Notable Women: Christine de Pizan

by Lorna Ebringer

 Sibylesque Virginia Woolf Quote

A lot has been written about the life and work of Christine de Pizan, late medieval scholar and writer but I had never heard of her until Sibyl in chief Kerry asked me to write about her for Sibylesque. Here is a potted history for those of you who would like to become acquainted with this extraordinary woman.

Sibylesque Christine de Pizan in her studyAccording to the British Library Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1365, the daughter of Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzano who was a physician and a court astrologer. After her birth the family moved to France where Tommaso accepted an appointment as court astrologer to Charles V. It was here at the court that Christine received an extensive and wide ranging education supervised by her father, an education that was normally reserved for men of the wealthy class in that time.

City of Women by Christine de Pizan. She supervised the production of the illustrated manuscript.

City of Women by Christine de Pizan. She supervised the production of the illustrated manuscript.

At the age of 15 Christine married Ettiene du Castel. She had three children before being widowed 10 years later. It is clear from her poems that Christine loved her husband and felt her loss deeply

Alone and in great suffering in this

deserted world full of sadness has my

sweet lover left me. He possessed my

heart, in greatest joy, without grief.

Now he is dead; I’m weighted down by

grievous mourning and such sadness has

gripped my heart that I will always weep

for his death.

(from One Hundred Ballads, completed before 1402, translated by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski)

As her father had also died four years earlier Christine had to find a way to support herself, her children and her mother. She turned to writing and in the following 30 years published both prose works and poetry enjoying great success serving as court writer for several dukes and the French royal court of Charles VI. It is claimed that she was the first woman in western literature known to have made a living as a writer.

 Sibylesque Christine de Pizan being instructed by the Sibyl in the spheres of heaven

Initially she wrote love ballads for wealthy patrons often on commission. These proved very popular and she wrote 300 in all. Her prose works include The City of Women, the Faytte of Armies or The Deeds of War and Chivalry, The Book of Peace and the book of the Changes of Fortune.

Nowadays Christine is of interest to feminist scholars for her writings on the position of women in society. Simone de Bouvoir wrote in 1949 that she was the first woman to take up a pen in defence of her sex. In her plea for the education of girls Christine wrote

“If it were customary to send little girls to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences.”

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies

 Sibylesque Christine de Pizan and 'The City of Ladies'

and on domestic violence

“How many women are there … who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens?”

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies

At the age of 55 Christine retired to a convent at Poissy.

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LORNA EBRINGER

LORNA EBRINGER

Lorna Ebringer’s passions include trekking  in remote areas of Georgia, China and Japan, opera appreciation and rock ‘n roll dancing. Her previous post was When god had a wife.

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Photo Source: British LIbrary Manuscripts online.………………………………………………..

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