Christine de Pizan (1364-1431) was a late medieval French woman who may have been the first woman in history to make a living by writing. She is famous for a number of works of literature, but she is best known for her literary defenses of women. One of her most notable works was in response to a popular poem of the era called The Romance of the Rose. A work exploring the nature of love, the male author had a particularly negative perspective on women. It is clear that Christine de Pizan had little affection for it. Before exploring her response,” it will be helpful to first take a look at the poem itself.
The Romance of the Rose
Given the relative elevation of women’s status noted in the language and practice of courtly love, a new debate was emerging in medieval Europe. It centered on the inherent tensions in love between opposite sexes. A popular poem entitled Le Roman de la Rose (or The Romance of the Rose) would be at the center of this new debate. The poem might have better been entitled The War of the Sexes.
The French poem was perhaps the most popular document to address the nature of love in the later medieval period. Began by Guillume de Lorris circa 1230, it was completed by Jean de Meun c1270-80, who is widely regarded as a less talented poet than de Lorris.
Consistent with earlier notions of courtly love, pain and suffering is considered to be a significant, even necessary part of romantic love. Represented by the less pleasant consequences of Cupid’s arrows, the pains of love are identified as insomnia, lack of appetite, erotic dreams, anxiety, burning, and emaciation.
The identified commandments of love make clear the Jean de Meun saw the pursuit of courtly passions a game marked by artifice. They revolve around guarding one’s reputation, paying attention to fashionable dress and proper grooming, riding a horse with style and expertise with a musical instrument (a bassoon of all things). The author’s intent was at least in part satirical.
The poet advised men to: avoid jealousy, not act as her lord and master, refrain from reading her letters or trying to learn her secrets, not to scold her, or slander her, avoid arrogance, be smart, clean, merry and generous. (per Aries, p. 382).
The Rose Redux
The Romance of the Rose was positively referenced by a French provost in the 1390s. This reference might have gone relatively unnoticed if it had not been for a woman named Christine de Pizan, who read the provost’s praise. De Pizan despised the cynical attitudes towards women presented in The Romance of the Rose and began writing poetry and prose attacking it. It was the beginning of a prolific writing career for de Pizan who has been said to be the first woman in the world to make a living from her craft. Though her writing has generally been characterized as proto-feminist and political in nature, there is much that has a psychological bent as well. Given that she is a rare woman writing in detail about women and the nature of their romantic relationships and obligation, the life and literature of Christine de Pizan is worth considering.
On women, men and love: The God of Love’s Letter (1399)
In The God of Love’s Letter, de Pizan (in Cupid’s voice) dismantled the arguments made against women in earlier works through both deductive and inductive reasoning, though she doesn’t identify her arguments in these terms.
First, Cupid argues that if the premise that women were weak and morally easily swayed was true, men wouldn’t need to describe and endorse so many strategies to seduce them. Further, if one were to argue that literature has many representations of such women, Cupid points out that all of these books have been written by men and he supplies a psychological motive and social dynamic or their negative portrayal of the other sex:
“These authors show no mercy when they plead their own cases, happy to yield in nothing and to take for themselves the spoils in victory: for aggressive people quickly attack those who do not defend themselves. But if women had written the books, I know for a fact that they would have been written differently, for women well know they have been wrongly condemned.”
The truth, Cupid declares, is that women are the victim of men’s deceptions far more often than the other way around.
Having attacked arguments against women, she began again from a descriptive point of view. De Pizan had Cupid describe women’s observed and natural nature, which he finds to be: “hesitant, humble, sweet, calm and very charitable, loveable, devout, modest in peace, fearful in war…” De Pizan describes women’s character as singular in nature. If women don’t exemplify these qualities “by accident,” she suggests that these women act against nature. “Cruelty in women is a fault.” Even then, however, Cupid/de Pisan is generous, suggesting that men’s prior deceptions may prompt a woman to act in a similar fashion.
The Life and Works of Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan was 35 when she wrote The God of Love’s Letter. She was born in Venice, the daughter of a physician and astrologer. Her father garnered the attention and patronage of King Charles the Fifth and moved to Paris. Married at the age of 15, both her father and her husband supported her scholarly interests. Unfortunately her husband, a young man, died when she was 25, leaving her with three children. Writing for herself, de Pizan only gradually came to the realization that she could garner a living from her literary efforts. This was made all the more necessary when her father died as well.
In addition to The God of Love’s Letter, de Pizan also wrote a work detailing a history of admirable women. The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) is considered the first prose work in defense of women. That same year she wrote an advice manual of sorts for women, The Book of the Three Virtues (1405). Later there was a work of advice to people in general: The Book of the Body Politic (1407). When the fortune’s of France declined after a humiliating military defeat, de Pizan retired to a convent in 1415 at the age of 51.
Her children grown and her basic needs met, de Pizan largely gave up writing. But the exploits of a female contemporary inspired de Pizan to write one last piece. She wrote a celebratory poem about Joan of Arc in 1429. It is perhaps the only French work written about the heroine while she was still alive. De Pizan celebrated her life, not her martyrdom. The great apologist for women died a year later at the age of 66.
At some point I’d love to write a piece of my own celebrating the intersection of Joan and Christine’s lives, two amazing women who never met. Enough for now to celebrate a woman who had enough of gendered slander in an era that barely recognized such slander for what it was.
De Pizan, Christine (1407/1994). The Book of the Body Politic, Kate Langdon Forhan, Ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.