claim by writing a letter that gets posted in the provost of Lille, where de Meun was at the time, to criticize his blatant and baseless depictions of women as seducers. She put de Meun on blast for his poem, and I am here for it!
Seriously, if I could time travel, I would love to go back to this time and watch this whole debacle unfold. I would be in Christine’s corner hyping her up as she wrote her letter. She really went in on him by calling his claims misogynistic, vulgar, immoral, and slanderous to women. This whole thing went on for a few years, and it never had a super proper end. It kinda ended with Christine saying she was a better writer in Letters on the Debate of the Rose, which I love for her, but no conclusion was ever really reached. They each just kinda stopped fighting one day.
Anyway, Christine continued to write until 1418. France was in a major war at the time and during that time she went to live in a convent with her one daughter. There is not much known about her life after she moved away from the French court. Her literary activity pretty much ceased, until 1429 that is.
Perhaps you have heard about another feminist icon: Joan of Arc. She won military victory for France over England while she was dressed as a man, but then she was tried and executed for heresy, witchcraft, and “violating divine law for dressing like a man.” Well, Christine was a fan of Joan.
She was such a big fan that she published “The Tale of Joan of Arc” or, as it is sometimes referred to, “The Song of Joan of Arc” in 1429. In the poem, Christine calls Joan a gift from god because she showed courage that no one else would, a victorious warrior, and Christine also claims that Joan’s victories are victories and glories for the female sex.
Christine sadly died the following year. She was either 65 or 66-years-old; which was ancient for the time in which she lived. By the time of her death, she had published 41 pieces of literature that we know of. Her works range from poetry to biographies to political pieces to general prose. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more pieces of her work out there that we don’t know about yet or have been lost to time.
I’m not done talking about this icon just yet! Let’s circle back to Christine’s most famous piece of literature: The Book of the City of Ladies. I glossed over it in my biography because I wanted to talk about it in detail.
Spoiler alert for the entirety of The Book of the City of Ladies. You've been warned.
The Book of the City of Ladies is one of my favorite pieces of classic literature. It is also Christine’s official and final response to Jean de Meun’s “Romance of the Rose.” She published it in 1405, and it’s a tale in three parts.
Part one opens with Christine reading a piece of literature that depicts women in a horrible light and claims women make the lives of men miserable. Sounds like Jean de Meun's writings if you ask me. Anyway, the author’s writing makes Christine feel ashamed to be a woman when three Virtues appear. These three, Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice, have come to rectify Christine’s lament and show her how wrong she is by having her create the City of Ladies.
Lady Reason is first. She teaches Christine that women are not evil, that women have a true place in society, and that every woman has many merits by listing many great deeds women have accomplished. Lady Reason ends up mentioning 36 women that range from ancient Egyptian goddesses to Biblical figures. Part one ends with Christine and Lady Reason having built the walls to the City of Ladies.
Parts two and three are very similar to the first. Lady Rectitude leads part two. She and Christine build the homes and other buildings inside the walls for the inhabitants of the City of Ladies; they also fill the city with “valiant ladies of great renown” who will live in this city for all eternity. During the construction period, Lady Rectitude discusses 92 famous women who possessed qualities like the gift of prophecy, and/or selfless devotion to others just to name a few bullet points. Lady Rectitude also pretty much gives a PowerPoint presentation about how women are not “evil seducers” to really drive home the point that Jean de Meun is trash.
I hope you’re all paying attention because there will be a quiz at the end of this post. Also fun fact, Christine mentions Medusa in part two, so she's basically the first person to say Medusa was a victim and not a villain. Love that.
Now onto part three. Lady Justice steps up to the plate and discusses 32 Saints who have been praised for their martyrdom. Yeah, part three is the weakest part in my opinion. There really isn’t a big take away from it like the first two, but whatever. Lady Justice just kinda ends her part by naming the Virgin Mary Queen of the City of Ladies, and tells the reader not to fall for slanderous lies against women. Check your sources, friends.
As a whole, the main takeaway from The Book of the City of Ladies is Jean de Meun is trash and there are amazing women who have done amazing things for others. This is just a big book of positivity as each woman mentioned was a valued, important member of society and so is every woman who ever lives.
This was not how The Book of the City of Ladies was presented to me though. When I was first introduced to this piece back in 2016, I was told by one of my college professors that this book was a place where the women depicted in these pages were safe from the slander of the public. I like that depiction, I do. It kinda makes the work feel like a warm hug.
But, this book is more than a warm, protective hug. This is Christine’s form of a war cry. This book is her asking for others to take a stand beside her and recognize women as valid, important members of society then and forevermore. Christine, I am with you!
Seriously, this woman is the medieval feminist icon we don’t deserve! She made her own way during a time when women were expected to simply marry and have kids. She gained massive recognition as a female writer. She made her own money to support her family. And, perhaps most importantly, she always spoke her mind and never backed down from her critics.
Why is this woman not widely known?! Why does it feel she is hidden away? She deserve the world. She deserve recognition! Please, I beg of you, please go out and read some of Christine de Pizan’s work once you’re done with this post. You won’t be mad that you did. Her works are so beautiful, her romantic poetry is heartbreaking, and her voice is loud and clear in each and every piece.
Go do that now. Your quiz is just to yell, “Christine de Pizan is the medieval feminist icon we don’t deserve.” You get five points; they mean nothing, but you have them now. Congratulations, don't spend them all in one place.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. I must bid you adieu now. Until next time, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, and read some good books for me.