Christine de Pizan

(Versión en español aquí)

In this post I am going to speak about Christine de Pizan, who was considered one of the precursors of feminism. I am not going to analyse her work, though, in spite of the interest of it, as the idea of this post is just to introduce this great woman so future immersions in her work can be more accessible and comprehensible.

Who was Christine de Pizan?

She was born in Venice in 1364. Christine and her family moved to Paris when she was only three, as her father, Tomas de Pizzano, was hired as Charles the V’s court physician, counsellor and astronomer. This allowed Christine to have access to the court library, as well as having contact with some of the most prominent humanists of that time. Her father gave Christine an education in science and humanities personally, although he could not go as deep as he wanted because Christine´s mother was completely opposed to her having a “boyish” education. She got married when she was 15, and she herself described her marriage as happy. Nevertheless, it did not last for long, as ten years later she became a widow. Her husband’s death followed by her father’s made Christine the only provider of the family (her mother, her three children and a niece). This fact changed her life, as she had to face social rejection when she was trying to make a living as a writer. In spite of all the difficulties, she became the first professional known female writer, becoming the first chronicler of the court of Charles the VI, king of France, which finally made her gain the respect of the writers community.

Her participation in “The woman question”

Around 1401 the first French literary debate took place, discussing about the poem “Roman de la Rose” and lasting for two years. The most prestigious people of France took part on this debate, and among all them, Christine. Even though in the beginning the debate was about the merits of the writer of the poem, in the end the debate turned into arguing about its misogynist stereotypes and the dignity of the women. A turning point in the history of women was when Christine decided to copy all the arguments of the debate and send them to Isabeau de Baviera and the bishop of Paris, among other people. This act made the political and religious power get involved in the subject of the dignity of the women for the first time in history. It may look like this was not a big thing, but nothing could be further than the truth: For the first time in forever, what looked like another conversation among intellectuals, became a public subject, known as “The rose question”. The dignity of women was in the spotlight, and it was set out that a debate about literary stereotypes was not about just literature but about an oppressed collective which, as Christine remarked several times, did not even have the possibility to publicly defend itself, as the access to humanities was completely forbidden to women. Christine was the first person to speak from a gender perspective, saying that women face in a daily basis the hostility of men almost everywhere, and, very importantly, she did so by referring at her authority as a woman in a world controlled by men.

Qu’il ne me soit imputé comme folie, arrogance ou présomption d’oser, moi, femme, reprendre et contredire un auteur si sutil, quand lui, seul homme, osa entreprendre de diffamer et blâmer sans exception tout un sexe!

“ And do not reproach as madness, arrogance or presumptuousness my dare, me, as a woman, to criticise such a subtle author when he, a single man, dared to badmouth and condemn the whole female sex with no exception.”

Although there were obviously some intellectual figures (males) defending that women were not a malicious collective before the appearance of Christine, nobody ever thought it was an idea that could be interesting in a social, political or, even less, religious level. It was Christine who took that first step, and she defended her arguments in such an eloquent, vehement and intelligent way that generated a debate about the women figure which lasted for two hundred years, known as The woman question. She herself took part on it, and brought one key book: The city of the Ladies. In this debate, intellectuals around all the world were arguing about the social status assigned to women and about their intellectual capacity. Nevertheless, they did not only spoke about women, but also about men, and some subjects as diverse as the marriage, adultery, chastity, work, sexuality and celibacy, violence, laws… They even treated some theological issues, such as God or Heaven and Hell. Christine´s legacy forms the first rock in the building of feminism, as most of the intellectuals that talked about it in the first place drank from Christine´s work and the ideas exposed in The women question.

Christine de Pizan, la Querella de la Rosa