When Some Sources Say asked me to write a post about a female trailblazer for ‘Women’s History Month’ Christine de Pizan came instantly to mind. She was the inspiration behind my Instagram account ‘Gallery of the City of Ladies’ and is widely thought to be the ‘First professional woman of letters in Europe’.
Christine was born in 1364 in Venice, Italy, but moved to France with her parents when she was around 4 years old, when her father – Tommaso de Pizzano – moved there to take up a position as King Charles V of France’s astrologer. She had a good education at the French court, a rarity for women at this time.
In 1379 she married the royal secretary Etienne du Castel and together they had three children. After 10 years of marriage she found herself widowed, with three young children and her mother to support. She took up writing, first writing ballads written in the memory of her husband, moving on to books including The Book of the City of Ladies and a biography on Charles V France which was commissioned by Philip the Bold of Burgundy. She had many high profile, wealthy patrons including Queen Isabella of Bavaria, Louis I, Duke of Orleans and in England, the 4th Earl of Salisbury.
Why was she a trailblazer?
While she was clearly a resilient woman who created a successful career for herself as a writer during a time when women didn’t have many opportunities she is a trailblazer in my eyes for her book The Book of the City of Ladies.
This book was written in response to misogynistic texts such as Matheolus’s (a French poet and cleric) Lamentations, which was an ‘a thirteenth century tirade against marriage in which the author vilifies women for making men’s life a misery’. (Brown-Grant, p.xvii). Pizan in the book falls into dreamlike state after reading this text and is visited by the three virtues Reason, Rectitude and Justice who tell her she has been chosen by God to write a book in response to Matheolus’s misogynistic text. In this text Christine will build a city of ladies made up of all the brilliant women from the past and Christine’s present.
The virtues provide Christine with female heroines who will form the allegorical city of ladies. The volume is split into 3 parts, with each virtue detailing different women and their strengths. In part one, Reason gives her examples of women who were famous for ‘soldierly courage, artistry or inventiveness’ including Sappho, Zenobia, Queen of Palmriya and Queen Circe. In part two Rectitude gives examples of women who were renowned for ‘prophetic gifts, exemplary chastity or devotion to their loved ones and fellow countrymen’, such as; Agrippina, Queen Basine and the virgin Claudine. While in the third part Justice discusses female saints including Mary Magdalene, Saint Margaret and Saint Justine (Brown-Grant, p.xviii).
Christine would not be considered the perfect feminist by today’s standard, for example while she acknowledges the amazing things women can and have done, in her sequel to ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ she encourages her female readers to submit to the male authority of their fathers and husbands. However, she should be viewed in the context of her time as Brown-Grant says ‘We need to pay Christine’s critique of misogyny the respect is deserves…[her] voice in defence of women is utterly different from our own, but it was in its time a dissenting voice and one which spoke out to its audience with as much urgency and vigour as that of any modern feminist’ (Brown-Grant, p.xxxv).
If you’re interested in reading more about different historical women please follow me on my Instagram @galleryofthecityofladies.
The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (Translated and with an introduction and notes by Rosalind Brown-Grant)
Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Christine-de-Pisan
Christine de Pizan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_de_Pizan