Christine de Pizan (1363-circa 1430)

Christine de Pizan (or Pisan) was a Venetian born late medieval woman poet. She was highly regarded in her own day and during her thirty year career as Europe’s first professional woman writer completing forty-one works. She tirelessly challenged misogyny and the stereotypes of the late medieval period. She was widowed by age twenty-four and much of her motivation for her writing came from her need to earn a living for not only herself but her children. Her early poetry was of the courtly genre and marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day involving women and the practice of chivalry. In recent decades her works have once again returned to prominence through the scholarly efforts of those such as Simone de Beauvoir among others. There is some argument among scholars as whether to see her as an early feminist or that her beliefs were not progressive enough.

In 1390 with the death of her husband she was faced with the prospect of being left to support her mother, a niece and her two children. She began writing love ballads which garnered the attention of several patrons within the court who commissioned her to compose texts of their romantic exploits as they were intrigued by the novelty of having a woman writer. It is estimated that between 1393 and 1412 she was quite prolific having composed over three-hundred ballads and shorter poems. In 1401-1402 she engaged in a debate over Jean de Meun’s portrayal of women as nothing much more than seducers in his work “Romance of the Rose.” The result of the debate was more profound for her than the actual conclusions as it established her reputation as a female intellectual in a male dominated realm.

By 1405 she had completed her most successful literary works, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” and “The Treasure of the City of Ladies.” In these two works she argued and showed the importance of women’s past contributions to society and then attempted to illustrate and teach women how to cultivate qualities to counteract the growth of misogyny. She argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace between their husband and his subjects. She believed that slanderous speech destroys the sisterly bond among women, “skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire.” The works give a fascinating portrait of women in the 1400’s offering advice for women’s lives from the lady in the castle to the servant, peasant and even the prostitute. Through all of this she asserts than woman’s influence is realized when her speech unifies value to chastity, virtue and restraint.

Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 described her as, “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.” Perhaps this makes her the western world’s first feminist.

A few quotes :

“Just as women’s bodies are softer than men’s, so their understanding is sharper.”

“I say it to thee again, and doubt never the contrary, that if it were the custom to put the little maidens to the school, and they were made to learn the sciences as they do to the men-children, that they should learn as perfectly, and they should be”

“Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning.”

“Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”
~ Christine de Pizan

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